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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"ANGELS & DEMONS"

Angels & Demons is the first bona fide dud of the 2009 summer movie season, as far as I'm concerned. Whereas its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code (also based on a Dan Brown best-seller), had a certain compelling directness in its central mystery, this one is just an unholy mess.

The film begins with a McGuffin that really should have been explained in a lot more detail. A scientist named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) has discovered how to create antimatter, a potentially controversial event in that it could provide answers as to the physical creation of our universe. Her colleague is brutally murdered and the antimatter is stolen. Clues left behind suggest that the murder/theft may be the work of the Illuminati, a centuries-old group of scientists who were driven underground (and, in some cases, killed) by the Catholic Church to prevent anyone from questioning their teachings. If this is the case, it suggests that some faction of the group still exists and is trying to continue the battle between science and religion.

Our hero, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), is brought in by the Vatican to help explore the clues. Not so coincidentally, the Pope has recently died, and four of his potential successors have been kidnapped. Someone claiming to be from the Illuminati threatens to kill them all and then use the antimatter to blow up the Vatican. The race to save them naturally involves Langdon running around from one landmark to the other, deciphering obscure clues, and generally rankling the clergy. One person who tries to help Langdon is Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), the adopted son of the deceased Pope who has been charged with protecting Vatican interests.

I thought "The Da Vinci Code" (the book) was basically a load of crap, but Ron Howard's movie version was better. It managed to strip away some of the pretentious B.S. and just focus on being a good follow-the-clues mystery. I never believed the story's central premise - that hidden messages in Da Vinci's paintings provided evidence to the idea that Jesus had married and procreated - but it was fun to contemplate the idea of famous artwork expressing buried secrets. Angels & Demons, on the other hand, is a run-of-the-mill thriller about saving kidnap victims, trying to prevent murders, and defusing the "bomb" before it blows everyone (literally) to Kingdom Come.

Perhaps that would not have bugged me so much had the film achieved any kind of storytelling momentum. Considering what a versatile and talented director Ron Howard is, it's astonishing that the picture is so clumsy. Even when the "thrills" come, they aren't particularly exciting. Oddly, the most effective action scene finds Langdon trying to use a bookcase to smash a window. The moments where he's racing to save somebody's life are too overwrought to generate much suspense; they play like deleted scenes from Seven.

It also doesn't help that Angels & Demons gets bogged down in language. In The Da Vinci Code, Langdon often had to stop to explain arcane bits of historical information about the titular artist and/or the Catholic Church. That was grating at times, yet it was also necessary to provide some much-needed exposition that built to the plot's grand resolution. This time around, screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp pile the exposition on so thick that it stops everything else dead in its tracks. Almost every scene necessitates Langdon providing some sort of symbology lesson. He constantly throws around obscure facts, half of them boring, the other half delivered so rapid fire as to become incomprehensible. The story ends up drowning in dialogue. Just when you think something riveting is going to happen, Langdon starts telling us what's going on. And telling us more, and more, and more. And more.

It's a tribute to the talent of Tom Hanks that he's able to speak so much of the clunky dialogue without sounding embarrassingly silly. (No one else in the cast has as much luck.) Then again, he plays the only semi-developed character in the whole movie. Camerlengo and Vittoria are potentially interesting people, but we never learn very much about them. They exist solely to move the plot forward.

I was with Angels & Demons for a while. At first, I was following the set-up and getting ready to see how everything would pay off. About 45 minutes in, I realized that my involvement was waning. By the two hour mark, I was actually starting to laugh at the film's blatant absurdity. There is a scene toward the end that will likely go down as one of the year's most ridiculous. I won't give it away except to say that it involves a helicopter. If you thought Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull jumped the shark when the aliens arrived, wait until you get a load of this.

Did I like anything here? Well, like I said, Hanks is pretty good, even when surrounded by dull material. The film is well-made on a technical level, with terrific sound, cinematography, and music. The locations are beautiful. As a Catholic myself, I also found the portrayal of interior Vatican life kind of intriguing, although I have my doubts as to its accuracy. These are just surface pleasures. The real meat of Angels & Demons - the central mystery - is a letdown. Any story that involves the battle between religion and science, a bunch of dead papal candidates, and the potential destruction of Vatican City ought to be a lot more gripping. That a typical walk up the aisle to receive communion is more exciting than this movie tells you how wrong they got it.

( out of four)


Angels & Demons is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material. The running time is 2 hour and 18 minutes.

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