Critical Distance: INFERNO, Why It's Good to See Bad Movies

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
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Critical Distance: INFERNO, Why It's Good to See Bad Movies

The word is out on Ron Howard's Inferno.

Only 20% of critics gave it a positive review, per Rotten Tomatoes. Visitors to that site were kinder, as 43% gave it a positive nod. Yet audiences in general were not interested in seeing the movie on opening weekend, as earnings in the U.S. have been estimated at $15 million, according to Box Office Mojo, falling well short of the second installment's $46.2 million and the original's impressive haul of $77 million some 10 years ago. (To be fair, audiences overseas have responded to the tune of $133 million in earnings so far in a week of release.)

Catching up with the movie this past Friday afternoon (in a nearly empty theater), I found it to be inconsequential, which is not what I anticipated from an apocalyptic thriller. Tom Hanks, once again portraying Harvard Professor Robert Langdon, gives it the old college try, but even he has difficulty speaking the solemn dialogue. Felicity Jones as a British doctor in Italy has an even greater hardship, since her character is completely inauthentic.

The characters run around various cities in Italy, though they show no ill effects of all that running; they must be in terrific physical shape! They are racing to discover the location of a plague virus that will be set off in a matter of hours; the plague will infect everyone on the planet within a matter of days, and then half the people will die, and the other half will rebuild everything because otherwise the planet will be completely destroyed by overpopulation in a matter of decades.

Billionaire Bertrand Zobrist is the ostensible villain of the piece, but he exits the scene very early which, let's face it, is very cowardly, though Ben Foster, the actor who plays him, gets to glower and bellow in flashbacks. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter David Koepp make extensive use of flashbacks, which is one way to try to keep interest alive when the primary narrative consists of little more than Tom Hanks, America's father, running around.

Tom Cruise is a little younger than Hanks and likes to run around in his movies, too, which makes me wonder when running around became a de facto definition of heroism.

inferno_poster-ver5-300.jpgAs you may have surmised by this point, I did not enjoy the experience of watching Inferno very much, yet I don't regret paying to see it in a theater. If I had the time and money, I'd see every new movie in a theater -- except Hollywood comedies and romances, which are usually neither, or found-footage fright flicks, which usually make me wish they'd truly lost the footage -- even when the movie falls short of expectations.

For anyone who writes about movies, there's always the unknown factor; no two random people respond to the same movie in the same way. Sometimes I love a movie, in spite of negative advance notices (Gods of Egypt is still great fun, thank you very much) -- and sometimes a movie drives me nuts, despite positive advance notices (most Marvel releases).

As someone who loves movies in general, I admit to an inherent tendency to look for the good, even in bad movies. For all its dramatic faults, Inferno still looks quite impressive, thanks in large part to Salvatore Totino's photography. Totino has mostly worked with director Ron Howard, but last year shot both Everest and Concussion, two movies that are very different in their settings yet still displayed beautiful textures in their capture of light.

I am an advocate of seeing every new release that I can, combined with catching up with every movie I can from the past -- streaming services like Warner Archive and Shudder are very helpful -- as well as rewatching personal favorites. Sometimes that's extremely pleasant (Re-Animator for the sixth time!), sometimes it's not (hello Everybody Wants Some!!).

Watching both the good and the bad, though, reinforces what I appreciate most about movies: their capacity to elicit deeply-felt reactions -- and then try and figure out why I reacted that way.


Critical Distance is a column about the writer's reaction to movies that most likely will not affect readers in the same way.

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Ard VijnOctober 31, 2016 10:42 AM

Whenever someone mentions the plot of INFERNO, I keep thinking about the first PATLABOR anime movie, I can't help it.

Peter MartinOctober 31, 2016 11:14 AM

Perfectly understandable. :)

ToryKOctober 31, 2016 10:18 PM

I love this, and I half-agree with you. There are some movies I just have absolutely no interest in seeing (usually romance and comedy, for the very same reasons), but it *is* fun watching a bad movie, in its own odd way. Sometimes I just wanna see if I'll agree with the consensus. Gods of Egypt was not the total train wreck it was made out to be. I think 90's kids will have a special appreciation for it - folks who grew up watching Power Rangers and Beast Wars, and had rad school folders and Goosebumps t-shirts. The Total Recall remake was a fantastic action movie. Not good, fantastic. The Dark Knight Rises was HUGE, but was something of a disappointment for me. There was plenty to appreciate, but that was where Nolan finally crossed over into caring more about making a Chris Nolan movie than an actual Batman movie. Either way, watching these movies and keeping up with them is sort of a global conversation, even if most of us aren't directly talking to each other about them. The consumption of them, and then the internal dialogue about the why's and why not's of where I stand on them is worth it in and of itself.

More importantly, watching a bad movie is just as much of a learning experience as watching a good or a great one. If you're writing or directing movies, or writing about them, knowing what not to do and what makes a movie shitty is just as important a skill as recognizing what makes a movie a classic.

billydakingNovember 1, 2016 12:32 AM

Not to mention that watching bad movies can be an entertainment all by itself....which is why I made a point of seeing Tank Girl in the theater back when it was released, and once made the trip to Chicago for the annual B-Fest. It's not about mockery ala MST3K; it's simply fun when you get a goofball movie that is all dramatic earnestness misplaced.

Peter MartinNovember 1, 2016 5:16 PM

I agree about not watching movies so as to mock them. I like movies that are clearly heartfelt, no matter how goofy, but just don't work out.

Peter MartinNovember 1, 2016 5:19 PM

Thank you for your comment. And very much agree with the idea that "watching a bad movie is just as much of a learning experience as watching a good or a great one."