Angels & Demons

Directed by Ron Howard with Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, PG-13, color, 138 minutes

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By Carter B. Horsley

"Angels & Demons" is Ron Howard's prequel to his enormously successful film adaptation of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."

It is a much, much better film.

It is, indeed, a masterpiece of cinemaphotography and editing with almost every scene being surprisingly and brilliantly composed at a pace that very fast but stops short of being incomprehensible as were parts of "The Da Vinci Code."

The production design is absolutely dazzling given that Mr. Howard was not given permission to photograph in the Vatican where much of the "action" takes place.

What is truly remarkable is that Howard and his team have practically reinvented every traditional scene and shot and not simply by applying a "style." There has been a tremendous amount of "original" thinking in this film, which is certainly not a sin. This is not a Citizen Kane movie of odd angles and tremendous depth of field. There are some simply staggering shots of the great circular plaza in front of the Vatican filled it seems with hundreds of thousands of people. There are quite a few rather grisly scenes that leave little doubt that evil exists and which are likely to give nightmares to some three-year-olds. The spectacle and gore, however, are not cheap thrills and the plot moves along almost without blinking an eye - this is not show-off time, or can-you-top-this.

There are too many convenient "discoveries" and "suspicious" disclosures to make the plot complex and hard to follow but whereas this was a serious problem in "The Da Vinci Code," here they are almost irrelevant.

This is a motion picture in which the visual elements are paramount and dazzling and set tremendously high new standards in the history of film.

Tom Hanks plays the same brilliant historian and interpretor of symbols and non-Catholic that he did in "The Da Vinci Code," but he is much better here. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Mr. Brown that preceded the other book but the film is set later when the Hanks character, Professor Robert Landgon, is back at Harvard University where he is approached by a representative of the Vatican who shows him a note from the Illuminati, a sect that hates the church because it persecuted scientists such as Galileo. The Pope has just died and the four Cardinals believed to be the favored replacement, known as the preferati, have just been kidnapped. The Illuminati have indicated that each will be killed on the hour in succession followed by an explosion of "anti-matter" that was recently stolen from the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. The Vatican believes the professor can help track down the kidnappers because of his great knowledge of the church's history and symbolism.

In Rome, he is introduced to Vittoria Vetra, played by Ayelet Zurer, who worked on the anti-matter project at the CERN laboratory and is there to try to defuse it if it can be found before the battery that holds it in "suspension" runs down. Ms. Zurer is an attractive brunette who is similar in type to the lead actress, Audrey Tautou, in "The Da Vinci Code," although a bit more mature.

Crowds have gathered in St. Peter's great colonnaded square in anticipation of the naming of a new church leader and when the Professor arrives and is introduced to Ms. Vetra and the Carmerlengo, a young priest who was favored by the late pontiff and is in charge of running the Vatican while the conclave of cardinals are gathered to elect his successor. The Carmerlengo is played by Ewan McGregor, a handsome actor who looks a bit too young for such an important role especially since the cardinals look more than twice his age, especially Cardinal Strauss, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who is charge of the conclave and who subsequently appears to be interested in becoming the Pope himself.

There is little time for niceties and history as the first deadline is rapidly approaching for the murder of the first kidnapped cardinal and the Professor and Ms. Vetra, accompanied by the Roman police inspector, played by Pierfrancesco Favino, and the head of the Vatican's famous Swiss Guard, played by Stellan Skarsgard, who played one of the villians in Ronin, a film (see The City Review article) whose pace and tension are similar to this one.

A frantic and gruesome chase begins and the Professor's wits are severely challenged as he looks for clues to the site of the next murder, in part to save the cardinals in harm's way but also to prevent the destruction of the Vatican and much of Rome by the explosion of a tiny vial of antimatter that is conveniently shown on television in an undisclosed location. The police decide to turn off the power, one neighborhood sector at a time, in an effort to help pinpoint the location of the vial.

The urgency displayed by the actors in trying to save the kidnapped cardinals and retrieve the antimatter is pretty convincing but almost interferes with the spectacular scenery and sets and the frustration is akin to being given 30 seconds to run through the Metropolitan Museum of Art to gather a complete knowledge of all its treasures. Despite the likedety-split editing and scene changes and action - yes, there is action and a particularly efficient and very ruthless and mysterious assassin - it works very, very well. There are some perfunctory asides about science and religion but the film manages to be rather fair and neither anti-Catholic nor anti-science. Indeed, it is remarkably sophisticated about such niceties especially when public disputes over abortion still rage in the "real" world.

The film actually beings at the CERN laboratory with an impressive sequence that shows the "antimatter" being created and its visual depiction ends up being captured like a "sparkler" in a vial. The sequence does not waste much time in scientific exposition. The visuals are effectively impressive although most viewers will forget them during the course of the film until the denouement which is not quite as dazzling for its time as the universe-bending pyrotechnical pscyhedelics of "2001" (see The City Review article) but pretty memorable Gotterdammerrung, or whatever.

The professor is not the only hero, it works out, but all is not what it seems....The good news is that he gets limited access to the Vatican's archives where Dan Brown and Ron Howard may unearth further mysteries and adventures in the crypts.


This film is ranked 91st in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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