Cardinals, Conspiracies And A Crock Or Two

Tom Hanks i

Back in black: Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon to save the church from the Illuminati. Sony/Columbia hide caption

itoggle caption Sony/Columbia
Tom Hanks

Back in black: Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon to save the church from the Illuminati.

Sony/Columbia

Angels & Demons

  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Running Time: 140 minutes

Rated PG-13: Violence, disturbing images and thematic material

With: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Armin Mueller-Stahl

Ayelet Zurer in 'Angels and Demons' i

Dark mater? Biophysicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) has lost track of a crucial canister of antimatter. hide caption

itoggle caption
Ayelet Zurer in 'Angels and Demons'

Dark mater? Biophysicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) has lost track of a crucial canister of antimatter.

Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ewan McGregor i

The sound of science: The papal camerlengo (Ewan McGregor, right, with Armin Mueller-Stahl) makes persuasive arguments about science — and its apparent interest in destroying the church. hide caption

itoggle caption
Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ewan McGregor

The sound of science: The papal camerlengo (Ewan McGregor, right, with Armin Mueller-Stahl) makes persuasive arguments about science — and its apparent interest in destroying the church.

You'll be pleased to know that since he did all that anagram-solving as he chased down the Holy Grail in The Da Vinci Code, Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon has slimmed down. As played by Tom Hanks, he swims laps every morning at 5 o'clock now — which is what he's doing when a worried-looking representative of the Vatican shows up at the outset of Angels & Demons.

He has with him not an anagram, but an ambigram: a typographical rendering of a secret society's name, "Illuminati," that reads the same whether you look at it right side up or upside down. It seems that four of the cardinals who've been assembling to select a new pope have been kidnapped, and a note sent promising that they'll be publicly executed, one each hour, starting at 8 o'clock that very night.

You'd think this would have prompted a call to the police, but the Vatican works in mysterious ways — and apparently without a fax machine — so they've sent this guy 3,000 miles to Massachusetts, with the ambigram, hoping to intrigue the puzzle- and mystery-solving symbologist.

Langdon agrees to take the case, of course, because otherwise we'd have no movie, and then the plot not only thickens but also sexes itself up a bit. Gorgeous bio-physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) is in the Swiss Guards office when he arrives, because a canister of explosive antimatter has been stolen from her father's nuclear lab — and because nobody, but nobody, ever goes to the police in Italy.

That gets things well and truly started, but this being a Dan Brown story, rest assured there is more — soooo much more. Langdon, being an academic, immediately insists on risking his life looking up Galileo at the library, while Vittoria heads for ... well, I'm not sure I remember where exactly. Maybe to talk with Ewan McGregor's papal camerlengo, who is trying to convince the cardinals both that they're not at war with science, and that science is trying to kill them.

All of which gets a bit thick, but also gives the stars time to go racing around Rome to see which way statues of angels are pointing their fingers. Why? Because the Illuminati — that society that has kept its secrets for centuries, or so the movie posits — would never indulge in a bit of sculptural misdirection about where they're going to kill a brace or two of cardinals, right?

Presumably in response to criticism that The Da Vinci Code was static and talky, director Ron Howard has made Angels & Demons frantic — and, well, talky.

He's gotten quite good at making statues look threatening, though, and at propelling frightened characters headlong down cramped catacomb tunnels. When it comes to murder in the cinematic cathedral, he may now be Hollywood's go-to guy.

That said, there's only so much he can do with Brown's genuinely idiotic plotline, or the fact that the pro-science-Illuminati, anti-science-church stuff doesn't really make sense.

Nor, I should note, do claims that the film is somehow anti-Catholic. You won't find any incendiary controversies in Angels & Demons, though at one point a cardinal does go up in flames perfectly persuasively.

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