The Secrets of Zobrist, Part 2: Tom Hanks sees US election warning in thriller ‘Inferno’

Tom Hanks portrayed Chris Wallace as moderator of the third presidential debate on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch last weekend. Credit Will Heath/NBC

Tom Hanks portrayed Chris Wallace as moderator of the third presidential debate on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Credit Will Heath/NBC

Tom Hanks, who is reprising his role as Robert Langdon in Inferno, the third movie to have been based on one of Dan Brown’s books, has had some interesting political comments to make about the mad scientist/biotech billionaire anti-hero Bertrand Zobrist, and the character’s implied similarities to a certain 2016 presidential candidate who is also said to be a billionaire.

In a recent AP interview carried by The Seattle Times and other papers, Hanks commented on the thread of similarity he sees between Zobrist and the Republican presidential nominee, particularly about the dangers of seeking simple solutions to complex problems:

“Inferno” sets Hanks’s polymathic professor Robert Langdon on the trail of a deadly plague concocted by billionaire scientist Bertrand Zobrist out of a sort of warped humanitarianism: He plans to end war, poverty and famine by wiping out half the world’s population. Hanks says the belief that there’s a “one-step answer to all problems” is alarmingly relevant.

“Down through history there’s been an awful lot of people who say: Here’s what the problem is, here’s what it was caused by, and all you have to do is my suggestion, there’s an easy way in order to make it go away,” Hanks said…. America, he says, needs “vision and leadership and scope, as opposed to one-stop shopping fixes all.”

While I share Hanks’s sentiments, I have a few quibbles with the article. First, Zobrist is “only” trying to render one-third of the human population of the world infertile, not “wipe out half the world’s population” as the story cited above suggests. At least that’s the way Zobrist’s bio-plot is stated in Dan Brown’s book. Of course, I would not be surprised to see Hollywood taking what is already a whopping (and scientifically ridiculous) MacGuffin in the Inferno book and turn it into an even bigger, even more dramatic (and more ridiculous) plot-driver for the screen. But I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t say.

Second, while there is a certain sense in which Tom Hanks’s interview analogizing Trump to Zobrist as two evil men whose proposed “solutions” are actually bad for humanity and whose hubris causes each of them to believe that “only I” can solve these problems (to quote Trump’s Republican Convention acceptance speech), Zobrist is actually a far more complex case than Trump. (Not to mention the fact that Zobrist kills himself to realize his vision of what’s good for the world, whereas Donald Trump still seems to think personal sacrifice means putting up big buildings with his name on them or taking a “step down” from his lofty perch as a businessman to run for President.)

Despite Dan Brown’s love for conspiracy theories, I can’t imagine him voting for Donald Trump or being unhappy with Tom Hanks highlighting the relevance of Inferno to our current political environment. While I personally don’t agree with Brown’s neo-Malthusianism and what I feel is a simple-minded approach to transhumanism (I wasn’t too pleased with Brown’s misuses of Dante, either), I do think Brown’s Inferno gives the reader much to think about in terms of the future of biology, technology, and species-level issues. That’s why we produced our Secrets of Inferno book three years ago—to foster dialogue and to help readers think through those issues.


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