I watched both The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons yesterday to prepare for this review, which means that I endured nearly five hours of Da Vinciness, which is something like three weeks in Dan Brown years. And I felt every bit of it. The Da Vinci Code felt like slogging through wet concrete after popping six sleeping pills — it’s excruciatingly tedious, murky, needlessly convoluted, and heterosexually campy (which is to say: All cheese, no flair). I thought the controversy surrounding The Da Vinci Code might make it slightly compelling, until I remembered that the controversy was generated by a bunch of uber-serious religio-pinheads incapable of separating fact from fiction (or new fiction from old fiction, if that’s the way you swing).
Fortunately, Angels & Demons is a marked improvement over The Da Vinci Code; while Da Vinci was agonizingly painful to experience, Angels & Demons is almost tolerable. It’s like watching televised golf instead of televised cricket. It’s lighter on its feet, less obtuse, and a little more streamlined. It’s not as grimly serious, although it’s still an overwrought thrill-less thriller infused with historical lunacy that gives way too much respect to its source material. I’m still befuddled as to why Ron Howard and Tom Hanks would dig their heels so deeply into mass-market paperback trash — they’re both too smart for it. Off camera, Hanks had to be rolling his eyes and asking Howard to remind him just how much they’re getting paid for this. Granted, their presence is appreciated; in lesser hands than the relentlessly competent Howard and infinitely likable Tom Hanks, Angels & Demons would be straight-to-DVD material, hokey conspiracy filler more befitting aged “90210” stars and Lorenzo Lamas.
Angels & Demons also benefits by not so directly confronting the Catholic Church. If they’re challenging Catholic ritual, it at least seems mostly benign, except to suggest that, amidst potential successors to the Pope, there’s political ambition afoot or that certain elements of the Church really hate science. The narrative is still heavily shrouded beneath pointless speechifying, but if you can dig beneath all the talking, the plot is fairly straightforward. The Pope is dead, and during that grieving period, the papal conclave has convened to elect a successor. During the interim, Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) — the pope’s closest associate — is left in charge of the Vatican.
Meanwhile, a group of scientists have created the MacGuffin, a tiny bit of anti-matter that, if it comes into contact with actual matter, can create an explosion large enough to destroy the Vatican. The anti-matter, however, is stolen by the resurfaced Illuminati, an anti-Church secret society that has a history of bad blood with the Vatican. To avenge some three-century old slight, the Illuminati also kidnaps the Preferiti — the four most likely candidates to replace the Pope — and threatens to kill one Cardinal each hour and then, afterwards, allow the anti-matter to detonate and destroy Vatican City.
Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks), a symbologist and expert on The Illuminati, is called to the Vatican and asked to assist in tracking down the hidden locations of the cardinals and the anti-matter. He is assisted by one of the scientists, Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer), who created the anti-matter. A message is left by The Illuminati that offers hidden clues as to the location, which Langdon has to decipher using his expertise in finding bullshit meanings hidden in every fucking artifact in the city and, ultimately, follow the Path of Illumination to locate the Illuminati’s secret meeting place.
The plot holes are too numerous to go into, but the initial logical inconsistency lies in why The Illuminati would even leave clues instead of just killing the four cardinals, blowing up the city, and taking credit for it afterward. Of course, that follows the same bullshit logic that compels bad guys to leave heroes tied up in chairs next to bombs instead of just putting a bullet in their head. It’s hard to take issue with the kind of logical boneheadedness that frames the movie.
But this is what bugged me most about Angels & Demons, an obstacle nearly impossible to overcome in translating this type of book into a movie but one that irritated the hell out of me all the same: Langdon arrives at the Vatican at 7 p.m., right? He’s got five hours to prevent the destruction of the city at midnight, and meanwhile, a cardinal is being killed once every hour. And yet, there is almost no sense of urgency. In nearly every other goddamn scene, Langdon has to stop and explain the historical significance of every motherfucking document, statue, or church he encounters, like Mr. Wizard laboriously explaining to his elementary students the combustive nature of baking soda and vinegar. It may work in the context of the novel, but when the main character is on a time limit and still has to take the time to painstakingly recount the history of The Illuminati or describe the significance of a few statues that had there nethers removed in the 18th century, it starts to get a little MacGruber, if you know what I mean. Just shut up and defuse the bomb already.
While the first 90 minutes is bogged down in the intricacies of Dan Brown’s fictional history, blessedly the last act eschews most of the speechifying and finally gets down to the action-adventure chase. There are enough red herrings to stock the Atlantic Ocean, and Howard — competent as always — gets you right where he wants you before springing his plot turns on you. Ewan McGregor also gets more screen time as the movie wears on, which is fortunate since he’s able to bring some life to an otherwise wilting movie. And some of the plot’s logic starts to come into focus as Howard bends you over to shove his twists up your ass.
Still, Angels & Demons can hardly be described as entertaining. It’s bad Encyclopedia Brown for adults — everything is so meticulously explained, it takes all the air out of any momentum it could’ve otherwise built were it not for the fact that Howard was aiming his movie at an audience of brains addled by Dan Brown, Suze Orman, James Patterson, and whoever else occupies the New York Times’ bestseller list. Granted, Howard does an amazing job of recreating the St. Peters and the Sistine Chapel, the cinematography is, at times, gorgeously glossy, and Hanks does as well as can be expected of an actor who has to spoon feed strained carrots to his audience. But it’s still trash, and if Howard and Hanks could’ve appreciated it for what it was, they might have had a good time with it. As it is, it’s a guilty pleasure without any of the pleasure — like eating a lard sandwich. But I bet that Robert Langdon could explain to you in mind-numbing detail the significance of that lard sandwich before you ate it.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.