Signs Taken for Wonders: Angels and Demons Review (Spoilers)

ok, you knew someone was going to use that title for a review didn’t you?

angels-demons-tsr-poster-is-fullThe new Ron Howard-Tom Hanks film revolves around a series of signs pointing to the Illuminati stronghold and the key to stopping the destruction of Vatican City after the Illuminati supposedly steal the first man-made anti-matter. These signs point the way to a centuries’ old plot by scientists, some of faith and some not, to revenge their supposed hunting by the Catholic Church back in the glory days of political violence Catholic pharisee style. We are told, and continuously reminded through the desecration of priests’ bodies, that these signs will give us insight into the church-science split and a deeper understanding of the conflict between man and God. However, Howard’s vision of these huge concepts are far too literal in their execution. Thus Man becomes synonymous with Science and God with Church; faith is so much more than that.

The movie seems to lose sight of its promises even as it makes them. Instead of being enlightened by the uncovering of the various signs that make up the bulk of the movie, we get a series of quickly explained translations of signs in between takes of Hanks and his entourage running to cars and driving at a semi-moderate speed through town set to frantic music. It seems as if Howard wanted to give us Bourne Supremacy but could only imagine Scooby Doo without either Shaggy or Scooby.

Not even the pseudo-gruesome crucifixion tableau over flame near the “end” of the film makes up for how ludicrously predictable the signs become: Earth is a man buried in a tomb, water is a man tied to weights dumped in a fountain, etc. The failure of Howard’s imagination is never more evident than the depiction of the “wind” murder. The 4 elements as depicted have no meaning either to science or Catholicism. Thus imagery that belongs to a pre-Christian and pre-science world shed no light on the conflict that is supposedly at the heart of the film. Instead, the bulk of the movie is taken up with public murders that Hanks, for all his brilliance, almost never solves in time.  These themes were much more successfully explored by Val McDermid and the BBC series Wire in the Blood, inspired by her books. Since Howard is either unaware of how to bring them to the screen in a convincing way, or how to borrow from people who have already done it, viewers would be better off watching Wire in the Blood re-runs; Dr. Tony Hill is a far more compelling character anyway.

Pacing and execution aside, this film fails to deliver mostly because of a lack of understanding about faith and Catholic mysticism. Without this, the majority of the characters do not ring true b/c they have no real, visible, motivation. Instead they are easily spotted caricatures, with ethnic encoding, who under Howard’s direction reduce Catholic intrigue to little boys in men’s bodies fighting over who gets to harness the power. Failing to understand the majestic, Howard’s characters never project the “calling,” Hanks is warned about upon entering the Vatican. And it is that calling that is the primary motivation for all of the seemingly contradictory action in the film. Without it, the various characters offered up to distract us from the real villain are flat and hollow. They never convinced me, or most of the audience around me, that they might be behind the plot to blow up the Vatican.

The cynicism about faith espoused by both Dr. Robert Langdon (who never ceases to be Tom Hanks for me anyway) and Howard’s direction is especially off putting in this context, as there is no grander narrative to which their views are acting as counterpoint. Had these characters actually pulled off their roles as devout holy men trying to protect the legacy of a faith to which they are wholly committed, then the multiple images of the Vatican as bank, warehouse of questionably acquired treasures, an untouchable state, etc. would have not only been necessary but provided a nuanced look at the system of religion that perpetuates itself on the backs of faith. That holistic vision would not only have made these characters stop being so pathetically two-dimensional and obvious, but also made for a much better film in general. Instead, Howard offers us a lot of pontificating against the church underpinned by grand shots of priests in the throws of political mechanations and succumbing to any number of earthly conceits. (Though there is no sex in this film, Howard makes sure to linger on a statutue that calls this up as well. It is trite, amatuerish, and both uninteresting and unrelated – as filmed- to the plot.)

Despite all of these failings, Ewan McGregor delivers another truly stellar performance in the film that often saves it from pure ideological tedium. McGregor, who plays a priest with the power of the Pope, manages to convey a sense of faith and conviction that is utterly lacking anywhere else in this film. It is that faith and conviction that make him plausible as the grief stricken son, the concerned keeper of the Churches secrets and its holy men, and the pseudo-sacrificial lamb. He is compelling from the time he enters the shot to his very last scene. His insights and mechanations were always met with hushed interest by the audience in my theater who often openly mocked the failings of Dr. Langdon and the “bad acting” of much of the supporting cast. (By “bad acting,” I mean the failure of the majority of the characters to be convincing in their roles coupled with ethnic stereotypes that was a failure of director and writer and not actors who all did adequate jobs in their roles.)

The only time McGregor’s acting doesn’t out shine both direction and script is at a pivotal moment in an airplane when he has to pray. In that second, he lacks credibility as one of the devout. But it is hard to imagine how he could have conveyed these emotions in such an over-wrought, contrived scene, that is supposed to add momentum and only made the audience in my theater groan. The final moments with McGregor’s character are also a complete violation of Church doctrine that undermine his entire character, but here again the fault lies with the writer.

Other implausible and/or ridiculous moments in this film revolve around archival research. Much like my complaints about the difference between religion and faith these moments may seem overly specialized to non-academic readers. However, Hanks character is supposed to have spent several years trying to get access to the archives. He has petitioned 7 times and been turned down all 7. Yet when he finally gets his chance, he cannot read the text he so dearly needs to complete his second book?!? No researcher I know would fail to know the languages needed to use the archives, least of all a tenured expert from Harvard. No one who had petitioned 7 times to access the archives would enter them unable to read the text they desperately needed and be forced to rely on a scientist who wasn’t even supposed to be there. Nor would any famous scholar on the subject be able to school the Vatican on its own history without the basic linguistic skills to read their texts. And while the later is necessary for the audience to understand supposed church lore, the way in which it is delivered is completely undermined by Hanks’ character’s lack of linguistic and geographic skills at the core of his expertise. The academics in front of me at the theater burst out laughing in these scenes as did I.

Worse still, Hanks allows someone else to irreparably damage what he himself says is “possible the last copy [of a critical book] in the world.” No scholar would do that, let alone spend the rest of the film with a piece of paper so delicate it has to be handled in a special room with tongs and gloves folded in his pocket, periodically taking it out to reference. The page would have disintegrated long before he had a chance to decipher it and he would have destroyed the one chance to save the threatened priests and complete his second book.

Dr. Langdon uses this paper to uncover part of the puzzle all the while consistently reminding everyone that it was his female companion who desecrated the book not him. Later, he will destroy a whole book shelf’s worth of irreplaceable documents in an attempt to escape an air tight room. While this is understandable given the life or death circumstances he is in, his complete lack of concern for the rest of the archive when the air is turned back on is highly improbable. (The academics in front of me began a heated discussion about the depiction of archival research in this moment in which the wrote Hanks’ character off as a hack.) Hanks character’s self-righteousness about the destruction of statues’ penises (I kid you not, he actually has a speech about it followed by a close up of a fig leaf) and “Pagan” statues, seems ludicrous in the face of his own destructiveness.

For all his supposed expertise, Hanks’ character is also incapable of deciphering anything in time to save 3 of the 4 victims. His lack of knowledge about the basic geography of Rome does not align with his abundance of knowledge about the artifacts Rome contains. Again his disdain for the people around him reads less like the entitlement of a Harvard scholar than the pettiness of a man who can’t even figure out what direction a statue is pointing, let alone which churches might be there without a map. For a film that centers around the intellectual prowess of religious and art historians (Symbologists in the film) it seldom managesd to depict it.

Like other summer blockbusters Angels and Demons is a world almost completely devoid of women and people of color. A single black priest appears in the film just long enough to bleed out in a public square and another appears just long enough to help collude in the violation of church doctrine in the naming of a new Pope before disappearing again from closed/locked chambers . Given that the entire Catholic world has converged on the Vatican for the naming of the Pope you’d think Howard could have at least put Latin@s, Africans, and Asians in crowd scenes both in and outside of the Vatican walls.  But again, this would require him to know something about the religion he is depicting, which is not confined to the first powers of Europe but extends to much of the once colonized “new world” as well.

There is a prominent female scientist in this film. She is the only woman but is also smarter than most, if not all, of the other characters in the film. She translates the material Hanks cannot read. And his gratitude is to sell her out to the Vatican police every chance he gets. She also provides the evidence for who is actually behind the entire plot. Yet she is so “dumb” that she leaves it behind in an unlocked drawer and the security steal it. She is also one of the heads of the project that discovers the technology that threatens the Papacy and the Vatican. As a result, both Hanks and McGregor consult her like an equal for the majority of the film, except when Hanks’ character continually blames the destruction of the archival book on her and when he gives her a pep talk about her research at the end of the film complete with calling her “innocent” (hmm, childlike even?!?). The fact she defers to him when she is clearly more intelligent is sad but in keeping with this summer’s offerings. Basically the character never really escapes subtle gender norms but is certainly taken more seriously and given much more to do than in any other film I have seen so far this summer.

Ultimately, this film amounts to little more than Hanks running from place to place in time to discover a body in various stages of horrific death, while spouting random information that illuminates neither the reasons behind the plot nor the major conflicts of the film. His medium paced run around the city, set to fast-paced music, is then taken up by McGregor in the final moments, long after this movie should have ended. It fails as an action film as a result but worse it fails as a mystery. You should know who the actual villain is well before the almost 3 hour run time has gotten underweigh and you certainly will before it is revealed.

Angels and Demons was long. It was convoluted. It was contrived. And worst of all, nary a sign pointed to a single wonder.

If this was an episode of Scooby Doo, Hanks would be chatting up the locals while Thelma did all the work and a certain lovely-eyed actor spouted “I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you darned academics!” Of course, then it would have had better music and pacing.

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