Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books (at least the two I’ve read, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons) were incredibly poor pieces of pop literature that nevertheless read like can’t-miss Hollywood blockbusters. Inexplicably, Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code was an even worse film that took the condescending and unbelievable source far too seriously, providing a dark, sluggish ride almost completely devoid of fun.
Howard still doesn’t have the right feel for the material, but Angels & Demons is a considerably better film. It’s still incredibly dark – shot mostly at night, with a plot device that turns off all the lights out in most scenes – and we’re still just watching Tom Hanks’ Langdon solve the mysteries instead of solving them alongside him. But the pacing is completely fixed, and despite a runtime of almost two-and-a-half hours the film flies by.
Brown’s book was actually written before The Da Vinci Code, but Howard’s Angels & Demons seems to have been conceived as a sequel, rather than a prequel, with vague references to the previous film.
A mullet-less Hanks returns as Professor Robert Langdon, recruited to help Vatican police search for the Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society and enemy of the Catholic Church who have apparently resurfaced. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer stars as Vittoria Vetri, an Italian particle physicist for CERN, who have just created volatile antimatter – and promptly had it stolen.
Backstory: the Catholic pope has died, leaving the camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) temporarily in charge of the Vatican while cardinals gather to elect a new pope and a massive crowd builds outside, waiting for the white smoke that signals a new Catholic leader.
But the four prominent cardinals considered to be possible successors have each been kidnapped, with an apparent Illuminati threat declaring that each of them will be killed on the hour leading up to midnight, when a bomb (the antimatter) will detonate and destroy Vatican City.
With the discovery of an Illuminati ambigram, symbologist Langdon is flown in from Cambridge to assist, despite some “bad blood” between him and the Church and opposition from Swiss Guard Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård). Given access to the Vatican archives, he discovers clues in an ancient Galileo text that outline a trail to Illuminati headquarters. With Vetri in tow, we follow him in a connect-the-dots quest across Rome that unlocks ages-old mysteries.
Unfortunately, we’re not so involved in the quest; like Da Vinci Code, we’re just watching Langdon follow the clues, never given enough information to solve them ourselves. And if you are in possession of the relevant info about Vatican City and Rome, Galileo and Raphael and Bernini, particle physics and ambigrams, you’ll laugh this junk off the screen.
But you’ll still have fun doing so, as we breeze through the proceedings without stopping for breath; unlike Da Vinci, we rarely have the time to consider all these improbable events.
Howard has a tighter control of his ship this time around, but Hans Zimmer’s electric, pulsating Italian giallo score seals the deal. The music, which sometimes recalls Goblin and their work for director Dario Argento (Suspiria in particular), is an absolutely perfect match for Howard’s dark and misguided material, and turns the film into something entirely different from the improbable novel.
The cast, with minimal time for characterization, makes little impact. But that’s a good thing, as I recall disliking the characters played by Hanks and Audrey Tautou in the previous film; not at all here. McGregor hams it up appropriately as the camerlengo.
We’re in a tourist-beset Rome for most of the movie, and the city looks absolutely gorgeous. Despite Howard’s dark-darker-darkest color scheme, cinematography by Salvatore Totino makes wonderful use of the locations. Costumes and set design are impeccable.
This is far better treatment than the source material deserves; Brown’s books read as something akin to the National Treasure movies, and the condescending tone leaves them unsuccessful even on that level. The more fantastic elements of Brown’s novel, like Langdon’s daring helicopter escape and artificial insemination involving the pope, would have played out just fine in a campy version of the film closer in spirit to the source. But they’ve been excised completely here.
When reading Brown’s books, you have that feeling of ‘this may be an awful novel, but damn, I can picture the movie already.’ Not a good movie, mind you, but a movie anyway. Howard has not attempted to make that movie; instead, he’s twice attempted to make good movie out of these impossible sources. One was an unquestioned failure. But I think he’s just about succeeded here.