Angels & Demons (review)

Book Smarts

Well, now. Who’da thunk it?

Three years ago, I was less than impressed by the big-screen adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, the preposterous Dan Brown novel that was, inexplicably, a tremendous bestseller — inexplicable except, perhaps, in that it exposed the masses to mindblowing concepts of comparative mythology they hadn’t been exposed to before (you have to read books for that — books other than mainstream potboiler beach novels, that is). Now, though… Angels & Demons, adapted from an equally ridiculous Dan Brown novel, makes for a far more entertaining night at the movies. Seriously, a ridiculously entertaining night at the movies.

I love Angels & Demons, the movie, in fact: it’s as completely ludicrous as the book it’s based on, of course, but it moves so fast and with such confidence that you barely have time to notice. And more importantly, there’s an air of intellectual pornography about it… and I mean that as a good thing. Just as real porn ain’t genuinely sexy or erotic, Angels & Demons ain’t genuinely intellectual or brainy, but it urgently wants to depict books and learning and knowledge and history and art and the smarts it takes to appreciate them as enticing and cool and, well, sexy. The surprising thing is how well director Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon, Cinderella Man) succeeds at accomplishing just that. The book dork in me wishes more movies would talk nerdy to me like this one does, and make it as much popcorny fun.

Does that sound like a contradiction, that a movie could be both mindless and studious at the same time? I don’t think it is. I’m not looking for dissertation here — and good thing, because I’d have been sorely disappointed. I just want a bone thrown my way once in a while: if Hollywood can pander to people who get turned on by fast cars or exploding spaceships or chicks in bikinis in a nonstop roller-coaster ride of a summer blockbuster, then it sure as hell can pander to my book-and-museum-and-cute-brainy-guy fetish in a nonstop roller-coaster ride of a summer blockbuster once every couple of years.

Gotta credit Tom Hanks (The Great Buck Howard, Charlie Wilson’s War) here, too, because he sells our academic hero Robert Langdon way better than Dan Brown ever did. In Brown’s novels, he’s a bone-dry talking head lecturing us on the minutiae of European history and the Catholic Church’s role in it. Here, Hanks imbues Langdon with a wonderfully geeky enthusiasm: when he gets a first look at the Vatican archives he’d been lobbying the Church for years to get access to, his “Oh, wow!” is infectious, at least to those of us who find the concept of a secret library filled with arcane documents indescribably alluring. And the relatively simpler, more streamlined story compared to Code means that Hanks gets a far better opportunity here to play the cerebral-sexy professor than in that other flick, which tried to shoehorn him into an Indiana Jones-type role that he’s not appropriate for. In Angels, however, whether he’s tsk-tsking over religiously motivated vandalism of statuary former popes disapproved of or simultaneously shocked and thrilled over a particularly expedient act of desecration to an old document, he’s perfect.

Not that there ain’t action galore here. Langdon has been called in by the Vatican to help them solve an urgent mystery: In the wake of the pope’s death, four cardinals under consideration to replace him have been kidnapped and a bomb placed somewhere within the Vatican. It’s all the work of the Illuminati, it appears, an ancient order of scientists and thinkers now out for revenge against the Church’s centuries-ago crackdown on them and their heretical theories — the Earth revolves around the sun? nonsense! It’s a whole science versus religion thing, and it’s handled in a way that’s just a tad wishy-washy: Couldn’t screenwriters David Koepp (Ghost Town, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Akiva Goldsman (I Am Legend, I, Robot) have had Langdon admit he’s an atheist to the dead pope’s confidante/assistant (Ewan McGregor: Cassandra’s Dream, Miss Potter) instead of couching his lack of religious faith in such copout language? (Ah, but I dream: this is a mainstream movie, and Hanks has nice-guy rep to maintain. Though maybe some viewers will see through the copout and realize that what we have in Langdon is our first atheist movie hero… and he’s still the hero and a nice guy.)

The whole movie, most of which takes place over the course of the four-hour countdown to the bomb going off, is a literal ticking clock, a race to find the cardinals before the kidnapper can kill them — which he threatens to do once every hour in esoteric locations throughout Rome that only Langdon, with his knowledge of Illuminati lore and Church history, might be able to puzzle out. And a race to find the bomb, of course. Langdon is aided by physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer: Vantage Point), because the bomb is made from antimatter stolen from a secret experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva — nerd alert! science stuff! What’s cool, though, is that Vetra is not there merely so that Langdon can have someone to explain the historical and ecclesiastical stuff to for the audience’s benefit, because Langdon is there for her to do the same with regarding the physics stuff. She’s fully his equal, and that’s such a rare thing to see in a mainstream action movie that it’s worth noting.

Angels & Demons is engaging, rousing, and completely absurd. Good thing the first two qualities more than overcome the third. Though it doesn’t hurt that if a movie could smell tantalizingly like old books, this one is it.

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