"Dante's Inferno" Should Be Condemned to the Circle of the Repetitive and Boring
I really do try to be as objective as possible walking into a new DVD for review, but when the trailer to Dante’s Inferno was released, I couldn’t help but think that it looked hilariously awful. The purist/cultural snob couldn’t even be that offended by the complete misappropriation of one of the great classics of Western literature. After all, if you can read (or even read a summary of) Dante Alighieri’s epic poem and genuinely think that it’s a good idea to make an ultra-violent video game out of it (or a direct-to-video animated movie based on that video game), I really have no right to expect any kind of faithfulness to the tone or substance of the source material. The most I can hope for is that you’ll fully embrace the cheese, and to Hell with the critics. At least you’ll have made something fun and stupid with the source property lending just a hint of hoity-toity aspirations.
After having finally watched the movie, though, I am somewhat saddened to report that the movie is indeed hilariously awful, except without the “hilariously” part.
Admittedly, Dante’s Inferno signals early on that it would be the cheese fest I was hoping for. Dante’s Inferno changes Dante into a doughty slab of beefcake returning home from the Crusades to his beloved Beatrice. In the poem, Dante encounters a leopard, lion, and she-wolf that are probably metaphorical constructs; the movie makes them very actual vicious creatures. This leads to a quick battle scene, and when Dante’s horse ends up doing some crazy double back-flip with serious hang time so Dante can slash open the wolf’s throat, I couldn’t help but laugh in a good way. It is hilariously over-the-top, even if the hilarity is probably unintentional, but it proves not to be a harbinger of things to come. Dante finds his entire family massacred, returning just in time for his beloved Beatrice to expire in his arms. Bad becomes worse when he sees the saintly (and gratuitously naked) spirit of Beatrice carried away to the Inferno by Lucifer himself, mostly to give Dante a reason to get good and angsty and follow them through the gates of Hell for the sake of his lady love.
We get a hint that things are not what they seem in one of the movie’s genuinely disturbing scenes, when spectral hands rip Dante’s tunic off and sew a blood-red cross to his chest while a voice over intones something about needing to wear his sins. There’s a quick expository trip across the river Styx, giving Dante the giant scythe that he uses as a weapon, but after that the movie falls into a depressingly repetitive rhythm. Dante enters a new circle of Hell, his spirit guide Virgil explains which sinners end up there, Dante slaughters a bunch of Hellish minions, Lucifer pops up to taunt Dante and/or torment Beatrice, Dante screams “BEAAAATTRIICCCEEEEEE!!!!!” with as much angst as he can muster, we get an expository flashback scene that reveals what a complete rotten bastard Dante really is, and then Dante fights the level boss. Lather, rinse, repeat for 6 or so circles of Hell. The novelty wears off extremely quickly, especially since Dante’s battles are short, trivial, and not very creatively staged. His enemies are all the same in different trappings, although I must admit the enemies’ weapons in the circle of Lust are, uh, certainly unusual. Most of the level bosses don’t present much more of a challenge than the mindless hordes. In the more laughable cases, it takes longer for Virgil to explain who the Big Ugly is than it takes Dante to sink his scythe into its noggin. After they do this dance once or twice, the imagery loses all its ability to shock or horrify. It’s just more blood and more guts with the occasional boob shot for variety, but the repetitiveness robs these images of any staying power. The only real torment that the Hell of Dante’s Inferno has to offer is extreme boredom.
It doesn’t help that we rapidly develop a loathing for the movie’s title character, whose only defining traits are angst, self-delusion, angst, selfishness, angst, a love of a good massacre, a wildly overblown sense of entitlement, angst, idiocy, and angst, with a super-sized side order of angst and an angst chaser. Dante turns out to be so truly reprehensible that his unshakable belief that he deserves Beatrice is alternately laughable and infuriating. The revelations of the horrible, awful, no-good, very bad things in his past only beg the question of why he isn’t trapped in whatever circle of Hell he happens to be in. These revelations also soon lose any emotional staying power they might have had out of their mind-numbing repetitiveness. One element is also just plain puzzling: his rarely used alternate weapon is a cross, given to him by Beatrice and supposedly containing a thorn from the crown of Christ. The holy power of this relic can apparently free a soul from Hell and send them to Paradise, but Dante’s use of this weapon is highly inconsistent. At times, it seems he’s even forgotten that he has it. I suspect there’s a game mechanic driving its use that is not fully explained in the movie, and without that knowledge, Dante’s choices with it seem random at best and completely arbitrary and self-serving at worst.
In the end, it’s probably the movie’s devotion to its video game source material that undoes it. This is a movie that feels like a video game, to the point where the only reaction I could muster to some plot elements or battle scenes was, “Man, I bet that part’s a pain in the game.” The problem is that a video game’s interactivity is one reason why it’s easier to gloss over a repetitive or nonsensical storyline or an unsympathetic lead character. Dante’s Inferno the video game is clearly inspired by the success of Sony’s God of War, which also features a real rotten bastard of a lead character, a barely sketched-in storyline, and violence so gratuitously overdone that it becomes comical. However, I can gloss over most or all of that because the game mechanics are so perfectly executed. It’s fun to be God of War‘s Kratos as he slices through mythical Greek monsters in bulk, even if the story doesn’t make a lot of sense and I think he’s a real rotten bastard. I would not be anywhere near as generously inclined towards him if he were the lead character in a movie because nearly all of his character traits peg him as the Bad Guy. In fact, the many failings of Dante’s Inferno the movie actually make me less inclined to check out Dante’s Inferno the video game, since I can’t help but think that the movie’s trivial and repetitive combat scenes reflect equally trivial and repetitive battles in the game.
The one skillfully done element of Dante’s Inferno is its animation, which is quite technically accomplished. I hesitate to call it “beautiful” because it’s intentionally depicting the grotesque and the horrific, but most of the movie’s creative energies are devoted to its visuals. Like many other recent anthology movies, a different director handles each individual chapter. The script doesn’t really permit any of them to do very much truly distinctive, as more successful anthologies like The Animatrix did, so the only real distinguishing feature between each chapter is the visual style. The constant visual changes do force a period of mental readjustment every time Dante, Lucifer, Virgil, and Beatrice change their appearance, but the payoff in the highly distinctive versions of Hell is mostly worth it. Besides, their designs and voice actors always make it easy to distinguish who’s who when a new director picks up the baton. Unfortunately, some of the chapters feature lamentably bad lip sync, with mouth movements completely mismatched to the sounds coming out of them. The Dante’s Inferno DVD presents the movie well enough in a widescreen image and an appropriately bombastic Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The only extras are a few animatic sequences and a trailer for the video game.
I suspect that Dante’s Inferno would have done better if it had emulated a martial arts movie instead of a video game. A movie like Bruce Lee’s Game of Death or my all-time cheesy favorite Master of the Flying Guillotine dispense with all but the minimum of characterization and story in favor of increasingly bigger, badder, and more outrageous fight scenes. I don’t watch either movie because I’m that enamored of the lead characters as much as I’m enamored with their obvious physical prowess and the stylized, choreographed violence that they engage in. Dante’s Inferno feels like it wants its story and its characters to matter, and it fails spectacularly without being so bad that it gains entertainment value just for being terrible. In the end, Dante’s Inferno provides exactly the wrong kind of hellish experience.