Published: May 15, 2009
Since “Angels & Demons” takes place mainly in the Vatican, and is festooned with the rites and ornaments of Roman Catholicism, I might as well begin with a confession. I have not read the novel by Dan Brown on which this film (directed, like its predecessor, “The Da Vinci Code,” by Ron Howard) is based. I have come to believe that to do so would be a sin against my faith, not in the Church of Rome but in the English language, a noble and beleaguered institution against which Mr. Brown practices vile and unspeakable blasphemy.
And it was partly, perhaps, because I chose to remain innocent of the book that I was able to enjoy “Angels & Demons” more than “The Da Vinci Code,” which opened almost exactly three years ago to an international critical hissy fit and global box office rapture. (The novel “Angels & Demons “was published three years before “The Da Vinci Code.”)
This movie, without being particularly good, is nonetheless far less hysterical than “Da Vinci.” Its preposterous narrative, efficiently rendered by the blue-chip screenwriting team of Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, unfolds with the locomotive elegance of a Tintin comic or an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Mr. Howard’s direction combines the visual charm of mass-produced postcards with the mental stimulation of an easy Monday crossword puzzle. It could be worse.
The only people likely to be offended by “Angels & Demons” are those who persist in their adherence to the fading dogma that popular entertainment should earn its acclaim through excellence and originality. It is therefore not surprising that the public reaction so far has been notably calm. Theological hyperventilation has been minimal, and Columbia Pictures has not been accused of falsifying the history or corrupting the morals of Western civilization.
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, has found nothing worthy of rebuke, and who can quarrel with that judgment? In the busy, bloody course of the picture a few hot topical buttons are gently grazed, but in the end (sorry if I’m spoiling anything) “Angels & Demons” boldly insists that science and religion must coexist, an empirical observation elevated to a statement of principle. Both the persecution of Galileo by the 17th-century church and the more recent (apparently fictional) practice of murdering priests in popular tourist locations in the name of reason are roundly condemned.
It is such killing — undertaken by an anxious grad-student type in the service of an obscure cause — that naturally preoccupies the film’s scholarly hero, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. Langdon, no favorite of the Holy See and long denied access to the Vatican archives, is summoned to Rome to assess, and then defuse, a deadly threat involving antimatter, papal succession and the ancient pro-science terrorist underground known as the Illuminati. You didn’t suspect the Illuminati? Nobody suspects the Illuminati. Except Robert Langdon of course.
Played by Tom Hanks in his high minimalist mode, his face stroboscopically snapping from wry smirk to worried squint and back again, Langdon is something of a cipher in his own right, a walking embodiment of skeptical intellect who seems, most of the time, not to have a thought in his head. Once again Mr. Hanks is accompanied by a ravishing international movie star, in this case the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (“Munich,” “Vantage Point”). She plays Vittoria Vetra, an Italian scientist — specializing in “bioentanglement physics” — whose role is to serve not as a romantic foil for the sexless professor but rather as his sidekick sleuth and fellow panelist in a high-velocity interdisciplinary seminar.
The high-minded shop talk, half buttressed by real historical information, half floating in the ether of cocktail party nonsense, seems to be a crucial feature of a Robert Langdon adventure, and you can only be charmed when the symbologist says things like: “An obelisk! A kind of pyramid adopted by the Illuminati! If he’s going to kill, he’ll do it here.”
And as an exercise in extreme mass-market tourism “Angels & Demons” gives pretty good value. Unable to shoot in the Vatican itself, Mr. Howard and his team have deftly blended actual Roman locations with Hollywood stage sets and C.G.I. confections to make a dreamy, ephemeral Eternal City.
The costume and production design — all those red cardinals’ robes swirling dervishlike in the incense-tinted light, those sensuous Bernini sculptures and soundless library stacks — nearly steal the movie from the bland, dogged heroes. Luckily an international squad of potential villains and victims — you’ll figure out who is which soon enough, since Mr. Brown tends to let the wiring show when he rigs his surprise twists — has already carried out the larceny.
Just as “The Da Vinci Code” was rescued, or at least mitigated, by the twinkling nonsense of Ian McKellen, so is “Angels & Demons” kicked into something like life by the histrionic professionalism of Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skarsgard and Ewan McGregor. The three of them are players in a Vatican power struggle that takes shape after the death of a beloved pope.
His likely successors have vanished, and in trying to find them and prevent Vatican City from being blasted into oblivion, Langdon and Vittoria find themselves in a mare’s nest of hidden agendas and competing jurisdictions. Mr. Skarsgard, commander of the Swiss Guards, and Mr. Mueller-Stahl, a powerful cardinal, are obvious heavies, while Mr. McGregor has a fine time playing a wide-eyed Irish Obi-Wan with a wee bit of a messiah complex.
The utter silliness of “Angels & Demons” is either its fatal flaw or its saving grace, and in the spirit of compassion I suppose I’d be inclined to go with the second option. The movie all but begs for such treatment.
“When you write about us,” an erstwhile nemesis says to Langdon near the end, “and you will write about us, do so gently.” It was as if he were looking right into my soul. And how could I refuse such a humble, earnest petition? Go in peace.
“Angels and Demons” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some fairly gruesome deaths.
I really enjoyed Browns books but i did not like The Davinci Code movie. To me the movie was to dark and dreary , they should have made it have a more "adventurous" feeling, like Indiana Jones. But i will definately be seeing this one .