Marking the return of super-academic Robert Langdon to the screen after a rather pleasant three years without him, Angels & Demons has the unenviable task of following a drab and dull film version of a modern print classic and yet somehow needing to feel fresh and interesting. It has been some years since the Dan Brown phenomenon washed over the world, and audiences may well have moved on. Can Ron Howard, Tom Hanks and the team attract the sort of attention wasted on the abject failure that was The Da Vinci Code?
Fortunately for fans of Brown’s work, Angels & Demons is an adequate translation of text to screen, which manages its task of being a thriller set in the supposedly intriguing world of the Vatican City with aplomb. Characters mask their personal motivations such that one is always wondering whether a particular person will turn out to be on the good or bad side – perhaps another advantage this film has over its predecessor, in that its release is long after most of its audience would have read its source. The political machinations of the Catholic Church are vividly brought to life, with archaic traditions contrasted against the intrusive nature of modern media.
This time around, Langdon (Hanks) is called upon by the Vatican police to help them defend their Cardinals from attack during the famed Conclave – when the Cardinals of the church are locked away within the Sistine Chapel until they have voted on which of them will become the next Pope. A secret society that desires to see science replace religion in the hearts and minds of the people has threatened the destruction of St Peter’s and murder of the church’s most powerful leaders. Can Langdon solve the riddles and discover the Path of the Illuminati?
While noteworthy for its astonishingly absurd plot, Angels & Demons manages to maintain the illusion by inserting enough official sounding mumbo jumbo that the audience might be left wondering if this is in fact how things work inside the church. Performers take their roles seriously, with never a wink nor a nod to let us know they’re aware of how silly this all is, and somehow the film works. The allure of secret ritual has always allowed filmmakers to get away with less than rigorous writing and so it is with Angels & Demons.
While the performers should be congratulated for maintaining their composure during the more inane sequences, they are lumbered with unengaging roles that will fail to appeal to most viewers. Hanks’ Langdon is almost an automaton, jumping from one conclusion to the next with little active participation, while Ayelet Zurer is asked to play a physicist with unknown motivations and a seemingly unlimited general scientific and medical knowledge, and yet be about as human as cardboard. Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård are given little meat on their characters’ skeletons, although at least both will have surprises in store for viewers toward the conclusion.
Much of the film is taken up in police chases through Rome, and it is in the depiction of the hidden Path that Angels & Demons falls below even its predecessor – at least the clues and the deciphering of their meanings was captivating in The Da Vinci Code, mostly due to the clever use of CGI to demonstrate Langdon’s imaginings. The ‘treasure hunt’ focus is lost in this film, with A-B-C chase sequences instead, which hold little intrigue.
The settings are brilliantly realised, although they are accompanied by an intrusive soundtrack that is often inappropriate. That the film was allowed to blow out to a hefty 138 minutes is unnecessary, and trimming of chase sequence flab might have allowed for a tighter and more engrossing thriller. After all, yet another scene of cars weaving through Roman traffic is hardly necessary.
That the film finishes up a competent production is hardly unexpected, given the pedigree of director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks. It remains, however, mostly earthbound, never attaining the lofty goals it aspires to, and yet never seeming as dull as the first in the series.Rating: