Movie Review: Angels and Demons (2009)

Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer in Angels and Demons
Photo: Columbia Pictures

NOTE: While I never spoil the film in this review there are some comments made that could affect your viewing. While I don’t personally believe anything I have written will ruin your experience watching this film I felt this was worth noting at the outset.

After two hours Angels & Demons hits a climactic crescendo as the clouds are lit with bright light and a savior falls from the sky. It is at this moment when several members of my preview crowd began making their way to the exit, hoping to get out of the theater ahead of the crowd. Little did they know the movie had another 20 minutes of story to tell — 20 minutes made up of a needless plot twist that essentially negated the truly entertaining first two hours.

Angels & Demons is the follow-up to the successful, yet poorly reviewed, The Da Vinci Code which was also directed by Ron Howard and starred Tom Hanks as the Harvard symbolist Robert Langdon. This time around, instead of finding clues in age-old paintings, Langdon is following a secret path that will lead him throughout the streets of Rome in an attempt to save four kidnapped cardinals and hopefully save Vatican City from an anti-matter bomb at the end of the path.

Like The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons requires you shut your brain off and let the story guide you through its version of science, art and religious history, fact, fiction and mythology, as a puzzle is presented and solved as the clock ticks away. It’s all ludicrous to be sure, but for 120 minutes it is quite exciting.

In comparison to The Da Vinci Code, this film is more entertaining thanks to a far more straight forward plot device that only requires time constraints as opposed to wild coincidences to get our protagonists in and out of trouble. While the plot of Da Vinci involved a much larger conspiracy, Angels actually offers a much more real life consequence, which engages the audience on a larger level with plenty of goals along the way to up the stakes.

These goals serve as the guiding force for the film’s first two hours leading up to the climactic moment I alluded to in the opening. However, this is when the train derails as Angels & Demons tries to float above its junk food entertainment genre and turn its final 20 minutes into a twisting maze that manages to extend the running time all while hurting the quality of the film.

In my opinion there are two kinds of plot twists: those that come as a result of the story, and those that are drummed up out of thin air. The finale of Angels & Demons comes out of a needless existence merely serving as a gotcha moment the audience isn’t at all interested in, considering the film never gave them a real chance to be in on the solution. The film goes from including the audience in the solving of the mystery to turning them into inactive spectators. Granted, the audience never has any chance at solving the complex problems facing Langdon, but at least there was something of a process.

State of Play used a similar technique, adding one final twist to make sure the audience didn’t think they had it all figured out. Unfortunately, this is a cheat and not a legitimate story telling device since it never feels as if it is a part of the story. This kind of twist only serves the story as a lie through climactic storytelling. As a result you lose the respect and interest of your audience, turning your ultimate finale into a waste of time. The final 20 minutes of Angels & Demons suffers from this very problem as it offers up a backhanded message saying the Catholic Church covers up their dirty deeds to maintain their image. Did we really need an additional 20 minutes to tell us this?

It’s a shame, considering I would have given this film much higher marks for entertainment value alone, but it was ultimately sabotaged by greedy storytelling. Angels & Demons could have been 20 minutes shorter and no one would have complained, or been remotely aware of what the filmmakers had originally intended and we would have all been better for it. The finale of this film is not one of those twists that makes you gasp as the clues come together, instead you sit and look at the screen without a care, wishing things had ended differently.

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