2/22/2012

Movie review: Angels & Demons

Since The Da Vinci Code (book version) came out in 2003, everybody and their mother has tried to jump on the cryptic thriller bandwagon. The same formula has shown up on TV (The Librarian series), movies (National Treasure series), and, of course, a multitude of books by other authors (author Dan Brown will finally be releasing his follow-up book this fall). There's so much riff raff cluttering the pop culture scene that it's hard to tell one from the next.

All of this is bad news for Angels & Demons, the de facto movie sequel to 2006's The Da Vinci Code (even though the Angels book came out first, in 2000). For one, it's hard to get excited about another film like this after all that other material. Also, the majority of pleasure in these types of stories, in book-form, is the step-by-step deciphering of the plot's mysteries. The inherent nature of film is to skip steps in order to keep momentum going, which paradoxically mutes that thrill of discovery.

That doesn't mean that director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks don't give it the ol' college try, though. Hanks is back as Harvard professor Robert Langdon, a symbologist who has an innate skill of being able to decode ancient texts and pictographs at the drop of a hat. After greatly offending the Catholic Church with his whole “Jesus isn't divine” shtick in Code, the Vatican comes calling when it appears that an old enemy of the Church, the Illuminati, are kidnapping their cardinals (as in holy men, not birds).

Pensive is always the best look for a symbologist.
Pensive is always the best look for a symbologist.
Since the M.O. of the Illuminati is to use words that can be read forward and backward (or right-side up and upside-down, depending on your perspective), Langdon is reluctantly brought in to help. Also along for the ride is physicist Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), who works at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and who just so happened to create a batch of antimatter. Antimatter is that pesky stuff that not only brings the whole religion vs. science debate to a head, but also happens to be highly explosive (as in nuclear volatile). Naturally, it's perfect for someone with a grudge against the Catholic Church, and it's promptly swiped and used to threaten to blow Vatican City to kingdom come.

Langdon quickly posits that they have to follow an antediluvian path in order to find the four kidnapped cardinals, who the Illuminati have promised to kill every hour on the hour. This sets off a mad dash through Rome to find churches with artwork by Bernini that will hold the clue to their next destination. Unfortunately, the dash is made even madder by the fact that even though Langdon has a police escort nearly everywhere he goes, they always manage to inconveniently show up just a couple of minutes before each deadline is set to expire.

"It's okay, I'll protect you. Here, get a little closer."
"It's okay, I'll protect you. Here, get a little closer."
Several clichés must be forgiven in order to make Angels & Demons an enjoyable experience. Though beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive, Zurer's Vetra is the sexiest physicist since Denise Richards' Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough. And following his pairing with Audrey Tautou's Sophie Neveu in The Da Vinci Code, Langdon has got to be the luckiest symbologist in the world. More egregious than that is the nebulous nature of good vs. evil employed here. Suffice it to say that the intentions of most of the characters are easy to ascertain, no matter how they appear on the surface.

Hanks is always a welcome presence on movie screens, even if it's to appear in standard-issue fare as this. Thankfully shorn of his unfortunate mini-mullet from the first film, he's free to bring his natural gravitas to the role, and since there's never a question of his authority or intelligence, mission accomplished. The supporting players, including Ewan McGregor as the Camerlengo of the Vatican and Stellan Skarsgard as the head of the Swiss Guard, all do competent jobs, but none of them stand out.

Angels & Demons has its moments, but can't overcome the glut of similar stories that have come before it. In a world with so many copycats, the original can't help but be devalued.

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