A film review by Craig J. Koban



2009, PG-13, 138 mins.


Langdon: Tom Hanks / Camerlengo: Ewan McGregor / Vittoria: Ayelet Zurer / Richter: Stellan Skarsgard / Olivetti: Pierfrancesco Favino / Assassin: Nikolaj Lie Kaas / Cardinal Strauss: Armin Mueller-Stahl

Directed by Ron Howard / Written by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown.

TV comic/news pundit Stephen Colbert very humorously described Ron Howard’s ANGELS AND DEMONS as “the most anti-Catholic film since SISTER ACT 2.”  

That’s very funny – and more than a bit ironic – seeing as there are more legitimate and hysterical laughs all throughout ANGELS AND DEMONS than there ever was in Whoopi Goldberg’s nun comedy/sequel.   

My feelings about Howard’s film would greatly irritate him, seeing as he was trying to fashion his film as a fast paced, rip-roaring, and thought provoking religious-action-thriller.  Endless giggles and multiple, migraine causing head shaking throughout ANGELS AND DEMONS was probably not the intended reaction he was trying to garner in audience members. 

This has to be one of the most unendurably and embarrassingly dumb films I have sat through in a long time.  Rarely have I had an experience where the film practical jumps off the screen, gets down on its hands and knees, and begs me to incessantly mock it with frenetic glee.  ANGELS AND DEMONS hopes to tap into polarizing, real world religious issues and concerns, but the resulting story is so utterly preposterous, so incalculably implausible, and so lumbering in terms of its laughable abandonment of logic and practicality that it emerges more as science fiction than it does a searing drama that occupies reality.  By comparisons, the recent STAR TREK film felt more earth bound in terms of its veracity than the sheer ridiculousness of ANGELS AND DEMONS. 

This film has everything (and I do mean everything) and it has so much crammed together so hastily that – if I were not aware that it was based on a novel by Dan Brown – I would have assumed it was the product of one hundred monkeys typing away on one hundred typewriters.  Just consider the elements of this film’s plot:  We have an American symbolist; a secret, centuries-old God and church-hating organization plotting to destroy the Vatican; the death of the Pope; the kidnapping of four Cardinals who all hope to become the next Pontiff; scheming and manipulating members of the Swiss Guard; a clue-a-minute scavenger hunt that takes place all throughout the churches and art museums of Rome; a beautiful and intelligent anti-matter scientist and, last but not least, an antimatter bomb that threatens to destroy all of the Vatican. 

Whoa.  Wait a tick.  You must be incredulously asking yourself, “Anti-Matter!?  Craiger must be joking!”  No.  I am not.  I am deadly serious.  ANGELS AND DEMONS holds itself up on a plot that concerns an antimatter bomb.  

Anti.  Matter.  Bomb.   

The only thing more inane would have been the inclusion of a nude bomb, but that was already used for the much maligned 1980 GET SMART film.

Yes, I know that all of you physicists out there think that the relationship between antimatter and matter is one of the great mysteries of the universe.  Yes, physicists have been able to actually generate small, fleeting bits of antimatter in collision experiments in large-scale particle colliders.  This stuff is real.  Yet, when I found out how antimatter was incorporated into ANGELS AND DEMONS it made the film all the more unintentionally uproarious.  

Oh, did I already mention that this films has an...anti...matter...bomb?  

In the film’s opening moments we see scientists – in a remarkably unprotected and unguarded facility – rather easily create several plexiglass canisters full of that pesky non-matter stuff.  They hope that this could be a breakthrough towards a new energy source (yet, the whole matter colliding with antimatter conundrum would seriously hinder their progress).  Needless to say, a very peculiar and mysterious looking man manages to very easily break into the lab, gets past the security systems, and makes into the antimatter chamber to collect one of the canisters.  How does he manage to make it past security?  Well, he takes one of the scientists’ eyes literally out of his skull to get past the retinal scan.  He then manages to sneak out with the antimatter – without it ever making contact with matter – and later kidnaps four cardinals in the running for the papacy.  Oh…he wants to kill each cardinal in an outrageously constructed series of murders to occur at the top of each hour before midnight, at which time the antimatter bomb will ignite to destroy all of the Vatican. 

Now…how does the anti-matter not make contact with the matter of the canister?  Well, an explanation is provided in detail by one of the scientists in one of the many dialogue riffs that – if handled by worse actors – could have occupied an Ed Wood film: “The antimatter is suspended, there, in an airtight nano-composite shell with electromagnets on each end.  But if it were to fall out of suspension and come into contact with matter, say with the bottom of the canister, the two opposing forces would annihilate one another...violently.”

Am I the only one laughing here? 

I will attempt to give the rest of the particulars of the plot…as long as I can stop giggling so I can put my fingers to the keyboard.  The film, as stated, begins with brutal eye-gouging murder of the scientist working at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which results in the theft of that dang, pesky, hard to reach canister of anti-matter by the villain.  Concurrent to this are Vatican Cardinals morning the loss of the Pope and are now preparing to elect his successor (which is really crappy, seeing as four of their top ten in the ranks to succeed him have been kidnapped by the anti-matter thief).  Even worse, the kidnapper may be part of a larger group called The Illuminati, a secret society that has forever hated the Catholic Church because of their anti-scientific worldviews.  

Don’t forget: the Church persecuted Galileo.  Those bastards! 

What’s really nasty about these kidnappings is that the anti-matter thief will kill each one of his victims at 8 pm, 9 pm, 10 pm, and 11 pm respectively, which will culminate at midnight with the antimatter canister exploding, therefore destroying Rome.  Now, how does the antimatter canister not explode before midnight?  Well, it has a battery.  Yes, a battery!  It prevents the antimatter from coming into contact with the matter of the “airtight nano-composite shell.”  

The canister also has a battery indicator.  How fiendishly clever. 

Anyhoo’, the Vatican realizes that they need some help and fast, so they quickly escort world famous symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to Rome.  Thankfully, he is an expert on the Illuminati, but not on airtight nano-composite shelled antimatter canistered bombs.  He's teamed up with – whom else? – the daughter of the slain antimatter canister-creating scientist that had his eye plucked out by the antimatter thief, Victoria Vetra (the luminously beautiful Ayelet Zurer).  Thankfully, she's an expert in airtight nano-composite shelled antimatter canistered bombs.  The pair is, in turn, teamed up with a cantankerous Vatican cop, Inspector Olivetti (played by Pierfrancesoco Favino).  All of them are further supported by the head of the Swiss Guard, Richter (Stellan Skarsgård) as well as the acting Pontiff, Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor).  Langdon informs them all that he'll need access to the Vatican archives to correctly piece together all of the clues necessary to locate the Cardinals and find the antimatter bomb.  Thankfully, the new Pontiff gives him access…and the chase (as they say) is on. 

Airtight nano-composite shelled antimatter canistered bombs aside, ANGELS AND DEMONS is so insipidly wrongheaded in so many unholy ways that I began to lose track as I suffered through its 138 minutes (and the film is a stamina test at that bloated length).    For starters, it's never once plausible that the antimatter thief would go to inhumanly complicated lengths to hide his antimatter bomb at the end of an exhaustible and hopelessly complicated trail of clues that could only be discovered and followed by Langdon.  He's either the most ingenious scientist on the planet with a gift for startling observation, deductive logic, and epiphany or he's simply a construct of a plot that borders on absurd and then crosses the border.  Furthermore…why have such a needlessly convoluted scavenger hunt?  What purpose does this have?  Also, if you know that Langdon is the foremost symbologist on the planet and is hot on your tail, then why leave a trail of symbols and clues that he could easily piece together? 

The nonsense of the film’s egregiously complicated hunt leads to its other problems:  There are simply too many expositional scenes where characters talk…and talk…and talk…about what’s happening, what the symbolic clues mean., and so forth, so much so that it utterly neuters the narrative flow of the story.  This also effectively drains out most of the tension.  Essentially, we have scene upon scene of characters running, driving, running, stopping to talk, followed by more scenes of running, driving, running, stopping to talk...etc..  The characters move fast, but they seem go nowhere (once Langdon finds a clue and deciphers it, that unavoidably opens up the doors to another elaborately constructed clue, and this dreary cycle continues for what appears to be an eternity).  After a while you just start to chuckle at the stunning coincidences and contrivances of the plot, not to mention how it desperately over-telegraphs certain characters’ complicity – or lack thereof - with the kidnapping and bomb plot.  ANGELS AND DEMONS thinks it’s smarter than its audience, which shows an alarming disdain for them in hindsight.

The dialogue exchanges, which are aplenty, are frequent howlers.  Characters frequently spout out cookie-cutter lines like, “My God, but of course!"  and “It’s over here!" and “If I could just get access to…” and so on.  Perhaps my favorite has one character, in reference to the Illuminati, state, “They have struck us from within and threatening us all with destruction from their new god: Science!”  


The performances don’t help much.  If any, I did like a few, like Stellan Skarsgård’s menacing mug, as well as the great, raspy inflections of Armin Mueller-Stahl (who may take Morgan Freeman’s crown away as "Best Voice in the Movies") as a smooth talking and vigilant elder Cardinal.  Ewan McGregor shows zeal and an undercranked passion with his tricky part of the very young Pontiff.  Unfortunately, that’s where the praise ends.  Ayelet Zurer, as mentioned, is a luscious feast for the eyes, but she has little to do other than to engage in banal dialogue exchanges with Hanks’ Langdon.  She does not serve any real purpose here, other than to have a pretty face opposite of Hanks (granted, she is the film’s requisite expert in airtight nano-composite shelled antimatter canistered bombs).  And – heaven help me – but is Langdon the most inert, dull, and robotic character that the usually assured and urbane Hanks has ever played?  To see him slum his way through tired dialogue and perfunctory chase sequences – without so much as a hint of humanistic soul or emotive vitality – is the biggest sin of ANGELS AND DEMONS.  Hanks, alas, has nothing to prove (he is one of the most reliable and likeable actors of the cinema), but he's so stranded in the one-dimensional and uninteresting persona of Langdon that it almost appears that he’s secretly whispering an SOS call to the audience…through his large paycheck, no less.  Langdon never emerges as anything beyond a pretentious bore.  

Director Ron Howard should also be admonished for allowing his good name and reputation to be part of this disaster.  On a positive, this is perhaps the best looking film that includes Vatican and Rome locations that – for the most part – were not shot on location that I’ve seen: it’s certainly a triumph of high tech movie fakery.  The real life Vatican – in direct response to the last Langdon adventure, THE DA VINCI CODE – banned Howard and company from filming on Vatican grounds or around any church.  Howard, of course, very publicly cried foul…but…c’mon Ronnie…if you can reasonably re-create the Apollo moon missions, Great Depression era cityscapes, and the colorful and otherworldly aesthetic of a classic Dr. Suess story (as you did in three previous films) then recreating St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel is a piece of cake.  If anything, Howard and his production and visual effects team do a bravura job here with immersing viewers in the locations.  Beyond that, Howard’s participation here feels more out of contractual obligation than it does out of fierce and determined artistic drive.  ANGELS AND DEMONS is one of his least passionately directed efforts. 

Oh…before I forget…I will reiterate that ANGELS AND DEMONS is based on the best-selling book by Dan Brown, whom also penned THE DA VINCI CODE, which also was made into a film by Ron Howard.  That 2006 film was met by vast Christian protests who were infuriated at that story’s sleazy plot (what if Jesus "got busy” with Mary Magdalene and had babies, whose bloodline could be felt even today, but only to be covered up by the Church?).  Yet, I approach the controversy that ANGELS AND DEMONS is also getting with the same bewilderment that I had in the wake of THE DA  VINCI CODE’s release.  To view these unreservedly silly, overwrought, indescribably hooky and pitifully inane works of pure fantasy as “blasphemous” and ”sacrilegious” is the epitome of blind and short sided naivety.  These films are an abomination to organized faith?  C’mon.  However, maybe members of the Vatican listened to me, seeing as their own in-house film reviewer writing for L'Osservatore Romano actually took the time to screen ANGELS AND DEMONS and labeled it as “harmless entertainment” that hardly affects the genius and mystery of Christianity.”  

Amen to the writer of L'Osservatore Romano, who clearly felt more forgiving than I am now with the film.  ANGELS AND DEMONS is not just a bloated, cheesy, messy, talent-wasting, and guffaw-inducing summer movie bomb that dives into flabbergasting looniness...it's a special type of bomb.

One of the airtight nano-composite shelled antimatter canistered variety.

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