Someone at Columbia Pictures has it in for us. Besides the demolition derby of 2012 the studio also recently released the end-of-the-Earth horror comedy Zombieland and Angels & Demons, whose plotters have an admittedly more modest goal—the destruction of the Vatican and a deathblow to the Catholic Church. The filmmakers seemed surprised that the church, still smarting from The Da Vinci Code, would take offense at this. But given the Saw-like relish with which a series of kidnapped cardinals are gorily dispatched in this sequel, it’s not unlikely that nuns smacked around some members of the creative team in their youth.
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was the pass-along book when I vacationed with my in-laws a few years back. It’s a good read for lazy summer days: its historical puzzles are intriguing (if farfetched), “Magdalene theory” makes for good conversation over glasses of white wine, and there are pictures. But I figured it would make for a terrible movie, and I was right. The novel is all exposition and supposition, with paper-thin characters sitting around rooms and chatting esoterically for chapters at a time. I can’t argue with its $758 million worldwide gross in the summer of 2006, except to say that I wasn’t the only one fidgeting in my seat; Angels & Demons mustered $485 million this summer, a sizable drop-off. It didn’t have a prayer of getting my $12.50.
In one of the DVD extras director Ron Howard says the “earnest” quality of Brown’s books attracted him. Giving credit where credit is due he and Da Vinci Code screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (an Oscar winner for Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, a Razzie nominee for another ampersand credit, Batman & Robin) decided to make things less earnest this time, bringing in blockbuster scribe David Koepp (Jurassic Park, etc.) to loosen up the “static” (Howard’s word) character of ace symbologist Robert Langdon and keep the storyline to a swifter-moving timetable.
By and large the fixes work. The plot is set in the here and now, minus draggy digressions to the Knights Templar. The characters go outdoors to stretch their legs in Rome (or, rather, a clever facsimile of the Eternal City, with location footage seamlessly matched to grand sets and CGI). The book Angels & Demons preceded The Da Vinci Code, but the movie is a followup, so sins can be erased—Tom Hanks, thanks be to God, has lost his mullet. And it’s a few minutes shorter, another blessing.
But the curse of implausibility is not so easily removed. The new film finds Langdon up his code-cracking eyeballs as a papal enclave convenes to replace a deceased “progressive” pope. Meanwhile—there are a lot of “meanwhiles” in scripts like this—a vial of antimatter has been stolen from the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN). The apparent culprits are the zealous Illuminati, a long-dormant secret society who have kidnapped the four “preferiti” (the most likely candidates for pope) and are making good on their plan to kill one an hour in the run-up to nuking St. Peter’s Square at a midnight deadline. Enter Langdon, who has to sort out the angels (like church official Ewan McGregor and CERN scientist Ayelet Zurer) from the demons (scowling Swiss Guardsman Stellan Skarsgard and officious cardinal Armin Mueller-Stahl among them) while piecing together clues from drawn from Galileo, Roman statuary and monuments, and the elements.
These Brown adaptations are like the National Treasure pictures for grown-ups, and assuming the world’s still here in 2012 I figure we’ll be getting a film of The Lost Symbol to round out a trilogy. I don’t mind that the plots don’t hold water (Brown is a better researcher than writer, though a very selective one) as long as a certain pace is maintained, which Angels & Demons does. In so doing, however, it tags every thriller cliché there is, then takes a crazy third act leap to catch us off guard. The big finish is solemnly hilarious…trouble is, it doesn’t much involve Hanks, who again takes a backseat to the ancient clues and conspiracy theories. Rather than take charge of the movie, he hosts it, as if his secret desire is to join the ranks of Mark Harmon and David Caruso in CBS mystery potboilers. It’s not the greatest use of A-list star power. (And once more he doesn’t even get to first base with the girl. Perhaps the neutered-seeming Langdon has a secret desire?)
This skeptic was satisfied with the single-disc theatrical edition DVD of Angels & Demons but true believers will want the Blu-ray, which includes an eight-minutes-longer (if by no means better) extended cut. Extras on my runt version are an hour’s worth of making-of featurettes that are as slickly produced as the film, including an interesting session about antimatter from CERN—which, unlike the Vatican, is happy for the plug.