Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The better angels of our nature

with 6 comments

Angels & Demons

Inferno, the third installment in Ron Howard’s series of Dan Brown adaptations starring Tom Hanks, arrives in theaters this weekend. Like Jack Reacher, it’s a franchise that doesn’t exactly have an enthusiastic following, and it seems to exist largely as a strategic component in the careers of its star and director. (This sequel, at least, appears to have a realistic view of its prospects: its budget is half that of its predecessor.) I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here if it weren’t for an embarrassing personal confession. I’m not a fan of the Robert Langdon books. If anything, I’m inclined to dislike them more than many readers, because I genuinely enjoy the idea of the conspiracy thriller. I even wrote an entire novel, The Icon Thief, in part to tell precisely that kind of story in the way I thought it deserved to be told. Even after the letdown of The Da Vinci Code, I was optimistic enough to buy The Lost Symbol, on the reasoning that a sequel released under high pressure by a major publisher would be a slick, tightly edited product—which didn’t turn out to be the case. I haven’t read any of the others. But here’s my confession: Angels & Demons, the film based on the first novel in the series, might be one of my stealth favorite movies. Even as I type this, I know how ridiculous it sounds. This isn’t a film that anyone remembers fondly. You don’t see video boxes proclaiming: “The best thriller since Angels & Demons.”

Why do I love it so much? Maybe it’s because it came out only seven years ago, but it already feels like a relic of another era, in which a studio could spend $150 million on a ridiculous summer movie aimed squarely at viewers over thirty. I’ve written here before that what I want from Hollywood, more than just about anything else, is slick, entertaining junk for grownups. These days, the industry has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with superhero movies giving way in the winter to prestige pictures that feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine. Yet the most exciting periods in movie history were in decades when you could often see a reasonably clever director and screenwriter doing diverting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive stars. Aside from the occasional Bond or Ethan Hunt vehicle, this sort of thing has become dishearteningly rare, to the point where I’ve actually found myself looking forward to movies like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. (Oddly enough, we’re currently in the middle of a fairly good stretch for mainstream adult thrillers: along with Inferno, the last few weeks have given us The Girl on the Train, The Accountant, and a second Jack Reacher movie. I haven’t managed to see any of them, of course—which may be the real reason why adults in their late thirties aren’t seen as a desirable demographic.) And while Angels & Demons is far from a masterpiece, it feels like a blockbuster from an alternate universe, in which a lot of money and talent could be gloriously squandered by a film that couldn’t possibly interest a twelve year old.

Angels & Demons

But I don’t want to downplay its legitimate strengths, either. To say that the money is all there on the screen may not seem like heartfelt praise, but it is. There’s plenty of digital imagery, but it’s unobtrusive, and at a time when the climax of every comic book movie makes me feel like I’m watching a cartoon about two robots having a fistfight, it’s nice to see an expensive production set in something like the real world. It’s equally refreshing to watch a movie that takes pleasure in the locations, simulated or otherwise, of a single beautiful city. Its Rome is a nocturnal metropolis of golden lights against water, glossy marble churches, and fast cars winding through narrow streets, and it reminds us of how films like the Bourne movies flit so quickly from one landmark to another that we never have a chance to enjoy our surroundings. It helps, too, that the movie is populated by so many appealing players. There’s Hanks, of course, who I suspect secretly relishes playing Robert Langdon as kind of a smug asshole, and Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgårdwho are here only for the paycheck. But we also have the tough, beautiful Ayelet Zurer; Armin Mueller-Stahl, very good in the thankless role of a red herring in a cassock; and character actors with great faces like Pierfrancesco Favino and Nikolaj Lie Kass. The script by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp keeps all the wheels turning nicely, and it clearly learned the lessons of The Da Vinci Code—the action is clean and rapid without being relentless, and you’re left feeling refreshed, rather than pummeled.

It all adds up to one of my favorite guilty pleasures, right up there with the first season of The Hills, and for many of the same reasons. There are sequences of high camp that make me grin like an idiot whenever I think about them: Langdon’s unsolicited lecture about Pius IX and “the great castration,” which makes him seem even more pompous than usual, or the priceless moment when the Camerlengo points a finger at his assailant and shouts: “Illuminatus!” This kind of thing pleases me enormously. I also like how the villain’s master plan hinges entirely on Langdon’s ability to figure out the plot with split-second precision, and how the whole conspiracy would be foiled if the timing were off by a few minutes in either direction. And unlike so many thrillers, it knows how to give a worthy death scene to its bad guy, who, after being exposed and pursued through St. Peter’s Church, burns himself to death at the altar, and for no particular reason. The result slips invisibly over the borderline from being a great bad movie to one that I can almost recommend on its own merits. Although it’s ravishingly pretty, it’s probably best experienced at home, on a disc bought from a cutout bin at Best Buy, which makes its immense technical resources—a little overwhelming or oppressive in the theater—seem like an act of unsolicited generosity. And it sticks in your head. A few months ago, I was watching Spectre, which was filmed on many of the same locations, when I found myself thinking: “I’d rather be watching Angels & Demons.” I’m probably the only person in the world who said this to himself. But I did. I’d be happy to put it on again tonight. And maybe I will.

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2016 at 8:58 am

6 Responses

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  1. I loved this post, as Angels and Demons is a guilty pleasure of mine as well. And you’re not alone, as stunning as the brief flash of Bond driving something fast and slick through St Peter’s Basilica was, I much prefer the rich cinematography of Angels and Demons.
    If anything, one of the only reasons I’d watch the Langdon films is because of the scenery. Whatever anyone says about Dan Brown he does get his locations spot on in the books, in Angels and Demons in particular as Rome is one of the most complex places I’ve ever visited, and no matter what the filmmakers do to the plots, they still capture the beauty of the scenery. Unfortunately in Inferno the scenery was for me the best bit, which really shouldn’t have been the case.
    What surprised me the most was that Angels and Demons is already seven years old – I had thought five at most, but yes, even though I’m not quite thirty yet I do prefer more sophisticated thriller films along the lines of the original Bournes and even Daniel Craig’s Bond (except Spectre – when I learned there was a special feature purely based on the fact they had the largest filmed explosion on record, any respect I had for it disappeared quickly), and I share your desire for more films along these lines than the Superhero whitewashing we seem to be getting at the moment.
    You should dfeinitely go see Girl on the Train, it was great.


    October 28, 2016 at 9:30 am

  2. I confess to having a fondness for The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps that’s because I saw it in Rome after spending a few days visiting The Vatican and other sites featured in the film. It’s certainly one of the rare films that is far superior to the original novel, film being a much better medium for a plot centered on iconography. I do like Hanks, and McKellen’s performance was, as always, delightful; nevertheless, the predictable ending deflected any ingenuity from the premise. Angels and Demons was better, certainly, and ranks with Twister for light but compelling entertainment. I will probably see this new one once it reaches Netflix, and appreciate your thoughts. My guilty pleasure? Aside from Twister, probably The Thing! (the original version, of course). Vampire Carrots from Space–with surprisingly subversive throwaway dialog. We all need our guilty pleasures.


    October 28, 2016 at 4:07 pm

  3. I watched A&D about three years ago simply because we were about to go Rome. When we actually got there and started sightseeing, I got as far as saying “Wow! This is the bit from the film where they did…” about three times before my wife pointed out that if I was going to do that in every single place we visited I’d be coming on my own next time.

    I then read A&D this summer and thought it was the best of the Robert Langdon books, although you have to avoid thinking too hard. I also find Dan Brown’s assertions that the various conspiracy theories he includes are all true a bit annoying, to the point that I blogged about it in a piece called ‘The Illuminati and other conspiracy theories’.

    Thanks for posting.


    October 30, 2016 at 4:08 am

  4. @kabrown4: It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one!


    November 6, 2016 at 9:21 am

  5. @marieguthrie: I’ll confess that I had a pretty good time watching The Da Vinci Code when I saw it theaters, mostly thanks to McKellen’s performance. But I haven’t been tempted to visit it again. (Inferno might get a rental, though.)


    November 6, 2016 at 9:23 am

  6. @Martin: You’re welcome! I’ve always wanted to like the Langdon novels more than I actually did, although it didn’t help that I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail years ago, and it’s painfully obvious how much Dan Brown relies on other writers for his best material.


    November 6, 2016 at 9:26 am

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