Sony // 2009 // 146 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // November 24th, 2009
The Holiest Event of Our Time. Perfect for Their Return.
Notice how that tagline, while mysterious, doesn't really generate any suspense? In that sense, it's perfect for this movie.
When Sony bought the film rights to Dan Brown's 2003 The Da Vinci Code, they also bought the rights to Brown's 2000 novel, Angels & Demons. This is known as "hedging your bet." When The Da Vinci Code made megabucks despite its multitude of flaws and its penchant for pogo-sticking across theological minefields, a film version of the previous novel became inevitable. This is known as "milking the cash cow." The same production team brought forth a movie with many of the same flaws as the first movie. Sony now brings us Angels & Demons: Two-Disc Extended Edition. This is known as "a colossal waste of time and talent."
The pope is dead. As the College of Cardinals prepares to enter Conclave to select the new pope, the Preferiti -- the four cardinals considered to be the leading candidates for the Holy See -- are abducted. A cryptic message leads the late pontiff's Camerlegno (Chamberlain), Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting) to send for Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, Philadelphia), still in desperate need of a decent hairstylist. The message suggests the return of Illuminati, a secret society of scientists purged by the Vatican centuries before. Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard, Deep Blue Sea) of the Swiss Guards is, shall we say, a tad skeptical.
Then the other shoe drops. Dr. Vittorio Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, Munich) arrives from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland to announce that someone has stolen a small quantity of antimatter. Making matters yet worse, a video feed shows the canister of antimatter hidden somewhere in the Vatican -- and the battery on the containment field is running down. Langdon realizes that the Illuminati intend to kill the kidnapped cardinals at secret altars to the four major elements (earth, fire, air, and water) and then, at midnight, use the antimatter to destroy Vatican City, the final triumph of science over religion.
Despite the threats and against the pleas of the Camerlegno, Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Eastern Promises), the Dean of the College of Cardinals, insists on continuing with the Conclave, becoming in the absence of the Preferiti a leading candidate for the papacy. Meanwhile, Langdon enters the Vatican Archives to discover clues in the works of Galileo that will identify the locations where the cardinals will be executed. They fail to reckon with the Illuminati's deadly assassin, nor do they fully understand the game being played, even when they discover that the pope's death might be part of the Illuminati's grand revenge...
Several years ago, I read Angels & Demons pretty much in one sitting; it's a decent novel, with an compelling plot, strong historical details, and engaging characters. Precious few of its strengths made the transition to the screen, despite having the film version of The Da Vinci Code as an object lesson. In discussing the lessons learned from the earlier film, producer Brian Grazer commented that in the sequel, "Langdon doesn't stop and give a speech. When he speaks, he's in motion." They just now figured out that people can walk and talk at the same time? They couldn't have picked that up from a few reruns of The West Wing? To be fair, a lot of the problems stem from the novel itself -- talky suspense novels with extensive backstories tend to bog down. Screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsmith took more liberties with the source material this time around to try and mitigate the problems. However, either they fail to recognize sequences that wouldn't work on screen, or Howard just couldn't figure out a way to make them work. The result is a dissipated narrative with just enough major missteps to undermine the proceedings.
The struggle between science and faith drives the entire plot. At least, it should. In the book, Vetra's research partner is both a particle physicist and a priest; his struggles to resolve the conflict drove his research into antimatter as a mean of simulating the moment of Creation -- the Big Bang. In the movie, we see that he's a priest, but we don't find out anything else until the end of the movie, when we learn that he was deeply conflicted about his research and had gone to the pope for guidance. On a practical level, the time to be asking for guidance is before embarking on a multiyear research project. More importantly, eliminating an early discussion of the issues (apart from a perfunctory exchange between Vetra and Commander Richter) keeps the movie from establishing a strong reform movement within the church. Instead, all we get is a passing comment that the dead pope was "progressive" (the television commentary used over the opening scenes could have been used to much greater effect on this front). It's not just the progressive element that gets short shrift; the conservative element of the church also gets the short end of the stick. The only real defense for the separation of religion and science is provided by the bad guy, in the scene in which he's revealed to be crazier than a sack of rabid weasels -- hardly the most credible of defenders. So the conflict on which the movie turns -- a serious issue within religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular -- becomes more of an excuse for the plot, rather than an impetus. Yes, this is a movie, not a philosophical debate, but that doesn't mean that the central issues should be diluted to the point of irrelevance.
The same sloppiness is evident in the Illuminati assassin. The character is rather interesting at first, and has some nice, enigmatic lines. However, there's a key inconsistency -- we see him checking online for his payment, so he's a hired assassin, as opposed to the fanatical albino assassin from The Da Vinci Code. We see ample evidence that he is a consummate and skilled professional. Still, when his part is done, he is dispatched in such a clichéd fashion, telegraphed so blatantly that even the most casual moviegoer can't help but see it coming, that you can't help but snort in disbelief that a professional assassin would fall for such an obvious ploy. It's bad enough to treat a character like an idiot; it's worse to treat the audience like one.
At the beginning of the movie, as Langdon ponders the Vatican's request for assistance, the Vatican's envoy says "Why do you waste time when you have already decided to accompany me?" The implication is that Langdon is attempting to create suspense when there is really no question as to how things are going to play out. Ironically, the same can be said for the movie. Part of the problem is the treasure map plot itself -- when you know that the race to a clue will only lead to another clue and yet another race, it's hard to keep energy levels up. Jon Turtleltaub manages it (to an extent) in the National Treasure movies partly by giving the film a strong sense of humor (which the Langdon movies lack utterly), and partly with a cast that throws themselves completely into their parts. Howard's direction, while often grand, fails to generate any real suspense -- surprising, considering that he managed to wring a ton of suspense in Apollo 13, even though we all knew how that turned out. He keeps Langdon moving, but motion does not equal suspense. Even the sequence in which Langdon almost suffocates in the Vatican archives is strangely devoid of suspense -- the beats are just to regular, the timing too predictable. Pacing finally just turns around and bites the movie in its ass when the bad guy is revealed. The unmasking involves an extended flashback, in which we finally see, via security video, events that previously occurred behind closed doors. It's an extended sequence, but it only take about 15 seconds for the audience to realize what has happened; from that point on, every second that the scene continues is redundant. It's incredibly sloppy writing and editing; the movie stops dead in its tracks, never recovering its momentum.
The other reason for the lack of suspense is that we really don't have anyone to care about. At the end of the movie, Cardinal Strauss tells Langdon, "When you write of us, and you will write of us, may I ask one thing? Write of us...gently. Religion is flawed. But only because man is flawed -- all of man, including me." It's a wonderful moment; Mueller-Stahl plays the scene perfectly as a man who has, late in life, rediscovered humility. Strauss is a minor character, but in that one scene, you sense the character's complexity. In comparison, the other characters are just generic figures. Langdon is more of an active participant in the proceedings, he's more assertive -- but the entire movie consists of him following the tracks of the bad guy, which necessarily makes him reactive rather than proactive -- there's just nothing for Hanks to work with. His job is to identify and follow the clues, nothing more. Ayelet Zurer has the thankless role of being along for the ride so that Langdon can spout exposition in her direction, and so that she can be present for the two or three scenes in which she does something. Camerlegno McKenna's backstory is stripped of everything that was supposed to have motivated him -- the very aspects that made him one of Cardinal Strauss' flawed humans. Even Skarsgard looks like he'd rather be somewhere else. What makes the lack of characterization so frustrating is that in one of the shorts, "Characters in Search of the True Story," the actors talk about their characters in such a way that you get a sense that they understand their characters, that they get their motivations -- but none of it makes it to the screen.
The extended edition contains 18 minutes of extra footage. It would really be nice if these extended editions would regularly include both the original and extended versions via seamless branching; it would make it much easier to determine if the additional footage works or not. The footage is likely spread across the film, with some being used to extend the shootout at Santa Maria della Vittoria.
Video is strong with rich, saturated colors, though images are not quite as crisp as they could have been (possibly due to the extensive CGI work). The surround mix is good, though weighted towards the front channels a bit.
There are a lot of extras, but the highlight is "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day," which documents the various means by which various locations in Rome and the Vatican were reproduced. The others are pretty much standard filler. A minor annoyance is a menu option that says "Angels & Demons Soundtrack." The option suggests an isolated track for Hans Zimmer's score. Instead, you just get a page informing you that the soundtrack is available on Sony CDs. The better extras are on the main disc, so if you are interested in buying the movie, you might consider the single-disc theatrical edition.
I will give them this -- the film looks great. The production team built full-scale sets for sections of St. Peter's Square, the Sistine Chapel, and several other key locations, using CGI to fill in gaps. The results are truly remarkable. In addition, Howard demonstrates a sure hand with various set pieces, such as the opening sequence establishing the pope's death.
When you use the same production team, you generally get more or less the same results. Angels & Demons, like its predecessor, is cut from the same cloth as the National Treasure movies. However, it lacks the sense of breezy fun of the Nick Cage films, and ultimately sinks under the weight of its own self-importance.
Guilty of a total lack of inspiration (divine or otherwise).
Review content copyright © 2009 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 146 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Angels & Demons