Battle of the Infernos

Among the curious coincidences surrounding the release of Inferno, the Ron Howard/Sony/Tom Hanks film version of Dan Brown’s 2013 novel of the same title, is the fact that Netflix is premiering another inferno today—Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Inferno. The big budget Ron Howard Inferno has so far garnered pretty weak reviews, but so too has the Inferno from Herzog, the ultimate indie/arty director. Respective reviewers have questioned why Tom Hanks would risk the fire of the critics to be in a movie this confusing and bad, and what the narrative connection is among all the fires Herzog pursues as he travels around the world in search of erupting volcanos.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones in "Inferno," directed by Ron Howard.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones in Inferno

One of the more wickidly insidious critiques of Ron Howard’s Inferno comes from a fictional, parody version of Herzog himself, presented by Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey as if the webzine had landed Herzog to write a critique of the “other” Inferno opening on the same day.

Here are some of the “Herzog” comments on Howard’s film:

I have not met Mr. Ron Howard, nor have I seen either of the earlier films that I am told preceded this inconveniently titled Inferno, so I must confess some mild confusion and disappointment. You see, it begins with many scenes of a rich young intellectual, played by Mr. Ben Foster, sharing his thoughts on the world, and I found myself settling in a bit, and nodding in agreement, for this was a very wise young man indeed. For example, one of the first things he tells us is, “Nothing changes behavior like pain. Maybe pain can change us.” These are, I would say, very wise words! He also tells us that “mankind is the cancer in its own body,” which also prompted some vigorous nodding from my seat; this character also tells us “humanity is the disease” and “Inferno is the cure.” Alas, as he says this, he takes a rather devastating fall from a very high clock tower, and alas, this bright young man is mostly absent from what follows. The film, I must confess, is not richer for it.

Instead, we spend the next two hours in the company of Mr. Tom Hanks, an actor I admired greatly in his film with the police dog, who slobbers very much and solves crime. He is introduced in a state of confusion, recovering from a bullet that has grazed his skull and suffering from crippling visions. Mr. Howard invites us to share in Mr. Hanks’s confusion and disorientation by indulging in a great many visual fun house tricks, of the woozy camera and wide-angle lens variety. These are a touch overdone and greatly unnecessary – after all, are we not all, in our way, suffering from head wounds, staving off visions of handsless beggars, drowning in rivers of fire and blood?

At any rate, Mr. Howard sends Mr. Hanks and Ms. Felicity Jones on a whirlwind, globe-trotting mystery that seems a good deal less challenging than they believe…. And the film progresses thus, with our intrepid heroes discovering a new clue every reel that spirits them off to a new and exotic locale, though most of the film seems to have been shot on a soundstage somewhere in Southern California, which is violence against cinema….

A scene from the documentary "Into the Inferno," written and directed by Werner Herzog

A scene from the documentary “Into the Inferno,” written and directed by Werner Herzog

While we haven’t yet seen any media outlets inviting a fictional Ron Howard to review Herzog’s opus, some excerpts from a review by SFGate’s Mark Kennedy could serve the same purpose. Commenting on the Herzog/Netflix/Volcano documentary under the title Into the Inferno is a lazy, meandering mess,” Kennedy gives Herzog “no stars out of four” and writes:

Just in time for Halloween comes a new documentary focusing on one of Earth’s most frightening treats — volcanos. Even better, swashbuckling director and writer Werner Herzog is the filmmaker, so it’s sure to be a hair-singing descent into the fiery heart of volcanos. But, alas, Herzog has really just pulled a nasty trick on us. The legendary filmmaker’s Into the Inferno — not to be confused with the new Tom Hanks film Inferno — is actually a lazy, meandering mess that gives off no heat.

Herzog takes us to steaming, scary volcanic mountains in North Korea, Indonesia, Iceland, Ethiopia and the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu but never really connects them thematically or narratively. Often the volcanos are studiously ignored.

In North Korea, Herzog spends a lot of time discussing that closed society’s intriguing use of propaganda. In Ethiopia, he follows archeologists. And in Indonesia, we have an excruciating discussion with volcano tech monitors about electronic distance measurements and gas emissions.

These visits are interspersed by what could best be described as volcanic porn — nighttime shots of gorgeous lava as it oozes down a mountain or bursts like cheese bubbling on a cooking pizza, all set to opera or music by Verdi, Rachmaninov and Vivaldi.

Read the New York Times review of Ron Howard’s Inferno here, and Chicago Tribune review of the same film here.

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