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Angels and Demons

Rachel Winterbottom thinks there's a decent thriller hiding somewhere in here

Written by . Published on May 19th 2009.

Angels and Demons

You know how it is. You’ve just created a fresh batch of antimatter and somebody gauges out your colleague’s eyeball, bypasses the lab’s security system and nicks some so that they can threaten Vatican City with annihilation while it’s on the cusp of electing a new pope.

Enter Robert ‘I wrote a book about that’ Langdon, showing off his Ace Ventura-like prowess by detecting that an early morning visitor is from the Vatican and is desperate for Langdon’s expertise as a religious symbologist, simply from the way he holds himself as he walks. Or something.

The man explains that the four preferati – favourites to be the next pope after the sudden death of the last one – have been kidnapped by someone who has threatened to kill them one by one in the hours leading up to midnight, when he will blow up Vatican City with the antimatter. Evidence soon points to the Illuminati – a secret organisation who want vengeance for years of persecution by religious authorities.

Soon Langdon joins forces with scientist Vittoria Vectra and the Swiss Guard to go on a treasure hunt style race against time in order to save the four cardinals along with the entire Vatican City. All he has to do is solve a centuries-old poem using the four pillars of science: earth, air, fire and water. Easy.

Ron Howard (director of the brilliant Arrested Development) has taken liberties with his second outing as director/producer of author Dan Brown’s series. He’s weaned the most controversial aspects out (read: interesting) and instead focussed on Angels and Demons as a thriller.

Like The Da Vinci Code, there is a lot of exposition to get through, but unlike the Code, this doesn’t get in the way of the admittedly fast-paced plot. Instead all religious background is dealt with quickly and in passing, and there isn’t really the Christianity-bashing that went on in the Code.

Unfortunately Brown’s characters are merely handy devices to steer the plot and move it speedily along from one easy-to-digest chapter to another. It makes it hard to care about any of them.

Tom Hanks is so easy to like that he must have been pulling out all the stops to come across as such a smug bastard. Even without the inexplicably irritating fop-flop that he sported in The Da Vinci Code, Langdon still oozes superiority, barking out random factoids as he strides past historical monuments like he has an informational tic. On the plus side, for religious bodies, he makes it hard for audiences to side against the church. When he utters the trailer line, “Fellas…you called me,” atheist or not, you’ll probably be praying for him to be smote right there and then.

Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) is a typical Brown female lead character: clever, brave and hot. Langdon is there to solve the impossible Path of Illumination so he can find the bomb before the canister runs out of juice and lets the antimatter matter go kablewy, and Vittoria is on hand to change its batteries. Girl power.

Ewan McGregor on the other hand, gets to handle the slightly more complex Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, the assistant to the recently deceased pope. He’s a priest, he’s Irish and he can fly a helicopter. For Brown, that’s complicated. McGregor does handle the Irish accent reasonably well, but he remains so bland that it’s hard to recall he’s ever played any part other than wet blanket.

There is the barest nod to a love story. Langdon and Vittoria’s chemistry revolves around their intellectual foreplay as they bond over their shared love of unravelling ancient clues. But this is at best a clinical affection that doesn’t really go anywhere.

Angels and Demons revels in its irony with the threat of science to religion’s popularity demonstrated as subtly as a boot to the face. There’s the church's reliance on Langdon and the Vatican’s dependency on its swish modern security and preservation measures for maintaining its archives. It’s also no accident that the Vatican-threatening antimatter is referred to as the ‘God particle’.

This film works as a decent thriller with the required to-the-minute countdown, the inconveniently timed power outages, and an increasingly irate crowd awaiting the election of the next pope.

The murders are surprisingly gruesome and, if you can get past Langdon being an insufferable goit, the message of brains over brawn is a novel one.

But there's still the ridiculous ending that no amount of exposition or sympathetic string music on the soundtrack can excuse. Actually, it’s worth seeing just for that.


Angels and Demons (12A) is on general release now

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