Movie review: Angels and Demons pits science and faith against pulp

21 May

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cinemagrade c+

Ron Howard’s adaptation of Angels and Demons might be based off of a Dan Brown novel and linked to the controversial The Davinci Code, but the film itself couldn’t be more tame. I never saw Code because of the film’s absurd premise that married blasphemy with popcorn thriller–no thanks. Add to that the fact it was poorly recieved and that Tom Hanks seemed to be letting his toupee do all the heavy acting and you had a perfectly crafted ball of “I could care less.” Now along come the follow-up adventures of Robert Langdon and I was surprised to find myself intrigued by the trailers. The film itself is a fun little bit of escapism, eschewing anything heretical or antagonistic and instead focusing on jaunts into underground tombs, perusal of old libraries and sequences where dark matter threatens to swallow the Vatican if Tom Hanks can’t stop it. It’s all pulp and no edge, and strangely that’s the biggest problem.

Ron Howard does a nice job of making an old-school matinee thriller with great set pieces, tons of atmosphere and a few action scenes that do the work of raising the adrenaline. On top of the film’s handsome design and straightforward pacing, it focuses most of it’s energy on art, architecture and research. It makes the librarian tactics of Langdon as appealing in their way as Indiana Jones’ punch and kick method of info gathering. I imagine that Angels and Demons will have the most impact on dvd, where it can play a sunday afternoon after dinner and tantalize with it’s historical head-scratchers and it’s Six-Degrees of Renaissance Painters game trivia. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t have much value in andof itself but can inspire art gallery outings, interest in historical writings, and maybe even a trip to Rome. It’s more of a travelogue of ideas than a fully formed story.

The plot? Well, it boils down to a rogue faction known as the Illuminati(dude, it’s ALWAYS the Illuminati) striking out at the Catholic Church at a time when the Pope has passed on and the current power in the Vatican is being overseen by the Camerlengo, played gamely by Ewan McGregor. The pope himself was actually murdered by the order and they have broken into the Hadron Collidier and have plans to unleash its fury at the end of a killing spree that will claim the four preferati(potential candidates for the Papacy) and throw the Church into darkness. All of this is being done to avenge themselves for persecution that their ancient order of scientists faced at the hands of the Vatican. Langdon, the Camerlengo and token femal sidekick Vittoria Vetra, who was working at CERN when the Illuminati stole the anti-matter, are now racing against the clock to uncover the clues hidden around Rome and in the Vatican’s dark past. As in most movies like this, everything comes down to big pulse-pounding conclusion that requires the characters to think fast while stopping to deliver helpful speeches about historical events.

Most of all that works. It’s exciting and I had a good time while I watched it, but there isn’t so much as a single bit of distinguishing character work for anyone who isn’t Langdon and even in his case, it amounts to only a few scenes. No matter, the spice of the film actually comes from it’s propping up of science and faith as mysterious, enticing and sort of wondrous. Most might think Brown’s work is anti-Church, and that might be true, but it relies on the mystique and tradition of Catholicism for its power and atmosphere. The same is true for the realm of scientific discovery, which could only be adored more if this were directed by Spielberg. Howard displays the same sense of reverance for the lab at CERN as he does for the church’s  hallowed cathedrals. And all of that makes sense. The intersection at the heart of the story is the one between faith and science. Instead of drawing out that tension and conflict, as the far superior Knowing recently did, Angels and Demons only uses it as window dressing between chase scenes.

Angels and Demons makes for a perfectly swell matinee feature that will likely draw an older audience who might be tired of stuff like Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s just a shame that the movie doesn’t work on any other level than as an A to B rote thriller. It has a compelling centerpiece, but it doesn’t even reach the cohesiveness of National Treasure. The movie’s best scene takes place early on when the Camerlengo asks Langdon if he believes in God. Langdon says he is an academic and that he believes it is beyond his mind to determine the existence of God. When the Camerlengo questions what he feels in his heart, Langdon remarks that “faith is a gift, and that his “heart is not worthy.” It’s an interesting scene, and one whose complexities could have been useful throughout the film. I would have gladly given up a few scenes of Langdon thumbing through books or escaping ridiculous death scenarios for its inclusion.

 

 

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One Response to “Movie review: Angels and Demons pits science and faith against pulp”

  1. Cello May 21, 2009 at 5:08 pm #

    I agree, this will make for a good matinee but nowhere near the popcorn fun a mindless big budget movie will bring. Great write up 🙂

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