Angels & Demons

May, 2009, Mystery

Give novelist Dan Brown his due; he may create characters with the nuanced personality of telephone poles and invent convoluted plots which suggest a psychological aversion to reality…but he sure knows his Vatican minutia. Director Ron Howard and megastar Tom Hanks revisit the purportedly shrouded world of Roman Catholicism again in this filmed version of the book which actually preceded Brown’s much more famous “The Da Vinci Code”. The Howard/Hanks duo turned that blockbuster novel into one of the more laughable box-office successes of 2006; in this outing, they ratchet up the silliness of Brown’s storyline but mange to deliver it with more technical proficiency and coherence than they provided in its predecessor. Whether that faint praise is sufficient to justify the price of your theater ticket depends in large part on your appetite for learning more about the time-honored ceremonial traditions of pontifical succession. If a People Magazine-style approach to The Papacy doesn’t turn you on, this movie probably won’t either.

Hanks reprises his role as Robert Langdon, a “symbologist” devoted to unearthing and debunking various Vatican cover-ups. When he’s contacted by the Vatican police who are racing to locate 4 abducted cardinals scheduled to enter the church’s electoral conclave to choose a new pope, Langdon scurries off to Rome to help in the rescue effort. The only clue to the simultaneous (and unexplained) disappearance is contained in a single-worded message left by their abductor; “Illuminati”.

Given his extensive knowledge of Catholic Church history, Langdon immediately informs his hosts that a secret society formed in the 17th century to fight the Church’s suppression of contributions to scientific inquiry has re-surfaced to strike back at the hierarchy as it tries to select The Church’s new leader. (Historical note; The Illuminati actually existed briefly in the 18th century as a small German intellectual association influenced by the Enlightenment.) In addition to its quartet of abductions, this resurgent group has also stolen a sample of highly dangerous “anti-matter” developed at a Swiss laboratory by Vittoria Vetra. She’s a PhD with an academic pedigree which qualifies her as Langdon’s intellectual equal, so she’s also invited to join in the chase to free the kidnapped cardinals and locate the container of anti-matter before it detonates and destroys St. Peter’s and the Papal domains immediately surrounding it.

The kidnappers/terrorists are kind enough to leave a series of cipher-laden clues behind which allow Langdon to discourse at length on church history and Vetra to mumble enough scientific nonsense to assure the audience that disaster awaits at the stroke of midnight. Racing manically from church to basilica to chapel in an effort to locate the cardinals, Langdon and his partner uncover a conspiracy whose tentacles appear to include members of The Swiss Guard, The Vatican Police and the late Pope’s inner circle of advisors…

  Looking tan and fit, the 53 year old Hanks injects some welcome vigor and personality into Langdon that was painfully absent in The Da Vinci Code; the actor is nothing if not comfortable in his own skin and this time, he imbues his character with a sly sense of humor and enough action-hero machismo to save a drowning cleric, break out of an air-tight library vault used to preserve church archives and evade a gun-wielding hit man in a burning sanctuary. As his intellectual side-kick, Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (Munich, Vantage Point) combines beauty and brains in an appealingly understated manner; it’s nice to find a big budget Hollywood thriller willing to cast an age-appropriate actress as its heroine, especially when obvious intelligence is a prerequisite for the role. The screenplay, (co-authored by old hands Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp) doesn’t require Zurer to do a great deal more than wring her scientific hands, but she does it with such quiet determination that she brings a welcome dose of credibility to the proceedings.

As always, Howard doesn’t skimp on the technical aspects of his work; cinematographer Salvatore Totino bathes Allen Cameron’s production design in rich ecclesiastical hues and the trappings of The Papacy - - from papal ring to skull cap to miter  - - get meticulous attention. St. Peter’s Square, The Parthenon, Rome’s opulent fountains and its claustrophobically narrow streets are all presented in the director’s accessible, easy-to-digest style…but to what purpose? With an ending that manages to include an inexplicable plot twist, a clerical parachutist and an explosion over St. Peter’s Square that makes the sky resembles a cheesy version of Michalgelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, Howard cements his image as a filmmaker who knows all about putting what’s marketable up on the screen without knowing anything about what it takes to also make it memorable.

A group of theologically conservative Catholics have attacked this film (as they did its predecessor) labeling it as an assault upon religious doctrine and an attempt to smear Catholicism as an institution that opposes unrestricted scientific inquiry and the knowledge which flows from it. But the film’s plot is so asinine from beginning to end it would take someone with the intellect of a slug to be offended by Angels & Demons’ theological content; there just isn’t any. What is annoying however is the vacuous manner in which church leadership is depicted; even the gifted Armin Mueller-Stahl, (playing the presiding cardinal at the papal enclave) can’t convey, with the lines he’s given, a glimmer of intellectual heft or religious substance. One can find fault with Roman Catholic leadership on any number of fronts, but not on the fact that it actually matters, (for good or ill) as a social institution with global impact. But as measured by this movie, the princes of the church come off as impotent, senile lemmings dressed up like over-age choir boys at  Midnight Mass. This crowd couldn’t manage its way out of a closet with the door left open, much less direct the activities of a religion with a billion plus members.

For all his ostensible reverence towards his subject, Howard succeeds only in making The Catholic Church appear irrelevant, save as an exotic background for a rather witless whodunit.

The Verdict? Inoffensive, silly escapism.

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus