Angels & Demons (2009) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and language
Running time: 138 min.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Thure Lindhardt
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: David Koepp, Akiva Goldsman (based on the novel by Dan Brown)
Ron Howard's (Frost/Nixon, Cinderella Man) follow-up to his monumentally successful The Da Vinci Code is the adaptation of the earlier Dan Brown novel featuring the same main character, Robert Langdon, Angels & Demons. Some call it a sequel, as this film came out second and plays as one, and some a prequel, since the book came out first, but for most viewers, it doesn't matter. There's little room in this plot-heavy thriller for such niceties as character history and exposition, except as it relates to the mystery at hand.
Having read many of Dan Brown's books before, I think I will safely say after his two most famous works have been lavishly brought to the big screen that he's not an author that lends well to cinematic translations. My theory is that people don't read his books for the rather rudimentary, step-by-step, point-to-point thriller elements that form the backbone of the story so much as for learning a little bits of history, philosophy, and even fantasy elements that reside above the surface, many of them expounded upon at length in between the plot points. Practically all of that is left out of the films, mostly because it would be boring to have characters continuously explain the backgrounds of various artists, religious figures and landmark locales. Howard isn't one to slow down his thrillers for even a second; there's nothing left for characters to say or do if they aren't trying to figure something out in a short amount of time. At two hours and 20 minutes, it is spent watching lead actors Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson's War, Cars) and Ayelet Zurer (Vantage Point, Munich) rapidly follow clues all over town in order to stop the larger evil plot from unfolding.
The film has a science fiction premise, as the rumored antagonists of the film, known only mysteriously as the Illuminati (Dan Brown's book paints them as religious group persecuted by Rome centuries ago), have stolen a small container containing antimatter from the CERN Large Hadron Collider and are threatening to destroy the headquarters of the holy Catholic Church, Vatican City. Vatican City happens to be hopping with people, due to the recent death of the Pope and the heavily anticipated election of a new successor. A monkey wrench is thrown in the works when the four contenders to the Papacy are kidnapped, and a series of religious clues are being left about that only well-respected Harvard religious symbologist Robert Langdon can shed some light on. Langdon works in cahoots with an Italian scientist, the Camerlengo (McGregor, Stormbreaker), and the Vatican authorities to crack the case, hopping from location to location around Rome, and all the while, the antimatter is set to blow the entire city sky high within mere hours, and the cardinals become sacrificial lambs to the ultimate schemes of the Illuminati.
It's not necessary to have seen The Da Vinci Code to follow the events of Angels and Demons. There's little room for any characterizations or personality touches in either film, so once you know each character's name and occupation, you know all there is to know. Any traces of unique character traits merely exist to service the plot at a later point, which is precisely why there is a predictability inherent in the design of the storyline. It feels like a whole season of TV's "24", sans a character who kicks butt, condensed to just a little over 2 hours in length.
As mentioned previously, the plot supplies all of the action, and that entails mostly finding clues by Galileo to put the protagonists on the right path, while statues and markers point them in the right direction along the way. It's to Howard's credit that he is able to keep the momentum always breathlessly moving forward, but at some point, possibly due to the lengthy run time, you wish for a break in the action in order to have people actually talk to one another in a way that's not just a furthering of the plot or a red herring. When you know that everything you see is of significance, it greatly reduces the chance of being fooled. It also makes the entirety of the film feel like just a time waster, of no importance than to hold your attention with newer, shinier things to marvel at, like a parent trying to pacify their crying baby with whatever objects or sounds are readily available around the house.
Interesting to note that Howard, working in unison with screenwriters David Koepp (Indiana Jones 4, Zathura) and Akiva Goldsman (I Am Legend, I Robot), decides to venture away in significant ways from Dan Brown's novel, and still slavishly adhere to plot. I've read Brown's novels, and though I don't consider them to be high art, or even something great, they are enjoyable in ways the films based on them are not. Howard's film is dark, flavorless, and almost pointless -- just an escapist plate spinner to titillate for 2 hours and 20 minutes with Italian vistas and classic artwork. If you're one who loves a travelogue, perhaps the moving slideshow will be more of interest, but anyone looking for an absorbing story or ways to look at the interconnectedness of world from different perspectives will have to continue their tour of the cineplex for something else to watch.
©2009 Vince Leo