Posts Tagged ‘Angels & Demons’

I have, as diligent readers may have worked out, been at a bit of a loose end recently, and this has even extended to wandering the house rifling through the DVD collection of my landlady and her family. As I’ve mentioned, this occasionally results in me sitting down to watch things like Alien Tornado, but this time around I was able to stay on the mainstream Hollywood superfreeway and found myself in front of Ron Howard’s 2009 thriller Angels & Demons (it was a near thing, Jonah Hex and The Spirit were also on the shortlist).

Now, I must at this point disclaim that I have not properly read or in any way experienced anything else from the crayon pen of Dan Brown; I recall flicking idly through a copy of The Da Vinci Code (back when everyone seemed to be reading it) and then retreating hastily, as one would, but that’s it. He does seem terribly popular, and a friend of mine of no small intellect has confessed to being a big fan, but I have kept my distance. But you pick things up by a sort of cultural osmosis, don’t you, and just as I know that The Da Vinci Code is effectively a blockbuster thriller take on the Berenger Sauniere/Prieure de Sion conspiracy theory, so I know that Angels & Demons is a peculiar coming-together of Catholic theology and high-energy physics.


Howard’s movie opens with the peoples of the world gripped with anticipation and breathless excitement: a great vacancy in global affairs has opened up, and everyone is wondering who the replacement will be (as, at the time of writing, the new Doctor Who has yet to be announced, I find it very easy to empathise). We get a lot of colourful, wide-angle shots of Rome and the Vatican, and cardinals in their frocks shuffling about (these are sort of motifs of the movie). A voice-over sonorously starts laying some serious latin jargon on us and filling in the minutiae of church procedure surrounding the election of a new Pope.

(Basically, we are straightaway in the realm of what I can only describe as Catholic porn: films which take an almost obsessive interest in the esoteric arcana of Catholic theology and praxis, in the apparent belief that they are inherently interesting. I remain to be convinced.)

Anyway, after a bit of this we are off to CERN for some cod science at the Large Hadron Collider. Stern looking people in white coats talk to each other about magnetic resonance and luminosity. For all I know this is actually good science, but the manner in which it is presented leaves one with the unshakeable impression that it is bad science, no matter what the truth is. To be honest, given that a comely physicist named Vittoria Vetra (is this in in-jokey reference to Victoria Vetri, star of When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth? Hmmm) is using the Collider to produce gobs of antimatter, I suspect this is not good science after all.

Dr Vetra (played, by the way, by Ayelet Zurer – no, me neither) is concerned when some of her antimatter is nicked and weaponised, apparently by an obscure sect of militant rationalists called the Illuminati. The Illuminati, not content with hiding an antimatter bomb somewhere in the Vatican, have also kidnapped the four hot favourites to become the new pontiff and are planning to ritualistically bump them off on an hourly basis in the run-up to the big firework. Furrowed brows all round at the Vatican – crikey! Who you gonna call?

The answer, of course, is a maverick symbologist (yes, another one of those): Professor Robert Langdon, played stoically by Tom Hanks. His job of figuring out where the Illuminati have stashed the bomb and the cardinals is made harder by the fact that everyone at the Vatican hates his guts. (Well, Dr Vetra, who’s also been called in, looks like she might be open to persuasion on this point, but quite properly they keep their minds on the job.) His only real ally in the Vatican seems to be the Pope’s understudy, the Camerlengo.

I know, I too would have said that a Camerlengo was either a Latin dance or a make of Fiat, but apparently not. Live and learn, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said. The Camerlengo is of mixed Irish-Italian upbringing, which basically just means that Ewan McGregor, who plays him, gets the chance to do two accents badly rather than just one. Anyway, can Langdon and Vetra discover the location of, etc etc, before, etc etc?

Well, look, let’s be clear about this. Angels & Demons is about an attempt to manipulate the result of a papal election by, essentially, detonating a photon torpedo under the Vatican. This is a movie which you really have to treat with a certain degree of latitude: gritty realism it is not. It is, essentially, a slightly highbrow Indiana Jones movie which has availed itself of a guide to art history, and, as such, it is rather good fun.

I was initially tempted to say that this movie belts along at such a breathless pace, and with such polished slickness, that you never actually notice how relentlessly silly it is. But this is not actually true. You are always fully aware that this is a relentlessly silly film, but such is its belting breathless pace and polished slickness that this doesn’t actually bother you. I don’t wish to spoil the climax of this film by detailing some of the more outrageous plot developments, but let’s just say they are pretty special, and never remotely plausible.

One can understand why the Vatican itself was not especially keen to be associated with this film and its succession of grisly slayings on holy ground, but – the odd eviscerated cardinal or immolated priest aside – the Catholic Church does come out of this film looking remarkably good, on the whole. The ex-pope at the start of the film is described as ‘beloved and progressive’ and there is not whiff one of anything to do with the allegations of institutionalised horror which generally beset the institution’s public image.

This is not the most demanding role for Tom Hanks, but he is a steady and relatively credible presence in the middle of the craziness, and he does make Langdon – who could easily have become a complete cypher – rather endearing, genuinely excited at the prospect of his first visit to the Vatican archives. He’s not a tedious old movie action hero, either: he’s very bad at death-defying escapes, and whenever an action sequence breaks out around him, his first impulse seems to be to run away and hide. A man after my own heart.

Most of the other acting is, if we’re honest, irrepressibly cheesy, but this is probably down to the script more than anything. (I am starting to suspect that Ewan McGregor could well be our generation’s answer to Michael Caine, in that it’s his sheer work-rate that keeps him a star rather than the fact he’s incapable of giving a poor performance.) One of the charming things about Angels & Demons is that the makers of the film appear to be under the impression that this is a film dealing with serious issues to do with science and its relationship with religion. It does explore the relationship between science and religion, but only in the same way and with the same degree of subtlety that a small child explores the nature of matter and the laws of motion by banging bricks together. This aside, the movie is basically a very long and utterly implausible episode of Treasure Hunt and best enjoyed as such – it is, at least, hugely enjoyable on those terms.

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