Saturday, November 28, 2009

Angels & Demons (Sony/Columbia, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had a chance to show Angels & Demons, the much-ballyhooed follow-up to The Da Vinci Code — likewise based on a novel by Dan Brown featuring the character of Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon messing around in a mystery involving the Roman Catholic Church. (Just about everything written about these movies or the books they’re based on has taken pains to point out that “symbology” is a nonexistent academic discipline Dan Brown made up for his fiction — presumably lest credulous students flock to colleges asking to major in it.) I read Angels and Demons before I read The Da Vinci Code — though after the sensational success of The Da Vinci Code had made Dan Brown a worldwide household name — and by chance I happened to be reading it, a novel set around a conclave of the College of Cardinals to elect a new Pope, just as John Paul II finally died and a real conclave occurred, though it passed with far less melodrama than the one depicted here: it elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, former head of the modern-day descendant of the Holy Inquisition, in one ballot.

Anyway, Angels and Demons not only seemed to me a better book than The Da Vinci Code, it seemed a better movie as well — even though there’s an annoying bit of dialogue early on that turned it from a Da Vinci Code prequel into a sequel. Though many of the creative principals remained the same — director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer, writer Akiva Goldsman (bolstered this time around by David Koepp) and star Tom Hanks — Angels and Demons came off as a more successful thriller, better paced and lacking the biggest weakness of Da Vinci Code the movie — the deadly seriousness with which the material was presented and the resulting slow, stately pace as if Howard and company were filming a literary masterpiece instead of an engaging potboiler.

Well, this time around Howard discovered (or rediscovered) suspense pacing and created an exciting, relentless thriller out of Brown’s plot: the Pope has mysteriously died and a secret sect that claims to be reviving the Illuminati (actually an 18th century organization founded by Adam Weishaupt and a favorite of conspiracy-mongers ever since) has kidnapped the “Preferiti,” the four Cardinals who had been the favorites in the Papal election. One of the inspirations for this book was John Langdon, an artist who managed to create several Gothic-lettered “ambigrams” — meaning a piece of writing that looks the same upside down as it does right-side up — with the word “Illuminati” as well as the four classical elements: “Earth,” “Fire,” “Water” and “Air.” (Brown got the last name of his central character from his artist friend.) The gimmick is that the Illuminati plan to murder all four kidnapped cardinals, one each hour from 8 to 11 p.m., and then at midnight they plan to detonate a nuclear device consisting of pure antimatter and therefore vaporize the entire Vatican and thus destroy the church worldwide.

They acquired the antimatter from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, and the chief scientist in charge of the project is murdered and his assistant Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) joins forces with Langdon in a chase across Rome despite the opposition of the Swiss Guards, the official force guarding the Pope (basically to him what the Secret Service is to the President) and the apparent assistant of the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), who was Italian in the book but is Irish here. The Camerlengo is the chief assistant to the Pope and takes over the administration of Vatican City for the nine days after a pope’s death that the College of Cardinals meets in secret session to pick his replacement. He’s easily the most engaging character in the film (as he was in the book as well) — his only real competition is Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the avuncular chair of the conclave and one who agrees to take that post to beg off on any papal ambitions himself — and therefore anyone familiar with Dan Brown’s fiction and its recurring patterns will just know that he’s going to turn out to be the bad guy at the end (though Charles guessed it would be Cardinal Strauss who turned out to be the bad guy and mastermind of the whole plot).

It seems that after having been taken in by the previous Pope when he was still a child, the Camerlengo grew up in the Vatican with the Pope as essentially a father figure — and served him until he was ready to make an accommodation with the scientists doing research at the Large Hadron Collider and accept the so-called “God particle, “ the Higgs-Boson particle that supposedly is what causes things to have mass, not as a threat to Catholic belief but as the final proof from the scientific world that God indeed exists. To the Camerlengo, that’s heresy, so he kills his Papal benefactor and hatches a plot to take over the church himself by creating the illusion that the Illuminati have reorganized and the church is at war with them; he will eliminate the four principal competitors to the papacy, stage a spectacular last-minute rescue (when the antimatter bomb is found, he takes it up in a helicopter and then bails out, so the bomb will explode safely in mid-sky) and get himself elected Pope by acclamation, whereupon he’ll lead a new Counter-Reformation aimed at extirpating any connection or hint of a peace between religion and science.

As a plot line, it’s a perfectly serviceable premise for a thriller even though it’s hardly any more than that — like The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons is a simple adventure tale masquerading as a meditation on God and man’s place in the universe — but it’s well done, it’s engaging, it’s (faintly) credible within the conventions of the genre and, though there are a few risible moments, overall it’s a much better movie than The Da Vinci Code: more engaging, more exciting and simply more fun.