Searching for Nothing: “Angels and Demons”
Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), who in the previous The DaVinci Code ruffled the Catholic Church’s feathers by unearthing a convoluted conspiracy and telling everyone that Jesus had babies, now finds himself recruited by the Vatican to help them against the even-more-conspiratorial Illuminati society. This leads to Ron Howard’s version of Die Hard 3, with our hero and their sidekick running around a city trying to solve riddles before a bomb goes off. Sound cool? It’s not, really. Replace the yippie-ki-yay excitement with some boring dissertation and Angels and Demons is what you’re left with. [Some spoilers after the jump.]
Astutely deciphering that a paper reading “Illuminati” (get this) no matter which way you read it (!) means the Illuminiti are behind the kidnapping of the preferati (the four men likely to become Pope), Langdon can’t help but throw himself into the excitement. Not so much because he cares about the church, but more because he’s writing a book and he’s really interested in this kind of stuff.
The resulting heaps of expository dialogue in Angels and Demons, though more quickly paced, is even more inaccessible than it was the first time around. Howard does nothing to extend Langdon’s fascination with arcane symbols to the viewer. In fact, a good deal of the movie’s Great Discovery scenes take place in a library archive; a visually-bland setting which Langdon is officially granted access to. There is none of the excitement of breaking-and-entering or general adventure found in similar movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or even the National Treasure flicks. A page is torn out of an ancient volume, but it’s not Langdon who does the vandalizing/stealing and there are no repercussions, so who cares?
Langdon, despite Hanks’s best efforts with brow-furrows and eyebrow-raises, seemingly receives no joy from his discoveries. When it does come time to actually figure something out, he asks a tour guide a question or requests a security guard to translate something for him. Whether pedestrian or high-minded, everything here is nonetheless academic. Langdon’s biggest discoveries are clues that confirm his previous hunches and focus what he already knows as irrefutable.
If I wanted to reach, I might say the film’s utter lack of mystery and wonder was thematic. The previous “progressive” pope has died and the world in Angels and Demons wonders which cardinal will take his place and what path the church will choose. It recalls the ascendancy of Pope Benedict XVI, a surprisingly conservative choice back in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II. Angels and Demons pines for a pope who might heal the rift between science and God and pushes for this by concocting a bomb ticking somewhere in Vatican City, the explosion of which would recreate the principles of the Big Bang–as a character says, if boring old science has Creation, what need is there for an awe-inspiring God?
There are resulting moments that challenge the personal faith of Langdon, one-off comments and quiet conversations he has with various religious leaders. But of course Langdon stays his course of empirical skepticism–it would be a betrayal of the film and the character to do otherwise. But the script nonetheless has to hint at it because Langdon has no other character arc, no love interest or anything personal at stake. This is not his church, not his battle. This crisis of faith in science is minor and small and never really a threat, but it’s nonetheless the best Angels and Demons can come up with because Langdon is not even a character, he’s a cipher who deals with ciphers.
After a few ridiculous plot-turns, the worst offence comes in the end; Langdon doesn’t even solve the mystery. Although he’s set up as a super detective (Langdon’s first utterance on screen is a difficult conclusion he’s easily drawn), the film ends with Langdon accidentally stumbling upon a videotape that solves everything for him. For all its hubub about science and religion, the story is wrapped-up by a convenient camera and computer placed in a giant backroom of the Vatican. If the church is worried about the consequences of humankind’s un-measured embrace of science, they might want to add lazy writing to their list of concerns.