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 V.18 No.20 | May 14 - 20, 2009 

Film Review

Angels & Demons

Papal murder mystery actually more exciting than decoding Da Vinci’s paintings

“I found the antimatter. Somebody go get Mr. Spock.”
“I found the antimatter. Somebody go get Mr. Spock.”

Angels & Demons

Directed by Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgrd

Honestly—even in a fictional world where novelists, mentalists, pastors, caterers, librarians, chefs, ancient Romans and cats are called upon to solve mysteries—Dan Brown’s character Prof. Robert Langdon is among the more preposterous amateur sleuths. He’s a Harvard symbologist, which makes him uniquely suited to solve mysteries in which a member of the baffled police shouts, “Mon Dieu, this man has been murdered! Somebody get me an expert on poetic and artistic symbolism. I suspect an archetype may have been involved.”

So far, Dan Brown himself has only managed to conjure up two situations in which Mr. Langdon has proved useful. But since those situations are 2000’s Angels & Demons and 2003’s The Da Vinci Code, I suspect the author isn’t too concerned.

Since the runaway international smash novel that was The Da Vinci Code spawned a runaway international smash movie (starring Tom Hanks), it was only a matter of time before Hollywood went to the well again, reviving Langdon in the mega-anticipated sequel/prequel/whatever Angles & Demons.

Like The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons boasts Brown’s patented mixture of 25 percent historical research and 75 percent pure, undiluted bullpucky. This time around, Langdon (played again by Tom Hanks) is summoned to Vatican City. There’s trouble in the Holy See, you see. The Pope has just passed away, leaving a congress of cardinals to ponder their next leader. Unfortunately, the top four candidates for the position have been kidnapped by an ancient and mysterious organization known as the Illuminati. According to Brown, the Illuminati are a secret cabal of scientists who have been at war with the Catholic Church for centuries, ever since the Middle Ages when the church had large numbers of them dragged out into the streets and burned for heresy. Now, apparently, members of the Illuminati are trying to destroy the church from within. Their dastardly, scientific plan? Murder one cardinal per hour using one of the four prime elements (earth, air, fire, water) and then, at midnight, detonate a bomb made of stolen antimatter, destroying Vatican City (and probably a chunk of Rome along with it).

Only Langdon can find the missing cardinals and the bomb because, well, like pirates and the editors of the Kiddie Fun Pages on the back of the Sunday morning comics, members of the Illuminati just love to leave clues and puzzles in their wake. Using a riddle written by Michelangelo, a bunch of statues carved by Bernini and these things called ambigrams (words that look the same upside down as right-side up) as his guide, Langdon races across Rome with a sexy Italian physicist (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) in tow.

From the get-go, Angels & Demons is quite a bit more absorbing than The Da Vinci Code. It’s still got Brown’s taste for historical hokum (now with scientific mumbo jumbo!), but the stripped-down story and gorgeous backdrops add up to some exciting cinema. It’s basically one big race against the clock with Langdon and Co. trying to stop a ticking bomb before it nukes Rome. But it makes for some breathless momentum. Surgically excising some of the novel’s subplots helps as well. The grisly thematic construction of the Illuminati murders adds some appropriately scary moments. The film does its best to scrape the upper reaches of the PG-13 rating and contains enough shocks to keep audiences awake during its 138-minute runtime. Add to that a bunch of controversial content that the Catholic Church would in no way find kosher, and you’ve got a fast-paced summer thriller that keeps the nerves appropriately jangled. If you can ignore Brown’s general inaccuracies (much less difficult in this story, actually), the biggest complaint is that the ending could have been less preposterous by about 50 percent. It’s not all that different from the book’s wrap-up, but it’s far-fetched and contains a few too many last-minute twists.

Given its mix of action, mystery and general star power, Angels & Demons is poised to fuel Dan Brown and Prof. Robert Langdon well into their next book and movie deal.


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