‘Dante’s Inferno’ and the rings of pop culture

Feb. 20, 2010 | 4:44 p.m.
Dante splatter

For the last decade, Hollywood has been mining comic books and fantasy novels for its blockbuster source material, with Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Batman and Gandalf leading the vivid parade. Looking ahead, though, the next generation of box-office champions may be coming from a different realm: the digital landscape of gaming.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” hits theaters May 28, and “World of Warcraft,” “Missile Command” and even “Asteroids” are among the gamer brand names that are now in development. But away from the big screen, there’s already an intriguing study in the way games and filmmaker are mixing, mashing and matching in this evolving entertainment era: “Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic.

The direct-to-home-video release earlier this month is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and as the name suggests, it is rooted in “The Divine Comedy,” the epic 14th century poem by Dante Alighieri that endures as one of the signature works in world literature. This “Inferno,” though, will be a bit jolting to anyone whose mental image was shaped by high school textbooks or the classic illustrations by Botticelli or William Blake’s watercolor interpretations. This “Inferno” finds its hellish landscape in the game published this year by Electronic Arts and developed by Visceral Games.

Dante sword

 

The game and the animated movie present a bulging-bicep, action-hero version of the visitor to the underworld. Any student hoping to do a last-minute report on the epic poem might be best advised to buy the CliffsNotes instead of this new hyper-violent cartoon, but for fans of animation the voyage through the rings of hell is compelling undertaking; instead of choosing a single animated style and sensibility, this film offers a different art team for each ring of hell, with contributions by noted Asian animation studios such as Production IG (who handled the “Kill Bill” animated sequence), Dongwoo (“Batman: Gotham Knight”), Manglobe (“Ergo Proxy”) and JM Animation (“Avatar: The Last Airbender”).

“There are six different stages in the film and there’s something I like about all six of them,” producer Joe Goyette said of the film, which has plenty of blood, monster and mayhem. “It keeps it fresh throughout and each section has something new and different in the approach to the camera use or the graphics or the hard-hitting action. We don’t think anyone’s done anything quite like this before.”

Electronic Arts teamed with the Film Roman Inc., and the game and movie moved along parallel tracks, so instead of a pure adaptation there’s something closer to a multimedia bundling here that reveals plenty about the evolving approach to the marketplace. It doesn’t stop there. There was also a comic-book version by Wildstorm, the DC Comics imprint and, no surprise, the flurry of pop-culture activity has drawn the attention of a major studio, with Universal Pictures optioning the property. 

Dante Beatrice

The centuries-old poem is the focus of so much attention for several reasons. First of all, it’s public domain, which makes it fair game for any adaptations. But beyond that, there’s core appeal of ancient adventures and dramas that are still the template for plenty of modern storytelling. There’s a reason that “Clash of the Titans” and “Percy Jackson” are bringing Greek gods to the movie screen and “Spartacus” and “Rome” are among the best-reviewed television dramas in recent years. “The Divine Comedy” also has the added fascinating element of a map of hell. 

“Hell is the star of our game and it’s the star of this movie,” Jonathan Knight, the EA/Visceral Games executive producer. “I think there’s something ingrained in our mortal imagination, a fascination with hell, especially hell in the medieval sense of it. If you go back to the days when people believed in it as a very real place and thought about it often, that’s interesting to us. Hell was a place that was mapped out for them, quite literally, like a Dungeons & Dragons player might map out their game.”

Looking to the future, Knight said video games need a major breakthrough film that will earn critical credibility for the sector in the way “The Dark Knight,” for instance, did for comic-book movies. “It will stand on its own as a movie and be part of the maturation of the genre,” Knight said. He said commercial viability, meanwhile, was already proved by the “Tomb Raider” movies and there’s strong early word that “Prince of Persia” will be a quality film. “They look like they’ve made good decisions. There’s a lot of things to be excited about for fans of games, animation and movies right now.”

– Geoff Boucher

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