There are rules to how thrillers work. One of them is that you have to help your audience buy into the premise of the story. Ron Howard knows how to make a good thriller, but in “Angels and Demons” he gets strapped with Dan Brown’s story of the Catholic Church in leadership transition. This brings up lots of history and a secret society. Add to it an impossible timeline to be maintained, and you get not a thrill ride but lots of questions about how logic would override much of what the movie presents.
Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, the hero of Dan Brown’s novels. Langdon calmly swims laps in a pool at Harvard when a member of the Vatican police meets him. He is told he is needed at the Vatican to help with a mystery involving the Illuminati. The pope recently died and now this secret society from the Church’s past comes seeking revenge. The story centers on the kidnapping of four cardinals who are in line to succeed as pope. The Illuminati threaten to kill a cardinal an hour. But wait, that’s not all. They also possess a vial of antimatter, which if exposed to the outside world will create a wave of destruction that will take away Vatican City and a large chunk of Rome.
All of this takes place in the course of one evening. It also goes on while the Conclave of Cardinals meets to name a new pope. This is a sacred gathering where they are locked away in St. Peter’s Basilica and are not to be disturbed or removed until the selection is completed.
Joining Langdon is Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a particle physicist who worked at the collider that created the antimatter. She has the expertise to nullify the threat of the exposure if she can get to it in time.
Into the mix add Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor). He is the adopted son of the recently deceased pope and also a priest. His office is to have the authority of the office of pope until a new pope is chosen. This man is passionate for the church and wants to ensure the safety of it and the people who gather in St. Peter’s Square awaiting word of the new pope. He is also an army veteran and a helicopter pilot.
The movie strains under the weight of so much narrative baggage. In any movie, especially a thriller like this, you have to suspend disbelief in order to go on the ride of the story. Here there is so much you have to swallow one almost chokes as the movie unspools before one’s eyes.
First is the whole premise of the movie. The work to find the antimatter must be completed in a window of an afternoon and evening. Robert Langdon is flown from Harvard to Vatican City in the time period. Add to that when the commander of the Swiss Guard (Stellan Skarsgard) is asked about evacuating Vatican City, he says he can do it in 15 minutes. We are told that the antimatter would take away a “good chunk of Rome” and this man can get the people to safety in 15 minutes? Plus, the Camerlengo goes into the locked conclave to lecture the cardinals on church history. As all this is going on, there is a ticking time bomb somewhere in the city that will remove it from the face of the earth. We are asked to buy into the frenzy of a search, but many in the story are so nonchalant that we cannot make sense of why all of this is going on.
Ron Howard makes great movies. He is a best director Oscar winner. Tom Hanks is one of our finest actors. He is a two-time best actor Oscar winner. But these two great artists need to walk away from these movies. The story has so much going on without any real logic to it that it opens itself up for easy criticism.
Thrillers work when one gets caught up in the manic energy that the story creates. This story does not create much energy, just lots of questions like, “How many Catholic priests are there that would work in a collider?” All this does is make for a mystery that is easy to see who the villain is and that takes all the fun out of the movie.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for scenes of violence, disturbing images and thematic material.
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on Dan Brown’s novel of the same name
Cast: Tom Hanks: Robert Langdon; Ayelet Zurer: Vittoria Vetra; Ewan McGregor: Camerlengo Patrick McKenna; Stellan Skarsgard: Commander Richter; Armin Mueller-Stahl: Cardinal Strauss.
The movie’s official web site is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.