The plot: The Vatican, awaiting the election of a new pope, is rocked by both the kidnap of the Cardinals favoured to succeed and the discovery of an anti-matter capsule primed to destroy the seat of the Catholic Church. The crimes bear the hallmarks of the ancient Illuminati so expert Robert Langdon is sent for. As midnight approaches, Langdon and the female scientist who created the anti-matter scramble across Rome for clues to avert murder on both an individual and a massive scale.
Dan Brownologists will be aware of the interesting reversal that has taken place between the novel and film worlds of Robert Langdon. For whereas the book of Angels and Demons introduced us to the famous Harvard symbology lecturer and the worldwide smash The Da Vinci Code continued his involvement in fantastical intrigues, The Da Vinci Code made it into cinemas first. And though Brownologists may not agree, I am convinced that this prequel-sequel comes with a significant advantage in the thriller stakes: although it too is afflicted with Brown’s over-ripe writing and a tendency to alter ‘facts’ to suit his fiction, it naturally builds towards a gripping climax as the minutes tick inexorably down to assassinations and the destruction of most of Rome.
To begin at the beginning, however, Angels and Demons sees anti-matter stolen from under the nose of CERN scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) by a shady assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), at the behest of an organisation calling itself the Illuminati and demonstrating its bona fides with intricate ambigrams (words drawn in such a way that they read identically upside-down). Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is shown one of these signs by a Vatican official and hot-foots it to Rome, intrigued by the impossible re-emergence of the Catholic Church’s deadliest enemies. With Vetra by Langdon’s side at the Vatican, Inspector Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino) and suspicious Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard) of the Swiss Guard inform them that the anti-matter is hidden somewhere within Rome, Vetra revealing that the canister holding it in suspension will fail at midnight and lay waste to everything within a few miles. Additionally, the assassin has kidnapped the four preferiti, the favourites to succeed the recently deceased pope, with a promise to kill one every hour at secret markers to the Illuminati ‘church’. Given the blessing of the former pope’s camerlengo (attendant) Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) to research, Langdon and Vittoria find hints about the Path of Illumination in a treatise by Galileo and head off with Olivetti to find the markers, while the camerlengo organises the conclave of the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel; but the assassin is always one step ahead and the preferiti, branded with ambigrams, turn up freshly murdered as promised. And all the time Richter’s search for the anti-matter is tainted with his mistrust of Vittoria and the non-believing scientific world she and Langdon represent.
The Da Vinci Code was a bad film adapted from a pretty bad book, but at least it was faithfully bad and had the confidence to transfer the book’s nonsense straight to the screen. Angels and Demons tinkers with the source material to such an extent that the uninitiated will not have a clue what’s going on, whilst those who have read Brown’s novel will be equally lost, wondering what has happened to a significant chunk of the story. Gone is the kinky ‘hassassin’, turned into a colourless George Michael-alike with little indication of who he’s working for and a nonsensical demise (his car blows up – how original). Gone is CERN boss Maximilian Kohler and with him any attempt to address the issue of religion and science (not that the book seriously addressed the issue, but at least it had a go: the camerlengo’s self-justification is reduced to a short rant to the cardinals half way through the film). Gone is the notorious sub-plot about the camerlengo’s parentage, exchanged for a silly Northern Ireland reference to placate McGregor’s frankly appalling accent (so what if he couldn’t do Italian? He can’t do Ulster either). Gone are the BBC reporters, exchanged for random voiceovers by God-knows-who. Gone is the father-daughter relationship between Leonardo Vetra and Vittoria, the co-creator of anti-matter reduced to a partner called Silvano with a hurriedly-explained dog collar and penchant for religion, robbing Vittoria of much of her purpose; and she has even less to do as the film also dispenses with her kidnap by the assassin (too exciting?) or any suggestion that she and Langdon share an attraction (too unfeasible?). And gone are most of Langdon’s action scenes, the tension of his playing dead in Bernini’s fountain replaced with saving one of the cardinals and the (admittedly silly) descent from the camerlengo’s helicopter trip scrubbed out altogether.
In other words, Ron Howard, together with screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, have removed everything – no matter how daft – that made the book so damn readable and turned an entertainingly fevered page-turner into an incoherent mess that goes nowhere fast. As Hanks pitched up in each of the anointed spots for something to happen, I felt no sense at all that anyone was racing against time in order to prevent numerous catastrophes; Michael Bay would surely have been more comfortable with the silliness of the material and could have brought Brown’s over-heated prose to the screen in super-charged fashion.
As already hinted at, it’s not as if one can sit back and enjoy the performances. Hanks barely wakes up throughout the film as he spouts explanatory dialogue about who the Illuminati were and which of the geniuses of Rome were among their number; Zurer is attractive but desperately underused; and Kaas is merely a man with a quiet gun, prepared to shoot any number of cops but oddly willing to spare our heroes. Within the Vatican, McGregor carries no authority and the clamour of differing accents quickly becomes tiring, the characters merely a succession of squabbling clergy or by-the-numbers secret agents. The star of the show is undoubtedly Rome itself, and at least Howard shows or reproduces its beautiful landmarks to good effect; but you don’t get much of a sense of the city as a whole and there are plenty of tourist guide DVDs that undoubtedly do the job a lot better.
I can’t in all conscience recommend reading Angels and Demons when there are books like Great Expectations and Catch-22 out there, but reading Dan Brown’s novel is certainly the lesser sin compared to watching this lazy movie. At least the book of Angels and Demons might satisfy you if you want pulpy adventure and brainless excitement: the film almost certainly won’t.