Angels & Demons
Produced by Columbia Pictures
Directed by Ron Howard
Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp from the novel by Dan Brown
Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing


For those who care, I’ve given away the ending of Angels & Demons in the review that follows.

Those irrepressible schlockmeisters Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman have done it again.  They have taken another of Dan Brown’s travesties of Roman Catholic history and turned it into a truly hilarious film.

Angels & Demons, the film adaptation of Brown’s factoid-based novel, concerns the Church’s supposed perennial war against scientific progress.  Frankly, it reminded me of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Howard makes his actors flit about the screen from one monstrous event to the next, laughably horrified by what they discover: molten brands dexterously applied to human chests, a man strapped to a weight bench and dumped in a fountain, even a scary quatrain written by that notable anti-Catholic John Milton in the margins of a treatise by Galileo.  Unlike the Abbott and Costello shenanigans, however, Howard has the wit to instruct his actors to stay sober of mien.  For instance, in place of Abbott’s slow burns and Costello’s flabby-cheeked double takes, we get noted symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) huffily scolding the Pope’s chamberlain, Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), for his rank ignorance.  Despite Langdon’s blasphemous work on the Da Vinci code (which Howard places before this film, inverting Brown’s order), the Vatican has called upon this symbolical fellow to help them out of a pickle.  He’s the only person capable of tracking down an assassin hired by the ancient Brotherhood of the Illuminati.  This murderous rascal has kidnapped four cardinals, intending to kill them all and then destroy the Church with a canister of big-bang antimatter, which one of the characters calls “the God particle,” because antimatter (we’re told incorrectly) is what gives substance to everything in material existence.  Anyhow, during his preliminary investigation, Langdon is shocked to discover the Church’s sworn protectors haven’t any inkling why the Illuminati would want to do something so monstrous.  They don’t know about La Purga!  “Oh geez,” he says with scholarly exasperation,

You guys don’t even read your own history, do you?  Sixteen sixty-eight: The Church kidnapped four Illuminati scientists and branded each one of them on the chest with the symbol of the cross, to “purge” them of their sins.  And they executed them, threw their bodies in the street as a warning to others to stop questioning Church ruling on scientific matters.


This “radicalized” the Illuminati scientists, Langdon explains, driving them underground to plot their revenge.  His memory jogged, the chamberlain allows that La Purga was “a dark stain on the Church” and goes on embarrassedly, “I’m not surprised it came back to haunt us.”

Did you know about this dark stain?  And did you know that Galileo numbered among the Illuminati?  No?  That’s Brown’s wit.  You see, La Purga—drum roll, please—never happened!  And, furthermore, Galileo could only have become an Illuminatus if his discoveries included the means to travel through time.  He died in 1642, and the Illuminati were founded in 1776.  Brown’s jokes are sometimes a bit recherché, but, once you’re on to him, he’s a real howl.

Howard’s directing brings out the best in Hanks.  He deliberately looks puffy and bored.  It’s his symbology at work: “Geez,” he’s signaling, “don’t blame me.  I’m only here for the paycheck.”  To be fair, Hanks occasionally bestirs himself and dramatically widens his innocent American eyes when surprised by this or that Old World anomaly.  As for the plot, it’s a Treasure Island contrivance with Langdon desperately searching for what amounts to a pirate’s chest of antimatter.  On the way, he’s aided by clues, each of which leads him to the next.  At one point, he’s directed to the tomb of Raphael, only to find it doesn’t contain the artist’s remains!  The corpse was moved in 1759.  Geez!  You can see why Howard chose Hanks to play the symbologist.  Hanks is so ingenuous that no one could possibly believe he harbors ill will against anyone, not even that sinister cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl) or that suspicious chief of Vatican security (Stellan Skarsgård), much less the Catholics who are paying to watch this hooey.  There’s also the performance of his costar Ayelet Zurer to applaud.  As Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra, she has an astonishing ability to suppress any emotion whatsoever.  She moves through the film as if she were a shopper sniffing disinterestedly at inferior wares, including that canister of combustible antimatter.

Along with its antimatter science fiction, Angels is filled with a host of tourist-guide misinformation about the Vatican and its art holdings, mixed together with factoids created out of bits and pieces of historical lore, chief of which is the Illuminati Brotherhood’s plot to destroy the Church.  To make their deed more memorable, they have timed their vaporizing of Vatican City to occur between the murder of one pope and the election of the next.  They want a showy revenge for that 1668 dust-up, and what could be showier than killing the many thousands congregating in St. Peter’s Square during a papal conclave?

To head off this disaster, Langdon consults the treatise by Galileo in which he finds that quatrain by Milton.  It conveniently maps the way to the cardinals who are being held captive in what the Illuminati had secretly designated as the four churches of science, each standing for one of the four classical elements—earth, fire, wind, and water.  Each cardinal is to be assassinated by means of one of these elements.  Thus, science will revenge itself against the Church’s arrant superstition.  This is odd.  How could the Illuminati—had they existed in the 17th century—have used the word science this way when it didn’t yet have its modern meaning?  Until the later 18th century, science was still tied to its etymological sense coming from the Latin verb scire, to know things in general.  What we call science today was still called natural philosophy.

Decoding symbols on the run, Lang-don and Vittoria join the Swiss Guard plainclothesmen.  In a blur of tiny Italian cars, they zip back and forth across Rome from one church to another while Langdon incessantly reminds his new colleagues of the Church’s suppression of scientific progress.  Look what you did to Galileo!  Langdon leaves out that Pope Urban VIII commended Galileo’s astronomical findings.  Unfortunately, his Holiness didn’t take the next step and lift the earlier ruling by the Inquisition alleging that the astronomer had come close to heresy when he agreed with Copernicus that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  Although knowledgeable churchmen conceded the plausibility of Galileo’s findings, they feared scandalizing the laity.  They foresaw—correctly, one surmises—that the unlearned would have been shocked to learn that the cosmology handed down to them from Aristotle was completely wrong.  This, they reasoned, could have led to panic and possibly a general loss of faith.  This sounds ridiculously paternalistic to modern ears, but consider the state of the general public in the early 17th century.  How many were literate?  And of those, how many understood that the biblical accounts of history and scientific matters were necessarily circumscribed by the limited understanding of writers who had never raised a telescope to the stars?  How many do today?  As guardians of their congregants’ spiritual welfare, these theologians had an obvious duty to defend them from what they weren’t ready to understand.  Unfair as it was, Galileo’s censure never involved physical punishment, his house arrest in his later years didn’t restrict him from travel altogether, and the ban on visitors was not really enforced.

Furthermore, we don’t have to become history scholars to realize publications have and do mislead the public.  In fact, we need go no further than Brown’s novel.  I know two university-educated gentlemen who think Brown’s historical accounts must be essentially true.  One confided to me sotto voce, so as not to shock the ladies in the next room, that Jesus had a daughter with that babe Mary Magdalene.  When I asked how he knew this, he looked at me archly.  It was right there in The Da Vinci Code, a published book, for Christ’s sake!  Even in the age of the internet, print bestows extraordinary authority on what it reports.  It’s no wonder Church authorities used to be wary of encouraging the masses to read the Bible.  They knew there would be no end to the odd notions that strange book would stir in credulous minds.  Today’s Christian Zionists and their belief in the coming Rapture give more than a little substance to that caution.

But back to Howard’s comedy.  Langdon, Vittoria, and Father Patrick finally locate the antimatter.  But there’s not enough time to defuse it.  So Father Patrick grabs the canister, rushes to a helicopter conveniently waiting in St. Peter’s Square, and takes off into the night sky.  What a guy!  He’s going to sacrifice himself to save everyone in Vatican City.  But wait!  Instead of martyrdom, he chooses to parachute from the ascending helicopter into St. Peter’s Square, leaving the antimatter to explode spectacularly high above the crowds below.  Instantly, the heroic Father Patrick becomes the odds-on favorite to be chosen the next pope.

But there’s another turn of the screw.  Langdon discovers a security tape that reveals Father Patrick himself concocted the entire Illuminati scheme.  He’s actually—hold on to your rosary—an archconservative and was setting the stage to have himself made the next pope so he could restore the Church’s dark, intolerant traditions.  Although he loved the dead pope, he had to kill him.  The old man was going soft on science.  Geez!  He thought antimatter’s “God particle” would clinch the Almighty’s ultimate hand in creation.  Father Patrick then hired an assassin to kill the four men most likely to be his papal competitors and made it look like the work of the nonexistent Illuminati.  When cornered, this mad zealot rhetorically asks, “If we allow science to take control of creation, what will be left for the Church?”  Well, there’s always bingo.

Fortunately, this lunatic immolates himself with holy oil right on the main altar of St. Peter’s.  How fitting.  A new pope is chosen, and a new chamberlain.  In the last scene, the chamberlain turns to Langdon and says, “Thanks be to God for sending someone to protect the Church.”  When Langdon replies, “Father, I don’t believe He sent me,” the chamberlain gently corrects him, his eyes twinkling.  “Oh, my son!  Of course He did!”

I was reminded of John Gregory Dunne’s cardinal in True Confessions: “Show me a priest whose eyes twinkle,” he grumbled, “and I’ll show you a moron.”  Show me a moviegoer enraptured by Howard’s sentimental contrivance, and I’ll show you a dupe taken in by Hollywood’s leading hucksters.