Angels & Demons
Catholics can relax. The sequel to The Da Vinci Code does not replay the previous film’s all-out assault on the Church and its central tenets. On the contrary, in this yarn, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is recast as the unlikely saviour of the Holy See.
More polished but daffy as a duck, the new film begins a year or so after Langdon’s last adventure when a Vatican emissary enlists his urgent aid. The pope is dead, and four Cardinals – the “preferitti”, or favourites to replace him – have been kidnapped by a sect calling themselves the “Illuminati”.
One candidate will be killed at eight o’clock that evening, the next at nine, ten and eleven, culminating in the destruction of the Church at the stroke of midnight. The Illuminati is armed with a canister of highly unstable anti-matter, courtesy of the groundbreaking secret research of physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), which is hidden somewhere in Rome.
What has this got to do with Langdon? He doesn’t even believe in God. The professor has studied the Illuminati – a secret society of scientists and artists persecuted by the Church. While the local cops seem clueless, he is immediately on the trail – the Path of Illumination – criss-crossing Rome reading the runes carved into centuries-old sculptures, masonry and artwork.
The ritualistic murders of the cardinals – each inspired by the elements – are reminiscent of the grisly killings in Seven. On the other hand the wild goose chase that doubles as a Roman travelogue – with Tom Hanks as our tour guide – is not so far from the historical fancies of the National Treasure movies.
And if they had got it very wrong, some of the wildly far-fetched and melodramatic scenes at the end might have turned out uncomfortably close to Steve Martin’s run-in with the Holy Father in The Pink Panther 2.
It’s not that bad. But be warned, if you go back and reconstruct the plot after the grand denouement the conspiracy is so wildly preposterous it could seriously scramble your brains. I’m still trying to get my head around the idea that Harvard’s top symbologist and professor of religious iconography struggles with Italian and Latin.
That it works at all is due to Howard’s diligent and crisp direction, efficient performances from Hanks, Armin Mueller Stahl, Stellan Skarsgaard, and Ewan McGregor in a potentially tricky role as the deceased pope’s most trusted ally, the Camerlengo, and especially the exemplary production design.
It’s hardly surprising that the Vatican refused access to certain interiors for the filming, but watching the movie you wouldn’t know which locations are real and which have been recreated digitally or in the studio. The encroaching darkness as the story goes on is carefully developed in Salvatore Totino’s atmospheric cinematography, and the son et lumiere show at the climax is impressive to behold.
Scripted by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, the movie ramps up the race-against-time element in the book and tones down the relationship with Vittoria, who has little to do and except look chic and intelligent (Zurer doesn’t have a problem in either department).
The pacing is better than The Da Vinci Code, but even so, the writers are stuck with reams of expository dialogue, potted lectures on antimatter, papal protocols, science and dogma that the actors do their best to barrel through without checking their watches.
Although it’s superior in some ways it’s hard to believe this will repeat the incredible box office of the last film – but the studio has more faith. Brown’s next book in the series, due out this autumn, has already been optioned.
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