There are several moments of real pathos in Ron Howard's film of Dan Brown's novel Angels & Demons, which is several more than Howard was able to conjure up in his film of Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Howard has made a better, more entertaining thriller out of the first book in Brown's saga about symbols expert Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and his research into skulduggery entangling the Roman Catholic Church.
The director loses "the girl" for much of the film and loses his hero for much of the third act. The script tips its hand too early and can't quite turn Langdon into Indiana Langdon on his Last Crusade. But in plumbing the mysteries of the Vatican (which refused to help with the film), the Conclave of Cardinals that elects a new pope, the machinery of the Vatican State and the treasures of the Vatican Archive, Howard has made a popcorny summer movie that mimics the history-meets-action of those escapist National Treasure movies.
This time, the threat is directly to the Vatican. Someone has kidnapped four cardinals who are the leading candidates to succeed the just-deceased pope. Someone has just stolen the dangerous byproduct of science's new cutting edge — anti-matter created by the new supercollider in Switzerland. Could that "someone" be the Illuminati, that secret society of enlightened scientists and thinkers thought to have been exterminated by the church hundreds of years ago? Are they back and ready for revenge, eager to kill cardinals and blow up the Vatican?
The late pope's right-hand priest (Ewan McGregor) thinks so, although the chief of the Swiss Guards (Stellan Skarsgard), charged with protecting the Holy See, is skeptical. They have mere hours to solve a puzzle, rescue the cardinals and prevent the destruction of St. Peter's and the Vatican.
Only Langdon, the ever-explaining man of science, not faith, can save "St. Peter's church at its most vulnerable moment."
They bring along the scientist (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) who lost the anti-matter in her search for the "God particle," a Holy Grail in physics.
Howard builds suspense by intercutting the race to rescue the cardinals with the political machinations of the men selecting a new pope, chief among them Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Hanks is more engaged this time, and McGregor, Skarsgard and Mueller-Stahl give formidable support.
The marvels of Angels & Demons, which is part "alternate history of the Catholic Church" and part Roman travelogue, is what Howard and his team were able to create without having Vatican cooperation. They shot in Rome but had to fake such settings as the human circus of St. Peter's Square when the cardinals go into seclusion to change the direction of the church by picking a new pope; the Vatican Archive; and crypts, passageways and basilicas, virtually none of which he had access to. All are vividly realized here. To say nothing of a special-effects version of the supercollider, where atoms will be smashed to such tiny bits that, as the film suggests, science will get a glimpse of "the moment of creation."
This could have easily just been The Galileo Code, but the screenwriters (Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp) and Howard wrestle a little science-fiction and science morality into Angels & Demons.
It's doesn't quite pay off, but Angels & Demons does a much better job of balancing the blasphemy and blood, heresy and heroics that were Brown's ticket to eternal wealth if not eternal life.