Angels & Demons
by M. Faust
For years, movie buffs’ standard rejoinder to the statement, “Sequels are never as good as the original” has been The Godfather Part II.
Well, move over Vito. If ever there was a sequel that blew away its predecessor, Angels and Demons is it.
Please don’t give me any guff about how this is actually a “prequel,” based as it is on a Dan Brown novel published in 2000, three years before The Da Vinci Code. In fact, don’t talk to me at all about Dan Brown. I haven’t read his books, even though a surprising number of people have. (It’s not that people don’t read anymore: It’s what they’re reading that troubles the literati. But that’s an argument for another day.)
Those of you who read the books can discuss among yourselves whether or not the movie is a faithful adaptation. I’m simply here to tell you that not only is Angels and Demons a huge improvement over the dull, stodgy Da Vinci movie, it’s a first-rate summer blockbuster by any standard. Think of it as National Treasure Goes to Rome.
Why it’s so much better is the question. Star Tom Hanks certainly has a better haircut, but that can only count for so much. Both films have the same director, Ron Howard. Maybe the key is that while scriptwriter Akiva Goldman worked on both films, here he was aided by David Koepp, who in the last 20 years has shown more of a knack for this kind of stuff: Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible.
Or maybe they collectively just decided to take the whole thing less seriously. The Da Vinci Code was so drearily solemn that you would have thought they were adapting the Bible itself. (Lord knows it was anticipated with as much overwrought trepidation as anything since the Y2K virus.)
Angels and Demons, by contrast, is a roller-coaster ride with, I believe, a firm sense of tongue-in-cheek. Despite some recent sniffiness from the real Vatican, there is nothing in it that any devout Christian could find objectionable. (Unless you have a problem with casting Ewan MacGregor as a priest.) It’s a chase thriller in which the main action is set in a single evening, demonstrating that more scriptwriters might want to go back and check out Aristotle to see if he has any other hints as useful to screenwriters as his “unity of time.”
So many of you have read the book that it seems unnecessary to sketch out the plot, but for the record it finds the Vatican calling on Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon to do what he does best, make sense out of a lot of arcane clues and dusty historical references to discover where a group of kidnapped cardinals are being held before they are murdered. This turns out to be the least of their problems when Langdon discovers a plot to destroy the entire Vatican.
To be honest, at some point I surrendered to the breathlessly paced action and stopped paying a whole lot of attention to the plot. It’s all laid out anyway in three lines of dialogue: an early newscast describing the “sudden death of this progressive and beloved Pope”; a scientist at the Hadron supercollider in Switzerland complaining, “It was never meant to generate anti-matter!”; and the third well, that would be giving away too much. Suffice to say that the rest of the film falls into place when a major character delivered a bit of offhand biographical information in a chat with our hero. (Rule of thumb: A movie like this has no wasted dialogue.)
With its discussions of the historical conflict of faith versus science, and the tendency of repression to foster radicalization, the movie keeps threaten to become relevant, but never really does. It’s really all just window dressing.
Better to enjoy the bits of trivia that gets lobbed at you on a regular basis, like Pope Pius IX’s obsession with castrating all the Vatican’s statues. (Of course, assuming that that little tidbit came from Dan Brown’s novel, I suppose one shouldn’t take it at face value. From what I skimmed of the 2,279 reviews of his book posted on Amazon, Brown’s accuracy with hard facts is not to be trusted.)
Certainly Hanks seems to be having a good time. You gotta love that little pause when, describing the history of the science-over-religion cult the Illuminati, he drones “The church began to hunt them down, drove them underground…into a secret society.”
The cast is filled with great European hams like Stellan Skarsgård and Armin Mueller-Stahl (who in his final scene paraphrases nothing less than Deborah Kerr’s closing line from Tea and Sympathy).
And there’s a nicely propulsive Hans Zimmer score, peppered with violin solos by Joshua Bell, to keeps it all chugging along. (Inevitably Catholic ponderousness is signaled by one of those tympani-driven booming faux Latin choirs that you never actually hear in any Catholic church I’ve ever been to. If you know of one with music like that let me know—I might even start going again. It sure would wake you up on a Sunday morning!)
Watch the trailer for Angels and Demons
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