Monday, 11 May 2009

Angels and Demons - A Review

When, last Tuesday, I got the offer of a free ticket to a "special press preview" of Angels and Demons, the sequel to the Da Vinci Code, directed by Ron Howard, I have to say that I found myself in two minds. Should I keep the moral highground I had been keeping since I first heard of Dan Brown's books or should I gave in to cheapskately whorishness?

I haven't read either of the books and haven't seen the first film, yet everything I had heard about the stories (the reputed lack of literary value, the liberties taken with history and accuracy, the negative effects on real places featured in the film that got swamped by American tourists evangelical in their stupidity) had been another reason to disdain engaging with them. In the end though, I caved in and found myself, that same evening in a fast moving queue outside the main Odeon cinema in Leicester Square.

Before entering the cinema (for the first time) and relinquishing my mobile phone (no recording device was allowed), I had to worry that I might no be allowed in. My ticket had to be printed from the Internet but, having taken the day, I did not have access to a printer. I had taken the precaution to take a picture of the ticket on my phone and the staff at the door was most understanding. Soon I was taking a solitary seat somewhere near the middle of the giant bustling cathedral, press pack in hand.

Soon the film was starting.
Tom Hanks reprises his role as Harvard religious expert Robert Langdon, who once again finds that forces with ancient roots are willing to stop at nothing, not even murder, to advance their goals.

When Langdon discovers evidence of the resurgence of an ancient secret brotherhood known as the Illuminati - the most powerful underground organization in history - he also faces a deadly threat to the existence of the secret organization's most despised enemy: the Catholic Church.

When he learns that the clock is ticking on an Illuminati time bomb, he jets to Rome, where he joins forces with Vittoria Vetra, an Italian scientist from CERN.

Embarking on a hunt through sealed crypts, dangerous catacombs, deserted churches and even to the heart of the most secretive vault on earth, Langdon and Vetra follow a 400-year-old trail of ancient symbols that mark the Vatican's only hope for survival.
This is where I order and start eating a big slice of humble pie, I suppose. Yes, there were quite a few things that weren't right about the film (more on that later) but I have to be honest and say that the two and half hours that the films lasted were indeed entertaining and that I wasn't bored for a second.

Visually, the film was stunning and both the modeling and the CGI recreations of Roman landmark buildings were quite convincing (apart perhaps from the Pantheon). There was even a very beautiful and poetic, and almost moving, scene towards the end (the one with the helicopter).

That said, one must not forget that Angels and Demons is very much a "leave your brain at the door" sort of film. It is enjoyable as a piece of entertainment but sadly remains without depth.

To start with, the plot is slightly predictable and not particularly original. Even without trying to second guess the story line, the thought of the location of the bomb occurred to me about halfway through the film. It was also no great surprise (read: non at all) when the villain was finally unmasked.

I can understand that the general public might need a few facts about the unfamiliar world the film is about to take them to but there was much clumsiness in the exposition scenes towards the beginning of the film. I found this terribly annoying and another concession to the lowest common denominator.

For example, Robert Langdon is supposed to know everything there is to know about the Vatican and its history, yet he has to be told the difference between the Gendarmarie and the Swiss Guard. Later in the film, he also seems to discover the presence of a massive obelisk in the middle of St Peter's Square!

All in all, it feels as if the writers wanted to cram too much into their allocated slot (they had to stick to the book, I suppose) and as a result, there is no space or time for reflection and for the exploration of the themes and ideas that are alluded to by the very nature of the story.

My understand is the Vatican are looking at the second film of the franchise with a much kinder eye as they did on the first, and it is easy to see why. On the whole, the Catholic Church is portrayed on a rather sympathetic and possibly not completely truthful light.

The central underlying theme of the film however is a very topical one. The rise of creationism (or intelligent design as it has been re-branded) in the US has brought the apparent opposition of religion and science to the fore of the public arena. But as, the baddies in the film, the Illuminati, are thought to believe, are they really contradictory and irreconcilable? Although a few arguments are voiced, the subject is sadly not really explored.

Now that I have been initiated to Dan Brown's creation and since the experience has not been that painful, I will probably take the opportunity to watch the Da Vinci Code, should it present itself to me. I will however not read the books. Despite the deficiencies of the film, it feels like the right medium for such story and I just don't see the appeal of having it in book form.

Don't rush to the cinema to see the film though; a DVD session tucked up at home one cold winter evening would probably make the experience more satisfying.

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