Review: Angels & Demons (dir. Ron Howard, 2009)

Review: Angels & Demons (dir. Ron Howard, 2009) May 15, 2009

It may have been boring and heretical, but the film version of The Da Vinci Code was also one of the biggest international hits of all time when it came out three years ago — bigger than The Passion of The Christ, bigger than the Narnia movies, bigger even than at least one of the Star Wars movies. So it was pretty much inevitable that Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard would reunite for an adaptation of the other Dan Brown novel that features Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. (A third novel is now due to come out later this year.)

It was also pretty much inevitable that reporters looking for a story — and the filmmakers, looking for publicity — would try to stir up some controversy around the sequel, which is called Angels & Demons. But for most people, the new movie could be fairly easy to ignore, and not just because there have been fewer calls for boycotts and the like this time.

For one thing, the new story just doesn’t push the same kind of buttons that the old one did. The Da Vinci Code made bogus claims about Jesus himself, and thus had something to offend Christians of every denominational stripe. But Angels & Demons focuses entirely on the relationship between modern science and Roman Catholicism — and thus many people, especially non-Catholics, may be inclined to just yawn and shrug the movie off.

Those who do see the film could very well find their eyes rolling within the first few minutes. As the story begins, the Pope has just died, and cardinals from around the world have come to the Vatican to elect his successor — and a voice-over, possibly that of a reporter, gravely informs us that Catholics around the world “now find their church at a crossroads, their ancient traditions threatened by a modern world.” Really? The church has never come to this “crossroads” before? And how does the death of one man expose the church to this “threat”? Is not the conclave that brings the cardinals together a sign that the church’s “ancient traditions” are carrying on pretty much as they always have?

Four of these cardinals, we are told, are considered front-runners for the papacy — and they are kidnapped right away by a character known only as the Assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who will go on to torture and kill them in excruciatingly painful ways. In the original novel, this villain was a member of the Muslim Hassassin sect and saw what he did as payback for the Crusades, but for some reason the filmmakers have turned him into a Danish hitman who does what he does purely for the money. Apparently, after indulging in certain stereotypes when it came to Catholics and albinos (remember the killer monk in the previous movie?), the filmmakers figured they had to be sensitive and draw the line somewhere.

Anyway, the Assassin issues a statement to the Vatican and its police, claiming to speak on behalf of the Illuminati, a secret society that supposedly included many top artists and scientists from the Renaissance and beyond. In his statement, the Assassin reveals that he will kill one cardinal per hour in a public place, before destroying the Vatican (and presumably much of Rome) with a piece of antimatter (yes, antimatter) that he stole from the CERN particle-physics laboratory in Switzerland. Fortunately, the Vatican police have already brought Robert Langdon (Hanks) in from the U.S. to help decipher the symbols that could lead to the Assassin’s hiding place, and they have also brought in Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a scientist who was working on the antimatter just before it was stolen.

Thus begins a frantic search for the “Path of Illumination,” a series of buildings, sculptures and engravings that the Illuminati supposedly hid in plain sight all over Rome so that the free-thinkers of their day could meet with them in secret, far from the church’s punishing eye. To follow the clues, Langdon must make a few trips to the high-security Vatican archives, drive at high speeds through crowded Roman streets, and occasionally dodge bullets when he and the cops who join him happen to get too close to the Assassin. And because everyone is racing to beat the clock before the bomb goes off and takes both Rome and all of the Catholic church’s top leaders with it, Langdon’s adventures in this film are inherently more dynamic and engaging than the rather dull comings and goings of The Da Vinci Code.

But if Angels & Demons is more entertaining than The Da Vinci Code on one level, it is less enjoyable on another. Put simply, the previous film was almost saved by the late appearance of Ian McKellen as one of Langdon’s colleagues; while everyone around him acted so serious, you could tell that McKellen was having fun, at least, perhaps because he recognized how campy and ridiculous the whole thing was. Alas, no such irreverence is to be found in Angels & Demons, partly because the supporting actors keep a straight face throughout.

Stellan Skarsgård plays the pious but sarcastic Swiss Guard officer who looks just a little too offended when scientists use expressions like “the God particle” in his presence; Ewan McGregor plays an earnest priest known as the “Camerlengo,” who served as the previous Pope’s assistant and retains a certain amount of authority around Vatican City until the next Pope has been picked; Pierfrancesco Favino plays Inspector Olivetti, the policeman who whisks Langdon and Vittoria all over Rome; and Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Cardinal Strauss, the man who presides over the conclave where the next Pope will be elected.

You could write a book — and indeed, many people have — about the many errors that crop up in Brown’s novel and thus in the film as well, with regard to the Catholic church’s history and self-organization; but as far as the film’s general attitude toward Christianity is concerned, Angels & Demons might be a slight improvement on its predecessor. For one thing, there are no more lurid flashbacks depicting the atrocities, fictitious or otherwise, that Langdon says an earlier generation of Christians committed. And Langdon, who once suggested that there might be no difference between humanity and divinity, is now compelled to admit that he doesn’t believe in God — and he doesn’t really know what to say when one ticked-off Catholic tells him, “My church comforts the sick and dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? That’s right, you don’t have one.”

On the other hand, without giving too much away, the movie also paints a consistently poor picture of Catholic piety, from a murderous fanatic who thinks modern science is “blasphemy” to the easily duped cardinals and laypeople who are not only tricked into thinking highly of one of the villains, but believe it is God’s will that honors be bestowed upon him. Cardinal Strauss even refuses to evacuate Vatican City, upon learning of the antimatter bomb, partly because he doesn’t want to cause any sort of panic, but also because, as he puts it, all those pilgrims outside are all going to heaven eventually anyway — and he’s supposed to be one of the more sympathetic Catholic characters in this film!

And of course, all that business from the first film, about the Catholic church “covering up” the “truth” about Jesus, still lurks in the background of this one. (When the Vatican first approaches Langdon for help, he says he’s surprised because he didn’t think the events of the previous film had endeared him to them.) So in its own way, Angels and Demons just perpetuates the first film’s assertion that the church consists, on the one hand, of gullible people who will believe any lies that are fed to them, and, on the other hand, of leaders who, perhaps even with the best of intentions, are content to let those lies sit there.

Some people have defended this film by saying it’s “only fiction,” but that argument only goes so far. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to This Present Darkness, fiction has had a profound effect on the way people think and act — so an argument can certainly be made that we ought to take this movie, and the book on which it is based, at least somewhat seriously. On the other hand, the movie remains pretty silly, even though it omits some of the novel’s goofiest elements — so shrugging it off may be the better option after all.

2 stars (out of 4)

Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. The movie suggests there is a clash between “ancient traditions” and the “modern world.” Do you think this is true? Even in non-Catholic settings? What traditions in your own church would you say are “ancient”? Does the modern world affect which traditions you keep?

2. What do you make of the film’s references to the Illuminati and “their new god Science”? Is science “new”? Do you think the church has had time to figure out a way to relate to modern scientific endeavors? In what ways is the church still behind? Is it possible that the church played any part in encouraging scientific inquiry over the years? Give examples.

3. Why does the scientist (who is also a priest) say “We’re in God’s hands now” after he helps to create the antimatter? Is he feeling remorse? Should research like his be done? Why or why not?

4. Langdon says “faith is a gift that I’ve yet to receive.” What would you say in reply to that, if anything?

5. One cardinal says that if the rest of them agree to do something, then it must be “God’s will”; another cardinal says they would be “giving in to frenzy.” How can you discern when God is speaking through a person or group of persons? (Consider, for example, the apostles’ use of the phrase “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” when explaining their decisions after the Council of Jerusalem, in Acts 15:28.)

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

Angels & Demons is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence (people are shot, burned to death, drowned and branded like horses), disturbing images (a dead man and his eyeball are found in different places, rats eat the face of one corpse, blood flies out of the holes in a man’s chest when someone tries to resuscitate him) and thematic material (pious Catholics are generally portrayed in a negative light, with a few complicated exceptions).

— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.

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