Friday, May 15, 2009

Angels & Demons (2009)

There’s an entertaining thriller somewhere within Angels & Demons, but it’s hidden behind a creaky pace. Tom Hanks is back, looking unusually exhausted and once again without his charisma, as Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist (ha!) who cracked the DaVinci Code. This time he has to stop a plot to destroy the Vatican. The movie is helped by the presence of a literal ticking-bomb scenario but why, then, does everything seem to happen at such a sleepy rate? The movie is intermittently thrilling but never really involving or frightening. By the time the movie turns splendidly pulpy in the last act, it’s too late.

There’s a solid cast of supporting characters. If there's one sure way to liven up a dull B-movie, it has to be: hire European character actors. Ewan McGregor and Armin Mueller-Stahl play officials of the Catholic Church who billow through the ornate cathedrals and archways with a grand sense of purpose and grave portentousness. Stellan Skarsgard is also on hand to huff and puff as head of security and Ayelet Zurer - as a bioentanglement physicist (double ha!) - gets to stand in the background of many scenes (sometimes she even gets to say something). On the whole, this movie is less ponderous and pretentious than DaVinci Code, which leads me to assume that director Ron Howard realized that, despite the high gross, all the people who found the first film a little on the stuffy side were correct. But Mr. Howard has not swung far enough the other way. This time, instead of quietly murmuring monologues of pseudo-historical hogwash, the characters shout it or gasp it while racing through Rome but it’s just as repetitive as the first film. “Blah blah blah cathedral! Blah blah blah statue!” Repeat. The film also helpfully reminds us of major plot points regularly, for the convenience of those who have nodded off between murders.

Speaking of murders, the movie manages to be quite bloodthirsty and the MPAA ratings board has had no qualms about giving the film a PG-13 despite lingering upon brandings, rats gnawing a fresh corpse, one bloody slit throat, and, oh yes, a delightful scene in which a man with a chest wound is given CPR that causes a spurt of blood to soak the face of our hero. And yet Slumdog Millionaire received an R? It would be one thing if the carnage here served a fun, fast plot but it's merely a sad attempt to liven up some dusty proceedings.

In the face of all that brutality, it’s a shock to find that the movie goes soft in other aspects. There’s a legitimate conversation to be had about the respective roles that science and religion play in modern life, and perhaps a summer blockbuster is not the appropriate place to have it, but this movie pays lip service to grander ideas, uses them to fuel its plot, but is never honest about the conflict or lack thereof. I can understand not taking sides so as not to offend any member of the audience, but Ron Howard, and his writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, downplay both sides to such an extent that a member of the audience could be forgiven for assuming that neither side has any point at all. Though such intellectual dishonesty has long marred all movies focus-grouped beyond the point of making any statements about anything, it’s rare to stumble upon one that, if thought through, has the capacity to make one question the basic meaning of life. If both science and faith are wrong, where does that leave us? It’s a good thing that no one goes to these kinds of movies looking for answers to life’s big questions (I hope).

Grotesqueries and hypocrisies aside, the movie manages several scenes of competent thrills and spills amongst some gorgeous production design. Mostly taking place at nightfall, the characters run and stalk through settings choked with atmosphere: cobwebbed caverns and shadowy passageways with dramatic lighting (and dramatic camerawork) accentuate the beautiful architecture of the city. The plot is appropriately twisty and the last act, as previously hinted, goes pleasantly insane with some last minute twists, some Vatican backstabbing and skullduggery, an act of self-martyrdom, and one very large explosion. It’s too bad it takes so long to get there. There’s a fun summer movie to be had at times, and if you’re forced to see it, there are certainly worse ways to spend two conspiracy-minded hours (see, or rather, don't: National Treasure or The DaVinci Code). I just wish someone had been let into the editing room to shave thirty to forty minutes off this thing to make it sail past its tepid attempts to tackle serious topics and get us even faster to the fun.

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