Angels & Demons (United States, 2009)

May 14, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Angels & Demons Poster

The term "godawful" should be used sparingly in connection with motion pictures. With Angels & Demons, however, it seems oddly appropriate. Not only does this prequel-turned-sequel to The Da Vinci Code make its predecessor seem like a masterwork of pacing and plotting, but it may represent a nadir for director Ron Howard and is probably the worst instance of acting from star Tom Hanks since back in the days when he was struggling out from under the shadow of Bosom Buddies. Interestingly, this is also the first sequel with which Hanks (as a live-action actor) and Howard (behind the camera) have been involved.

As with The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons begins with a murder - a scientist working in the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. His death is a means to an end, as his killer makes off with a canister containing antimatter. To the best of my knowledge, he does not steal any dilithium crystals. Meanwhile, in the Vatican, the cardinals have finished mourning the death of the pope and are preparing to elect his successor. Inconveniently, the most likely four candidates have been kidnapped and a group claiming association with the underground society of the Illuminati are threatening to kill them before unleashing the antimatter and turning half of Rome into a wasteland. Enter symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), who has been recruited by the Vatican because he's an expert on Illuminati. He is teamed with one of the scientists who created the antimatter, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), and a crusty Vatican cop, Inspector Olivetti (Pierfrancesoco Favino). After receiving the grudging support of the head of the Swiss Guard, Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård), and the "acting" pontiff, Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), Langdon enters the Vatican Archives in search of clues that will put him on the Illuminati's trail.

One difference between an effective thriller and one that crashes and burns is easily identified: are the contrivances and coincidences noticeable only once the theater is vacated or are they obvious during the proceedings? Sadly, in the case of Angels & Demons, it's the latter. This movie takes preposterousness to new levels; there are times when the proceedings become so ludicrous that one is tempted to laugh aloud at the sheer audacity of the plotting. Antimatter? A body count in the Vatican with deaths by earth, air, fire, and water? A plot so convoluted that not even Machiavelli would have followed it? The biggest mystery of all is how so much talent (David Koepp, Akiva Goldsmith, Ron Howard, Tom Hanks) could band together to create something this dumb, limp, and lifeless.

The movie's first 90 minutes represent what I refer to as "treadmill proceedings" - that's when characters run fast and get nowhere. Indeed, for the first 2/3 of Angels & Demons' running time, we follow Langdon as he uncovers one improbable clue after another. Clues and signs don't lead directly to the solution, of course - they lead to other clues that in turn lead to still more clues. Bathroom breaks during this portion of the movie are not only allowed, they are encouraged. Even if you are unlucky enough to miss a chunk of exposition, it won't damage your ability to follow the plot-by-numbers storyline. In fact, if you're even slightly perceptive, you'll have the big "twist" ending figured out 30 minutes into the movie. One way to remain awake during the course of all the repetitious running around is to marvel at the coincidences and contrivances that have to pile upon one another for the still-to-be-unmasked villain's master plan to work. It's enough to make one believe in God. Then again, following that line of reasoning, sitting through this movie provides a possible representation of Hell.

In order to earn his mammoth salary, all Hanks has to do is show up, which he does, investing Langdon with less passion than the scenery. One has to go all the way back to 1990's The Bonfire of the Vanities to find an equally uninspired portrayal on the two-time Oscar winner's resume. Equally bad is Ewan McGregor, whose work here makes one re-evaluate his interpretation of Obi-Wan Kenobi as an example of nuanced acting. To be fair, there are some nice performances, although in secondary parts. Stellan Skarsgård is suitably menacing as a man who is too obviously being foreshadowed as the "heavy." And Armin Mueller-Stahl makes the most of a largely thankless part.

Catholic groups are threatening to boycott the movie, and their reaction is understandable. Mid-way through the movie, I was hoping the antimatter bomb would go off and wipe out the Vatican, although that might have something to do with eliminating Langdon and the possibility of another sequel. For the most part, Catholic Cardinals are not favorably portrayed - they come across as petty, squabbling opportunists. I have no way to assess the accuracy of the "insider information" provided about the internal workings of the Vatican. They seem far-fetched, but truth is often stranger than fiction and the cynic in me suggests that maybe they represent the most honest aspect of this film.

If there's something to appreciate about Angels & Demons, it's the cheesy absurdity of the final 40 minutes. Once the pointless running around comes to an end, we can sit back and enjoy a series of plot contortions so baffling that it's difficult not to savor them on the level of pure camp. Rarely does a major motion picture go this far off the deep end. It's the proverbial train wreck, and it actually manages to share a scene with - of all things - Star Trek. Of course, the problem with Angels & Demons is that to get to the final 40 minutes, it's necessary to endure the first 90, and that would be defined as cruel and unusual punishment.

To add insult to injury, not only is Angels & Demons pitched at viewers who are half-asleep, drugged, drunk, or simply uncaring, but it offers an embarrassing homily about the importance of science and religion co-existing. Yes, after spending two hours trouncing Catholicism and trashing legitimate science, Angels & Demons wants to send viewers home with a moral. Let me offer this alternative: if you want a movie with antimatter, this is not the one for which you should buy a ticket.

Angels & Demons (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: 2009-05-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1