After the rather bland adaptation of Dan Brown's blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, director Ron Howard reunites with Tom Hanks for more
international intrigue. This time, with less dilly-dallying and a lot more panache. In Angels & Demons, Hanks stars as Professor Robert
Langdon, a Harvard scholar and widely respected symbologist, who is called to Vatican City after a container of lethal antimatter is
stolen. Branded onto the murder victims is an ambigram that points to the resurgence of the Illuminati, a scientific group dating back
to the days of Galileo. Time bomb in hand, the Illuminati plan to end to their long standing feud with the Catholic Church by blowing up
Vatican City. While much has been made about the controversial subject material, the film is fairly innocuous, avoiding deep philosophical
and religious debate and instead, opting for breathless action. Outlandish plot points aside, Angels & Demons delivers entertaining thrills
through picturesque Rome.
The film picks up with the passing of the Pope in Vatican City. Immediately following the funeral, the cardinals assemble to elect a
successor and identify four possible replacement candidates, known as the preferati. As a crowd grows in St. Peter's Square in anticipation
of a new Pope, in nearby Geneva, at a CERN scientific research facility, a vial of highly volatile antimatter is stolen. At the scene of the
crime, a physicist's body is marked with the symbol of the Illuminati, a secret society that swears vengeance for the persecution of Catholics
during the 17th Century. Those Catholics who favored science over the religious teachings of the church.
Back at Harvard, Robert Langdon is visited by a police official from the Vatican and debriefed. Having foiled the plot of Opus Dei, Langdon
is recruited to help solve the mystery, find the terrorists, and recover the antimatter. Upon his arrival in Rome, he is paired with CERN physicist
Vittoria Vetra and introduced to the Camerlengo (assistant to the Pope), Commander Richter and the Swiss Guard (protectors of the Pope), and Inspector
Olivetti of the Gendarme Corps of Vatican City. Furthermore, he is shown a video, detailing the intent of the Illuminati - the methodical execution
of each of the four preferati at 8, 9, 10, and 11 p.m. until the battery on the antimatter container runs out and wipes out all of Vatican City and
part of Rome. Racing against time, Langdon and Vetra must decipher the clues to save the preferati and defuse the ticking time bomb.
Author Dan Brown wrote Angels & Demons well before The Da Vinci Code, but director Ron Howard chose to film it as a sequel, building on the reputation
and experience of Langdon. And enabling screenwriters, David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, the flexibility to adapt freely and streamline the story without
being overly cautious and faithful. For instance, Langdon's time at CERN is minimized, nationalities are altered for political correctness, and the
conclusion is less heroic and more self serving. Even Tom Hanks' hairstyle shows a dramatic improvement!
Because the Roman Catholic Church forbade filming in their churches and chambers, many of the interiors were reproduced at Sony. The Sistine
Chapel, St. Peter's Cathedral, the Pantheon, the Vatican Library - all rendered exquisitely and with the utmost detail. And in spite of the debate
between science and religion and the feud between the Catholic League and Sony, Ron Howard keeps things on an even keel, maintaining subjectivity
without ruffling feathers. After a description of Pius IX's "Great Castration" of Vatican City male statues, Langdon is asked if he is anti-Catholic. Slyly,
he retorts, "No. I'm anti-vandalism."
Historical inaccuracies aside, the most significant change between films is with the pacing. While there are some momentary lapses as when the Camerlengo
interrupts the College of Cardinals at the top of the hour to debrief them on the dangers of the Illuminati, monologues are kept at a minimum. And Howard
ensures that there are very few long winded or static expositions of religious history and detail. The acting is modest and efficient. And dialogue is
exchanged en route and almost always, with a sense of urgency.
That urgency, however, masks a much larger problem - namely, plausibility. Visible tracks reveal dozens upon dozens of plot problems. Most glaringly,
why the Illuminati would bother sharing their timetable, designing an elaborate plan to execute the preferati, and hide the antimatter at the end of the
trail to be discovered? Rather than set a timer on the antimatter in the catacombs underneath Vatican City, they create a symbolic scavenger hunt for
Langdon to follow. Fortunately, his skills for interpreting the clues are unmatched and timely. But when it comes to flying a helicopter, you really
have to rely on a cardinal to bail you out.
Says Cardinal Strauss to Langdon, "When you write about us, and you will, do so gently." Ironically, 'gentle' is precisely how Ron Howard treats Dan
Brown's fictional, but controversial novel. In Angels & Demons, details and logistics are glossed over in favor of a frenzied tempo. Science and religion
are treated equally, without favoritism. And the magnificent scenery of Rome, inclusive of historic landmarks, churches, and cathedrals, makes the film
come alive, akin to a travelogue. For all the hype and hurrah, Angels & Demons is a tame thriller, requiring several leaps of faith.