It’s Hard Out There for a Symbologist

Tom Hanks returns in a sequel to The Da Vinci Code.

Also in Slate: George Johnson examines the Catholic Church’s long history with Illuminati conspiracy theories.

Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer in Angels & Demons

Fire up the faux- Carl Orff generator and brush off your chasuble! It’s time for Angels & Demons (Columbia Pictures), the inevitable sequel to The Da Vinci Code, Ron Howard’s adaptation of the mega-best-selling occult thriller by Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code was turgid to the point of unwatchability, yet it grossed $750 million worldwide, testifying to a universal human appetite for arcane conspiracy theories, imaginatively murdered clergymen, and Tom Hanks.

In Angels & Demons, Howard makes some gestures of reparation toward the critics who protested The Da Vinci Code’s deadly pacing. Instead of having Hanks and his love interest stand around in a series of dusty churches, he has them rush really fast through a series of dusty churches. But really, there was no need to tinker. Angels & Demons doesn’t have to do good works to get to box office heaven. Its salvation will come through the faith of its audience alone.

Two weeks after the sudden death of a “progressive pope” (there goes the movie’s credibility right there), a canister containing deadly antimatter is stolen from a supercollider in Switzerland. Soon after, the preferiti—the four cardinals considered most likely to be named the pope’s successor—are kidnapped from the Vatican and held hostage by a madman (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Because the ransom notes reference the Illuminati, an ancient anti-clerical sect, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in for consultation, though the church is still wary of him after that whole Jesus-had-kids thing. Soon Langdon, aided by Italian biophysicist Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), deduces that the kidnapper has placed the doomsday device somewhere in the Vatican and plans to kill one cardinal per hour before detonating it at midnight.

If only Angels & Demons were as rollickingly silly as that plot summary makes it sound. In its last 20 minutes, Angels does attain the status of good bad movie, with a transcendently absurd climax that’s great fun to rehash later over burgers. Unfortunately, the only part I can summarize without spoilers is the dull first hour and a half, in which Hanks and Zurer race around Rome having impenetrable conversations in front of world-historical art treasures. Take my advice and stop trying to keep up with their investigation; just let the words pentagram and apse and camerlengo wash over you pleasantly as you ogle the Bernini statues and coffered ceilings.

An unintentionally sad passage in the film’s production notes details how the presence of Hanks & company on location distracted passing tourists from the grandeur that was Rome: “A simple shot of Hanks and Zurer walking across the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon attracted hundreds of onlookers who often had their backs to the ancient Roman temple […] just to photograph the filming.” Lavish as the settings are (the movie was filmed partly on location, partly on digitally augmented back lots), Howard often treats the city in a similarly crass manner: The Sistine Chapel and the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi are just backdrops against which to stage the either banal or horrifically violent action.

Though the PG 13-rated Angels & Demons thinks nothing of showing bodies being branded, tortured, and burned alive, the film exhibits a monkish restraint when it comes to bodies enjoying themselves. As in The Da Vinci Code, Howard makes the curious choice of pairing Hanks with a beautiful female sidekick while depriving their interactions of the slightest erotic charge. In the first movie, I guess the sexlessness made some sense. (Though if Jesus himself got it on, why shouldn’t his sole living descendant?) But Robert and Vittoria are two nondivine consenting adults facing what may be their last night on earth, and the naughtiest thing they do together is rip a page out of an ancient text by Galileo.

Ewan McGregor, as an Irish priest beloved of the deceased pontiff; Stellan Skarsgard, as the head of the Swiss Guard; and Armin Mueller-Stahl, as a cardinal high in the Vatican hierarchy, all stomp gamely around the Holy See, trying not to telegraph the plot twists that will reveal whether they’re demons or angels. And in those aforementioned final minutes—Lord, deliver me from the temptation to spoil them!—McGregor’s priest gets to have what I can only describe as the busiest evening of any movie character in memory. If nothing else, Angels & Demons proves that, as McGuffins go, a cylinder of antimatter is more fun than the Holy Grail.

Slate V: The Critics on Angels & Demons, The Brothers Bloom, and Management