Consumed by light? More like consumed by trite… storylines. That’s right, I went there. Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons (2009) is the second film that follows the adventures of Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a professor of ‘symbology’ from Harvard University. In this film, Langdon is brought to the Vatican to solve a mysterious mystery that involves the Illuminati; a mystery that threatens the very foundations of the Catholic church.
Since working in a bookshop, I’ve developed a really strong sense of revulsion for Dan Brown’s books. Mostly due to the poor writing, and also due to the clear adolescent fanfiction-style fantasy in which the author imagines themselves as the main character. Recently, after finishing one of my favourite books of all time, I needed something to read on the train that would cleanse my reading palate and remind me that my standards for books shouldn’t be high all the time. Long story short, I decided to read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, hoping for it to maybe remind me of my fun Roman holiday from a couple of years ago where I spent a bit of time in Vatican City. It wasn’t a good book. So naturally, I decided to watch the film to see how the adaptation stacked up. It wasn’t good either.
However, if you’re looking for a mindless adventure movie, this isn’t a bad one. You can just shut your mind off and follow Robert Langdon’s symbology adventures, and all of the solutions are given to you. You don’t even have to think about anything. It’s the ultimate muscle relaxant for the brain. But if you look into this one a bit more deeply, the problems begin to stack up.
Tom Hanks is a great actor and I really liked his performance in Captain Phillips (2013). But this is not his best work. The way he acts as Robert Langdon makes you wonder whether he despises himself for doing these films. Ewan McGregor is in this too, as the late Pope’s camerlengo (a Papal middle manager of sorts). He is mediocre. I can’t think of anything I’ve liked him in since watching Beginners (2010), so I’m hoping his performance in August: Osage County (2013) will be good.
The computer animation is horrible. I understand that the Vatican said a big fat “no thank you” when the idea of filming this on location was proposed, which is fair enough. But if you’re going to pretend that the characters are somewhere significant, at least try hard enough to make the graphics and animation look plausible. There was one scene where the characters are meant to be inside St Peter’s Basilica, and while the point of view is moving, the graphics make it look like Langdon and his lady friend Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) are walking on the spot. It looks like they’re in a video game from the early 2000s. That’s just unforgivable for a big budget movie made in 2009.
The character development is also horrible. Robert Langdon is the shell of a person. Vittoria is barely even a character. She gets some screen time at the beginning of the film, but beyond that, she’s just as much of a shell as Langdon is. Ewan McGregor’s camerlengo character is a tough one because you get the feeling that there is a backstory to him, but you never learn anything about him that would make his actions significant enough to be anything more than annoying. And the villain, who is meant to be very threatening, is such a non-event that I almost forgot to mention him in this review. Forgettable is the key word for many things about this film.
The plot is poorly developed, and completely obvious from the beginning. The exposition is also beyond ridiculous. Why would a non-Italian person explain Italian words to an Italian person? Why would one cardinal ever remind another cardinal about the rules of the Papal conclave when they both are clearly aware of the rules under which they operate?
The saddest thing about Angels & Demons is that for an adventure film that is essentially an artistic and historical treasure hunt, there is no sense of hunt, nor of adventure. As aforementioned, the solutions are delivered to the characters in such a simplistic way that it’s at the expense of any excitement. Any threat of conflict or potential failure is pretty much written off by the end of the first quarter of the film. If I’m not mistaken, the best part about a treasure hunt is the hunt itself. The excitement is gone when the main character knows everything already and the audience can’t go on a hunt with them beyond looking in a library for five minutes. Hence, the story seems poorly developed and rushed. I didn’t love The Da Vinci Code (2006) as a film, but it had much more of a sense of discovery and excitement than this one.
Also (final point on the bad things in this film), for a film that’s meant to be all about the significance of art history and symbolism, the camera sure did skip right over the art in question. As the viewer, you know that certain sculptures and fountains are very significant to the plot. But you never get the chance to get a good look at the art because the camera pans right over it really quickly. I would have loved the chance to get a good look at certain pieces of sculpture in this film, but alas, it looks like I’ll have to resort to Googling them.
What I did like about Angels & Demons: The make-up artistry was quite good. There was one ‘reveal’ scene where the special effects on a deceased individual’s face were very impressive. There was also one moment where the cinematography was excellent, and this was during another ‘reveal’ moment in the Sistine Chapel toward the end of the film. All those red cardinal caps make for some very menacing shots, that’s all I’ll say.
I have to take a deep breath before this final paragraph. I’m about to admit something that goes against everything I know as someone who works in a bookshop and has a deep respect for the literary arts. Dan Brown’s book is better than this movie adaptation. There, I said it. The book is stupid and dumb, but it’s still better than the film. Still, if I had a hangover and Angels & Demons was being shown on television, I probably wouldn’t change the channel.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!