Trashy airport novels frequently make better movies than do works of serious literature, oddly enough. Or maybe it isn’t all that odd. When a book’s greatness resides in the author’s dazzling prose style, or in a protagonist’s unreliable interior monologue, or in minute and keenly nuanced observations about the human condition, odds are that very little of what makes it special will survive the rocky journey from page to screen intact. If there isn’t much depth to begin with, however, “show don’t tell” becomes a virtue; the filmmakers can just stick to the basic plot and let sharp actors fill in the blanks. So you’d think that Dan Brown’s atrociously written—and yet compulsively readable—tales of preposterous intrigue among artists, scholars and quasi-malevolent Christians would make hugely entertaining Hollywood fluff. Bzzt.
Angels & Demons, in which Tom Hanks reprises his role as “symbologist” Robert Langdon, isn’t quite the leaden slog that The Da Vinci Code was, but you can still feel yourself growing older as it unspools.
I must say I’m not quite sure why Catholics are protesting again, because this time Langdon means to save the church from annihilation rather than undermine its most cherished belief. Four cardinals being considered to replace the just-deceased Pope have been kidnapped and are being murdered hourly in cinematically gruesome ways; naturally, the Vatican calls in our Harvard hero, who quickly determines that this must be the handiwork of a super-secret ancient cult known as the Illuminati. What’s more, a canister of potentially deadly anti-matter has been swiped from the CERN labs in Geneva, forcing Langdon to team up with Italian particle physicist Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) to stop the Illuminati from blowing up half of Rome.
Brown’s books are essentially pseudo-intellectual puzzles, positing an enjoyably ludicrous world in which every painting, sculpture and architectural marvel ever created also serves as the key to some ancient unsolved riddle. Their fun, if that’s the right word, is fundamentally expository: Langdon encounters a work of art, divines its hidden meaning (usually a pointer to yet another coded artwork), then races to the next item to do it all over again, often delivering mini-lectures on historical trivia en route. Trouble is, that kind of dialogue only works on the page. Ask an actor—even an actor as generally nimble as Hanks—to actually speak it out loud and it turns insta-turgid, making you feel as if you accidentally wandered into a museum’s afternoon seminar instead of a movie.
Ron Howard, who directed both Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, clearly recognizes the danger. His solution this time is to keep the camera in constant swirling motion, so that Langdon and Vetra can’t take more than five or six steps without our getting a whirlwind 360-degree view of their progress. Alas, this technique fails to generate much excitement, since we already know they’re just going to look at some statue for a minute or two—the clock is always ticking for the next doomed cardinal—before realizing it’s telling them to go look at some other statue somewhere else. Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard and Armin Mueller-Stahl briefly register as possible baddies, but veiled threats and vaguely sinister glances only go so far. In the end, despite their tortured syntax, Brown’s books simply aren’t trashy enough to make a decent potboiler. They revel in their pompous nerdiness, and that’s a tone that no potential franchise blockbuster will go anywhere near.