Cons: It's based on a video game! From Electronic Arts, of anyone!
The Bottom Line: How am I giving out so many one-star ratings lately?
The Electronic Arts logo which appears in the opening credits didn't leave me brimming with a sense of hope. Understand that as a reviewer who is known primarily for his work in the games section, I was already aware of the fact that a video game based on Dante's Inferno just came out. But I ordered the new animated movie through Netflix, which didn't bother to mention the movie was supposed to be a tie-in. So once the EA logo faded in, I lost all hope of Dante's Inferno having any subtlety.
Given that the proper creative liberties are taken, I believe a movie adaptation of Dante's Inferno could be a powerful and thought-provoking look at the nature of sin and redemption. This particular version of Dante's journey through Hell is the polar opposite of that. Yes, it takes creative liberties. It also swings all the subtlety of a sledgehammer playing a Slayer song. Dante's Inferno definitely looks and feels like a video game. It was made to shock, making those of less evolved mindsets say "COOL!" at whatever is being disemboweled at any given moment. While it does make thoughtful mentions of the nature of good and evil, the concept is mainly given two throwaway lines which are promptly forgotten amidst the bloodletting.
I mention that creative liberties would need to be taken because a straightforward adaptation of The Inferno would probably be rather boring and mostly reliant on its imagery. The original book was about Dante himself, as a poet, straying from the straight path and being guided by the poet Virgil through Hell. As The Inferno was just the first part of a trilogy called The Divine Comedy, we eventually see Virgil guide Dante through Purgatory in Purgatorio and reunite with his dead beloved, Beatrice, in Heaven in Paradiso. In the book, Dante was more of an onlooker than anything. He described what he saw, only occasionally interacted, and grieved over Beatrice, knowing full well that it wasn't his place to intervene or question God's judgement.
In the Electronic Arts movie, Dante is turned into a more nuanced character: A former Crusader, having just returned from the Holy Land just to miss saving Beatrice's family from a murderer. Instead of doing the typical video game hero thing and vowing revenge on the killer, Dante does something more useful: He makes the journey into Hell to drag her out, questioning all the way what she had done to be forced into an eternal visit with the Devil. Along the way, Dante is forced to confront his own sins during the Crusades. But being a video game movie, Dante's sins are given the expected kid glove handling. Dante's sins are there mainly to give Dante something to keep fighting against. We see him lie repeatedly about what he did, mainly to himself because we know the Devil isn't going to be fooled by Dante's insistence of his innocence. It seems to kick off a bipolar disorder in Beatrice: I hate you, but please don't leave me.
Dante releases the occasional soul along the way. This is another far cry from the real Dante, who would sometimes curse out the souls in Hell.
Like the book, this animated movie relies mainly on its ghastly imagery to drive home the story. The artwork style is certainly interesting at points, such as Cerberus having a trio of giant worm-like heads which gobble up the sinners of the third circle. But there are a lot of other elements of Hell which look too cliched and unoriginal: At one point, we see dozens of dead souls sliding down a ramp into a kind of machine. The changes from the book are usually for the worse: The second circle, which represents lust, just has a bunch of women who ask Dante for his affections - it almost comes off as if his lust is being rewarded. In the original poem, the souls in the second circle were eternally blown around in the wind. In this movie, Limbo looks like a regular nihilist lounge. Cerberus, guarding the circle of gluttony, actually eats souls instead of merely guarding them. It seems that the deeper Dante journeys into Hell, the less the levels of Hell resemble their 13th century counterparts. The Malebolge - the eighth circle - was the longest part of the book. But it takes up very little time in this movie. Cocytus, the ninth and deepest circle, is barely mentioned at all.
I feel quite justified saying the progression of the circles resembles the book less and less as it goes on. Once Dante reaches the City of Dis, in fact, the movie feels like the filmmakers scrapped nearly everything about the book. The longer parts of the book are robbed of a lot of their original power and meaning because the movie begins to look rushed. It becomes a regular pattern of moving down a circle, being given the introduction, Dante being taunted by the Devil, haunted by his sins in the Crusades, begged by Beatrice, and assaulted by whatever. Some of the original parts of the book are still in there - the Woods of the Suicides being a notable example - but they've all been chopped up. I must admit, however, this approach spares us the contempt Dante shows for other religions. Muhammad, who is prominently featured as a Malebolge resident, is wisely absent.
I haven't ruled out the possibility the producers of Dante's Inferno were going for camp anime. Unfortunately, Dante's Inferno fails the camp test too. It simply takes itself too seriously, and is told in a manner which is somewhat haphazard. The movie frequently borders on incoherent. I was able to understand a lot of the punishments in Hell simply because of my familiarity with the source material. But frequently, I was barely able to understand what was going on. Real camp also requires a very likable main character. While Dante hated people of other religions in The Divine Comedy, he did show a certain amount of restraint in his contempt. But in the movie, the backstory given to Dante establishes him as a genocidal maniac and something of a rapist. He pays lip service to having moments of weakness, but for him to actually believe he didn't deserve eternal damnation is a real wall-banger. I wonder who had the balls to try to make him a sympathetic character, because it just isn't happening. Anime nuts and gamers have moral standards too.
Dante's Inferno is poorly written and badly directed and created more for the kind of shock value one could easily find in a Marilyn Manson video. It is a fitting continuation of the idea that video games just don't translate into good movies.
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