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Angels & Demons is the kind of dark lark The Da Vinci Code should’ve been.

Books & Movies

A fun, dark romp through [...] the inner workings of the Vatican
A fun, dark romp through [...] the inner workings of the Vatican

Arguably, no other movie released this decade has been burdened with the extreme levels of controversy and exorbitant expectations that undermined The Da Vinci Code. The book overflows with ideas and touches on all sorts of controversial theological elements. Exciting in terms of both those tantalizing ideas and the globetrotting action involved, the book was a lark, but the movie turned out to be something more like an albatross, carefully sidestepping several notions in order to appease the masses who attend mass.

Now Angels & Demons, the first Dan Brown book featuring Robert Langdon (a third novel, The Lost Symbol, is set for a September release), comes to the big screen and has nowhere near the baggage of The Da Vinci Code. It’s story is more straightforward and considerably less controversial. And the book hasn’t sold the bazillions of copies that put its sequel in practically every home on the planet.

That lower level of familiarity with the story should help Angels & Demons find its own measure of success.

God & Science

This time, instead of conspiracy theories regarding the lineage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Catholic Church is faced with something more physically destructive: Antimatter stolen from the CERN labs in Switzerland. At the scene of the crime, a scientist with an eye ripped from his socket is found dead, a cryptic anagram of the name “Illuminati” left as an ominous signature. It’s also a reference to a group sent underground by the Catholic Church back in the 1600s after various episodes of imprisonment, torture and murder.

The murder and theft in CERN coincide with the kidnapping of four cardinals and the death of the pope in Rome. A conclave for selecting the new pope has begun in Vatican City, further intensifying the sinister nature of the plot.

The Vatican’s been notified the vial of antimatter has been placed somewhere deep in the bowels of Vatican City and, serving as evidence, been made available for viewing via a Webcam. The nefarious plan in its entirety is to execute one cardinal on the hour, every hour beginning at 8 p.m., leading up to the exhaustion of the battery supporting the antimatter’s stasis mode. At midnight, the battery will run out, the antimatter will collide with matter and all of Vatican City will be wiped out in an explosion of light.

Called in fresh from the Harvard swimming pool, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, Splash) has been asked by the Vatican to interpret the mysterious goings-on, save the cardinals, the conclave, the Vatican and, basically, the world as we know it.

The stakes are indeed higher than those in The Da Vinci Code.

As the chief of the Swiss Guard sarcastically quips, “What a relief. The symbologist is here.”

Screenwriters & Novelists

Strictly in terms of movie storytelling, Angels & Demons works well. No doubt thanks in large part to the addition of David Koepp ( Ghost Town) on screenwriting chores, tag-teaming with Akiva Goldsman, a man who’s been known to miss the point on more than one occasion ( The Da Vinci Code, Lost in Space, I Am Legend).

Certain elements have been successfully condensed for a smooth and more immediate transition into the main story. And this one’s certainly more grisly and true to the tone of the novel. The murders that take place are mighty vivid for a PG-13 flick — and, yes, that’s a good thing. Another good thing is the obliteration of the awful, all-thumbs romantic entanglement Brown tacked on in his novel. Phew.

Even so, there’s still a bit of toning-down that’s taken place.

The biggest disappointment is in the handling of Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, Munich). Instead of the CERN victim being her father, it’s simply another scientist. That lack of immediate loss only serves to water down her role overall, which is a shame since Zurer is a terrific actress.

Rome & Art

But there is an overarching cleverness in the telling of this tale that makes it work as both a standalone movie and a sequel. While the book was written and takes place before the events of The Da Vinci Code, the movie takes advantage of the global phenomenon of its cinematic progenitor and plays off it with nice references to a “previous episode” and a “recent entanglement” that didn’t endear Langdon to the Catholic Church.

With the bulk of the action taking place on the streets of Rome, Angels & Demons serves as a fun, dark romp through churches, sewers, art and the inner workings of the Vatican.

And it enjoys playing with a tough dilemma: What is the balance between science and religion? In the thick of the crowds at St. Peter’s, there are those with picket signs (curiously in English) about the evils of stem cell research and other hot button topics of life and death.

It’s a daring thing for a summer “tent pole” movie to tackle — even at a high level — something as involved as God and science. That Angels & Demons makes an interesting case on behalf of the church helps it rise above standard popcorn fare and serve as grist for lots of post-movie chatter.