Angels & Demons Review – An Escape From Summer Escapism” width=”560″/>
Had I not read Dan Brown’s novel or seen the first movie in the franchise, I might have thought that Angels & Demons was an outrage: A lumbering, unwieldy bore in the middle of an otherwise lively summer season. Having in fact read the novel, and seen The Da Vinci Code, I have a somewhat more positive perspective on the sequel. After all, virtually anything can be improved by stripping it of Brown’s sub-grade school prose. And, with a ticking anti-matter time bomb at its center, this movie at least moves, albeit in circles.
If that’s not faint praise, I don’t know what is. Angels & Demons may be a marginal improvement on its predecessor and source material, but at a brain-stabbing 140 minutes, it still reaches levels of tedium that are hard to conceptualize. Continuing the adventures of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) — a sort of bland, dumpy Indiana Jones obsessed with Catholic artifacts — the movie introduces a hot theoretical physicist (Ayelet Zurer) and pits the two against an enemy who threatens to literally destroy the Vatican. It also adds a scifi hook, with talk of anti-matter (you know, the stuff that fuels The Enterprise) and “God particles” and a fanciful scene set at CERN, the site of the infamous Universe-threatening Large Hadron Collider. But it still can’t manage any genuine excitement.
For a bona fide pop culture sensation, it is astonishing how little this franchise has to offer. The characters are paper-thin, without an iota of background or any opportunity to utter a line of dialogue not crucial to the plot. The plots, in turn, are mechanical, contrived, and stubbornly uninteresting. The Langdon series is supposedly renowned for the puzzles that punctuate its stories, but in Angels & Demons the puzzles consist almost entirely of angel sculptures pointing at things. (Hell, I could solve those. “This way, everybody!”) There are feints at a progressive message — blind adherence to traditional authority bad, harmony between science and religion good — but it’s reduced to a throwaway line in an out-of-place speech.
It’s actually kind of entertaining, in a sad way, to watch intrepid director Ron Howard struggle against all of this. Howard is usually more than capable behind the camera, as he has demonstrated time and again, most recently with last year’s Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon. But here, he is helpless — reduced to generating suspense by suddenly cranking up dramatic choral chants on the soundtrack as SUV’s race across the Vatican, or whatever. Howard’s workmanlike competence is a boon to a good story, but this material turns it into another instrument of oppression.
The director is working with Akiva Goldsman, one of Hollywood’s highest-paid and least-talented screenwriters, also responsible for Howard’s phenomenally overrated A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man as well as The Da Vinci Code. His calling cards are tons of laborious exposition and not a hint of nuance; I don’t think that a character in a Goldsman-penned screenplay has ever said a single interesting thing. Every other line of dialogue in Angels & Demons is clunky explanation, so it fits right into Goldsman’s filmography. Curiously, David Koepp — one of Hollywood’s best mainstream screenwriters (think Jurassic Park, Panic Room and Spider-Man) — is also credited here; I would never have guessed.
When I ask people what they see in this stuff, they invariably cite escapist entertainment — two hours of mindless fun. I am as big a fan of escapism as anybody, but The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons bore me to tears. I get particularly disappointed when people claim to be offended by these books and movies, calling them blasphemous. Blasphemy should never be this dull.