Status: In theaters (opened 5/15/09)
Directed By: Ron Howard
Written By: David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman
Cinematographer: Salvatore Totino
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Armin Mueller-Stahl
This will be a review of Angels & Demons. It’ll start by summarizing the movie’s plot, and then by telling you about how the film very overtly addresses science, religion, and the apparent conflict between the two. Then it’ll move on to talking about the film’s structure and execution. We’ll take a divergence to mention the actors’ performances, and then summarize my feelings on the movie and its screenplay.
This is very much like the experience of watching Ron Howard’s sequel to 2006’s The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s novel. The film is an extremely straightforward A-to-B-to-C journey, which enjoys first telling you what will happen, then showing those events transpiring, and then reflecting upon them with the insight of a junior high book report. It opens with a tried-and-true device: showing us news broadcasts that quickly get us up to speed on what we need to know, informing us of the recent death of the Pope and summarizing the procedure for electing a new one which will form the events that surround the film’s narrative. We are then shown an experiment taking place at the Large Hadron Collider, being undertaken by a physicist named Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer) and a priest-scientist of some sort (Carmen Argenziano). They’re attempting to create antimatter, in order to produce energy and demonstrate the screenwriters’ misunderstanding of current scientific theory. (I think it must also be good at trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.)
The Vatican enlists the help of everybody’s favorite symbologist, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), with a matter that ties these two events together. It seems that somebody claiming to be a modern-day member of the Illuminati has both kidnapped the front-runners for the position of Pope and stolen a large hunk of antimatter, and while the Catholic Cardinals are attempting to elect a new leader, he plans to kill the preferiti one by one and then to detonate the antimatter, annihilating Vatican City in the process. Langdon, of course, immediately recognizes the pattern that will be followed, and explains to both Vittoria and the audience how they will proceed to follow the trail, which they do, exactly as he’s described.
The lengthy second act of Angels & Demons consists of the protagonists running around Rome with various local law enforcement personnel (Italian police, Vatican police, and the Swiss Guard, the latter headed by Stellan Skarsgard). Langdon is really good at figuring out the clues that inform them of where to go next. So good, in fact, that once he gets started he’s never wrong; he says, “Oh, we must need to go here next,” and so they do, and that is the proper place for them to be in order to receive the next clue, just in the nick of time. On one hand this is pretty annoyingly implausible, and the audience doesn’t even have a chance to try to figure things out for themselves along with him. On the other hand it’s a welcome way to expedite the proceedings, acknowledging that the audience wouldn’t have nearly enough information to know how to figure out the clues anyway, so you might as well just come right out and tell them.
Dan Brown has a knack for taking real-world locations and bits of history and stringing them together into a fictional story that feels like it could be grounded in actual historical events, and that is on display here. I have no idea if the 17th-century Italian art, geography of Rome, or Vatican politics that play key parts in the unraveling of the movie’s mystery are made-up or not, but it did a good enough job convincing me that they might be real, and that’s really all that’s needed. When the script ventures outside of this comfort zone, however, its credibility begins to fall apart, particularly when dealing with the aforementioned antimatter contrivance. There are several very forced attempts to reconcile the void that exists between science and religion, punctuated with juvenile speeches on the subject. The worst of these is given by Ewan McGregor’s character, and it’s painful to watch such a good actor have to recite such terrible dialogue; he puts his heart into a ridiculously factitious speech about lightning, which apparently screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman think is a mysterious phenomenon that science is “not mature enough” to explain (in contrast to religion, which we’re told has gained the wisdom to know enough to fear lightning’s awesome power…). Yeah.
If you can stomach such painful attempts at adding depth to what would be better off as a more superficial story, the clue-chasing is enjoyable enough, and Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer approach their leading roles with the right amount of playfulness to keep things light and engaging, while Stellan Skarsgard plays a heel with enough ambiguity to avoid becoming merely a caricature. There’s a major twist ending that comes about in surprisingly natural fashion, though it utilizes the now-clichéd device of replaying an earlier scene from a different perspective in order to forcibly (and somewhat unnecessarily) drive its point home. The twist is followed by a storytelling gimmick that’s a recycled version of the “cut from the gymnastics team” gag that Koepp previously employed in his Lost World screenplay (with gymnastics ability swapped out for helicopter piloting talent in this case). It works here, but the cheap writing trick is annoying, especially since it’s not the first time the same writer has used it.
I fear, though, that I’ve made this movie sound a lot worse than it is. While its screenplay is gimmicky, its production is polished and its execution is more or less solid. It’s a movie that’s most enjoyable if you attempt to believe it when it tries to convince you that it’s smart, rather than expecting all of its explanations to make sense and satisfy any sort of genuine intellectual curiosity. There’s a lot of information revealed along the way, though nothing that most reasonable adults would mistake for authentic disclosures of fact, but it does serve to drive a compelling story. Employing talented actors throughout helps the film to overcome its sometimes-cheesy dialogue, and the deeply-rooted historical basis of its central mystery likewise is able to overshadow some ill-conceived philosophical diversions. And hey, if nothing else, that antimatter serves yet another purpose that I haven’t yet mentioned: providing an excuse to show off what state-of-the-art computer graphics can do when given a big enough budget. Just don’t try to fully understand them, because after all, CGI is still an immature field, so it can probably only be explained by God.