by Brett Parker
Angels & Demons isn’t as entertaining or compelling as its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, and since I didn’t find the earlier film to be too entertaining or compelling, that should hint at how underwhelmed I was by this sequel. To be sure, the new film holds more confidence and urgency than the last one, but I essentially have the same problems this time as I had the last time: the adventure feels too flat and unremarkable while the filmmakers and cast do very little to make this religious-shaker matter that much.
The film opens with a series of troubling matters for the Vatican in Rome. The Pope has just died and the conclave is called upon to elect a successor. Four of the preferitti (primary choices for replacement) have been kidnapped and threatened to be murdered in a short time frame. A dangerous, scientific anti-matter has been stolen and is threatened to be used in a plot to annihilate the Vatican right off the map. It appears that these nightmarish threats are being carried out by the Illuminati, a secret society that holds a deep hatred towards the Catholic Church for its persecution of science throughout history.
Desperate for help, the Vatican calls upon Harvard Symbolist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to assist in solving this dangerous mystery. He teams up with a beautiful scientist (Vittoria Vetra) to solve a series of clues set up around Rome that reveals the inner-workings of the seemingly hostile Illuminati and their deadly plot. These clues are hidden within Vatican documents, ancient symbols, statues, maps, and even red-hot pokers. Langdon begins to suspect that the Illuminati has infiltrated the Vatican and grows suspicious of a Swiss Captain (Stellan Skarsgard) and an elder Cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl). With the assistance of a Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), Langdon races against the clock to save the Vatican from devastating hostility.
Don’t get me wrong, this is interesting stuff. I find it clever how a suspenseful adventure story can mold with penetrating ideas about the foundations of the Catholic religion. So rich with ideas is this premise that the highest compliment I can pay the material is that you honestly don’t know where it will lead you. I just don’t feel that this is the best evocation of exciting ideas this plot can generate. I don’t find myself caring much for these adventures. I suspect the source of my problems is the fact that I don’t find Dan Brown, the author of the original Langdon novels, to be much of a writer. His writing is rather lazy and unsophisticated, which is curious considering the amount of research and knowledge that goes into creating such a clever premise. Lord knows he creates fascinating plots, but he lacks the grace and vividness of great writing. He seems more interested in crafting a quick potboiler than a meditative classic.
But this isn’t a book review, it’s a movie one. Brown’s shortcomings could easily have been finessed into visually-arresting filmmaking, but director Ron Howard also pounds things out in a limp manner. Both of his Langdon films have been visually unremarkable despite the fact that there are considerable visual delights to behold. The camera takes its atmosphere for granted; we never feel the grand awe of the holy, exotic settings nor do we feel the menace of the mysterious and sinister clues. It’s too straight-forward and by-the-numbers. Howard lacks his usual skills for visual creativity (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) and heightened dramatic discipline (Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon).
There’s also little excitement to be found in the film’s leading man. Tom Hanks can be an actor of great nerve and color, yet for the second film in a row, he appears to be phoning-in his Langdon performance. He plays Langdon as a stone-faced drone who recites ancient facts without any feeling in his heart. Remember the zest and glee that was in Harrison Ford’s eyes and smile when his Indiana Jones took on a new adventure? If only Hanks had taken a cue from that. He brings a scarce amount of humor and color to the table. He has little fun with the role and we pretty much have none. The rest of the cast seems to have taken a cue from Hanks’ blandness. Here we see a cast of seasoned pros who’ve been fiery and fascinating in other films reduced to poker-faced talking heads this time out.
Throughout this snooze-fest, the film does hold some thrilling moments. The Illuminati are a rather compelling bunch and their elaborate plan to reveal themselves is as clever as it is wicked. I liked a moment where Langdon tries to rescue a bound-up man from a fountain trap. Plus the film’s climax has a sensational special effects shot that would be at home in a supernatural disaster flick. Other than that, this movie is sinfully sanitized. The Da Vinci Code had most of the same problems, but that film was saved by the utter fascination of its truth-about-Jesus conspiracy plot. By comparison, radicals trying to blow up the Vatican doesn’t entertain as much. Brown’s novels have millions of devoted fans who will find a bottom-line competence within the film that will probably satisfy them. The rest of us will probably be falling asleep. Its movies like this that demonstrate why we should cherish the energetic silliness of the Indiana Jones movies.