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I believe in the existence of angels and demons, and I marvel at the mystery of the spiritual realm, of the hidden world of principalities and powers.
I also believe in the existence of Angels & Demons, and I don't marvel at all at the mystery—which is laughably stupid—or the movie—which was more bearable than The Da Vinci Code, but just barely. (Just like Ashley Simpson is a better singer than Britney Spears, but just barely. Or is Spears the better singer? Oh, wait, neither of them can sing...)
Yep, I went and saw the second Robert Langdon movie at a late matinee on opening day. There were about ten of us in the theater, and that included me and three friends, who wished to accompany me on the minor purgatorial journey, if only to see a stern Tom Hanks working in anti-laconic fashion to save a CGI-constructed Vatican from destruction by an antimatter bomb. Of the four of us, I was the only one who had read the novel, which should have allowed the other three to enjoy the element of surprise, if only the movie possessed any surprises.
Alas, we were all rather underwhelmed; on the plus side, none of us fell asleep. Where The Da Vinci Code was dull, pretentious, and openly anti-Catholic, Angels & Demons is methodical, pedestrian, and quite silly. The production values are good, the directing is solid, the effects are decent, and the acting ranges from mediocre (Hanks) to above average (Ewan McGregor).
[Spoiler Alert! You know what to do, etc.]
Although the plot for the cinematic version has been notably streamlined and occasionally reworked in substantial fashion from the bloviated novel, viewers are, by the end, possessors of this little nugget of truth: Dan Brown is just as bad at plotting as he is at writing, and his inability to create characters who are believable is equaled only by his inability to accurately represent the history, art, architecture, and technology found strewn throughout novel/movie. (One of my friends, a professional historian who rarely watches movies, was especially repulsed by the movie's failure to accurately describe or identify any historical figure or event mentioned throughout the overly long film.) The screen writers give it a valiant shot—that is, trying to have it make sense—but it is as though they have been told to build a state-of-the-art sports car with the remains of a rusted Frigidaire refrigerator, a ball of twine, and a case of paper clips.
For example, the villain, Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (played quite well, I think, by McGregor), has concocted a plan to blow up the Vatican that is not only nonsensical, it rests upon a byzantine series of events equally lacking in logic. McKenna is the most devout and traditional Catholic in the movie (which explains his angry, violent impulses, don't you know!), but he wishes to unleash a bomb because the late pope—his father, whom McKenna had murdered—was a "progressive" who had indicated his support of scientific research into the origins of the universe. Incensed at this outrageous expression of solidarity with the dread evil of modern science, the camerlengo decides to save the Church by blowing up the Vatican, the cardinals (assembled for a papal conclave), and St. Peter's Basilica to smithereens.
Hmmm. Well, it could be that McKenna is insane, yet he is presented as coldly ruthless and efficient, an apparently ingenious combination of terrorist and papal insider whose obsessive desire to pin the blame on The Illuminati can be explained by only one thing: Brown's need for a decoy that might keep readers guessing for over 500 pages and viewers awake for over two hours. Of course, I could be selling McKenna short as a character since he is, in comparison to Langdon, almost likable and engaging. Hanks should not be blamed too much for how he plays Langdon; I prefer to blame him for trying to play Langdon, who is surely one of the most unlikable, arrogant, pompous, shallow, moronic, pontificating, grating, irritating, annoying, and cloying pulp fiction heroes in recent memory. It is no small credit to Hank's respectable acting chops that Langdon, on screen, is simply shallow, pontificating, and occasionally annoying; it also helps that he got a haircut sometime after The Da Vinci Code.
To summarize so far: as a movie, Angels & Demons is a professionally-made, competently rendered, adequate summer thriller with some above average special effects. As a story, it stinks. Badly.
So, what of the movie's portrayal of the Catholic Church? If you watched only mainstream news coverage, you might not even be aware Angels & Demons could, in some way, possibly—just maybe—be offensive to Catholics. In some interviews about Brown and his novels, I've tried to make two basic points:
1. Angels & Demons is not the same beast as The Da Vinci Code, and the situation in 2009 is much different than it was in 2006, when the first movie came out and was riding a massive tsunami wave of publicity and controversy. The novel/movie Angels & Demons is hardly friendly to Catholicism or to historical fact, but it is not as unremittingly anti-Catholic as The Da Vinci Code, nor is it as focused on foundational beliefs and doctrines. (It is just as silly and sloppy, but that's a secondary issue.)
2. That said, my biggest concern with Angels & Demons has not been with what it proposes as much as with what it reinforces, namely, the convenient but thoroughly false notion that the Catholic Church is an enemy—even a violent, bloody one—of science and reason.
With this second point we reach the strange nexus where entertainment and reality perform an uneasy dance upon the squirrely stage of popular culture. I say "strange" and "uneasy" because this dance seems to change depending on who is choosing the tune, and the tune changes depending on who wishes to control the dance. When Catholics, for instance, complain about Brown's sloppiness with facts (which is, frankly, an overly nice way of putting it), they are often chided for not realizing that it's "just entertainment" and "just a novel" and "just a movie." Yet this fails to make sense of why Brown's novels/movies are entertaining to so many millions, and why the disputed claims about history, religion, and art are often trotted out as key reasons why the novels/movies are entertaining. Conversations tend to go as follows:
Brown Fan: "I really enjoyed Angels & Demons; it was a really great read!"
Catholic: "Oh? What did you like about it?"
Brown Fan: "Well, it had a fast-paced story and lots of neat facts about the Catholic Church and history and science and—"
Catholic: "But doesn't the novel claim that the Church murdered Copernicus? That isn't true—"
Brown Fan: "Ah c'mon now! It's just a novel! Why are you Catholics always so uptight about fiction?"
Catholic: "But you just said that you learned facts about the Catholic Church from the nov—"
Brown Fan: "But it's just a novel, man! Can't I simply enjoy a bit of light reading?"
A great example of how Angels & Demons is both a movie and a source of deeper reflections on real things in the real world is a recent review of the film on the Pop Matters website, a highly trafficked site dedicated to popular music, books, films, and such. It states:
The changing relevance of Papal leadership informs the goings-on in Angels & Demons. But rather than questioning whether such leadership reflects the new demographics of faithful or addresses their concerns, the film challenges the church’s ongoing anti-science fundamentalism—a good old-fashioned battleground.
Angels & Demons is at its best when reminding us of the conflicts that arise when science and religion mix, and wondering whether such tensions can be rectified. After eight years of Bush administration, Christian fundamentalism, and anti-science policy, we in the U.S. have direct experience with the disastrous effects of religion-driven state power. HIV transmission and infection rates and teen pregnancy rates have risen despite the “faith-based” institutionalization of abstinence only sex education. And while not overtly motivated by religious tenets, Bush’s antipathy to science resulted in the gutting of environmental protections of all sorts.
Time and administrations change, however. And so far Barack Obama has rejected such religious dogmatism in governance. The question Angels & Demons raises is whether Catholicism, or Christianity, or any of the world’s major religions, can maintain its relevance to contemporary realities and leave behind centuries of anti-science zealotry.
Perhaps you, like myself, wonder how and why it is the reviewer goes so quickly from "Catholicism vs. science" to modern-day "Christian fundamentalism" and alleged "anti-science" policies in the U.S. But most troubling, to me, are the assumptions: the Catholic Church is engaged in "anti-science fundamentalism", science and religion are long-time enemies, and Catholicism has many centuries of "anti-science zealotry" in its historical closet. It's a fair guess, I think, to say the author possessed those beliefs before writing the review, but the movie obviously reinforced those wildly skewed, even blatantly false, beliefs. Such is the challenge of popular films such as Angels & Demons
Of course, the image of a science-hating, backwards Church fighting like a trapped animal to avoid modernity and stay safely ensconced in the "Dark Ages" is hardly limited to pop culture; it is readily taken up by some in the world of academia, who insist—contrary to the evidence
—that the Church has been the enemy of science, technology, and reason from the start. Angels & Demons
rests squarely on that secularist stereotype, and yet the truth is quite the opposite. It is secularism, not Catholicism, that resorts to smears and stereotypes when it comes to the history of reason, philosophy, and science. This important fact is taken up very well by Fr. Robert Barron, who delivers an excellent analysis/review of Angels & Demons: