The Da Vinci Code movies — there are three of them to date, all directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, and adapted from bestselling novels by Dan Brown — aren’t necessarily good, but they are interesting. They try so hard to be crowdpleasers that they’re more compelling as sociology than as art. They so plainly want to give the audience exactly what we want, with no pesky fillers like introspection or believable dialogue, that they make an interesting time capsule of our collective desires at a given time (or at least, our collective desires as perceived by Brown, Howard and co).
I saw my first Da Vinci Code movies this week. I tried to watch The Da Vinci Code before I saw Inferno, and only partially succeeded. (Hey, did you know The Da Vinci Code is 150 minutes long?). As a piece of entertainment, Inferno is superior. They’re mostly the same movie, only Inferno is much shorter, involves fewer pointless flashbacks, and doesn’t have an albino monk assassin played by Paul Bettany (sort of a lateral move, that). But both of them are essentially scavenger hunts in movie form, involving anagrams, dubious symbology, and George Lucas-esque dialogue, where you can tell the script probably had lots of exclamation points (“But the Knights Templar were hired to protect the Holy Land!”). And all of it is set up with preposterously elaborate suicide notes. Seriously, doesn’t anyone in these movies just kill themselves without leaving coded messages in seven countries?
So what do we want, according to the Da Vinci Code series, other than Tom Hanks in a silly haircut? I think the appeal is similar to religion, and it’s related to our collective love of conspiracy theories: We want to believe that there’s something out there that’s bigger than us, and they’ve got it under control.
In the first Da Vinci Code, Tom Hanks’s Robert Langdon and his Farrah hair, spurred by a murder in the Louvre, in which the dying man poses himself like a Da Vinci painting, leaves a coded note, and uses his own blood trail to create a treasure map (talk about presence of mind!), gets caught up in a wild showdown between the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei. The Priory seek to prove that Mary Magdalene was actually Jesus’s wife, and their descendants eventually became the Merovingian Kings of France (which Tom Hanks, interestingly, pronounces “marrow-VING-ee-en”). Opus Dei, a radical Catholic sect, seek to bury this information, fearing it would undermine Jesus’s divinity and Catholic power — all of which is tied to the location of Mary Magdalene’s tomb, and the identity of Jesus and Mary’s living descendant(s) which is written on a secret scroll contained inside a locked box called a “cryptex.” The “grail” in “Holy Grail,” you see, actually referred to Mary Magdalene’s womb. After that it gets a little complicated.
The beauty of the plot is that whether or not Jesus was divine, there are still ancient forces controlling our lives. And whether those forces are benign or malevolent, the point is, someone is in control. We’re not just moss on some insignificant rock hurtling through space. Someone organized and competent, capable of dispatching homicidal albino Paul Bettanies and/or maintaining organizational security for thousands of years. Even the apocalypse is organized and ordained. It’s escapist in the same way horror movies are escapist — instead of fearing randomness, the crushing void, you can fear ghosts or clowns with axes for a few hours.
It’s all connected, maaan, all you have to do is read the clues! Luckily Robert Langdon is a Harvard-trained professor of symbology, with the French police’s leading cryptology expert (played by Audrey Tatou) for a sidekick. (You need a lot of cryptologists to solve all that baguette crime, obvi). Experts! Institutions! Puzzles! You know that scene in Independence Day where Jeff Goldblum just makes a long string of word associations that eventually lead him to the answer? The Da Vinci Code is essentially two and a half hours of that. A reverse Markov Chain, say.
I’ve always thought of wild conspiracy theories and religion as two sides of the same coin. The actors are different, but the conception of the universe is the same — this is not all just a series of random coincidences, it’s all under control. The Da Vinci Code has religion and conspiracies (religious conspiracies!), which is sort of perfect. It offers religion as a divine force and as a social force. At one point, Ian McKellen’s character (who is so much better than the movie deserves) lays out his hilariously optimistic hope that knowing Jesus was just a guy and that sex is not a tool of the devil could undo a thousand years of witch hunts and oppression. That’s clever, even if the dialogue sucks and the movie feels 10 hours long.
Inferno is no longer directly about religion, though it still shows up in the form of constant references to Dante. There’s a rogue bioengineering billionaire, you see, Bertrand Zobrist (played by Ben Foster), and he is not only a prominent overpopulation alarmist (he gives TED Talks-like speeches warning that we’re “five minutes to midnight,” i.e., on the cusp of an overpopulation-induced calamity), but a Dante freak.
Can you see where this is going? An elaborate suicide note, a scavenger hunt, a man-made virus set to kill 50% of the population at a specific time. Only this time, the clues are references to Dante and the Black Death with most of the action set in Florence, rather than Paris and Catholicism. Luckily, Robert Langdon’s particular set of skills — anagram solving, knowing the secret passages in every museum, advanced brow furrowry — still seem to come in particularly handy. This time around, the players are the World Health Organization, who think Langdon has the virus and are trying to kill him; Zobrist’s company, trying to cover up his dastardly doings (by killing him); rogue actors seeking to sell the virus to the highest bidder; and a hot doctor named Siena (Felicity Jones), who is attending to Langdon when some bad guys show up to kill him. Oh yeah, did I mention he has amnesia in this one? He gets grazed by a bullet and can’t remember much of the last few days.
Inferno is sort of like a mash-up of National Treasure (follow the Dante clues!) and The Bourne Identity (remember your anagram skills!), and follows the basic outline of The Da Vinci Code. The collective desire it seems an attempt to fulfill, whether deliberately or not, is closely related to the desire for everything to be connected. The relevant subtext of Inferno is that the adults are in charge.
On the run from all manner of bad guys, Siena and Langdon’s first stop is at her apartment where she finds him some clothes to wear. Naturally, she gives him a crisp white shirt and a blue suit jacket. Because what better clothes to run from bad guys and army crawl through museum attics in than a nice navy suit and tucked in shirt? It’s telling that we don’t want Langdon to look comfortable, we want him to look like a dad. It’s also telling that he’s played by Tom Hanks, America’s Dad, and that his superpowers, fittingly, include being able to solve the Sunday crossword puzzle in 10 minutes and knowing the medieval origins of common phrases. This is our newest X-Men, Dadsplainer! The gist of all it is, relax, everyone, Dad’s got this. The adults are in charge.
Like Bourne, the amnesia is important. (Incidentally, Bourne doesn’t get nearly enough sh*t for being an amnesia plot.) Bourne, 24, Homeland to a certain extent — screenwriters have long known (consciously or not) that amnesia and competence porn go together like damsels and train tracks. I think this stems from a desire to believe that efficient, jargon-spouting prodigies (both good and bad) in smart business suits control the world, using glib commands delivered whilst walking down long hallways. The hero can tilt the scales toward good, if only he can just remember all his training and experience. Whatever happens, it won’t be an accident, or the result of snowballing fuck-ups, like so much of real world geopolitics. Things happen because competent, well-trained adults with armies of tireless underlings wanted them so — Tom Hanks and Matt Damon as Hollywood’s great men theory. (And no, not all movies depict world events this way. In Burn After Reading, the CIA agents and everyone else are mostly dumb, vain, incompetent, and much of the action the result of screw-ups and accidents. Probably part of the reason it’s one of the Coens’ least-loved movies, though I love it.).
As with horror movies, even the horrors and apocalyptic scenarios are kind of comforting. Inferno depicts a designer supervirus set to kill four billion people, sure, but it also envisions the World Health Organization as a group that owns X-Men like private jets for its execs to fly around in, commanding teams of submachine-gun toting agents, all to keep the world safe from pandemics and contagions. It’s a fear wrapped in a safety blanket.
In Inferno, as in so many of these movies, when something calamitous happens, it’s often the result of some preposterously elaborate gaslighting plot. Irrfan Khan plays Harry Sims (Inferno deserves some credit for casting an Indian guy as “Harry Sims” without feeling the need to explain), a Darth Vader-like exec at one of Zobrist’s companies, trying to cover-up his late boss’s terror plot once he finds out what he’s done — thereby saving his job and keeping the company going. Which he apparently does by staging entire plot points (“You create illusions.” “I prefer to call them ‘controlled realities.'”). In Inferno, even the accidents are on purpose, complete with squibs and blood packets. The plot point is about as silly as it gets (not to mention kind of lazy) but Irrfan Khan, with his penetrating bugeyes and crisp diction, is a magnificent dad, arguably even dadlier than Tom Hanks. Zobrist is essentially Sims’ son, whose youthful idealism and exuberance has created a big mess that his clear-eyed pop has to come in and clean up. At one point, Sims actually confides to Langdon, “I don’t like children. I find people start to become tolerable around 35.”
It’s also fitting that in one of the climactic moments (and this isn’t really a spoiler unless you know how it got there), a faceless, organized, adult commando wearing body armor pops a cap in a greasy, long-haired hippie eco terrorist. That this is a triumphant moment in Inferno says a lot.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that the same forces of conspiratorial thinking that made The Da Vinci Code a hit are some of the same that helped give us Donald Trump, a significant portion of whose followers believe the president is a foreign-born Muslim and that Jade Helm was the federal government practicing to invade the States. Even with Hillary Clinton, one of her defining characteristics is extreme control over her public image and Nixon-like secrecy. She’s dogged by conspiracy theories at least partly because she’s so covert and reticent to own up to mistakes (as Matt Taibbi recently pointed out, some of her “secret” speeches to big banks would’ve humanized her more if she’d just released them herself).
And if you watched any of the debates, especially the Republican debates, where Donald Trump essentially walked around the room pantsing the other contestants and bullying the nerds in between showing off his hand size and bragging about his dick, it was easy to find yourself looking around the room thinking “What is happening here? Where is the teacher? Isn’t there an adult who can stop this?”
Inferno, and movies like it, are full of exactly the kind of adults we wish were around to control things. If there wasn’t a significant segment of the modern milieu secretly hoping for a father figure, how else to explain the “daddy” meme? Inferno is wish fulfillment, and now more than ever, Tom Hanks is America’s dad — landing our planes, setting things right, and tenderly tucking us into bed at night. In The Da Vinci Code movies, as with a lot of entertainment, what they’re trying to say isn’t nearly as interesting as what they assume.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.