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.