Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Angels & Demons

It's an angel! It's a demon! It's the camerlengo flying a CG helicopter!
Like the trite Dan Brown novel it was based upon, Angels & Demons has a lot of important-sounding things to say but very little in the way of real insight. It wants to sound profound. It wants to bridge the gap between science and religion. It wants to show that belief and logic are just two sides of the same coin. Most of all, it wants the audience to think that it wants all these things. The only thing Brown and director Ron Howard want are the up-front salaries and back-end deals.

Despite giving Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon a more conservative haircut and making the female lead—at least superficially—more intelligent and headstrong, Angels & Demons is actually more ridiculous than it's cinematic predecessor, The Da Vinci Code.

The CG visual effects, the true barometer of a good summer popcorn flick, are terrible. It seems the closer we come to virtual perfection, the more unreal it all seems. Call it the uncanny valley of digital imaging. St. Peter's Square looks good enough, populated with a mix of real human extras and digital fascimiles, but it doesn't have the gravity of the real thing. It looks a little distant, a little warped, like a meticulously constructed 1/16 scale model. The same can be said for all of the familiar landmarks that Tom Hanks didn't have permission to dash through, but does so anyway with a little movie magic.

Thematically, the film is a mess. And not a good, moral-ambiguity-explored-artfully mess. Early on, it presents a character who espouses the virtues of both science and religion. It is time, he says, for the two warring philosophies to unite. And then, after his breathless proselytizing, he calls science the "younger brother" of religion. Another priest is steadfastly against science while quietly campaigning for his chance to become the new pope. Which one is the ideal man of faith and which one is the villain who's scheming to bring down the Vatican? The answer isn't all that surprising.

The acting, on all fronts, is actually an improvement on The Da Vinci Code, where the performances were either wooden or overwrought with little middle ground. Ewan McGregor gets a lot of mileage out of the Camerlengo McKenna; right up until a last-minute plot twist robs his character of any realistically human motivation. Armin Mueller-Stahl succeeds as a cardinal whose self-interest is thoroughly realistic. I get the feeling that there's a lot of depth yet to be mined in Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (Eric Bana's wife in Munich). The screenplay asks only that she say stupid things ("Isn't it cold in here?") smartly, but she brings more emotion to her scenes than are dictated by the vapid dialogue she's forced to recite. Tom Hanks is...Tom Hanks, and you can't really argue against that.

The Vatican was right to ignore this thoroughly unincendiary film. The audience will leave the multiplex with nothing more or less than what they came in with. Well, except 138 minutes they can never retrieve.

Rating: 3 / 10
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