Sunday, May 17, 2009

ANGELS & DEMONS

Review: Angels & Demons
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In Dan Brown's bestselling, church-rattling book series, “Angels & Demons” (a treasure hunt that unfolds across Rome and amidst a war between religion and science) precedes “The Da Vinci Code” (a treasure hunt that unfolds across Paris and unearths a discrepancy between religion and – more or less – art). In the opportunistic land of Hollywood, this chronological detail didn't fly, since “Da Vinci” became the (much) more profitable installment and therefore the (much) more tempting text to cash in on and adapt first. In the dark confines of the theater, the sequential switcheroo doesn't make a lick of a difference, since both conspiratorial stories operate independently of one another. The link is Robert Langdon, Brown's Harvard symbologist hero played in both films with well-read Regular Joe agility by Tom Hanks. One of the reasons that “Angels,” also directed by “Da Vinci” helmer Ron Howard, is better than its cinematic predecessor is that Langdon's backstory and idiosyncrasies – claustrophobia, swimming for exercise, Mickey Mouse wrist watch – have already been introduced, thus shaving off the long-winded explanations of at least one narrative element. Unfortunately, in a movie that throws more elaborate, far-fetched data at the audience than an entire season of “MythBusters,” one trim ain't enough.

While Brown may not be the greatest wordsmith, no one can accuse him of not doing his homework. His books are bursting with historical facts and controversial theories that, on the page, coalesce to create complex thrillers that compel and provoke. Effectively communicating that same discourse in a visual medium, however, is another story, and despite the efforts of skilled screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, “Angels,” like “Da Vinci,” packs way too much information into its feature-length running time and becomes terribly verbose as a result.


The movie follows Langdon to Vatican City where, in the thick of electing the next Pope (the last one suffered a fatal stroke), the Catholic church needs the American professor to decipher the clues of a cryptic threat from the Illuminati, an ancient, Vatican-hating brotherhood of scientists who've kidnapped and promised to kill the four cardinals most favored to inherit the papacy. You see, the Illuminati – whom, the text purports, included bigwigs like Galileo and Bernini – aren't too fond of how the Vatican has attempted to quell scientific progress throughout history (such as murdering scientists), and they're now determined to literally destroy the Catholic epicenter once and for all. Enter Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer of “Munich”), a particle physicist from the real-life Swiss research facility CERN who's partially responsible for an incredible breakthrough – the production of antimatter, a made-from-nothing “God particle” that may represent the bridge between science and faith. Highly unstable, the antimatter has fallen into the hands of the Illuminati, and unless Langdon and Vetra can solve the puzzle and find the volatile substance in time, the Illuminati will use it to blow Vatican City to Kingdom Come.

The first half of “Angels” is unforgivably talkative, desperate to get the viewer up to speed on the many key points of Brown's densely researched tome as quickly as possible. The crash course I just gave on antimatter isn't much less than what's offered in the film, and it's delivered during a sequence that's also busy introducing skeptical Swiss Guard Commander Richter (an un-engaging Stellan Skarsgård), figuring out how to find those cardinals and showcasing Langdon's conveniently-timed scholarly epiphanies. It's not that the material is confusing, per se, it's that it's too vast and requires too much suspension of disbelief to be taken seriously in compressed form. And you can forget about character development – this movie doesn't have time for it. Though dexterously played by Zurer, Vetra is simply a woman with a title and a profession: she's given no human qualities to make her relatable or sympathetic. Fine actors Ewan McGregor and Armin Mueller-Stahl provide noble flesh as acting church head Camerlengo Patrick McKenna and old-school Cardinal Strauss, respectively, but the preoccupied script never allows the characters to be anything more than skin-deep. Langdon is in good shape, of course, this being his second outing and all, and Hanks, who finds the fulcrum on which to balance the book nerd with the bro-man, gives the audience something to latch on to. "Angels" needs a Tom Hanks – an everyman to bring its relentless, implausible jargon down to Earth.


The second half is much more successful for, once the board is set, the pieces can finally move. The most fun to be had in these movies – and in Brown's books – is following the clues and solving the mystery, and Howard does a far better job staging the action this time around. Salvatore Totino's inexplicably choppy, handheld camerawork is a wee bit distracting, but there's plenty of great scenery, as “Angels” visits many of the hottest sites in Rome and Vatican City (including the Pantheon, the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Castel Sant'Angelo). Within that scenery, Howard presents some truly intense moments, namely those that surround the (potential) slayings of the four kidnapped cardinals. There's also an awe-inspiring, surprisingly beautiful bit set in and above St. Peter's Square, wherein the fate of the Vatican is decided and Howard's considerable skills as a filmmaker are best exhibited. (His skills are less evident when Hans Zimmer's laughably thunderous score invades, imbuing “Angels” with an “isn't this exciting?” self-importance it hasn't exactly earned.)

It's well-known that the Christian right is none-too-thrilled with Brown's stories, whether they're topping the New York Times bestseller list or the weekend box-office grosses. Brown's subject matter, which often challenges the fabric and traditions of the Catholic church, tends to shake up those unwilling to explore what truths may exist outside what's written in the Bible. Theologically, “Da Vinci,” with its detailed implications regarding Christ's bloodline, spawned more controversy (and thus, more interest). Dramatically, “Angels,” with its core story about the physical destruction of the Vatican and all its historical and artistic assets, is more intriguing because there's more at stake. But religious zealots needn't fear about either of the screen adaptations of Brown's work: both of them prove but one thing, and it isn't Brown's hot-button hypotheses – it's that his books shouldn't be made into films.

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