Saturday, May 30, 2009
Cast: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Director: Ron Howard
Runtime: 138 min.
Genre: Thriller, Crime, Adventure, Mystery
Tom Hanks might be considered by many to be one hell of an actor, which he might be, but he sure as hell aint perfect. If he was so great, he would have applied a little bit of thought behind his performance, and what was to be expected of him, and he might have sought some inspiration from one of them newsreaders and the clarity of speech that is so necessary to their profession. I say so because all his character requires is to fire out exposition after exposition, and blabber after blabber. Not that it would have helped matters too much, for the human brain can only be interested in so much of a staccato of meaningless information. Consider this for example – “Did Raphael Santi ever design a chapel with an ossuary annex?” – one of the only few I could actually gather, while the rest just bypassed be harmlessly. Wait, I did seem to gather the repetitive occurrence of angels, obelisk and camerlengo. What makes this kind of dialog even worse is Mr. Hanks’ spewing it all out with his mouth in some kind of economy-mode, as if it was some kind of mannerism he thought fitting enough to be adopted for Robert Langdon. Not wise at all.
But one can’t fault him too much, when the script lands him not with a character and dialog, but only a placeholder and whole lot of knowledge. For that matter, one can’t fault the script too much either, because the source novel, a quite remarkable piece of trashy writing, doesn’t have any characters to begin with. Characters, as in people. If you wonder how their conversations feel like, you only got to remember the most dreadful time you have had at the biology class, and the most dreadful page you remember from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and imagine how they would sound sitting across a coffee table. Speaking of which, I had biology classes more comprehensible than Angels & Demons here, and I should be grateful to my teacher, Ms. Sinha, who was one heck of an orator.
Or, you could also remember the South African president Mr. Jacob Zuma unleashing byte after byte of information upon us in his thrilling speech at the closing ceremony of the IPL. Now, these guys here, in much the same way keep jabbering out information after information, all meaningless, and we feel like the unwitting and excited eavesdroppers who just fall dead utterly bored. If you have any doubts, you should just visit the Memorable Quotes section of the IMDb page of the film here, and see how strange it is to label it memorable. Roger Ebert mentions in his review of The Da Vinci Code, a single statement of observation that might offer more insight than all the cut-and-dried reviews out there – Ron Howard is a better filmmaker than Dan Brown is a novelist. I state this whenever there springs upon one of those pointless debates about the state of adaptations of the books of this author, as if any of them was great literature to begin with. And I agree, Mr. Howard has made as good a films as can be made from such mediocre books devoid of anything but exposition after exposition page after page.
But that still doesn’t cut the entire picture.
As in, the Ebert statement speaks only relatively, which might lead to spreading of some misunderstanding. Speaking in absolute terms, Mr. Howard is himself a pretty darn mediocre filmmaker, who has ever had, in his entire career, only a most serviceable visual sense, and a similar serviceable sense of pacing, one that is bound tightly to the quality of the script. Mr. Howard is not one of those filmmakers who can rise above the limitations of a script, and Angels & Demons demonstrates how awfully jarring and how confused this whole mess is. I say this beforehand, a typical book by Dan Brown that involves puzzles after puzzles after puzzles is impossible to be filmed. It is not supposed to be either, because for a potential reader/viewer anything involving a new place (in this case the Vatican) and the whole deal of revelations after revelations, the most significant need is time. Time to acclimatize to these new surroundings. While we’re reading a book, even something that is churned out by Mr. Brown, the sheer time we spend reading those pages makes us feel familiar with the new environment. We’re not just reading those pages, we’re processing it too, and that is the reason most of us start getting involved in a book in our second or third hour.
With films, the job is half done for we already have visual access to it all, but it then becomes a case of letting our senses soak whatever we’re seeing and hearing. That is the reason why to a viewer like me, who hasn’t memorized Mr. Brown’s pages from cover to cover, the film starts feeling familiar only in its final reels. Since the film offers us no structure, and no geography, assuming that we have already knowledge of that from the source, I believe that is some kind of lazy filmmaking. But then, the world of cinema is filled with hacks of significantly lesser talent, and I believe we should get over that little piece of wisdom. Rest assured, Angels & Demons shall escape your memory by next month.
Ah, the plot.
Assuming you haven’t read the book, MacGuffin has a new name – Antimatter. Rather it has two, and the other one is Illuminati. The incumbent pope is dead, a new pope to be appointed, and just before the conclave is to get together elect the most eligible for the portfolio, the Preferiti - the frontrunners for the post – are kidnapped and held hostage by a secret underground society calling themselves, well, the Illuminati, whose typical day seems to be spent devising elaborate puzzles, so that new members worthy enough to crack them are given login ids and passwords, and then they could share the workload of puzzle-making too. The society’s other task is supposedly to keep some sort of check on the Catholic Church, and let it not run away with its sermons.
Meanwhile, down at the CERN laboratory, antimatter has been created, and just about the same time, somebody has stolen it too. I don’t think the CERN will be too flattered with Mr. Howard, but then those enlightened men of science sure might have the fine sense of humor to take it in their stride. One of those scientists is Vittoria Vetra, played by the beautiful Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (Munich), and she is the one who has discovered the dead body sans the left eye, the retina of which was used to gain access. The canister of antimatter is now in the Vatican, is running on battery, and in place of the countdown timer that we have all grown so familiar with at the movies, this one, probably inspired by Microsoft Windows, has one of those red bars that is slowly growing shorter. Wrong visual cue I say. A countdown timer at least doesn’t need the film to speak how much time is left. Here, someone needs to explicitly lay it down for us – 12 hours, before it shall cause the most deadly explosion since Rolland Emmerich destroyed half of the United States in Independence Day.
Enter crack symbologist Robert Langdon, who doesn’t have one single thought or feeling inside of him save expertise at solving other people’s indulgences. That Mr. Hanks brings so much life into him is a measure of the greatness of the man. Now, why is Mr. Langdon summoned, I don’t know, and neither does the film, because when he himself asks they don’t provide for a very convincing answer. But he has to go, and he does, and the race against the two-faced MacGuffin (Antimatter/Illuminati) begins. I remember the novel invoking the usage of Janus. Alfred Hitchcock would be mighty pleased in his grave by the Janus-esque usage of his narrative trick, one a catalyst for the pseudo-scientific side of it and the other a catalyst for the pseudo-spiritual part of it.
As a thriller, the film is pretty lame employing misdirection tricks that grew outdated approximately five billion years ago. Anyone with half a dozen thrillers in his memory would know that the most unimaginative trick in the manual is to have one of the characters flagged as so outrightly mean that he is almost never the bad guy. Angels & Demons doesn’t remember that. Still, it is often exciting and it hurls along at a decent pace. As in, it gets the job done. Often, we are confused by the casual demeanor of the actors of what is at stake here, but eventually we get the pulse. The film tries its level best to induce a sense of droll into the proceedings, one that comes so naturally to Indiana Jones and James Bond, and it always falls flat on its face.
Still, we enjoy, because these are some nice actors we are looking at. Especially Mr. Mueller-Stahl, who used to be the good guy (The Peacemaker), and then turned into the bad guy (Eastern Promises, The International), and now is probably back into the good zone. The final line of conversation between him and Langdon is probably worth the price of the admission ticket, a superb moment of actors of rising and taking control of the sheets of page provided to them.
For some strange reason I keep wondering about Robert Langdon, this modern Sherlock Holmes who seems to have volumes of the Britannia Encyclopedia instead of standard issue organs. He seems to have a trivia to share for every bit of action around, a cause for every bit of historical event. And he doesn’t seem to believe in God, both by his heart and mind. Yet he keeps using the word “jeez”. I wonder if he knows the origin of that word.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 9:38 AM