While the first twenty minutes of getting us to this set up - including the plodding theft of the anti-matter from the CERN laboratories - seems unimaginative and a bit unpromising, there are, I admit, times in Angel and Demons when I feel Ron Howard’s yeoman direction and Salvatore Totino's Raphaelite cinematography ineluctably drawing me into the delicious tension of the movie. This occurs principally about twenty minutes in, as we start on the chase for the first clue: A church of earth, where one of the captured Cardinals may meet his fate. (The other churches complete the Earth, Wind, and Fire setup, giving us Air – Fire – Water as the other cornerstones of the Illuminati’s scientific faith). Never mind that this seems more like alchemy than science: or that this was the same plot device used to illustrate the final puzzle of the much more breezy and fun The Fifth Element. Howard pulls the suspense taught, the camera worms its way into dark corners and creepy alleyways, and the candlelit priests’ conclave is beautifully composed. It’s a religious scavenger hunt, replete with symbol and mysticism, and I’m game for scavenging.
Unfortunately, the clues in the first church turn out to be a bit stretched (basically, Renaissance statues pointing unpersuasively somewhere in the distance), but hey, there’s no fun if the clues don’t build. The second clue is equally convoluted, though the open-air Basilica does make a nice metaphor for Air. And the religious sado-masochism of the killings is intriguingly suggestive. But it’s by the time we get to the third church/clue – fire – that I realized that in none of these locations would we be provided with any greater mystical, or even motivational, insight. The beautiful cinematography and click-a-pace directing is designed to sum up to nothing more than pure ticking-clock potboiler, the kind of artificial movie deadline with which both Jack Bower and Dick Cheney would feel right at home.
It doesn’t help that one of the few key characters with whom we sympathize – and with whom a non-Catholic like myself can find a way in to relating to the story – meets his demise suddenly and early, and with no gleaned meaning.
Some moments do work quite well. Langdon finds himself trapped in the church archives along with one of the policemen when the power goes out, and they have only a limited amount of air. The decision of whether to expend air and effort trying to devise a method of escape – or simply wait for power to be restored – captures nicely the film’s questions about the balance between science and faith. As does the decision by Cardinal Strauss to reward Langdon for his service with a copy of the Galileo manuscript he’s been desiring for years. These are the kind of touches that gloss the story with a larger sense of theme and feeling.
Unfortunately – and this may really be the source material more than the filmmakers – the story goes off the rails for me with its unnecessary surprise ending, in which the true criminal is revealed. Though it makes sense enough plot-wise, the ending has been left completely unprepared emotionally and psychologically: the character has hidden throughout the movie as the complete philosophical opposite, and so the unmasking at the end feels more like a story cheat than something motivated by psychology. Yes, I know we get a brief two-minute (and rather confused) explanation of this character's relationship to the Pope, which might serve as his justification for what's been undertaken - and again, it takes a few minutes after the film ends to put this together - by orchestrating the entire shebang all along. But there just isn't enough told to us for us to figure out why this should make any sense - or even more importantly, why we should care.
Ultimately, the reveal at the end completely changes the film’s message. Whereas before, there seemed to be hope that the church might learn from its mistakes vis a vis science and progress, and adopt a new attitude, the ending reveals in fact the opposite: not only won’t the church learn, it will feel supremely justified in continuing to embrace its intransigent past, and to use any pretense to progressiveness merely as a further means of deception and control.
This, then, is where I disagree with those who read Dan Brown’s work as a palliative for religiosity. In fact, I see it as a scathing criticism of the church, wrapped in a cloak of consumerist mysticism. In Angels and Demons, Brown seems supremely aware that the church will view his work with animosity: if Langdon is a stand-in for the author, then his reception by church officials is chilly and suspicious, at best. And deservedly so. And while this story purports to be about how Langdon saves the church – and thus, in a way, is its deepest friend – the church he saves is corrupt and despicable and its core. And Brown's depiction of it is nothing short of brutal.
Perhaps, then, what is intended as Brown's palliative is this: that we are indeed meant to see that these religious institutions are in fact insidious, perverse, corrupt, retrograde, and deceitful. But the buildings are grand, and those Bishops look wonderful in flowing red robes, so we should love them anyway. And yes, though I agree that the robes are fabulous, I’m not sure it’s a message that works for me.