I never held out much hope for “Angels & Demons” because I never saw anything to make me hopeful. It was a spin-off created by the success of “The Da Vinci Code” and because there was another Robert Langdon book available, it made financial sense. But the book, “Angels & Demons” is awful and reads like a first-draft of “The Da Vinci Code” by having the same dull protagonist accompanied by stock characters, a plot based on pseudo-art and religious history, and a treasure hunt based on clues derived from quasi-to-non factual histories of various artworks, buildings, people, etc. The antagonist is a self-loathing toolbag of some greater big bad who appears to be noble but is actually a self-righteous ass-hat whose masterplan requires people acting in just the right way at just the right time or else his entire scheme would fail entirely.
In short, Dan Brown is a bad writer. Ron Howard and screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp may be worse for not recognizing how bad. As I said, I understand the financial sense of making “Angels & Demons” but why remain so faithful to Brown’s awful book instead of just taking the best parts and then crafting a new story around it? But that would require work and imagination and I certainly don’t expect that from Howard or Goldsman. And since I knew that they wouldn’t put any effort into improving the story, I held out little hope for this sequel (yes, the book is a prequel but the movie is a sequel).
This time the plot revolves around some stolen anti-matter from CERN’s Large Hardon Collider (our site should really talk to them and see if we can do some cross-branding) and a threat to use that anti-matter to blow up the Vatican during Conclave (the election of a new Pope for our non-Catholic readers, myself among them). The threat comes from the Illuminati, scientists driven underground during the 17th century who are now going to make the Vatican pay! By killing thousands of innocent people! Suck it, Vatican.
While the Swiss Guard goes about trying to find the anti-matter bomb in the least effective manner possible (because there’s a live camera feed of the bomb and there’s an off-screen light source, they assume that if they shut down lighting grids, they can ascertain the location of the bomb. But they shut down lighting grids one at a time never thinking that A) a process of elimination may work better by working from larger sections to smaller ones; and B) not assuming that the light source could be battery-operated. The Vatican has brought Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, thankfully ditching his mullet) on board to track the symbology of the Illuminati in hopes of finding the bomb since the whole lighting grid plan is pretty shitty.
But the big plot problem isn’t in trying to find the bomb. The Preferiti (four cardinals most likely to be elected Pope) have been kidnapped by the Illuminati and wouldn’t you know it, there are four ambigrams (words that can be read forward and backwards) bearing the words of the “scientific elements” of “Earth”, “Air”, “Water” and “Fire” (which means there’s an evitable fifth element that is either Milla Jovovich or the crappy “Heart” power from “Captain Planet”). Each element ties into a particular location although the film never explains how Langdon knows that “Air” will follow “Earth” as opposed to “Water” or “Fire”. It quickly becomes clear that the film will tirelessly repeat a pattern: Langdon uses his pseudo-knowledge of history and art to find a location; they’ll get to the location a little too late; they’ll find the grotesque corpse of a cardinal branded with one of the ambigrams, and then do it all over again because the film has to hold on to the bomb for the finale. And if they ever found the bomb before we saw all the ambigrams, then the film would come to a screeching halt because that’s the plot of the book and no one was smart enough to stop and say “Hey! This is really predictable and dull! We should go in a new direction!”
But Dan Brown can’t take credit for all of the stupid. There’s one glorious scene where Langdon is in the archives trying to find clues to the next location and there’s a Swiss Guard keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t steal or deface any of the documents. Somehow the controlled oxygen (for keeping the documents preserved) in the room gets shut off and we’re treated to a superfluous action scene where Langdon and the guard scramble to get out of the room before they suffocate. The guard smashes a book cart against a glass door. No good. Langdon topples a book shelf against a glass wall. Still no good. Just before he’s about to pass out, Langdon notices that the guard had a fucking gun. He shoots his way out. Sidenote: Akiva Goldsman is an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Kind of devalues the award, doesn’t it.
Beyond all of this terrible plotting and near-reverential devotion to an author as terrible as Brown, “Angels & Demons” makes the same mistake as “Da Vinci”: it’s no fun. This is a treasure hunt and even if there’s reverence towards religious history and art history, that’s no excuse to why this film is so painfully dull. Robert Langdon isn’t a character. He’s walking exposition. He exists solely to move to the next plot point but he doesn’t teach us anything since all of his knowledge is either trivial (in the sense that it will serve you insofar as a trivia question) or only has a loose basis in reality. But the man has no fears, no quirks, and no one else to note his lack of personality. “Da Vinci” is a bad film but at least it has Ian McKellan as the only cast member who recognizes the silliness of the story and just has fun with it. Hanks, known for portraying the everyman, is now playing the no man. He’s Wikipedia that knows how to hold his breath.
I will say this for the film: director Ron Howard is one hell of a craftsman. He’s just a thoughtless director. The film looks gorgeous and if anything, it will have a lot of folks making travel plans to visit Vatican City. He knows how to dress his characters and his sets and uses Hans Zimmer’s score to great effect. But it’s all shallow. I don’t need a big message from a summer thriller but Howard has a movie that involves the conflict between science and religion and the best he can come up with are some protestors fighting over stem cell research? It’s one of those “I just present the ideas and I hope that people will walk out of the movie thinking about those ideas,” as if we’re all just mouth-breathing bumpkins who never thought about the reckless speed of science versus the snail’s pace of organized religion.
The film also preserves the book’s idiotic twist ending but I don’t feel I need to describe it because I’m pretty sure I’ve made my point: “Angels & Demons” is a bland, thoughtless, repetitive bore of a movie and while I can admire Howard’s craftsmanship, his skill is meaningless until he learns to approach stories critically and thoughtfully.
Rating —– D minus