BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 15, 2009
How do you make a sequel to a blockbuster when the star of your film declines to return for a second go-round? I refer, of course, to Tom Hanks’s hairdo in The Da Vinci Code. Slipshod and plodding though that film was, the mullety muss adorning Hanks’s pate was a source of nearly inexhaustible amusement. I’m unlikely ever to watch the film again, but if I were to, it would be for the hair.
For Angels & Demons, Hanks’s character, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, has returned, but without the mullet, which in the interim evidently detached itself from his scalp, crawled off to some dark corner, and grew up to be Danny McBride. The movie never quite recovers from its loss.
Where The Da Vinci Code concerned itself with a nefarious plot undertaken by the Catholic Church, Angels & Demons tells the story of a plot against the Catholic Church, thereby depriving itself of perhaps a hundred million dollars’ worth of free, controversy-related marketing. Though the Dan Brown novel on which the movie is based predated its billion-selling sibling, it has been lightly re-worked here into a sequel, essentially through the addition of knowing, wary glances between Langdon and Church elders every time their mutual “history” is raised.
Said elders request Langdon’s help in the Vatican City because he (literally) wrote the book on the Illuminati, an ancient, pro-science sect that was driven underground by Church persecution but has now resurfaced in an exceptionally foul mood. In addition to stealing a freshly baked canister of antimatter (a.k.a., the “God particle”) from a local super-collider--yes, this film takes physics as lightly as its predecessor did metaphysics--Illuminati agents have also kidnapped four cardinals. These are the preferiti, the candidates considered most likely to succeed the just-deceased Pope--whom everyone in the movie thinks died of a stroke, but everyone who’s seen a movie will immediately recognize was murdered.
The Illuminati promise to kill one cardinal per hour beginning at 8 p.m. If this weren’t enough, the battery keeping the wad of antimatter stable in its container will wear out exactly one hour after they run out of cardinals, causing an explosion vast enough to annihilate the Vatican and some of surrounding Rome. The only hope is for Langdon and his latest platonic playmate, a physicist named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), to uncover and retrace the “Path of Illumination,” a secret trail upon whose steps the on-the-hour crimes will unfold.
These meticulously scheduled calamities are a rather mixed bag. On the one hand, they give the film an ungainly, episodic gait: Research, research, talk, talk--and then off to Santa Maria del Popolo at 7:59 to try to thwart a murder; more research, research, talk, talk--then off to St. Peter’s at 8:58 to forestall another. On the other hand, the cascading cliffhangers do lend urgency to Ron Howard’s direction, and keep the film from drifting into the dramatic doldrums that regularly hampered The Da Vinci Code. It’s a nice touch, too, that the clues that lead from one destination to the next are often sculptures of angels holding arrows that point the way, giving the whole enterprise the feel of a celestial scavenger hunt.
It’s not all so elevated, of course. The carnal is also well- (one might say over-) represented, though not in an erotic sense: The film’s first murder victim has his eyeball spooned out; the second is stuffed full of dirt; and the third has his lungs pierced such that when Vittoria attempts mouth to mouth, blood sprays from his chest like the innards of an egg being blown empty for Easter. About the only brutalization of the flesh we do not witness is the sight of a man being burned alive--no, scratch that, we get that one too.
Figures emerge to help and hinder Langdon along the way, notably a boyish papal aide (played by a disappointingly wan Ewan McGregor), a grouchy commander of the Swiss Guards (Stellan Skarsgard), and a Cheney-esque cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl, looking as though even he has grown weary of his portraits of avuncular evil). I’ll leave it to viewers to guess which among these men are Not What They Seem, but this being Dan Brown, you know there will be at least one.
For its first three quarters, Angels & Demons is less awful than The Da Vinci Code: unremittingly silly and unexpectedly violent, but better paced and with a cast that seems generally committed to the task at hand. But in its closing laps, Angels & Demons makes up the distance with a series of twists that brutalize science and faith, character and continuity, and anything approximating narrative coherence. No, the film does not conclude with Langdon being elected Pope himself, but, watching the spiraling inanities of the last 20 minutes, one might be forgiven for thinking it would be the next logical step.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.