New review: Angels and Demons

Angels and Demons (dir: Ron Howard)

Dan Brown has become a bestselling phenomenon based on his flair (one resists using the word talent to describe such a lazy and unkempt writer) for latching onto colorfully arcane and conspiratorial aspects of history and symbolism and creating fictional puzzles by recutting these historical curios to snap together into his own design. But the genius of his method is in the marketing: he builds his otherwise conventional mysteries of arcane knowledge around revered institutions that offer the possibility of scandal, or at least provocative revelation.

Tom Hanks: looking to the heavens for inspiration?
Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer: looking to the heavens for inspiration?

As in The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons (based on a book that was actually written before Da Vinci but reframed in the script to follow the movie) offers suggestions of dark secrets and ancient conflicts and a holy institution with unholy dimensions, and then systematically returns the proper order with all due respect to the Catholic Church. There’s no agenda here beyond creating a hook and suggesting controversy without actually delivering anything of substance.

Angels and Demons, as directed by Ron Howard (whose unadventurous filmmaking promises as much religious controversy as the next Harry Potter film), delivers just that. Imagine a scavenger hunt as designed by Umberto Eco for the Illuminati reunion picnic. Four cardinals are kidnapped during the deliberations to choose the next Pope and the sign of the Illuminati (a secret organization with a centuries-old grudge against Catholic Church ago) left behind by the kidnapper. The Vatican reluctantly sends for former adversary Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks in his best everyman intellectual mode), the historical symbologist and religious skeptic who dredged up (and then helpfully declined to publicize) inconvenient church secrets in The Da Vinci Code.

Langdon, helped by an uncommonly adventurous physicist (Ayelet Zurer) and generally hindered by the humorless head of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard (Stellan Skarsgard) and a vaguely enigmatic Cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl), scrambles through Vatican City, following clues at a breakneck pace to stop the murder of the Cardinals and the destruction of the Vatican (along with most of the nearby real estate) with a bomb made of stolen anti-matter. Who says science and religion can’t work together?

Hanks is central to this formula, because it takes an actor whose very presence engenders trust and authority to sell the audience on his particular interpretation of the arcane clues and veiled references. “It’s the only explanation,” he repeatedly tells the dubious Vatican City cops and Swiss Guard troops with such conviction and urgency that you just take him face value. Suspension of disbelief is directly related to the momentum of the film, which sends information at the audience too fast to question and then races to the next clue.

Nothing is at it seems of course. That’s part of the formula and Angels and Demons is pure formula beneath the historical decoration and pounding direction, a blood and thunder rollercoaster ride that is more blood than thunder and a gimmick of a mystery that is more exposition than explanation. The cast is generously salted with suspects – along with Mueller-Stahl’s Cardinal, jockeying for position in the Papal election, and Skarsgard’s cop, more interested in suppressing evidence than exposing it, we’ve got Ewan McGregor as the young Camerlengo (essentially the Pope’s consigliore) butting up against the old boy’s club of conservative Cardinals – and there are plenty of shifty figures and suspicious faces skulking through the shadows.

But while they may risk rankling the Roman Catholic Church, neither Brown, Howard nor Columbia Pictures has any interest in incriminating them, at least not for anything they’ve done in the past century or so. You can see it in the sense of awe and respect with which Howard directs the scenes of Catholic ritual and religious ceremonies, and with the majesty with which he shoots the churches and art of the Vatican and the surrounding city. Like The Da Vinci Code before it, the big screen Angels and Demons is a safe little piece of conspiracy thriller hokum under a façade of church politics and Papal secrets. But where there was a profoundly radical idea (however faintheartedly delivered) behind the narrative of Da Vinci, there’s nothing so daring here beyond the idea of a Papal palace coup, and even that is less a religious war than an inside job by a rebel fringe. There’s nothing but reverence for the church here. It’s just a few unscrupulous fanatics who ruin it from the rest of the pious clergy.

It’s brisk, it’s colorful, it’s full of wondrous locations and magnificent art, but if it is a more successful technical exercise than Howard’s The Da Vinci Code, as many have insisted, it is also more blatantly hollow, calculatingly cynical and maddeningly ridiculous. The clues are little more than elaborate distractions, entertaining in themselves but ultimately hollow symbols. In fact, nothing stands up to scrutiny; the mystery is little more than a grand façade and the inevitable revelation of the conspiracy behind the elaborate plotting makes every assumption behind Langdon’s reasoning meaningless. The minute you start pulling at the strings of the plot, the carefully woven tapestry unravels like a cheap sweater. It all comes down to a massive orchestration of complex events and split second timing right out of a heist movie or an international espionage thriller, complete with an international terrorist who kidnaps Cardinals right out of the Vatican and a priest who thinks he’s James Bond in a collar.

It could be a Batman movie, with Langdon as a more lighthearted Dark Knight chasing the teasing riddles left behind by an unholy Joker in clerical garb, if it didn’t take itself so seriously. Under the pomp and ritual and self-serious direction of Howard, it’s just fatuous, a fantasy of comic book supervillains in the Vatican and a straight-shooting American agnostic who sweeps in to save the day with logic, intellect and a plucky tenacity that wins over even the most humorless church fathers. You see, we can all just get along after all.

Shining a light into the dark corner of the Vatican and finding... nothing of interest
Shining a light into the dark corner of the Vatican and finding... nothing of interest

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, from the novel by Dan Brown; featuring Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Armin Mueller-Stahl. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material. 138 minutes.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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