Angels & Demons

A Harvard professor is an unlikely candidate for the hero of a summer blockbuster, and Angels & Demons demonstrates exactly why. The film is filled with talk, talk, talk.

Angels & Demons

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-05-15
UK date: 2009-05-14

As Angels & Demons opens, the world's Catholic Cardinals have gathered in Vatican City for the beginning of the Papal Conclave. Here, behind closed doors, they intend to elect the next Pope. Among the crowds of devout Catholics, interested gawkers, and media drones filling St. Peter's Square, the Cardinals flutter about in their red, red robes with lacy white trimmings. Yes, this centuries-old ritual is still exciting.

At the same, fleeting close-ups reveal that many a Cardinal's hand clutches a cell phone, the ubiquitous sign of encroaching modern technology. As each Cardinal must leave behind his gadget, to be which is bagged and tagged at the door of the Sistine Chapel, the image is deliberately "jarring" image, the sort of ham-handed juxtaposition for which Ron Howard is well known and sometimes admired.

That said, the friction between past and present is the central theme of Angels & Demons, which hews closely to Dan Brown's book. The film resurrects the ghost of yet another anti-Catholic secret society, the Illuminati, and pits them against the millennia-thick inertia of Catholic orthodoxy. The DaVinci Code enshrined Harvard symbologist Robert Landgon (Tom Hanks) as a champion of truth, challenging the obfuscations and monomania of the Papacy. In Angels & Demons, he's back to carry forth that same torch.

Using the Papal election as backdrop, Angels & Demons recalls the 2005 choice of Pope Benedict XVI, which was framed by discussions of the changing demographics of modern Catholicism. Today the bulk of the world's billion or so self-identified Catholics are from the global South. Four years ago, many wondered if the Vatican would reflect this new reality by electing a Cardinal from Africa, Asia or South America, or if they would maintain the Eurocentrism of Catholic governance. The answer, of course, was the latter -- the Holy See elected the strong traditionalist Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, just now ending a visit to Israel that has re-evoked concerns about his past and that of the church.

The changing relevance of Papal leadership informs the goings-on in Angels & Demons. But rather than questioning whether such leadership reflects the new demographics of faithful or addresses their concerns, the film challenges the church's ongoing anti-science fundamentalism -- a good old-fashioned battleground. It also seems occasionally distracted from its own focus. Just as the Illuminati launch their endgame attack on the Papacy, Cardinal Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and the Commander of the Swiss Guard (Stellan Skarsgard) quibble with Langdon and Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) about whether to interrupt the Papal Conclave and inform the world press of the troubles in Vatican City.

Such confession would also require the Vatican to divulge the reason for the Illuminati's attack, that is, the church's own ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of science and rationalism. As this argument progresses, the film spills copious amounts of "historical" detail (some made up, like "La Purga of 1668," a Papal assassination of key Illuminati that never took place) through the oracle of Robert Langdon.

Here Angels & Demons is weighed down by the same insufferable preachiness as its predecessor. A Harvard professor is an unlikely candidate for the hero of a summer blockbuster, and Angels & Demons demonstrates exactly why. The film is filled with talk, talk, talk, interrupted all too infrequently by all too brief action sequences. Sure, the historical minutiae are interesting, as is wondering if these details are accurate, and even doing a bit of one's own post-viewing research to confirm or reject them, but no one likes to be lectured to for over two hours, no matter how interesting the topic.

And yet despite all these professorial wanderings, Angels & Demons does broach some contemporary political concerns. Upon arriving at the Vatican, and walking down the Bernini colonnade at St. Peter's, Langdon comments on the strategically placed fig leaves on a phalanx of male nudes. He asserts that Pope Pius IX, offended by the possibly lustful influence of the visible penises, went hacking away at the marbles, and that the leaves were added by a later Pope. Whether historically accurate or not, the anecdote quickly reminds us of the fact of John Ashcroft's out-of-touch turn as U.S. Attorney General, when the devout Christian had the sculpture of Justice in the Department of Justice draped in a curtain because he found her nude breasts offensive.

Angels & Demons is at its best when reminding us of the conflicts that arise when science and religion mix, and wondering whether such tensions can be rectified. After eight years of Bush administration, Christian fundamentalism, and anti-science policy, we in the U.S. have direct experience with the disastrous effects of religion-driven state power. HIV transmission and infection rates and teen pregnancy rates have risen despite the "faith-based" institutionalization of abstinence only sex education. And while not overtly motivated by religious tenets, Bush's antipathy to science resulted in the gutting of environmental protections of all sorts.

Time and administrations change, however. And so far Barack Obama has rejected such religious dogmatism in governance. The questionAngels & Demons raises is whether Catholicism, or Christianity, or any of the world's major religions, can maintain its relevance to contemporary realities and leave behind centuries of anti-science zealotry.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.