Angels & Demons: Bad for film buffs, good for Catholics

Much has been and will be said about Ron Howard’s second attempt to translate Dan Brown’s novels to film. Angels & Demons, starring Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon the symbologist and Ayelet Zurer as Hot Brunette with an Accent, necessary not at all to the plot but to make Tom Hanks’ stiff performance more palatable, is a disaster of a film, but not for the reasons one would think, or the reasons most critics have laid out.

This movie has garnered almost as much hype as its (much worse) predecessor, The DaVinci Code. As has been reported on this web site, the Catholic League has come out loudly against the film, making one inclined to ask, Don’t they realize that will just make more people want to see it? Ron Howard has been accused of anti-Catholicism, of course; Meghan Sweeney considers, in her recent article, whether the movie perpetuates societally dangerous myths and stereotypes. After seeing the movie myself, I might agree that some people could buy into the plot as factually based and come away with a scornful view of the Church, but honestly, that’s nothing new.

The Church has wisely downplayed their reactions to this installment of Brown’s blasphemy on the big screen. They so vehemently condemned The DaVinci Code that it convinced many people its theories might actually be true – why else would the Church freak out?

This time around, it’s worth asking, is there reason to freak out? Is the film unfairly anti-Catholic? Should Catholics be concerned and take a stand against falsehoods, or should they chill out and recognize that most Catholics know less about Church history than Dan Brown does? (Or is that fact the true problem?)

As for the film itself, two words come to mind: utterly ridiculous. Those two words aren’t inherently negative, but in this case, the movie plummets from “trashy fun” to “complete garbage”. (NOTE: I will be revealing the not-so-gasp-worthy twists in the paragraphs ahead, so don’t read it if you want to be surprised. Although even if you don’t, you still might not be surprised.)

The premise is thankfully much tighter than that of The DaVinci Code; instead of unraveling the Church’s most sacred truths and mysteries in two and a half hours, Langdon is called this time to merely rescue four kidnapped cardinals and save the Vatican from an antimatter bomb explosion in an implausible race against the clock. No matter how many lives hang in the balance, there is simply no cinematic way to make book research heart-pounding, and try as they might to streamline it, the plot clunks along as Langdon and his sexy sidekick dash around Vatican City. Characters include the obligatory uptight Catholic officials who disdain “science” and put it in quotes, but the villains of the story are the renegade Illuminati – until the final twist reveals that the villain is actually a demented power-hungry priest.

Ewan McGregor plays the humble Camerlengo (advisor to the pope, and in this film, also the deceased Holy Father’s adopted son) who saves the day with an act of martyrdom. But wait – he’s not quite dead yet! His heroic measures cause a stir in the cardinals’ conclave, and they invoke an obscure ordinance that would allow them to name the Camerlengo as the next pope. He’s so young! He’s so Irish! He’s just a lowly priest! And he’s so good-looking! Here the movie actually puts the Church in a glowing light; the stodgy old cardinals are willing to place this progressive young hottie in the hot seat. True to formula, however, Ron Howard has one more shocker in store for us – the Camerlengo orchestrated the entire scheme. He killed the pope, hired a very intense hit man to execute the cardinals, hid an antimatter bomb in the bowels of the Vatican and then found it just in time to save everyone.

Um, what?

Here’s the thing – this reversal not only makes no dramatic sense, it undermines the supposed theme of the entire film. The movie has been promoted as depicting the battle between “science and religion,” with the Church standing in opposition to science. The Camerlengo’s ultimate motive, we learn in a conveniently recorded flashback, was to debunk the arrogant scientists who thought that they could march on the scene with their nifty antimatter and prove that Science, not God, made the world. He resurrected the secret society of the Illuminati as the fake culprits of his crimes in order to discredit yet another faction of scientists. When it turns out that the cute Camerlengo is just a cuckoo in a cloak, it takes the heat off the Church entirely. It’s free to make the predictable choice for the new pope (i.e. old cardinal from mainland Europe), maintaining the status quo with a benevolent smile and handing over a heretofore withheld ancient text (but just one) to Robert Langdon for his research.

Science hasn’t won the day either; one of the final scenes has Foxy Physicist questioning her role as Messer with God’s Creation. Even Robert Langdon looks like he might make the sign of the cross, just to make himself feel better, by the end of the movie. So where does Angels & Demons stand as – and I use the term loosely – a piece of art? As a statement on culture? Is it anti-Catholic? Pro-science?

The answer, I’m afraid, is neither. I have not read the book, and am viewing the movie as its own entity; maybe the novel fills in some gaps. But Ron Howard gives us a tepid, watered down version of controversial material instead of something an audience could sink its teeth into and chew on for awhile. It’s neither a think piece nor a successful suspense drama, and that’s why the film is ultimately just a shame.

As far as cries that the film anti-Catholic, I have to admit that they seem hollow and knee-jerk. It’s not a good movie, but it doesn’t bash the Church. In fact, in the film, the Vatican calls on Langdon to help, swallowing its pride at the embarrassments his previous escapades caused. Then the unknowing conference of cardinals is all set to break precedent and assign the papal role to a virtual nobody, in order to inspire Catholics worldwide and get some fresh perspective. It’s not their fault he turns out to be a homicidal loon. Even the contrived flashback tells us that the late Pope wanted to embrace the scientific breakthrough in antimatter, to celebrate it jointly as an advance in technology and just more proof of the greatness of God.

A few security beefs give Langdon a hard time, and it is implied, but never verified, that someone at the Vatican tried to kill Langdon, but he eventually has their full support. One sinister looking cardinal with his eye on the Papacy makes us think he would rather have thousands of people die than cut the conclave short to evacuate, but the same cardinal becomes the new Camerlengo and bestows his blessing and thanks on Langdon in the end.

It actually, dare I say it, makes the Church look pretty good. And that can be tough to do these days.

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