Three years ago I gave a pass to The Da Vinci Code, despite many misgivings. Yes, it was a slick Hollywood film without a shred of authenticity, but it was also fun. The puzzles were clever, the race across Paris was a nice travelogue, and the bits or arcana about The Last Supper and the Nicene Council gave the film an unusual aura of intellectualism. It was a joy to watch Ian McKellen chew the scenery. But I have my threshold for this kind of thing. Angels & Demons, which reunites director Ron Howard with the author Dan Brown, is essentially a pale copy of The Da Vinci Code.
I realize that Angels & Demons was written before The Da Vinci Code, so when discussing the books it can be said that A&D was a warm-up for the second, more successful book. But in making these films in the order they did, they’ve done a disservice. Angels & Demons follows the same pattern as The Da Vinci Code–a threat by a secret society in a great capital of Europe (this time it’s Rome), and a series of clues that leads our hero to one musty old building after another. Mix in a skeptical member of law enforcement and a pretty girl at the hero’s side, and these films resemble variations on each other.
The story takes place in one night. The pope has just died, and the college of cardinals has gone into their conclave to elect the new pontiff. But four cardinals have been kidnapped, and clues point to the Illuminati, an old secret society of scientists and thinkers who were once persecuted by the Catholic church. They’re out for revenge, and have stolen a canister of antimatter, which they will use to blow up the Vatican. The church reaches out to professor of symbology Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to follow the clues that will find the explosive device and save the day.
Most of this is complete nonsense. The history and the science is all wrong, and would have a much better home in a second-rate comic book that in a film based on a book that is supposed to be historical. But beyond that, there are the tics of films like this that grate on the nerves. There’s the exposition that is yelled as Hanks and Ayelet Zurer, as a physicist who knows all about antimatter, race up and down staircases. Or the solemn way one of them will announce a find in one language, while the other responds with equal solemnity the English translation. There’s so much over-explanation in this film I was expecting a quiz at the end.
Then there’s the story arc, which is also identical to The Da Vinci Code. If you saw that film, you’ll know who the villain is, as Brown is not exactly a supple plottist. I haven’t read the book, but I’m guessing the screenplay pays certain respect to the text, and the writers, David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, are two guys who aren’t exactly Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Ewan MacGregor, as the pope’s chamberlain, gives an embarrassing speech about how science and religion can co-exist. Props to MacGregor for being able to say that with a straight face. As director, Howard offers his usual fare: it looks good, it has an obnoxious score, and it has an eye on the bottom line. That’s a shame, because as A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon show, he can do better.
Dan Brown is working on another book, called The Last Symbol. That title offers us hope.