Much ado – about nothing, if you ask us – has been made about “Angels & Demons,” Dan Brown’s prequel to his worldwide smash “The Da Vinci Code,” on the grounds that the book is, like its predecessor, a full-on assault on Christianity. The truth is that the only assault the moviegoers will experience while watching the movie is the one on their gag reflex. This is a gruesome PG-13 movie, like “Da Vinci” with Jigsaw as the villain. Fortunately, the movie’s brisk pacing allows them to gloss over the movie’s shortcomings before the audience catches on. Fans of the book, however, will shake their heads when the credits roll. It’s well made, but five more minutes of back story would have done wonders.
The story begins when symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) receives a request from the Vatican – with whom he has a strained relationship, to say the least – to help them with a small problem. The Pope has suddenly died, and the four cardinals that were most likely to succeed him have been abducted by the Illuminati, an ages-old foe of the Catholic Church. The church is told that one cardinal will die every hour on the hour, and at the top of the fifth hour the kidnapper will detonate a highly volatile container filled with anti-matter, recently stolen from the CERN particle lab in Geneva and potent enough to wipe Vatican City off the map. Langdon, being a man of science rather than a man of faith, receives equal parts resistance and assistance from the church, but as he comes ever closer to determining the location of the next murder, he begins to suspect that the Vatican is less concerned about solving the case than they are about covering their tracks.
How about that: I wrote a plot synopsis and only mentioned one character. That’s very telling, actually. The lovely Ayelet Zurer plays a CERN scientist who assists Langdon with the occasional Latin translation and molecular exposition – and good Lord, is this movie stuffed to the gills with exposition – but she disappears halfway through the movie and is gone for what feels like an hour. Stellan Skarsgård is the head of the Swiss Guard assigned to protect the Pope, though his primary role in the movie is to manufacture conflict for Langdon. Lastly, there is Armin Mueller-Stahl, the benevolent cardinal faced with the task of finding a new Pope while his Holiness’ most worthy successors are being brutally murdered. These people don’t play roles as much as serve a purpose. That’s just how Dan Brown’s books work.
At least you can count on Ron Howard to make it look spectacular – especially the Big Bang shot towards the end – though he stages a needlessly showy shot during the supercollider sequence. Hanks makes Langdon a lot more watchable than he otherwise would be, but his presence here is a much better use of his star power than it is his acting prowess. Screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman also excised a few pieces of the story that would have, um, illuminated key information for those who haven’t read the book. The bad guy has motive, but you won’t find out what it is by watching this movie.
It’s understandable that studios want to acquire the rights to the latest best-seller in order to adapt it into what they hope will be an equally successful movie, but some books just don’t translate well from page to screen, and Dan Brown’s books are a good example of that. He’s a good researcher and keeps his stories cooking, but the lack of character development leads to movies featuring a whole bunch of talking by people you couldn’t care less about. That “Angels and Demons” proves to be watchable in spite of this is to Howard’s credit, but if he and Hanks are smart, they won’t stick around for the next installment.(3 / 5)
This originally ran May 15, 2009 on Bullz-Eye.com.