If you were wondering how oscar winning director Ron Howard spends his weekends, you will find the answer in his latest film, Angels & Demons, which appears to have been conceived and produced in his spare time. Cobbled together from a thin plot by pulp sensationalist Dan Brown’s novel of the same name, the story follows Harvard symbologist (semiologist, no?) Robert Langdon on a winding mystery through the annals of Vatican history. While the material is fascinating, the film suffers mostly from whiplash, trying desperately to keep your attention on the winding streets of Rome but forgetting to build any kind of relationship with the players involved.
After the kidnapping of the four cardinals favored to replace the recently deceased pope, Mr. Langdon, played by an unusually stolid Tom Hanks, is called to the Vatican to consult for the Church, who believes the Illuminati, a cabal of scientists and scholars supposedly killed off in the 17th century, have returned for vengeance. Upon arrival, he meets Vittoria Vetra, a sultry physicist thesped by the wondrous Ayelet Zurer. She was called in when antimatter stolen from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva turns up hidden somewhere in Vatican City. Suspended between two magnets in a battery powered canister, the mysterious antimatter will ignite should it lose power, which will happen at the convenient stroke of midnight.
All characters in place, Langdon immediately bites on one of the clues offered up by the kidnapper/terrorist and off we go. Bouncing around from church to church with brief spates in the Vatican archives, the film gets old very fast. Much of this has to do with the character of Robert Langdon, a milquetoast academic who never even surrenders to the gods of logic, instead buying into anti-Christian dogma religiously, ironically. He has no skin in the game, to put it more bluntly. There are lives on the line so he must participate, but since he has no reveal, no emotional discord to be resolved, he becomes less of a protagonist and more a vehicle to get us from point to point, murder to murder, and to Mr. Brown’s semiotic agenda.
Along the way we meet Patrick McKenna, the emotinally invested Camerlengo charged with administering the Pope’s office until a new one is elected. Filling the sub-papal shoes is Ewan McGregor, this time sporting an Irish accent and an innocent sneer to boot. His foil is the aging Cardinal Strauss, who is charged with leading the conclave to elect the new pope. Strauss, played with dependable efficacy by Armin Mueller-Stahl, represents the unbending faith of the deeply codified organization, while McKenna is something of a wide-eyed revolutionary, seemingly rewriting church law in an effort to save the lives of both the endangered priests and the public at large. While both are fine actors in their own regard, neither McGregor nor Mueller-Stahl is given a hook on which to hang a performance, a running theme in this movie.
The film isn’t without its high points, particularly at the Large Hadron Collider at the beginning. Geeks around the world will be impressed by the footage taken from within the actual particle accelerator. The filmmakers go above and beyond to make the process of smashing protons together, which is yet to be tested at CERN’s massive Swiss facility, both scientifically plausible and visually exhillerating. Sadly, the real science ends once the antimatter is stolen. For the duration of the film, it is nothing more than a huge bomb. The truth is that while we have no idea what would happen if antimatter and matter came in contact with one another, the general consensus is that it would be freaking scary, like destroy the universe scary. It is not this scientific inaccuracy that is so annoying but the unwillingness to explore this most interesting boundary of both science and religion.
In the end, this is a mystery with religious iconography as an overarching MacGuffin. So much time is spent orienting the audience that there is hardly any chance to slow down and make sense of the dastardly plot. Writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman are no slouches, but they have composed a wooden script this time out. Perhaps they are not to blame; maybe not Ron Howard either. Dan Brown’s novels are unabashed pulp shlock while these film adaptations are approached with misguided reverence for the originals. Perhaps the further from Mr. Brown these stories get, and they are phenomenal tales, the better they will be. We’ll just have to wait and see when his next novel, The Lost Symbol, slated for the supposed largest first printing in Random House history, hits shelves this fall and inevitably, theaters in a few years.