Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images, and thematic material.
Parental Notes: The violence in this film makes it unsuitable for most youngsters. There’s some fairly antiseptic gunplay, but the film also includes people being burned alive and old men branded across the chest.
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* May 20, 7pm: The New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of “La Cenerentola,” encore presentation. See www.fathomevents.com for details.
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“Angels & Demons” falls prey to the same flaw its predecessor, “The Da Vinci Code,” had: it takes itself entirely too seriously. For a popcorn thriller whose plot revolves around an attempt by the Illuminati to destroy the Vatican using a bomb made of antimatter, it has far too little camp and far too much serious business. If that doesn’t bother you and you enjoyed “The Da Vinci Code,” you’ll likely enjoy “Angels & Demons.” But if you, like me, prefer stupid films to be aware that they’re stupid, steer clear.
The Pope has died, and the college of cardinals is about to enter conclave to elect his replacement. Professor Richard Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in by the Vatican Police to help them solve a strange kidnapping: it appears that the Illuminati have kidnapped four cardinals (the frontrunners in the election) and are planning to kill them publicly, one per hour, before setting off an explosion likely to destroy the entire Vatican City as well as part of Rome. Langdon’s prowess at solving mysteries and his knowledge of Illuminati history both make him an excellent assistant to the investigating forces at the Vatican. The planned executions of the cardinals involve an ancient trail of churches through the city, and there is much interpretation of symbolism and poetry and whatnot along the way, and the tight schedule of the cardinals’ executions provides a time crunch for added suspense.
Langdon is joined in his quest to rescue the cardinals by the beautiful Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a scientist whose work on the Large Hadron Collider is what created the antimatter stolen to be used in the bomb. There’s also the late Pope’s right hand man, Father Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), who embraces Langdon’s investigation and seems to walk the line between the modern world and the tradition of the Church, and Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), head of the Swiss Guard and no fan of Langdon’s. Add the elderly Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to the mix and you have a nice collection of secondary characters to act as friends and foes.
As usual, Dan Brown’s story blends historical fact with ridiculous conspiracy theories to create a series of puzzles for Langdon solve. The problem is, Langdon’s solutions are generally either complete leaps of faith, stretching the thinnest of justifications past the breaking point, or so painfully obvious that one wonders why, exactly, we’re supposed to respect his intelligence when he didn’t figure them out immediately. It doesn’t help that he occasionally gets things actively wrong (a statue of a dove bearing an olive branch doesn’t count as a statue of an angel, no matter how authoritatively Langdon says it does) but the story rolls right along as though he were correct. This is a film in which facts are bent in service to the story, and whose characters are exactly as smart as the plot requires them to be. Good thing, too, or they’d have figured out as quickly as the audience did who the actual bad guys are, and then the film would be about twenty minutes long.
If you like pretty settings and don’t mind a plot more predictable (if less amusing) than a prime-time sitcom, “Angels & Demons” is probably for you. But if you enjoy actually engaging your brain during a thriller and prefer films that are a little more aware of their copious shortcomings, stay away.