I had been looking forward to Angels & Demons even though I really hadn’t enjoyed the Da Vinci Code movie. This time I enjoyed the book first. Unfortunately, as any Harry Potter screenwriter can tell you, you’ve really got to be careful what you include or don’t include in the adaptation from book to screenplay. This movie suffers from poor adaptation by Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (he won his statuette for A Beautiful Mind). Maybe he had very few options given the running time of the movie, but it suffers from too much “telling” and not enough “showing” — which also seemed to be true of Da Vinci Code (which Goldsman also wrote). [A pop cultural aside, Goldsman’s pen/laptop was also responsible for a few episodes of the TV series Fringe, including the season 1 finale — which I thought was great.]
This adaptation took Angels & Demons (which I understand was a prequel to Da Vinci Code) and made it into a sequel. Prof. Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks again, but this time with much more reasonable hair) brings his expertise in Christian symbology to the Vatican, to help them foil a bomb threat occurring right at the time of Conclave (when all the cardinals sequester themselves in St. Peter’s Basilica to vote for the next pope). Along for the ride is Dr. Vittoria Vetra (played by the beautiful-yet-relatively-unknown actress Ayelet Zurer) — the physicist working for CERN (the world’s largest particle physics lab) in Switzerland whose supply of anti-matter was stolen and is being used as the bomb. Together they must solve a set of clues based on the legendary cult of scientists known as the Illuminati (possibly the most notorious secret society in Christian history). Where this movie fails is in the fact that there’s really no time for this conspiracy or plot to unfold. Because there is a ticking time-bomb, not to mention some kidnapped cardinals with death sentences, we essentially get Langdon solving everything and “catching us up” on the way from one ornate Italian church to another. There is very little suspense or true mystery involved. After all is said and done (there’s a few twists along the way), we’re left wondering why the plot was so complex after all (y’see, they cut out some of the more elaborate parts of the conspiracy, which might have helped explain the complexities as well as some of the characters’ motivations). I’m not generally a book-adaptation-purist, but in this case, I think that the original story was pared down too much for it to stay standing.
The other problem with Langdon alone being the central character is that in the book, a lot of the realizations about the clues come as gradual revelations inside Langdon’s head, and there’s the narration to give us all the inside details. When the movie leaves our understanding reliant on what Langdon actually says to other characters, it’s too chatty and Langdon ends up telling us the whole plot rather than it unfolding in a cinematic way. It’s like someone giving you step by step directions over the cellphone while you’re trying to drive and navigate at the same time. You end up not knowing where to look and you feel like you’re missing things whenever you focus on the listening. It’s chaos until you finally get to the end and stop the ride.
Normally I also love all this Illuminati stuff, with the conspiracies, Catholic rituals and arcana, but in the end, that all seemed incidental to this story. It could just have easily been a bomb at the White House or the UN, with everyone needing to run around looking for clues to where it’s hidden. If they had done a TV miniseries with time to expand upon this whole Illuminati history, the arguments of science vs. religion, and putting back in some of the missing conspiracy elements, that would have made the story fuller and much more interesting, but I guess it would not have made for a very good summer blockbuster. 3.5 out of 5