- Ron Howard
- Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgård, Pierfrancesco Favino
- 139 min.
- Release Date
Angels & Demons makes a better thriller than its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, because the scenario doesn’t dwell solely on the ideas therein. Instead of chasing clues to uncover a conspiracy that’s more interesting as a historical theory than a plot point, this film chases clues to uncover the culprit in a murder mystery. However standardized the latter seems in comparison, the result is more satisfying and improves upon author Dan Brown’s formulaic way of embellishing history for the sake of theatricality. Key players from the first have returned. Director Ron Howard brings back his Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon, once again played by Tom Hanks, here allowed to imbue more personality and charm into his character. Writer Akiva Goldsmith penned the script, and this time he’s helped along by Jurassic Park and Spider-Man scribe David Koepp, who lends the picture a desirable tempo. The religious-heavy backdrops are striking, and Howard captures the grandiosity of Rome’s architecture—or at least, those locales where the Vatican would allow his production to film. Areas deemed restricted were either generated by stand-in sets or obvious computer effects. And very holy music by Hans Zimmer scores the procession of dead religious figures in likewise holy places.
When the Pope dies, an ancient cult of scientists bent on dethroning the church, called the Illuminati, kidnaps four Cardinals and announces one will die every hour until midnight, at which point they’ll blow up Rome. So the Vatican sends for Langdon, whose previous “episode” was scandalous, but nevertheless proved his knack for deciphering puzzles from Catholic history. Langdon pairs up with scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), inventor of the antimatter device the Illuminati plan to detonate in Vatican City, and engages in a race for time that doesn’t take long to get started and doesn’t slow until the very last scenes.
Ewan McGregor costars as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, the temporary man-in-charge while the papal conclave, headed by Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), meets to select the new Pope. McKenna does everything he can to help Langdon and Vetra continue running about ancient chapels and destroying property in the Vatican archives because he believes in their investigation. Meanwhile, the Vatican police chief (Stellan Skarsgård) does everything to stop them. The film does an expert job placing the viewer in the historian’s position, complete with respect for the delicacy and rarity of ancient manuscripts. When Vetra tears a page out of an original text by Galileo, everyone in the audience gasps.
Langdon is made palpable by Hanks, even allowed a few moments of much-needed comic relief, but the character needs a humanizing love interest or personality flaw to make him more than one-dimensional. There’s absolutely no sexual chemistry between Langdon and Vetra, which might help bring him closer to a pseudo-Indiana Jones. Instead, Langdon recites historical background stories for various objets d’art and churches like he’s a tour guide, with the apparent sex drive of a holy man. Indeed, halfway through the film, he’s sprayed with blood, and so he changes into the only alternate clothing available: a priest’s shirt and coat. Of course, this is an ironic choice. Or is it?
There’s no controversial revelation here that, once exposed, will spark debate during post-viewing discussions; Brown’s first book-to-film adaptation contained such a device, and to be sure, relied upon it. As a twisting suspense yarn, the film’s simplicity is refreshing, keeping the viewer involved by employing a countdown and a bomb, which will go off at midnight no less. An updated version of Alfred Hitchcock’s archetypal “bomb under the table” suspense apparatus, it’s a bomb somewhere in the Vatican. That the bomb is comprised of antimatter, better known as the “god particle” that could ultimately disprove creationism, warrants plenty of reflection on the science vs. religion conflict—at least, as much as a Hollywood movie will allow.
As usual, Howard offers no inventive visuals beyond the norm; his presence behind the camera is virtually nonexistent. There’s no particular energy to a Ron Howard film that can be identified. Together with longtime producer Brian Grazer by his side, they’re progenitors of serviceable-if-flavorless movies that never do more than live up to expectations but often do much less. Sadly, Howard scarcely makes this film the bold thriller it could be, that a director with a knack for suspense like Brian De Palma might’ve made with accompanying bravado. And no matter how low-grade the source novel may be, doubtless another filmmaker could have instilled the story with its fully deserved cinematic expression.
Alas, Angels & Demons is just about what you’d expect, following the profitable but ill-received release of The Da Vinci Code. The ongoing battle between science and religion is hardly tapped, and any commentaries on the flaws of either belief system are so neutral that the argument barely feels addressed. But you can’t expect a blockbuster to shake its finger at the church or scientific community outright, as retaliation from either group could hurt box office receipts. What remains is a watchable and enjoyable thriller with expected plot holes. The film drags on for perhaps too long, improves the appeal of its central character, presents an involving mystery, and entertains without becoming preachy or overly revelatory. Don’t expect any more than that.