Angels & Demons: Howard’s Trashy Psycho-Religious Thriller

Filmmakers often claim that they don’t read reviews because there’s nothing for them to learn, let alone benefit in any pragmatic way.  Nonetheless, I can assure you that in the case of “The Da Vinci Code,” director Ron Howard, scribes Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, and the multiple producers have done their homework quite attentively and carefully.


“Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown’s first filmed novel, world premiered as the opening night of the 2006 Cannes Film Fest to disastrous effects; artistically speaking, at the end of the first press showing, the movie was “dead” among critics. (See my review). 


Many of us felt that “Da Vinci Code” was verbose, static, and boring, lacking dramatic energy and visual momentum, and except for Ian McKellen, even the acting was mediocre to bad.  But it was a critics-poof movie, and so the producers laughed all the way to the bank, boasting global box-office grosses north of $750 million, excluding DVDs and ancillary markets.


“Angels & Demons” was the first novel about Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, but this film version is positioned as a sequel to “Da Vinci Code.” An early scene, set at a Cambridge swimming pool, establishes the link between the two, when a Vatican officer asks for professor’s help despite past conflicts. 


How well would the fast faced, handsomely shot “Angels & Demons” do?  It may not match the figures of the first picture, but it would still be bonanza for Sony, which opted to world premiere the film in Rome, where it is set, before bowing stateside May 15, sandwiching the film as it between “Star Trek” and the new “Terminator.”


Tom Hanks reprises his role as Harvard professor Langdon, once again realizing that ancient forces will do everything and anything to promote their goal, even if it calls for cold-blooded murders.  The premise of “Angels & Demons” is rather simple.  Our smart and cool Cambridge hero, who had incredibly and incredulously cracked the world’s most controversial code, finds evidence of the resurgence of an ancient secret brotherhood, the Illuminati, one of the most dangerously powerful underground organizations.  This time around, the Illuminati’s target is the Catholic Church itself, their most despised enemy. 


I am not a fan of Brown’s prose as a novelist and so any changes from his books are welcome by me if they account for a better picture.  It’s a relief to report that most of the risible and lurid currents of  “Da Vinci Code” have been excised.  Do not get me wrong: The plot is far from complex or nuanced; in fact, it’s quite shallow.  However, the plot effectively interweaves some basic ideas and subplots so that viewers of all ages and creeds can basically understand the picture, without having seen the first film.   Indeed, disregarding religious arguments, quasi-cerebral ideas, and issues of family lineage, all unnecessary burdens on “Da Vinci Code,” the new narrative operates on the viscera level, aiming for the eyes and guts rather than mind or heart; it’s cold, mechanically constructed piece of work.  

Unfolding as a breezy if old-fashioned psycho-religious thriller, “Angels & Demons” favors plot over characterization, ending on such a preposterously compromising note about the co-existence of science and religion that you begin to suspect that shrewd diplomats, not artists or filmmakers, are behind the machinations.


Langdon travels to Rome, where he joins forces with Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a beautiful, enigmatic Italian scientist, who commands indispensable knowledge about how a cylinder of anti-matter was stolen from Geneva’s Cern Laboratories, and how the Vatican is about to be blown up by the anti-matter bomb.  Together, the couple embarks on a thrilling hunt through sealed crypts, dangerous catacombs, abandoned cathedrals, pursuing the centuries-old Path of Illumination, which is presented as the Vatican’s only chance for survival.


“Da Vinci Code” was criticized for its lack of sexual or emotional rapport between Hanks and Audrey Tautou (the charming French actress of “Amelie” fame), though it was not the actors’ fault.  In “Angels & Demons,” Zurer, an Israeli actress who may have a future in Hollywood (she could be seen last year in Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected”), is more of a partner, like some of the women in Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” pictures; it’s relief for the thespians and for us not to be bothered by romance, eroticism, and sex.


Like any well-crafted Hollywood thriller, “Angels & Demons” begins with a sudden event that throws the already precarious social order into chaos: The death of a Pope, a traumatic event that leads to the customary ritual of Conclave, the process by which the College of Cardinals elects a new Father.  Camerlengo Patrick (Ewan McGregor, quite appealing), a young, handsome follower raised by the late pope, is devastated by the news.  Holding specific duties within the Vatican, the Camerlengo is responsible for certifying the death of the Pope and also destroying the Pope’s ring with his official seal–the Ring of the Fisherman.  More importantly, until the election of a new Pope, he functions as the acting head of Vatican City.

Among the Cardinals are the preferiti, the Cardinals deemed most likely to be elected Pope.  Needless to say, the process is veiled in secrecy, with Cardinals utterly secluded until their work is totally done.
Semiologists beware: The only communication with the outside world is expressed through smoke released from the Sistine Chapel.  There are two kinds of smoke. Dark smoke indicates that a two-thirds majority vote has not occurred, and white smoke that such a majority has been reached and new Pope was elected.


Scribes Koepp and Goldsman have arranged for several interrelated subplots that revolve around conflicting organizations and characters that could be divided into aides, sidekicks, neutrals, and enemies of various rage and intensity seeking revenge. 


Take, for example, the Swiss Guard, which has protected the Pope and the College of Cardinals in the Vatican since 1506, and is known for perceiving their position as a sacred calling rather then secular or routine job.  The criteria of recruitment into this cohort are rather specific: Members have to be single Catholic males, age 19 to 30, at least 5-feet-8-inches tall, high-school graduates and graduates of basic training in the Swiss military, and citizens of Switzerland.  How many of those can you find?  In contrast to the Swiss Guard, the general police duties of Vatican City are performed by the Gendarmarie, an agency that handles public order, traffic control, and all kinds of investigations of kidnapping, assassinations, and so on.


In “Angels & Demons,” these groups and some of the Vatican officials are thrown together into a suspenseful maze, when the Illuminati kidnap the preferiti and threaten to kill one each hour, culminating with the setting off a lethal bomb at within the Vatican itself.  (The movie shrewdly plays on the uniquely historical position of the Vatican as a sacred as well as a secular architectural and touristy site.  No matter what religion you subscribe too, you do not wish for the Vatican to be blown away by an explosion). 


We also learn that the secret society was founded in Bavaria in 1776, with about 2,000 members occupying positions in the realms of art, science and government, before the group officially disbanded at the end of that century.  Some hold that origins of the secret society are even more ancient that the Illuminati have existed since the 1500s, created by the growing ideological tensions between the Church and prominent scientists.  The Illuminati (or Enlightened Ones) disappeared over a century ago, during which the group became anti-Vatican, choosing instead to worship the four basic elements of Nature: earth, air, fire, and water. Forced to go underground by the Church, the group is now headed by a mysteriously fanatical assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas.)


Does the Illuminati still exist?  Just browse through the Internet and you’ll find articles, videos, images, rumors and gossip about them.  Some go as far as to suggest that the Illuminati control world events, hold powerful positions, and are creating a New World Order to replace individual governments with “autonomous” world government.


Ideologically and religiously, taking a safer or less controversial approach, the movie depicts the Vatican as a business-like institution with all the political, socio-economic, and commercial forces involved, very much in the vein in which it was described in Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part Three,” in 1990.



It’s futile to dissect the plot in terms of probability, and Hanks is too smart an actor to believe in this text.  Those seeking logic in movies (Hitchcock called them “the plausibles”) should check their expectations out at the door. The movie is built on the notion that one cardinal will be killed each hour before the Vatican itself goes up in flames. And so Langdon is given practically no time to assemble together key clues and resolve them before being rushed to the next location.


Thus, it’s to Hanks’ credit that he perceives and acts out his part as if he were in a routine Hollywood actioner (usually not his genre), the way intelligent actors like Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage would behave in similar situations.  Having lost weight, Hanks is light on his feet (he’s even shown swimming) and in good shape as he’s often whisked from one murder site to another within minutes, without being able to finish his sentence (not that it matters).  It also was a good idea to change his long, bizarre hairstyle in the first picture; he looks more amiable and relaxed here.


A proficient, intelligent craftsman, Howard is not above using tricks and conventions of Hollywood thrillers and horror flicks.  In “Angels & Demons,” he delivers what the viewers expect from summer entertainment: fast tempo, senseless yarn replete with chase scenes and huge explosions.


I recently served on the jury of the 2008 Rome Film Festival and thus got a kick out of watching exterior scenes, specifically the notoriously famous traffic jams at day and night time.  In this picture, police cars race through the crowded city streets, always arriving seconds too late to prevent the death of yet another cardinal branded with the words Earth, Air, Fire or Water.

Like all recent actioners, helmer Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino are using the model set by Paul Greengarss in the “Bourne” franchise, moving the camera swiftly and quickly, capturing the right mood of their story’s locations, in and outside Rome.  A series of impressive action set-pieces build up to the big climactic nocturnal sequence in the famous St. Peter’s Square, which is appropriately dark and ominous and is visually if not thematically satisfying.

The movie should benefit from its ideological position and from the fact that the producers were allegedly denied access to crucial locations in Rome.  Catholic organizations continue to malign the picture, just as they did “Da Vinci Code” sight unseen.  But there’s a huge difference between the political platform of the two pictures. What they don’t realize is that “Angels & Demons” sides with the church and speaks against violent terrorists group, which aim at destroying it. Here is a Hollywood movie that can play it both ways in the name of peaceful co-existence between religion and science, faith and reason. 

Of the three big summer movies so far, “Star Trek” is my favorite, “Wolverine” the worst, and “Angels & Demons” somewhere in between (closer to the latter than to the former). 


Will there be another chapter in the franchise?  You bet.  Columbia has already optioned Dan Brown’s next book, “The Lost Symbol,” which will be published in September.

Paul Bloom contributed to this essay.



Robert Langdon – Tom Hanks

Camerlengo – Ewan McGregor

Vittoria Vetra – Ayelet Zurer

Commander Richter – Stellan Skarsgard

Inspector Olivetti – Pierfrancesco Favino

Assassin – Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Cardinal Strauss – Armin Mueller-Stahl

Chartrand – Thure Lindhardt

Claudio Vincenzi – David Pasquesi

Father Simeon – Cosimo Fusco

Lt. Valenti – Victor Alfieri




A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer/John Calley production.

Produced by Grazer, Ron Howard, Calley.

Executive producers, Todd Hallowell, Dan Brown.

Directed by Ron Howard.

Screenplay, David Koepp, Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown.

Camera, Salvatore Totino.

Editors, Dan Hanley, Mike Hill; music, Hans Zimmer.

Production designer, Allan Cameron; supervising art director, Giles Masters; art directors, Keith P. Cunningham, Dawn Swiderski, Luke Freeborn; set designers, Patte Strong-Lord, Jeff Markwith; set decorator, Robert Gould.

Costume designer, Daniel Orlandi.

Sound, Peter J. Devlin; supervising sound editor, Chic Ciccolini III; supervising sound mixers, Tom Fleischman, Greg P. Russell; sound designer, Daniel Pagan.

Visual effects supervisor, Angus Bickerton.

Visual effects, Double Negative, CIS Vancouver, the Moving Picture Co., the Senate VFX, Model Unit.

Special effects supervisor, Clay Pinney.

Stunt coordinator, Brad Martin.

Associate producers, Kathleen McGill, Louisa Velis, William M. Connor.

Assistant director, Connor.

Second unit director, Todd Hallowell; second unit camera, Josh Bleibtreu.

Additional editor: Robert Komatsu.

Casting: Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson, Michelle Lewitt, Beatrice Kruger, Debbie McWilliams.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 139 Minutes