In 2006, Director Ron Howard and Writer Akiva Goldsman adapted Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code, which received scathing responses from conservative Christian groups angered by its (to them) controversial content. Despite their efforts, the film earned a massive box-office take around the world, including more than $200 million here in the States.
This success made a sequel a foregone conclusion, and there was no need to wait for another Brown offering. His previous book Angels & Demons follows the action-packed exploits of Robert Langdon to investigate a series of murders in Rome. Though it was technically a prequel, this issue could easily be fixed to retain a straightforward timeline. With Howard, Goldsman and star Tom Hanks all returning, the sequel’s box-office expectations were high.
Although it earned serious money, The Da Vinci Code received a critical drubbing for its overly reverential approach and lack of style. The source material is poorly written but moves quickly and offers a few surprises. None of that success translated to the slow-moving screen version. When talented actors like Hanks, Ian McKellan and Audrey Tautou looked bored, you know there’s a definitive problem. Howard also sleepwalks through the entire production and delivers a forgettable picture.
When Angels & Demons was released, the marketing campaign focused on a single message, “it’s better than the Da Vinci Code”. Many critics took this approach in fairly positive reviews and cited the minor improvements. It might not be great, but at least it’s not like its terrible predecessor! While comparing the two films is necessary, it should not excuse sloppiness in the latest picture. The story is more straightforward but equally ludicrous (possibly more so), so giving it a pass for being more watchable is just too easy.
The story takes a few twists and turns, but its general premise is fairly simple. The Pope has died, and the College of Cardinals has convened the conclave to choose a successor. Meanwhile, four Cardinals have been kidnapped, and each one will die in succession if they’re not located soon. Because the possible culprit is an old Catholic foe, the Illuminati, Langdon is brought in to assist the investigation. Racing frantically around Rome, he follows the clues and desperately tries to stop these grisly murders. The plot involves anti-matter, Vatican politics and impressive locations, but it’s really just padding for a thin crime tale.
The subject matter does touch on the timely debate between religion and science that hit the forefront during the Bush administration. The film’s pivotal acts spring from a fear about our continued understanding of the natural world. Langdon appears to represent the pragmatic side and says as much when questioned about his faith. However, this film’s reverence for Vatican City and the Pope’s selection undermines any strong positions. Goldsman and Co-writer David Koepp take the safe approach and contribute little to the intriguing discussion. This type of depth isn’t required, but it minimizes any lasting impact from this forgettable thriller.
Angels & Demons offers plenty of star power to complement Hanks, though none are close to matching their best work. Ewan McGregor is miscast as the Camerlengo, who holds the Church’s highest office while the Pope is chosen. After his awkward performances in Cassandra’s Dream, The Island and the Star Wars prequels, I’m beginning to wonder if McGregor’s best work is behind him. The striking Ayelet Zurer (Munich) plays a scientist working with Langdon, but her part is underwritten. One exception is Stellan Skarsgård, who uses sheer force of will to bring weight to a one-dimensional Vatican commander.
Why are Brown’s novels so lifeless when applied to the silver screen? It’s become too easy to blame his writing, which have received criticism from a wide array of sources. Michael Crichton and John Grisham wrote similarly flawed books that produced stellar films. A key reason might be the intricate historical theories, which seem more plausible with the extra details on the page. Condensed and simplified for the big screen, they feel ludicrous and confusing.
Another issue is Howard, who tries to cram the material into the mainstream action picture format. Langdon will never be Indiana Jones no matter what quick-cutting style is used . Howard has directed some interesting recent films, particularly Cinderella Man, which could have easily shifted into painful sentimentality. Russell Crowe greatly enhanced that picture’s believability with a realistic, emotional performance. This relates to another surprising negative, Tom Hanks’ wooden interpretation of Langdon. He seemed like the perfect choice for the intelligent role but brings little besides a recognizable face. It’s possible no one could save the dull straight-arrow character, though making him more eccentric would be a start.
This Theatrical Edition includes a small group of documentaries providing about an hour of details on a few key story elements. “Rome Was Not Built in a Day” reveals the serious work involved with recreating the well-known landmarks like the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon’s interior. The most interesting piece is “CERN: Pushing the Frontiers of Knowledge,” which covers the particle physics laboratory that plays a role in the movie. The experimental research conducted by this real-life facility is stunning and could uncover key advances for our future.
The extras cover about an hour and generally stick to the promotional framework offered by most DVDs. Howard, Brown and the actors give predictable statements and offer a few worthy tidbits. The features should please devoted fans, but it falls well short of providing anything memorable.
Angels & Demons is passable entertainment that never goes overcomes the basics of the genre. We have the ticking clock, ridiculously clever murders and, of course, an ultimate final twist. This moment is designed to shock, though it’s telegraphed by some obvious misdirection. A huge budget and massive sets still can’t overcome shoddy plotting.
There are a few interesting concepts hidden out there, but they’re lost due to the lack of ambition. A slight upgrade from its predecessor is not enough to recommend such a forgettable production.