Review: Turn Off Your Brain and ‘Angels & Demons’ is Great

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back in inaction as the Harvard professor and expert of symbols, helping out the Vatican in what looks like an ancient threat from a powerful enemy finally taking root. After the Pope dies, The Illuminati rears its head – stealing anti-matter from the Hadron Collider and planning to use it to convert the center of the Holy Church into rubble.
By  · Published on May 15th, 2009

I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code. I think it’s probably wise first and foremost when reviewing a sequel to admit upfront whether the first one was any good. Well, it wasn’t. It was tedious, had a false sense of action, and it baffled me that a guy as ineffective as Robert Langdon could stumble his way into solving one of the greatest mysterious in the course of the world without getting shot or tripping over his shoelaces. If the key question in the first installment was, how do we make puzzle solving exciting? – the filmmakers failed.

Thus, it’s with little effort that Angels & Demons (the only film other than Fast & Furious to demand an ampersand be used instead of the word) rose above expectations and got added to the short list of sequels that are better than their predecessor.

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back in inaction as the Harvard professor and expert of symbols, helping out the Vatican in what looks like an ancient threat from a powerful enemy finally taking root. After the Pope dies, The Illuminati rears its head – stealing anti-matter from the Hadron Collider and planning to use it to convert the center of the Holy Church into rubble.

This film succeeds where the first didn’t by creating some very meaningful action. The consequences of failure are some of the biggest in recent film history (minus all of the End of the World flicks). The deaths of thousands, the destruction of the religious center for over one billion people, not to mention the entirety of that massive religion’s leadership being wiped out. Failure is not an option, which definitely helps in creating tension. Plus, Robert Langdon finally gets to be active – not as active as John McClane maybe, but he still gets to play lifeguard to a drowning man, crawl through some fire, and bust through a huge window. Basically, it’s a 300% increase in actively moving the story forward met with a strong decrease in chin stubble-stroking.

Of course the film isn’t meant to be, nor does it pretend to be, an action film. It’s a thriller, hinging on the mystery-solving skills of the world’s foremost expert in symbols and whether he can detect where the Illuminati will be assassinating a member of the Preferati (the short list of Cardinals from which the next Pope will likely be chosen) every hour on the hour. Did I mention the stakes were high?

Unfortunately, as riveting as the concepts sound, the execution in story is lacking severely. If you turn off your brain for a bit, you might just avoid getting frustrated enough by the plot holes to dig your nails into the seat or laugh out loud (like Rob Hunter did during his screening). It would be impossible to get into all of the plot holes without spoiling everything, but the innocent details that stick out are basic structure problems. The group knows that someone will be killed in a different church every hour, yet after each attempt to save someone (whether failed or successful) they seem to sit around discussing something trivial until realizing at a quarter-til that they might just want to get on solving the next location in case, you know, they want to save the next person from getting killed. The other major standout that can be discussed without spoiling is the inexcusable fact that the film asks the audience to believe that one man kidnaps the four most important Cardinals, steals anti-matter from the most secure laboratory on earth, and carries out an intricate plot that involves traveling all around Vatican City without being detected during the largest tourism/news coverage event that the city ever gets. If true, that guy is the greatest villain ever seen on screen and could probably put his time to better personal use by shoplifting the Eiffel Tower or Mary’s virginity. The feats of ill-doing are so great that it leads one to believe that Carmen Sandiego is behind it all.

Even so, it’s a better film than The Da Vinci Code. Part of me wants to excuse some of the larger complaints because of how beautifully the movie is put together, how much tension is created. Part of me realizes that with so many threads, the movie actually has a decent batting average if only a few of them are frayed at the ends. Part of me wants to ironically call this a thinking man’s action film (since it has more puzzles than explosions), but I can’t – turning on your brain too much would risk realizing that the film is little more than a poorly thought out mystery. It’s a poorly thought out mystery shot gorgeously in a picturesque city with an Academy-Award winning actor, but it’s still grimace-worthy at its core.

Tom Hanks does a fine job, delivering a frustrating character that is academic as they come. He’s a smarmy asshole who knows his worth and plays his cards while not being particularly useful in a shoot out. You sometimes want to punch Langdon for being such a pompous self-aggrandizing know-everything, but you can’t deny that Hanks plays him perfectly. However, the most welcome addition – the guy that takes this film beyond its original – is Ewan MacGregor. His inclusion in the franchise is a fantastic one, lending credence to the story even when there’s little to be had. He’s charming, calculated, and seems blissfully dedicated do doing what he feels is right. It’s a decently complex character, and MacGregor gives him the appropriate depth. As for the other cast, Stellan Skarsgard is as good as ever, but in a very boring role as Commander Richter (of the Swiss Guard) who barely fluctuates from his hard-ass-cop routine. In fact, it’s more of a plot device to impede progress than it is a character. Ayelet Zurer’s Vittoria Vetra is a completely pointless character, intimating that there needed to be an attractive brunette female next to Langdon while he does all the work and Audrey Tatou couldn’t do it because 1) she was busy and 2) her character from the first is the last descendant of Christ, so she’s probably really busy.

The direction is brilliant, the cinematography fantastic, and the score elevates throughout. I could praise almost every aspect of this film in grandiose terms, but it’s all dragged down by the writing. With a heavy dose of convoluted plot details dashed with some requisite audience-insulting writing (the habit of a character saying exactly what’s on the screen comes to mind (i.e. prominently displaying a pentagram with Langdon wisely noting, “A pentagram!”), the film can’t shake that particular albatross no matter how many sweeping shots of Rome Ron Howard does.

Overall, Angels & Demons is a great movie with a bad story. It’s something that I would gladly watch again if it came on TNT (they know drama!) one Sunday afternoon, and I was cooking dinner or something. It is a major step above The Da Vinci Code, but it has a long way to go to actually be considered amongst the list of great mysteries. Or great thrillers. Or great anything.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.