Just as a priest feels during Carnival or a professor feels during Christmas, so a cinéphile feels during the summer—everyone else is enjoying themselves, and you’re the only one seeing the mindless rituals for what they are.
For summer is blockbuster season, when the six American majors (Sony, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal and Dreamworks SKG) release their tentpole pictures—the sinfully expensive, lavishly marketed mega-movies that determine the financial health of their parents. One Titanic (20th Century Fox/Paramount) or Spider-Man (Sony) or The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) can single-handedly offset a year’s worth of box office flops.
Since a tentpole film is potential manna from heaven, the studios ram-pack it with every imaginable attraction—nudity, sexuality, violence, foul language, drugs—all the things on the rating labels, which are advertisements disguised as warnings (Don’t see this movie—it has SEX! GRAPHIC SEX!).
Of course, this sardine approach to filmmaking doesn’t exactly churn out masterpieces, so the studios spend more millions on publicity blitzes, to make sure we all see the movie at the same time, on its opening weekend, before we have a chance to tell our friends what a piece of crap it is. And we fall for it like faithful disciples, nattering excitedly about this movie or that, gushing about what we have to see and can’t afford to miss.
At its worst, this means execrable fluff like Hannah Montana: The Movie (Disney), in which a 16-year-old actress caught between childhood and Hollywood plays a 16-year-old actress caught between childhood and Hollywood, her innocence and privacy sacrificed at the altar of global commercialism. (Disney sells Montana-themed clothes, watches, bedding, luggage, shoes, makeup, spa kits, and toys. Last year Miley Cyrus, then 15, personally earned more than US$25,000,000. Yes, that’s the right number of zeroes.)
At its best, however, we get Angels & Demons (Sony), a thriller that lives up to its name and its ampersand, with compelling (though not complicated) dualities between science and theology, logic and faith, modernity and antiquity. And, yes, good and evil, though as the film reminds us in its crash course through Catholic history, deciding which is which is usually in the eye of the beheader.
Angels & Demons is the follow-up to The Da Vinci Code (2006), also directed by Ron Howard, adapted by Akiva Goldsman, scored by Hans Zimmer, and starring Tom Hanks. Both properties were originally novels by Dan Brown, who wrote Angels & Demons first, making it both a sequel and a prequel, depending on the medium. Because everyone, including the Pope, read The Da Vinci Code, Brown now rubs shoulders with Stephen King, John Grisham and the other rich, chosen few to escape the bargain bins at Barnes & Noble.
The Holy Grail for every popular fiction writer is to create a serialized character that captures the attention of the lonely secretary and the airport traveler—Jonathan Kellerman unravels stories of child psychologist Alex Delaware; Sue Grafton unfolds Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries; Elizabeth George investigates Inspector Lynley. These uniformly smart, capable protagonists are a dime a dozen, which is why you’ve either never heard of them, or have them stacked beside your bed.
Paperbacks and motion pictures peddle the same diversions, so Dan Brown and Sony was a match made in, well, heaven. Angels & Demons, the film, once again follows Robert Langdon (Hanks), a Harvard professor of religious iconography, as he trips along a chain-reaction of Catholic clues embedded in action sequences.
The action academic has its origin in 1930s characters such as bronzed Amazonian scientist Doc Savage, and has its archetype in Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, archaeologist and adventurer, whose movies were set in the 1930s. Robert Langdon has neither whip nor hat, only his wits and a decent haircut. At the behest of the Vatican, he is trying to locate both a small explosive that will obliterate the Holy See, and four missing Cardinals, the front-runners to become the next Pope.
What could have been a God-awful mess is intelligently paced by director Howard (A Beautiful Mind) and comfortably inhabited by Hanks. The required kinetics are motivated by Langdon’s urgent search. In one breathtaking sequence, he must escape, before he suffocates, from an electronically-operated, oxygen-regulated, bulletproof, air-tight chamber that has lost power—the Vatican Archives, home to sacred scientific texts like Galileo’s writings.
Take it from a blaspheming cinéphile—Angels & Demons is good, not evil. Just leave the reverence at the door.