[15 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Dan Brown has no real literary legacy. He’s the fast food of novelists, a summer beach read that pretends to say something profound about the secret state of organized religion. With books like The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, he has extrapolated out stories that deal in centuries old conspiracies and the post-modern means of covering them up. Like Michael Crichton or John Grisham, he takes real elements within his subject matter and works up a whopper of a tale exposing them. Sadly, unlike the previously mentioned authors, his books read better than they play out on the big screen. This was especially true of Da Vinci. Now comes its sequel/prequel, an adaptation of Brown’s first Robert Langdon yarn complete with death, deception, and lots and lots of dialogue. While Angels and Demons surpasses its predecessor in every way, it’s still a sterile, inert thriller.
When a vial of antimatter is stolen from a super collider, it winds up in the hands of The Illuminati, a rogue band of scientists who, for centuries, have battled the Catholic Church. Their plan is to kidnap four of the preeminent Cardinals in line to be Pope and ransom them off. If the Holy Sea doesn’t comply, they will kill the men of God and detonate the material in a nuclear bomb type explosion. Hoping to get some information on the Illuminati themselves, Italian and Vatican police call on Professor Robert Langdon, noted Symbologist from Harvard. He’s an expert on the group. Helping him is Vittoria Vetra, a physicist who wants to retrieve the antimatter, and Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, the late Pope’s close advisor and confidant. Together, they will trace the Path of Illumination to the separate Roman churches holding the group’s inner workings. It is here where the “terrorists” plan on killing the Cardinals. It is here where the Vatican will be save - or condemned.
Angels and Demons is talky. Talky, Talky, Talky, Talky. You’d swear it was an entire pack of PhDs’ dissertations spread out over two plus hours of endless yakking. It is an outright exposition fest, a carnival of communication offered up for a clueless audiences’ source of suspense. Instead of employing fancy flashbacks and cinematic padding like he did last time out, returning director Ron Howard lets his Langdon - a far more tolerable Tom Hanks - spew, and spew, and spew. Within the first 30 minutes of the movie starting, we get lessons on the Illuminati, the Church’s purge of same, the creation of antimatter, the make-up of the Swiss Guard, the difference between them and the Vatican police force, and the intricate inner workings of the Pontiff election process - and we still have another hour and three quarters to go. Sure there is some action, but mostly, Angels and Demons is scene after scene of endless discourse.
This is the problem one has when translating detailed pulp fiction to the big screen. Things you can get away with on the page just don’t drive butts to the edge of their seat. Hanks has a moment near the beginning when he is rattling off Illuminati information so rapidly you wonder if it’s an attempt to instill the scholarship with some manner of urgency. Later on, when we discover a bit more about the overall plan, the narrative stops dead so that the bickering old men of the Conclave can address the ritual they are participating in. Thanks to the tireless efforts of David Koepp (good) and Akiva Goldsman (god-awful), the screenplay becomes a series of screeds, each one meant to tweak our curiosity while stifling our sense of wonder. There is little of the awe invested in Da Vinci. Some of that comes from the underlying ideas. The previous film dealt with Christ’s possible biological lineage. This movie promises a deconstruction of the origins of life, but it’s just a McGuffin.
It has to be said that Hanks and Howard really learned their lessons from the lax, lame offering they created before. The movie looks like its doing more than Da Vinci - it’s constantly moving, rushing the actors from scene it scene as if mere activity will suggest something exciting. And the supporting players do a better job this time, the dead eyed nothingness of Audrey Tautou replaced by the calm command of Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer. She makes a much better non-love interest for Langdon. Equally effective is Ewan McGregor, playing the novel’s Camerlengo as a sad Irish soul. In fact, the subtle manner he employs almost undermines the plot’s last act “twist”, since McKenna doesn’t seem capable of such a heroes and villains extreme. With Stellan Skarsgård and Armin Mueller-Stahl along for additional heft, Angels and Demons surely feels more important. Too bad the story seems so slight.
Indeed, going into this film, one expects Brown to again point out the internal heresy within the Catholic Church, the various “truths” it is hiding in order to maintain its position of global prominence. But what we really have here is a standard murder mystery, a clockwork narrative spun around issues the creators have no intention of addressing. At least Da Vinci stopped the showboating every once is a while to bust out the theological nonsense. Here, lip service would be an over-exaggeration. This is not a film about science vs. religion. It’s actually a contest between interest and outright boredom. Since we aren’t invested in the outcome (you’ll only care if the Papacy is part of your spiritual life) or worry for many of the characters, the resolution arrives with a thud. Then Howard adds a few false endings to keep us guessing as to…the actual final running time.
It’s hard to gauge how a mainstream audience will react to this overly verbose entertainment. Clearly, fans of the book will enjoy the chance while commenting on the minor changes, but those outside the Dan Brown loop have little to celebrate. Unlike Da Vinci, which threatened to rewrite the legacy of one of the most important figures in world history, all we have here is a bunch of dead cardinals and the possibility of the Vatican being destroyed. Not quite the same thing, at least in terms of scope. And without that kind of enigma at the center, some may resort to actually paying attention to the plot playing out. At that point, all Angels and Demons can do is rely on its storytelling and performances to pull us in. That it does so at all is a testament to the criticisms heaped on Hanks and Howards first journey through Brown territory. This one is much more tolerable, which it turns out is faint praise indeed.