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Angels and Demons (2009) Print E-mail
Friday, 15 May 2009

ImageMediocrity returns.

Author Dan Brown’s ascent to the top of the best-seller charts, and his subsequent entry into pop culture, with the now ubiquitous Da Vinci Code has utterly stupefied me. Brown’s tale of Biblical secrets was poorly written and riddled with inconsistencies and problems. Yet it captured the imagination of millions, and quickly spawned a secondary market of books seeking to offer the truth behind the “Da Vinci Code.” Perhaps it was no surprise that Ron Howard would have turned this thoroughly pedestrian book into a movie along with his writer, Akiva Goldsman (the scribe behind Batman and Robin, bat nipples and all). The pair are responsible for some of the most inane crowd-pleasers to pass through the multiplexes. Howard’s undemanding approach seemed just right for a piece of writing as silly as The Da Vinci Code, and despite poor critical reviews and a less than stellar U.S. box office, the film still managed to rake in over $700 million worldwide (what the hell, rest of the world?!). It was almost inevitable that Howard and crew would return to adapt Brown’s other book featuring Robert Langdon, Angels and Demons.

Angels and Demons opens with the death of the Pope in the Vatican. While the Catholic Cardinals gather to choose a new Pope, a canister containing antimatter is stolen from Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. A terrorist kidnaps four Cardinals, places the antimatter somewhere in Vatican City, and threatens to use it as a bomb to destroy the entire seat of Catholicism. This terrorist identifies himself as a member of the Illuminati, a secret society that had been persecuted by the Catholic Church in the past. Desperate for help, the Vatican calls in Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), an expert on the Illuminati, to help them save the Cardinals and stop the bomb, despite his recent run-in with them in The Da Vinci Code.


Let’s get this out of the way right now. Angels and Demons is not as good as The Da Vinci Code, which in and of itself was not a terribly good movie to being with. What the Da Vinci Code had going for it was a sense that there really had been clues laid by historical figures that led to a deep and dark secret. Even though the plot was stupid and contrived, you at least felt like there was a sense of discovery as it unfolded. Angels and Demons trades that sense of discovery for sheer urgency. And while you watch it, you might be anxious to see how things turn out, but the moment the film slows its momentum, you realize you couldn’t care less. It doesn’t help that the clues are so slight as to not warrant Langdon’s involvement at all. Hell, a large portion of the movie is Langdon following pointing statues. Yes, the statues literally point to his next objective. How boring is that?

The only redeeming element of Angels and Demons is a thread of intrigue that revolves around the succession of the Pope, and a few memorable set pieces, especially one that takes place in a sealed Vatican vault. The cast do what they can with the sub par material. Hanks offers no surprises as Langdon, playing the role as straight as he did in The Da Vinci Code. Ewan McGregor has fun with his role as a Papal aide, providing the highlight of the piece. Stellan Skarsgaard is completely coasting in a role that has him do nothing but gnash his teeth. Ayelet Zurer is pretty but not especially interesting as a physicist working to retrieve the antimatter.


Howard’s direction provides little flair to elevate the material. Goldsman’s script is by the numbers, although several details from the book have been changed (and, according to what I can gather, for the better). No one involved can escape the fact that Brown is simply not a good writer. And the problem wouldn’t have been insurmountable had Brown bothered to actually tell an interesting story. J.K. Rowling ravaged the English language repeatedly in her Harry Potter novels, but the underlying story was good enough that the books become readable and the movies watchable. Brown has no such recourse, telling a lame tale with no bite. Thus it is to be expected that a ho-hum director like Howard would not add any vigor to the piece, especially when assisted by such a hack as Goldsman.

There are enough surface pleasures here that I’m sure it will make plenty of money. And the forward thrust of the plot will convince the average audience member that this is better than The Da Vinci Code, although it isn’t. Dan Brown is currently set to release a third book with Langdon as the protagonist, and I’m sure in three or four years we’ll see Howard and Hanks reunite for the generic movie version of that as well. Its success as a film will depend entirely on Dan Brown’s ability to tell a worthwhile story. I won’t be holding my breath.


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