What Happened?

A few years after The Da Vinci Code hit theatres, Ron Howard returns with his next instalment of religious hocus-pocus in the form of Angels & Demons. It must be said that the sequel makes for a better thriller, mainly due to the fact that it feels more down to earth than theoretical. Of course, since another Robert Langdon adventure was readily available in book format, a film sequel was almost guaranteed. That is, provided that Howard does not transcribe film from book entirely, for the book “Angels & Demons” was nothing short of demonic; the same protagonist cut from the same boring cloth, followed by a bunch of stock characters, made on the grounds of pseudo-art and religious history. Essentially, it is a treasure hunt ranging from sham-like historical facts to different buildings and people that ultimately leads to Jesus Christ. In Angels & Demons, the story evolves from treasure hunt to murder mystery. It works well with the impetus. Contrary to author Dan Brown’s forlorn method of historical accuracy, Ron Howard injects theatricality into the Vatican City.

On the American dollar bill, at the top of the pyramid, lies the eye of providence tracing back to its Masonic roots. Conspiracy theorists would label this as a sign of the Illuminati however, claiming that something of great importance is at play here. While Robert Langdon is idling at Harvard, the Pope mysteriously dies. Furthermore, the Illuminati cult returns after kidnapping four Cardinals (favourites to become the next Pope), hell-bent on the destruction of the church, obviously. One Cardinal will be murdered every hour until midnight. Then, Rome will explode, courtesy of an antimatter device stolen from CERN. Such treacherous waters can only be navigated by someone knowledgeable in ancient symbols/clues leading to the Illuminati. Langdon is still at Harvard when the Vatican comes knocking, his exploits from The Da Vinci Code fresh in all Catholics’ minds. He is joined by Vittoria Vetra, the inventor of the antimatter device, and they go on a merry-go-round trip around Rome in search of the Cardinals.

In terms of character, Langdon feels one-dimensional. This is not a compliment. Perhaps Tom Hanks does a good enough job in keeping the character relevant (he is the main character after all), but almost nothing suggests him being the protagonist. While Langdon is high and around the clouds talking in fancy catholic jargon, the audience is grounded – Langdon always feels like he is a world of his own. In both this film and the prequel, he is paired up with a female sidekick of sorts. Sophie Neveu and Vittoria Vetra are in no way love interests for Langdon, which is fine, but the character could do better with something to ground him. For example, some kind of personality flaw could do wonders for pseudo-religious films. Think Noah or Silence. Langdon also claims to be an agnostic. Throughout the storyline, one minute he chooses from a plateau de fruits de mer of historical background facts to spray out whenever academically necessary, then he dresses in a priest’s shirt. The outfit suits him, but long story short, Langdon is a pretty boring character.

As an adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel, its original device is not only adequately maintained, it is even improved upon. Angels & Demons can be lauded; the film’s straightforwardness and simplicity are refreshing. From the get go, the imminent danger is clear: there is a bomb awaiting them.

Alfred Hitchcock gives an explanation on the suspense apparatus.

Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!” In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

The film’s straightforwardness also poses a problem with pacing. Langdon’s character may have been boring, yet the film feels a bit too incredible to believe, even for the religious eyes. One day Langdon is swimming in Harvard, and on the very same day, he is in Rome chasing after the Illuminati. After Langdon solves an impossibly difficult Catholic riddle, he is in the car, getting ready to go to the next mystery scene. There is literally no time for a breather. The carnival goes on and on. It is safe to say that the majority of the audience are not Catholic scholars, so they would have to just take Langdon’s word for everything, though he is right about most facts. Character development is almost non-existent, except for maybe Langdon becoming a bit more religious by the end.

What is painful about a film with admittedly potential is the fact that it fails to learn from its previous mistakes. The lack of engagement from Angels & Demons was present in The Da Vinci Code as well. Langdon is literally just a walking encyclopedia with no character development of his own. Character development creates context. In a good story, character-driven or not, the main character drives the story forward with their decisions, and what they want and a little bit about how they think in order to understand the stakes are important, why they make the choices they do, and why the audience should care. On some level, character development also helps create a unique sense of voice in a character, which can make them more memorable or entertaining. Getting to know a character creates empathy and investment, something Langdon does not. He is more akin to a tour guide running around ancient churches.

The film is gorgeous to look at however. Ron Howard easily makes the Vatican setting recognizable; everyone is wearing the appropriate costume and the architecture is stunning. Follow it up with Hans Zimmer’s score, one look at Angels & Demons and one can tell that it is related to the church. Shortly after the film’s release, there was interest cast towards CERN’s production of antimatter, with a price tag of about $62.5 trillion per gram. Aptly named the “god particle”, this small particle could compromise and indubitably disprove creationism, its involvement in the destruction of the Vatican is to say the least, poetic. It is one of those science vs religion conversations again, which ends in a stalemate. The theme was more so that science could go hand in hand with religion.

Till this day, science and religion continue to bicker at each other. Abortion. Stem cell research. Creationism. The commentaries of both sides feel so aloof that neither side really benefits from the film, which is again, alright. The problem is, the ending message does not quite resonate with the audience as much.

Religion is flawed. But only because man is flawed. Including this one.

Still, Angels & Demons can be considered decent. What remains is a watchable and enjoyable thriller with expected plot holes. The film drags on for perhaps too long, improves the appeal of its central character, presents an involving mystery, and entertains without becoming preachy or overly revelatory. Don’t expect any more than that.

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