Just got back from a preview screening of the new Tom Hanks / Ron Howard movie Angels & Demons, based on the book of the same name by Dan Brown. You’ll remember Dan Brown because he wrote the extraordinary best seller The DaVinci Code.
If you’re lucky, you won’t also remember that Ron Howard directed, and Tom Hanks starred in the movie version of The DaVinci Code too, a film released in 2006. I’ve actually watched the movie a couple of times so I could better understand why it was so painful to watch and why it just didn’t work as a film, even though I greatly enjoyed the book.
The problem with the movie The DaVinci Code was that the individual contributors to the film were top-notch, but, like an orchestra without a conductor, it never melded into a strong storyline, a comprehensible sequence of events and a satisfying movie.
While Angels & Demons is definitely better than The DaVinci Code, it too suffers from the same problems. The story just doesn’t work, the character motivations aren’t logical, and there are so many narrative glitches and inane sequences that it’s a wonder they released it rather than going back to the editing room to tighten things further.
Don’t get me wrong, the film looks gorgeous. The exteriors, scattered throughout Rome and Vatican City, are beautifully captured, the special f/x are so well done that it’s only in retrospect I could even figure out which were which, and even the costumes and music are top-notch.
I will say that I’m a big fan of Tom Hanks too and he does pretty well as Harvard Symbologist Robert Langdon in Angels & Demons, though I’m starting to wonder if he’s lost the full range of his acting capability because this is another recent role where he seems to walk through many a dramatic scene without much engagement.
Ewan McGregor is terrific as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (basically the Pope’s right-hand man) and I particularly liked Armin Mueller-Stahl in the pivotal role of Cardinal Strauss. Indeed, there was a very interesting interpersonal and political conflict between McGregor and Mueller-Stahl’s characters, an interchange that was touched on a couple of times in the film but should have been a far more central part of the story as it would have far better explained the motivations of the different characters later in the movie (‘nuf said on that so we avoid any spoilers).
Ayelet Zurer played “bioentanglement physicist” Vittoria Vetra and was stuck with the most ambiguous, poorly plotted and incomprehensible role in the entire film. There are so many bizarre and puzzling aspects to her character as the story unfolds, with her alternating between being Robert Langdon’s confidante and sidekick and being a tedious narrative device that had no other importance in certain scenes. Was there a love interest between Langdon and Vetra? No, but there could have been.
After the interesting but baffling opening scene that takes place in CERN, was Vetra’s scientific knowledge ever important in the story? Not even a tiny bit. Fortunately she apparently had the skillset to be an amateur detective, one that was better at deciphering puzzles than the Swiss Guard. Um, okay.
I won’t say much about the pivotal narrative devices, including the ultra-dangerous antimatter bomb or the great puzzle that Langdon figures out single-handedly, other than to say that the film suffers from the very same weaknesses as the book. As a novel, Angels & Demons was unquestionably weaker than The DaVinci Code and writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman did no miracles in adapting it for the screen.
And yet, I can’t stop thinking about how beautiful it all looked, how well the technical parts of the film fit together and how it would have been enjoyable if I wasn’t actually trying to follow the storyline and understand what was going on, and why.
Should you go see it? Depends on whether you can let sleeping plots lie. If you can ratchet your suspension of disbelief wayyyyy up, you might well enjoy Angels & Demons.
For me? I keep wondering what happened to the Ron Howard who directed the brilliant, tense Apollo 13 and hasn’t had a real winner since then.