Film review: Angels & Demons
Could the latest Dan Brown blockbuster be the best film of the year so far? asks Fred Rowson
Rome. Helicopters. Religious iconography. Surely it's got to be the glorious opening sequence of La Dolce Vita? Well, not any more, because with Angels & Demons, Howard, Hanks and Brown have swept aside that little picture, turning it into a cinematic footnote. Did the helicopters in Fellini's film erupt into one of the biggest and most colourful onscreen explosions ever witnessed by a cinema audience? Of course they didn't. Did Marcello Mastroianni, instead of merely wading into the Trevi Fountain, dive to its bottom, and save an Anita Ekberg who was strapped to a weighted, Lector-esque metal frame. Of course he didn't. Is, in fact, Angels & Demons, the greatest film ever made? Of course it's not. But neither is it the worst. It just sits there. A large part of its plot revolves around some stolen anti-matter from the Cern Labs, and in that macguffin, novelist Dan Brown and screenwriter David Koepp have found a perfect encapsulation of the film itself, which is cinematic anti-matter, sucking in its references and predecessors, yet giving out nothing in the process.
Koepp's involvement is telling, as he was one of the many (many) screenwriters for last year's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is, surely, along with its prequels, one of Angels & Demons's greatest influences. Yet, the Indiana Jones films (even the irritating second and ridiculous fourth) have a gleeful sense of humour. They constantly temper their pseudo-archaeological guff with witty characterisation, and subtle direction. Angels & Demons is an Indiana Jones film devoid of laughs, devoid of fun, and devoid of lightness (often literally - in order to afford that massive explosion, most of which is shrouded in cloud, they must have skimped on hiring a couple of lighting technicians: this film is as stygian as it gets).
Tom Hanks' utterly bland character zips from church to statue to church, giving an often hair-tearingly irritating lecture on European Literature and Art as he goes. One choice quotation is his identification of English in the Renaissance as a language used "by rebels, like Chaucer and Shakespeare". What's wrong Dan, don't want to throw Puttenham in there, too? This is one of the two central problems with Angels & Demons: it pertains to be an Art History thriller, which is a noble aspiration. The thriller aspect is, in fact, done reasonably well. But its references are such utterly common denominators (Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, and so on) that it constantly fails to do justice to its own aims, thus feeding the culture of blandness that it could be used to combat.
Its second problem is religion. There's a whole debate - often tossed to and fro in lengthy speeches by the badly accented Ewan McGregor (amongst others) - about the relationship between science and religion. It's hard to go into specifics, because it's hard to care when the topic is treated with such idiocy, but it does raise one important question: why is it, exactly, that the Catholic Church are so unhappy with Dan Brown and his mates? If Angels & Demons is anything to go by, Brown is irreversibly enamoured of the Catholic Church, its endless and amazing mysteries, and its mission of truth and light. The upkeep of the Church's beautiful brotherhood is the film's aim, one which it completes with great reverence. No mention, then, of the Pope's exacerbation of AIDS epidemics, his denigration of homosexuals, and his Church's lack of female authority figures. Honestly, this would be more forgivable if the film itself didn't proceed with all the steady determination of a man running into a brick wall. Why not just go all out and make Indiana Jones the main character? At least he might snog somebody.