Sony // 2009 // 146 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 23rd, 2009
The holiest event of our time. Perfect for their return.
After the success of their 2006 film adaptation of the inexplicably popular The Da Vinci Code, Ron Howard, Tom Hanks and Dan Brown are back for more with Angels & Demons. It's science versus religion in a steel cage match to the finish.
Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump) returns from the events of the 2006 hit The Da Vinci Code (the book was written and took place first; the movie after) to solve more religious puzzles and crack more elaborate codes. This time, a canister of antimatter developed by a beautiful scientist (Ayelet Zurer, Vantage Point) has been stolen and four cardinals (the "preferiti," or next in line to succeed the recently-deceased Pope) have been kidnapped inside Vatican City. It seems an underground religious sect known as the "Illuminati" intend to execute one cardinal every hour and lay waste to Vatican City by midnight when the antimatter detonates. It's up to Langdon -- with some help from the lady scientist and Camerlengo (temporarily in charge following the loss of the Pope) Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor, A Life Less Ordinary) to solve the incredibly elaborate clues buried deep in the Vatican's religious texts to save the cardinals and recover the canister before world's center of Catholicism is destroyed.
I was no big fan of Ron Howard's 2006 film The Da Vinci Code, which I didn't find bad so much as hopelessly uninteresting. The movie featured zero characterization, managed to make Tom Hanks dull and layer on one coincidence and contrivance on top of another, wrapping it all in a lot of self-important jargon and exposition. What should have been a thrilling and pulpy treasure-hunt film was bogged down in artificial weight and seriousness.
So, for what it's worth, allow me to say that I liked Howard's 2009 follow-up Angels & Demons better than its predecessor. It's a darker, edgier and overall tighter film that at least tries to ramp up the suspense through the use of several ticking clock devices; Hanks has to save one cardinal an hour (including one scene that's almost reminiscent of a scene from a Saw film) and eventually put a stop to the destruction of Rome. There's still pretty much zero characterization (even Hanks' single character trait from The Da Vinci Cod -- he's claustrophobic! -- has gone away, though he is a bit more of an intellectual snob), but the movie is generally more entertaining than Da Vinci. For a summer blockbuster, it at least tries to appear intelligent, with characters constantly giving little lessons and explaining various religious and historical concepts to one another -- that is, until the end when it just becomes about things blowing up.
But therein lies the problem of Angels & Demons: try as it might to be compelling, it's essentially a movie about people standing around and delivering exposition. The Da Vinci Code suffered from the same problem, and Angels makes an improvement by punctuating all that exposition with a chase scene, but it's all too silly to work. Too much of the plot (a term I'm using a little loosely) depends heavily on Hanks' recalling esoteric information about Catholic history or, even worse, just flat out happy coincidence (walking through a square and stumbling across just the stone with just the carving he needs!). I supposed I can accept that Hanks is able to do most of what he does, but doing so would require me to accept that somewhere exists a group of Catholics with an ungodly (if you'll pardon the expression) amount of free time on their hands, establishing elaborate clues that adhere religiously (if you'll pardon the expression) to tradition and history. National Treasure asked us to buy the same ridiculous premise, and while that film isn't very good I could at least argue that it knows just how silly it all is. Angels & Demons has no sense of humor about itself. It's too "important."
I can't fault the film entirely for these issues; while I haven't read Dan Brown's novel, I have to assume much of it is there on the page (though I could probably accept those mouthfuls of exposition more easily in a novel, which allows more for background information and little digressions). But Ron Howard -- who can make good movies that are workmanlike and commercial and who can make forgettable, bland movies that are workmanlike and commercial, but who has no real style of his own (not having a style appears to be his style) -- refuses to treat the source material with anything but gravity and importance, and that just makes it all feel sillier in the wrong way. Maybe the subject matter has him scared off; in the interest of not offending anyone associated with the Catholic church (I managed to tune out most of the buzz when the film was released, but I don't think he succeeded) he set out to make a movie that takes everything deadly seriously. It's a really tricky task trying to make Angels & Demons work as a movie, and I don't think Ron Howard and his screenwriters David Koepp (yay!) and Akiva Goldsman (no!) were the right guys for the job.
While Angels & Demons may be rife with problems, it does make for a fantastic-looking Blu-ray courtesy of Sony. Viewers have the choice of watching the 138-minute theatrical cut or a longer, 146-minute "extended" cut that adds in several character bits and a good deal of violence (there's no way the extended cut could receive a PG-13 rating). The length didn't really bother me, and the additional violence gives the film a darker, harder edge -- that's the version I'd recommend watching. The 2.40 1080p transfer is gorgeous, offering incredibly rich color (check out the robes in the opening scenes) and terrific detail of the film's opulent settings. Ron Howard's direction is pretty workmanlike overall, but the production design and overall look of the movie is its strongest suit and Blu-ray does right by that. And though the movie has a number of dark sequences (characters dressed in black against a nearly all-black background), the black levels are always solid and detail remains strong throughout. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is equally impressive, keeping dialogue clean in the front channels while providing an immersive experience; a number of sequences (several involving helicopters) offer a real kick to your system. The only drawback is the occasional oppressiveness of Hans Zimmer's choral-heavy score.
Though the Blu-ray of Angels & Demons comes packed with extras, I'd be lying if I said I found many of them involving or more than repetitive. Essentially, it's just a series of "making-of" featurettes that break the movie down into several components: you get "Characters in Search of a True Story," which covers the acting; "Writing Angels & Demons," which profiles screenwriters David Koepp (yay!) and Akiva Goldsman (boo!) as they adapt Brown's book; "Cern: Pushing the Frontiers of Knowledge," which deals with the particle collider and science stuff showcased in the movie, "This is an Ambigram," covering the brands used and two standard making-of pieces: "Rome Was Not Built in a Day" and "Angels & Demons: The Full Story." All of the featurettes are located on the second disc, and I wish the folks at Sony could have found a way to incorporate the pieces into one comprehensive documentary (with a "play all" feature; the pieces could still have been broken out), as there may have been less overlap and a better streamlining of the material. Also available is a "Movie IQ" trivia track and a digital copy of the film.
I didn't hate Angels & Demons, but that's hardly glowing praise. Everyone gives it their best, but no one seems able to crack the problems inherent in turning Dan Brown's novel into a movie that works on its own; it's got to do more than please fans of the book. Still, the Blu-ray offers a very handsome presentation of the film. What we're left with is a satisfying disc of a not-very-satisfying movie.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 146 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Trivia Track
* Digital Copy
* Official Site