REVIEW: Angels & Demons [2009]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 138 minutes | Release Date: May 15th, 2009 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Releasing / Columbia Pictures
Director(s): Ron Howard
Writer(s): David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman / Dan Brown (novel)

“Faith is a gift I’ve yet to receive”

Author Dan Brown has a writing style that suits mainstream America. The guy is a consummate fixture on bestseller lists and frankly he deserves it. I read The Da Vinci Code and it was a page-turner; I remember not being able to put it down as new discoveries were made and the intricate plot unraveled. However, when the movie version came out, I was very under-whelmed by what Ron Howard did. He took all the excitement out of the novel by painting a film by the numbers, literally taking the page to screen. Unfortunately, what works internally by reading doesn’t usually work visually. As a result, I decided to go into the prequel novel adaptation—made into film sequel—Angels & Demons without prior knowledge to the story at hand. It definitely gave me a more pleasurable experience, allowing me to enjoy it for what it was, a summer blockbuster thriller and nothing more.

At its core, this is simple storytelling. You have a man at the top of his field, Robert Langdon, who can literally walk into a room and see everything symbolic and its historical meaning within seconds. As a result, any minute detail needed to progress the plot can be made feasible in the context that Langdon knows everything about anything. His never-ceasing-to-amaze mind allows the impossible to be done. That said, I felt preached to and talked down to a lot less here than with Da Vinci. Howard decides to go forward without any exposition, (if you saw the first film you know Langdon’s backstory, no need to rehash again), and delve right into the action. Within ten minutes, Tom Hanks’ symbologist is in the Vatican, up to speed, and seemingly more invested than the Papal police with the case. The incident concerns the kidnapping—with threat of murder—of the top four candidates for the Pope, a position vacated by the dying Vatican leader fourteen days previous. Oh, and there’s a little something about some stolen antimatter that poses the chance of destroying the Vatican and part of Rome with a cataclysmic explosion.

So, our favorite atheist—played once more by Hanks—Langdon must put his mind to work, uncovering an ancient rumored path created by Galileo and Bernini, showing the way to the Illuminati’s meeting place, where he believes the bomb to be. There are four churches along the way, standing in for the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water, crossing the city and guarded by angels. Langdon must team up with one of the scientists responsible for creating the antimatter, (Ayelet Zurer’s Vittoria), the Italian police, (an enjoyable Pierfrancesco Favino as Inspector Olivetti), the Papal police Commander, (Stellan Skarsgård’s Richter, always making us wonder which side he is on), and the Camerlengo, (a very nice turn from Ewan McGregor as the Pope’s right hand man and holder of Papal power until a new replacement is voted upon in the Conclave). The journey leads them through mysteries, gruesome deaths and brandings, to some beautiful churches complete with glorious artwork, and even the Vatican Archives housing a Mercedes Benz amongst other treasures.

I’ll tell the truth and say that the outcome is pretty obvious, especially when Howard and the filmmakers make so many people out to seem like the bad guys, causing you to know that it must not be them, but instead the ones you would never guess. Angels & Demons is the kind of film you check your brain at the door with, going along for the ride and potentially learning something on the way. Langdon’s wealth of knowledge not only remarkably makes him the one man on Earth that can decipher the mystery at hand, but also allows the audience to possibly absorb some religious and cultural history. It all happens at breakneck speed, the viewer never able to take a breath and think about people’s motivations. The pace is so fast that you are whisked away, following one step behind the characters as they go from one church to the other. Does Langdon speaking his thoughts out loud constantly, coming across as a pompous know-it-all, get old? You betcha. But what other way could we see how he solves things? There isn’t; and that is why literary adaptations aren’t always great. They are two separate mediums that utilize different facets of your brain. You can’t expect a direct translation to work; one needs to reinterpret with the vehicle’s attributes in mind. Filmmakers must take the story and make it their own, not just copy, shoot, and print. Howard isn’t a bad director, it’s just a shame he mostly takes “for hire” type jobs.

The film is not without its merits, however. The special effects are nice, especially the antimatter climax, and the blood and gore adequate to get the audience going—there is nothing like an eyeball sitting on the floor to get you into a story. Hanks is good as Langdon, working his brain and acting smart. It’s perfect casting; I just wonder if it’s a character that has any redeeming qualities other than the fact he knows everything and can save the world from crazy conspiracies that occur randomly in the world. My favorites, though, were McGregor and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss. Mueller-Stahl has a very intriguing role, tricking us into believing he has nefarious ideas and interest in stealing the Papacy in one moment and appearing to be the most righteous and pious of the bunch the next. He is a wild card that keeps you guessing, becoming the one enigma that I couldn’t quite pin down throughout. As for McGregor, you can figure out early on what his motivations are, but he plays the part so well. His monologue about church and science being at war is brilliant and his twists and turns during the film always completed skillfully.

In the end, though, Angels & Demons is your standard summer film—mindless entertainment with a pseudo-intellectual bent that seeks to titillate more than stimulate the mind. There is some humor as well as some likeable characters all on the trail to prevent a bomb like none we’ve seen; an event that would all but wipe out the entire Catholic Church in one fell swoop. There may be few surprises and occurrences that make you shake your head at the contrived absurdity of it all, but Howard and company also give us a puzzle’s solution through deductive reasoning and research. Perhaps the Robert Langdon saga will teach kids that it is okay to be booksmart, its ok to devote your life to academia, because maybe, just maybe, you will write a book that the government gets wind of, about a topic that is exactly like the one which a current unsolved case is built around, allowing you to work side by side with a beautiful woman and show that you can kick ass and play the hero despite your pale complexion and aversion from leaving the indoors. Us nerds can all dream … right?

[1] Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer star in Columbia Pictures’ suspense thriller ANGELS & DEMONS. Photo By: Zade Rosenthal
[2] Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ewan McGregor in Columbia Pictures’ suspense thriller ANGELS & DEMONS, starring Tom Hanks. Photo By: Zade Rosenthal

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