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Angels & Demons is a worthy predecessor
Like the majority of readers, I read Angels & Demons by Dan Brown after reading The Da Vinci Code. I would venture that most people reading this review are asking the question, "How does Angels & Demons compare to The Da Vinci Code?" The short answer is that they're very similar. If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, you should enjoy Angels & Demons.
Angels & Demons introduces the character of Robert Langdon, professor of religious iconology and art history at Harvard University. As the novel begins, he's awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from Maximilian Kohler, the director of CERN, the world's largest scientific research facility in Geneva, Switzerland. One of their top physicists had been murdered, with his chest branded with the word "Illuminati." Since Langdon is an expert on the ancient secret society known as the Illuminati, he's asked to help solve the murder. A high tech X-33 plane transports Langdon from Massachusetts to Switzerland in a little more than an hour.
The murder victim is Leonardo Vetra. Not only is he one of the world's leading physicists, he's a Catholic priest. He's a priest who has adopted a daughter, Vittoria, who is also a scientist at CERN. This was the largest suspension of disbelief for me, a man who is a priest, a father, and a top physicist, but accepting it sets the rest of the story in motion. Vetra and his daughter were using the world's largest particle accelerator to create antimatter, and then suspend the antimatter properly in canisters so that it doesn't interact with matter. If a canister is removed from the electrical system which keeps the matter and antimatter separated, then backup batteries will serve the same purpose for 24 hours. When those 24 hours expire, the two will collide in an instantaneous explosion of unprecedented power.
Lenoardo Vetra created the antimatter to simulate the Big Bang. In his mind, this would show proof that God exists, being able to create new matter and antimatter in the same way God created the universe. Vetra's murder, though, allows one of the canisters to be stolen. The question of who stole the canister and what they planned to do with it is soon answered. The canister is quickly found on a security camera in Vatican City, with its LEDs counting down the time until the batteries run out. The security camera, however, is nowhere to be found, leaving the canister's whereabouts a mystery too. Langdon and Vittoria Petra are quickly sent off to Rome and Vatican City, to help find the canister and return it to CERN before it explodes at midnight.
Not only does the canister threaten to destroy Vatican City, but with the recent death of the Pope, the cardinals of the Catholic Church are all within the city for the conclave to choose the new pope. They are all about to be locked within the Sistine Chapel where, according to church law, they must remain until a new pope is chosen. They are awaiting the preferiti, the four cardinals from four different European countries who are the preferred candidates to become the new pope. While Langdon and Vittoria are trying to convince the captain of the Swiss Guard and the camerlengo, the Pope's chamberlain who leads the church until the new pope is named, that the antimatter bomb is real, a phone call is received from a man who claims to be from the Illuminati. He has the four cardinals, which he will murder one by one, and then allow the bomb to destroy Vatican City, which houses not only the church hierarchy, but also its possessions and wealth. He has no demands; his only wish is the destruction of the Catholic Church in retribution for the church's treatment of scientists and the Illuminati over the centuries.
Langdon and Vittoria Vetra are in a race against time. They dig through archives and ancient mysteries to find clues, which also requires an extensive background in art history and religious symbology. This makes Robert Langdon the expert tour guide through all this arcane knowledge with his congenial and scholarly fashion, doing his best to educate without seeming superior with his own intelligence. Much like The Da Vinci Code, Langdon understands enough about each mystery to go in search of the missing pieces necessary to solve each puzzle, which leads him to the next one. Vittoria is beautiful, tough, intelligent, and determined to avenge her father's murder and keep the canister from exploding. The two of them are constantly one step behind the Illuminati, and once it's clear that the Swiss Guard and Vatican City have been penetrated by the ancient society, they don't know whom to trust. This leads them through churches, fountains, crypts, forgotten passages, secret passages, and catacombs. Death stalks them at every turn, in one form or another.
So it's time for the comparisons of Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. In some ways, Angels & Demons has a more suspenseful storyline with the antimatter bomb and the race to prevent the destruction of Vatican City. Both share a hired assassin, a tough and beautiful woman as Langdon's sidekick who's mourning the murder of a loved one, and mysteries that require extensive knowledge of art history, religious symbology, and secret societies. Robert Langdon is a protagonist that you can't dislike in any way, with just enough vulnerability to go along with his intelligence and right amount of charm. Angels & Demons is a looser story. It takes longer to get going, each new puzzle takes longer to solve, and too much character background is given for too many characters. While Dan Brown's writing style will never be called literary, he's obviously matured as a writer between the two books. The chapters in The Da Vinci Code are shorter, tighter, and the suspense is never allowed to wane.
While some judicious editing might have made it a tighter and more focused novel, Angels & Demons is still a highly enjoyable read. For those who love plot-driven novels, and for those who love thrillers and mysteries full of strange bits of information that tie everything together, grab a copy of Angels & Demons and find a comfortable chair. It's time well spent.+
Holy Mystery! Mayhem at the Vatican
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: May 15, 2009
Since “Angels & Demons” takes place mainly in the Vatican, and is festooned with the rites and ornaments of Roman Catholicism, I might as well begin with a confession. I have not read the novel by Dan Brown on which this film (directed, like its predecessor, “The Da Vinci Code,” by Ron Howard) is based. I have come to believe that to do so would be a sin against my faith, not in the Church of Rome but in the English language, a noble and beleaguered institution against which Mr. Brown practices vile and unspeakable blasphemy.
And it was partly, perhaps, because I chose to remain innocent of the book that I was able to enjoy “Angels & Demons” more than “The Da Vinci Code,” which opened almost exactly three years ago to an international critical hissy fit and global box office rapture. (The novel “Angels & Demons “was published three years before “The Da Vinci Code.”)
This movie, without being particularly good, is nonetheless far less hysterical than “Da Vinci.” Its preposterous narrative, efficiently rendered by the blue-chip screenwriting team of Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, unfolds with the locomotive elegance of a Tintin comic or an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Mr. Howard’s direction combines the visual charm of mass-produced postcards with the mental stimulation of an easy Monday crossword puzzle. It could be worse.
The only people likely to be offended by “Angels & Demons” are those who persist in their adherence to the fading dogma that popular entertainment should earn its acclaim through excellence and originality. It is therefore not surprising that the public reaction so far has been notably calm. Theological hyperventilation has been minimal, and Columbia Pictures has not been accused of falsifying the history or corrupting the morals of Western civilization.
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, has found nothing worthy of rebuke, and who can quarrel with that judgment? In the busy, bloody course of the picture a few hot topical buttons are gently grazed, but in the end (sorry if I’m spoiling anything) “Angels & Demons” boldly insists that science and religion must coexist, an empirical observation elevated to a statement of principle. Both the persecution of Galileo by the 17th-century church and the more recent (apparently fictional) practice of murdering priests in popular tourist locations in the name of reason are roundly condemned.
It is such killing — undertaken by an anxious grad-student type in the service of an obscure cause — that naturally preoccupies the film’s scholarly hero, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. Langdon, no favorite of the Holy See and long denied access to the Vatican archives, is summoned to Rome to assess, and then defuse, a deadly threat involving antimatter, papal succession and the ancient pro-science terrorist underground known as the Illuminati. You didn’t suspect the Illuminati? Nobody suspects the Illuminati. Except Robert Langdon of course.
Played by Tom Hanks in his high minimalist mode, his face stroboscopically snapping from wry smirk to worried squint and back again, Langdon is something of a cipher in his own right, a walking embodiment of skeptical intellect who seems, most of the time, not to have a thought in his head. Once again Mr. Hanks is accompanied by a ravishing international movie star, in this case the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (“Munich,” “Vantage Point”). She plays Vittoria Vetra, an Italian scientist — specializing in “bioentanglement physics” — whose role is to serve not as a romantic foil for the sexless professor but rather as his sidekick sleuth and fellow panelist in a high-velocity interdisciplinary seminar.
The high-minded shop talk, half buttressed by real historical information, half floating in the ether of cocktail party nonsense, seems to be a crucial feature of a Robert Langdon adventure, and you can only be charmed when the symbologist says things like: “An obelisk! A kind of pyramid adopted by the Illuminati! If he’s going to kill, he’ll do it here.”
And as an exercise in extreme mass-market tourism “Angels & Demons” gives pretty good value. Unable to shoot in the Vatican itself, Mr. Howard and his team have deftly blended actual Roman locations with Hollywood stage sets and C.G.I. confections to make a dreamy, ephemeral Eternal City.
The costume and production design — all those red cardinals’ robes swirling dervishlike in the incense-tinted light, those sensuous Bernini sculptures and soundless library stacks — nearly steal the movie from the bland, dogged heroes. Luckily an international squad of potential villains and victims — you’ll figure out who is which soon enough, since Mr. Brown tends to let the wiring show when he rigs his surprise twists — has already carried out the larceny.
Just as “The Da Vinci Code” was rescued, or at least mitigated, by the twinkling nonsense of Ian McKellen, so is “Angels & Demons” kicked into something like life by the histrionic professionalism of Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skarsgard and Ewan McGregor. The three of them are players in a Vatican power struggle that takes shape after the death of a beloved pope.
His likely successors have vanished, and in trying to find them and prevent Vatican City from being blasted into oblivion, Langdon and Vittoria find themselves in a mare’s nest of hidden agendas and competing jurisdictions. Mr. Skarsgard, commander of the Swiss Guards, and Mr. Mueller-Stahl, a powerful cardinal, are obvious heavies, while Mr. McGregor has a fine time playing a wide-eyed Irish Obi-Wan with a wee bit of a messiah complex.
The utter silliness of “Angels & Demons” is either its fatal flaw or its saving grace, and in the spirit of compassion I suppose I’d be inclined to go with the second option. The movie all but begs for such treatment.
“When you write about us,” an erstwhile nemesis says to Langdon near the end, “and you will write about us, do so gently.” It was as if he were looking right into my soul. And how could I refuse such a humble, earnest petition? Go in peace.
“Angels and Demons” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some fairly gruesome deaths.
- Better Than Da Vinci
Angels and Demons was a movie that stood out among them all. It brook the rules and questioned a way of life. Angels and Demons I do not agree with A. O. Scott with this movie being not that good. Angels and Demons was a movie that had the action, dialogue, camera work and special effects.
With having someone on the inside of the college of cardinals and going after the next cardinals after the pope died it was something that was challenged. Having actors that are willing to do it and did a great job with it made the movie even better. Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer work amazing together and you could see it on film
With trying to make sure that people would still come to the movie with religion in it and still keep everyone in to it and on the edge of there seats I have to say they did a good job. Throughout the movie I was focused on it and seeing what was happening next trying to figure it out. Sitting on the edge of my seat with the action and mystery in it. Angels and Demons is a movie that any one that likes movies should see it.
– katie , nj
It's not often that the Vatican and film critics see eye to eye, but on the subject of Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code we could have held a useful emergency summit. Sacrilegious debunking of the New Testament is one thing, but there were far more grievous offences going on in the acting department.
Despite these combined objections, the sheer clout of Dan Brown's bestseller made it a massive global hit – the bonanza of over $750m in worldwide grosses must make even the most scathing critical salvos feel like puny thorns. Howard and his screenwriters have rifled through Brown's back catalogue to bring us the sequel, Angels and Demons, which benefits from the major advantage of lowered expectations. It's in some ways a marginal improvement, or at least something you can giggle your way through without quite such a sense of dismay.
"Ah yes, Pope Pius IX's great castration," notes returning show-off Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) as he's escorted through a gallery of officially mutilated statues. So begins the plot, which has this art-history boffin summoned by Vatican envoys in the midst of a grave succession crisis. The old pope is dead, and his four most likely replacements have been kidnapped and locked up somewhere underground. Meanwhile, a member of the Illuminati – feared age-old devotees of scientific truth – has gone to the considerable trouble of stealing a vial of explosive anti-matter from a top-secret lab in Geneva. Wherever it's been stashed, this will blow up at midnight, and take the Vatican with it.
It has to be said, Langdon's credentials for smoothing over this slight bump in the transfer of Catholic authority begin to look a little skimpy. Given his inability to translate either Latin or Italian, you wonder if the Harvard symbology department has seen better days. He is quickly embroiled in a race against time to find the four missing clerics before they are each branded with one of the elements – Earth, Air, Fire, Water – and subjected to a bespoke demise: the first corpse turns up stuffed with soil. It's a shame that the film's certificate can't allow it anything like the gruesome auto-da-fe showmanship of Seven or The Name of the Rose.
Hanks remains chipper to the point of blasé here, but the various suspenseful pickles he gets himself into don't confer much dignity on the character. In one sequence, trapped without oxygen in an airtight archive chamber, he must climb a shelf of clue-packed manuscripts and awkwardly topple it using his body weight. Later, attempting to rescue a stricken cardinal from his allotted doom above a bonfire of church furniture, he lowers him in by accident. Unintentionally, these antics take on the tone and rhythm of one of the Pink Panther films. When the soft-spoken papal Chamberlain (Ewan McGregor) pleads, "Be delicate with our treasures," we'd only need this bumbling sleuth to do a hot-potato routine with some priceless Etruscan vase, and voila: perfect farce.
Brown's book, written before The Da Vinci Code, has supposedly been pruned of some of its wackier excesses, but thankfully not all of them: wackiness is the movie's best hope. It's fair to say that the baroque mechanics of the plotting give it a bit more oomph than all the tedious tete-a-tetes last time, and there's always plenty of choice nonsense to look out for, such as a briefly overheard stem-cell debate in St Peter's Square while the masses gather to figure out what the holy heck is actually going on.
Still, epically silly though this all is, Howard's direction does its level best to dampen the fun – Ayelet Zurer's comely physicist is an amazingly colourless heroine, and the "twist" denouement involving the Vatican's CCTV system is guessable whole reels before it arrives. What pleasures there are in Brown's orgy of Catholic intrigue could only be called accidental, and tend towards the guilty – you may want to take a whip.
ROME -- Science or religion? Wait, there's room for both.
If the world could be rendered as simple as "Angels & Demons," we'd all be living in a less confusing place. Taking to heart the critics' lament that the first Dan Brown novel-to-film "The Da Vinci Code" was talky, static and arcane, director Ron Howard and his crew have worked hard to make Professor Robert Langdon's return a thrilling, faster-paced walk in the park.
It will be difficult for this papal mystery, beautifully shot in Rome and Rome-like locations, to gross less than its phenomenal predecessor, which topped $750 million worldwide for Sony Pictures in 2006.
Plucking the same violent, occult strings as "Da Vinci" while avoiding its leadenness, "Angels" keeps the action coming for the best part of 139 minutes. Scripters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman have taken a firmer hand with Brown's material. The opening scene, for example, omits the hypersonic Vatican jet that transports crack Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) from Cambridge to Geneva in an hour, opting for more conventional means to get him to Rome and into the thick of the action.
Although this attack of realism might disappoint the book's die-hard fans, it pays off in depicting the Vatican as a fairly "normal" nation-state, and not as some all-powerful SMERSH-like nemesis. And in the end, most of those who attacked the film before seeing it on grounds of its being anti-Catholic will have to eat their words, as the warm-hearted ending casts a rosy glow around the College of Cardinals, the papacy and the faithful throngs in St. Peter's Square.
But back to the plot. The pope is dead, and the Catholic Church is preparing to elect a new one. The handsome young Camerlengo Patrick (Ewan McGregor), who was raised by the late pope, is heartbroken.
Whisked to the Vatican at the behest of Inspector Olivetti (fine Italian thesp Pierfrancesco Favino), Langdon learns that the four cardinals who are the most likely papal candidates have been kidnapped. In Vatican security, he meets scientist Vittoria Vetra (sultry Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), privy to insider knowledge about how a cylinder of anti-matter was brutally stolen from the Cern labs in Geneva. It's child's play to put two and two together and realize that the Vatican is about to be blown up by the ticking bomb of anti-matter.
Into this futuristic world of protons and neutrons erupts the long-forgotten religious cult of the Illuminati, a group of 17th century forward thinkers who championed scientific truth and were forced underground by the Church. Now they're back, in the mysterious person of a fanatic assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas.)
Aided by Olivetti and the earnest young camerlengo, while hindered by deadpan Swiss Guards commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), Langdon goes about his semiotic business of pulling clues out of thin air.
The story line is brilliantly simplified into Langdon's search for the four cardinals, with Vetra and Olivetti as his sidekicks. His job is to find angel sculptures inside churches, which point to other churches. Black police cars race dangerously through the crowded Roman streets, always arriving five minutes too late to prevent the grisly death of an aged cardinal who has been branded with the words Earth, Air, Fire or Water. Hanks does a likable job of glossing over every implausibility, allowing the action to climax in gut-churning shots borrowed from cheap horror films.
Hanks fits more comfortably into the role of Langdon here, taking a moment to deliver some friendly one-liners. If "Da Vinci" was criticized for the lack of sexual chemistry between its protagonists, "Angels" simply refuses to suggest any kind of romance between Langdon and Vetra. Their total lack of a relationship is so stunning successful that it passes unnoticed.
This allows Koepp and Goldsman to concentrate on what the audience really wants to see: burning cardinals, spectacular explosions and incomparable studio reconstructions of Baroque Rome.