Thursday, 21 May 2009

Angels and Demons; a film to stay away from at all costs

I'm not sure why I never blogged on The Da Vinci Code, a movie so garishly awful that watching it became a perverse pleasure. I'll always cherish the utter bankrupt lameness of trying to make us buy Lincoln Cathedral as a stand in for Westminister Abbey by putting a fake sign in the exterior shot saying "Westminster Abbey" and I can never tire of the wonderful moment when Jean Reno drags away Ian McKellen in handcuffs - I always dub my own soundtrack on to that, with Jean saying "Come wiss me Sir Ian, ziss is no place for real actors like us." The movie actually gets a lot worse after Jean and Ian head off - I thought it was over at that stage, but instead it trudges on for a while more, with both Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou looking almost as desperate for the movie to end as I was.

Watching their numb and tortured expressions as The Da Vinci Code limps to a close is a pretty mean pleasure, but it was more pleasure than I got from the whole of Angels and Demons.

Angels and Demons was published in 2000, three years before the Da Vinci Code, and went pretty much as unremarked as all of Dan Brown's other books. I'm not being wilfully cruel here; Dan Brown got a paperback deal for his potboilers and that means he's better at getting published than I'll ever be, and that even before he started making stupid money out of the Da Vinci Code, he'd made more money from writing than I'll ever make from my day job. But Digital Fortress, Deception Point and Angels and Demons were no big deal; just part of the landscape of throwaway crap you could buy in airports to pass the time. The Da Vinci Code was something else; for a while there, if you were in a public place, there was someone in your field of vision reading that damn book. I read it. It's one of the worst written books I've ever read; I think that Jeffrey Archer's Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less is still the worst book I'll ever read from start to finish, but The Da Vinci Code is up there with the complete works of Matthew Reilly and anything by Stel Pavlou. It succeeds in being bad in so many ways. There just isn't any characterisation. The dialogue seems to have been thought up by someone who's made a point of never having a conversation. The research - well, on anything I knew anything about, it was just plain wrong. So I assume that the quality control was uniform throughout and none of the "facts" in the book were solid. Often, I was reminded of Niels Bohr's comment on a bad paper from a student "This isn't right. This isn't even wrong."

From what I can gather, Angels and Demons was generally considered to be quite a lot worse than the Da Vinci Code. But a book which sells as many copies as Code has to be filmed - it's just a law. And if the film doesn't actually cause the studio to collapse, there has to be a sequel. So time to dig out Angels and Demons and make a movie out of it. And we'll make it a sequel, because a prequel would be harder for the audience to get their heads around.

Lord, I wish they hadn't. I'd have been spared so much. And as is so often the case, all you can do is blame the writers. The actors are doing their best, and the production look is very glossy. There probably aren't as many disused churches in the whole of Rome as the film would have us believe are in Vatican City (yeah, imagine that, disused churches in the Vatican; a real movie might have done something with the irony), but that niggle apart, it's pretty. It's just moronic.

Fiction always takes place to some extent in a parallel universe; if you use real life institutions you have to bend and warp them and you can't use the real life holders of big offices for all kinds of reasons. So Angels and Demons HAS to be in a parallel universe where the Pope is Celestine V, or rather was because he's all dead now. I accepted that as part of what you do in the world of fiction. It's also taking place in a parallel universe where it takes almost an hour to cross the Vatican in a fast car. In real life, you could walk across the Vatican in twenty minutes with a bag on your head. So in bizarro world, the Vatican's a lot bigger than it is in reality.

Let's get the acting out of the way. Tom Hanks is barely there, except when he's sneering. Robert Langdon is pretty much a dick. He spends the whole movie delivering mini-lectures and put downs to the Catholics littering the place. Before the movie opened people were worrying that it would make the church look bad. They can relax. The movie could have shown the college of cardinals beating Tom Hanks to death with live babies and they'd still have looked good compared to the supercilious sneering git they were putting down. Actually, that's a scene they can put in the director's cut. People would probably like it. Armin Mueller Stahl is wonderful, as always. Playing Cardinal Red Herring, he's perfect as the guy who seems to be too smooth to be anything other than the evil mastermind. Stahl can do warm monsters better than anyone alive, so he was a good casting choice, except for the fact that the target audience for this movie probably hasn't seen another movie with him in it. Same with Stellan Skarsgaard - the savvy casting directors were probably hoping that everyone would get an untrustworthy vibe off him from all of his assorted roles as smart but unscrupulous scoundrels (Gregor in Ronin is about the best known) Ewan McGregor can stop worrying that his Alex Guinness impersonation was the most horrible work he's ever done for money, because Father Patrick McKenna is (I can only hope) head and shoulders the worst performance he's ever likely to give. He has a long speech in the middle of the movie about the need for a kinder gentler church which is more or less the worst three minutes of acting I expect to see this decade. And there's a chick and there's a utility heavy, and any number of redshirted cardinals and cops and they more or less get their work done - they're all fine. Hanks and McGregor should hang their heads in shame, but everyone else did as well as can be expected. And I only single out Hanks and McGregor because either one of them could have pulled a strop and shot one of the writers. Part of what sinks McGregor is that his character is, perversely, set up as Irish, which strands McGregor trying to deliver jaw droppingly turgid dialogue in an accent he can't do properly. I thought that this was just something they were stuck with, but before I started writing this, I looked at a summary of the book, and it turns out that the character was originally written as Italian. Once they were changing, why not change to an accent that McGregor could do? Scottish is about the only which springs to mind, but hey....

But the true horror lies in the writing. And now that I know they weren't really tied down by the original book, my hat's off to the writing team for making such a piss-poor job of the adaptation. The one thing that they did do was make the conspiracy less ramshackle; whereby hangs a tale.

Usually I care about spoilers, but this film comes pre spoiled, so I'm just going to rip in. Tom Hanks has been called in at short notice by the Vatican to use his huge knowledge of arcane bullshit to find the Illuminati plotters who have kidnapped the four most likely future popes and planted an anti-matter bomb in the Vatican someplace. "Thank Goodness," snarks Stellan Skarsgaard's chief of security "The symbologist has arrived". Hanks divides his screen time between delivering lectures on how sucky the Church is and having blinding insights into stuff which doesn't make any sense. So the Illuminati Conspiracy involves them seizing these four guys, killing them in symbolic ways and then destroying the Vatican in an explosion which will completely obliterate all traces of the symbolism and every witness who might conceivably have been impressed with the symbolism in the first place. Oh yeah, and the Illuminati were driven by the Church into swearing eternal enmity and adopting utter secrecy. Weirdly, they implemented this plan by meeting in Churches and festooning the city of Rome with symbols of their meeting places which can be doped out by, well, Tom Hanks. As clandestine conspiracies go, it's like infiltrating the Nazi party in a yarmulke.

The thing is, the plan is completely leotarded right out of the box. You just gape at the screen thinking, Scooby Doo would have been embarrassed by this. Hanks lurches from one landmark to another seizing on random sticky out bits of the scenery and declaring that these are the signs to the next step on the scavenger hunt. Why? Because he says so, that's why.

Which is not to say that he's an action hero. Anything but. There's one shoot out, which he survives by ducking for cover and falling into a cellar. His other moment of personal jeopardy comes when he gets locked into a chamber in the Vatican Archives which suddenly starts to run out of oxygen. He tries to smash his way out with a bookcase, and wonderfully it bounces off the glass wall without breaking it. So he shoots the glass wall, which cracks it a bit, but still doesn't break it. The wall finally collapses about three seconds before they switch the air back on anyway. The audience loved it. Robert Langdon is just pants at action. Somehow, that and the fact that he's a dick are the only believable facets of his character. The idea that he's a genius who just sees all these connections in the puzzle - well firstly the puzzle's dumb, and secondly he's never persuasive as someone who could think his way out of a problem.

So, the plan again. The Pope's dead (we discover halfway through that this was murder), the Illuminati have kidnapped the four cardinals most likely to succeed him, and they've planted an anti-matter bomb in the Vatican. Every hour on the hour, they're going to whack a cardinal, and as a grand finale, they're going to blow up the Vatican with anti-matter. Just so you know they mean it, they've put a "wireless" camera in with their bomb, so you can see that they've got one, and that its fuse is ticking down. But because it's a wireless camera, "It could be ANYwhere."

Fittingly, since the film is ostensibly about the tension between science and faith, Ewan McGregor's Deputy Pope (It's shorthand, I'm not going to bore myself with the crap they used to handwave him) suggests that the camera could be located by switching off the power to bits of the Vatican in turn; he's cunningly noticed that the bomb is lit by artificial light, so if they can switch that off, they'll know what sector of the Vatican powergrid the bomb is in. For the rest of the movie, lights go on and off at random in the Vatican, which has a poor grasp of search algorithms and doesn't seem to realise that first you switch off HALF the lights, then half of the lights in the zone that indicates, and so on. Take about five flips of the switch, ten minutes or so. Or, as John pointed out WIREless camera; triangulate the signal with radio detectors. But you can't expect men of faith to have good engineering skills, now can you?

Though they must have had, at some point - the Vatican Archive is like Google HQ with all the electronic doors and the Swiss Guard Offices make the Pentagon look like a Taliban guard shack. Of course, as already noted, this does seem to be a much bigger Vatican than the one we know about. Hmmm.

Anyhow, other than shedding convenient darkness on scenes better not lit up, the great flicking the light switches plan doesn't do much and Hanks rackets around the Vatican, always missing the chance to save the latest victim by a matter of moments. It's down to them driving, I think. It seems to take much longer to get round the Holy City by Lancia than I ever could on foot. Finally, in the very nick of time, they realise that the plot must centre on the Deputy Pope, and they run back to find him flat on his back with Stellan Skarsgaard looming over him. So Stellan gets plugged; he's been well dodgy all along and it's obvious that he's the villain of the piece, the sinister mind behind the plot (the sinister hands of the plot have just blown themselves up by falling for that old chestnut of getting into a car that's been wired to explode). Hanks and the Deputy Pope realise that the last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place and they race for the bomb, getting there just five minutes before it's due to blow up. How can they defuse it? The chick was supposed to do that, but she gets cold feet at the last minute and there's nothing for it but to try to get the bomb far enough away from the Vatican to detonate without damaging anything. How can our intrepid heroes do it? Especially as they've pretty much decimated the Vatican security forces in the course of the last hour. Luckily, there's a helicopter in St Peter's Square! Even more luckily, Deputy Pope Ewan McGregor can fly a helicopter!

Just pause here, we have to do a quick critique of the worst back-story foreshaow in the history of fiction; Deputy Pope McGregor used to be just a wee little boy in Northern Ireland, and then the UVF let off a bomb in protest at the visit to Belfast of an Archbishop, which orphaned the future deputy pope. So saddened was the archbishop that he adopted the Little Orphan Boy and brought him to Italy. Where, in defiance of all logic he a) developed a Southern Irish accent (albeit a terrible one) and b) got conscripted into the Italian army where he learned to fly helicopters, and rescued the wounded. Right, in all those wars Italy's been in lately, I know. Believe it or not, in the book, the backstory is even more insane. And, yeah, the UVF were bastards, but even if an Archbishop had ever visited Northern Ireland (archbishops not being actually in short supply there to be begin with) it's unlikely that the UVF would have let a bomb off, if only because they were, by and large, far too stupid to build a bomb which would actually go off. Anyhow the important thing is that the Deputy Pope knows how to fly a chopper.

So Deputy Pope McGregor flies up into the sky with the bomb, and we think well, that's actually kind of manly, and not at all as crap as it could have been because it's a real self sacrifice. Then a parachute appears. It's the Deputy Pope. By some magic we can only guess at, he's figured out a way to a) lock the autopilot into continuous climb and b) find a parachute and c) get into it and d) jump out of the helicopter all within the less than five minutes between grabbing the bomb in the basement and running out into the piazza - well, anyhow, you can see that it's physically impossible even if helicopters had parachutes in them, which they pretty much don't. He's still descending on this impossible parachute when the bomb goes off, about three different times and four different ways (I imagine the CGI team said "well, we could do this, or this, or this" and Ron Howard (whose fault most of this is) said "Hell, do all of them." The pressure wave is intense, making holes in the dome of St Peters, but magically not turning everyone in St Peter's Square into jelly; I guess there are things about anti-matter which science can't explain.... Again, the book is actually dumber; in the book, Langdon goes up in the chopper but doesn't have a parachute, so he uses a HELICOPTER DOOR as an improvised paraglider to make a safe splashdown in the Tiber....

Turns out, though, that all the stupid, stupid holes in the Illumnati plan are there on purpose, because Ewan McGregor has made the whole thing up so as to orchestrate his own election as pope. I mean, there he is, heroically sacrificing himself and surviving only through a miracle. It must be God's will that he be Pope. Big spoiler, no, because in the nick of time Langdon dopes it all out and rats him out to the Cardinals, who shun him, so he goes off and for some completely crazy pants reason, sets fire to himself. Because that would be a fun way to go.

The sort of cool thing is that with that reveal, all the weaknesses in the Illuminati plot go away. The time wasting stupid plan to find the camera by switching the lights off (doubly doomed to failure - when we finally see the bomb, the light shining on it is running off a big truck battery) was Deputy Pope McGregor's own suggestion. And now it's easy to see how there'd be a parachute in the chopper. And the crazypants plot which if it had succeeded would have left no witnesses to its own brilliance - not a problem if it was only meant to showcase the Deputy Pope's awesomeness. And even Langdon's magical ability to figure out the clues; not so amazing if you figure that Deputy Pope crazypants McGregor has been manipulating him from the beginning, setting up a plot which would be obvious to the academic patsy he's brought in to uncover things at just the right speed to kill off all his rivals yet leave him untouched....

All in all, you start to think it could have been a pretty cool movie if they'd shown it from the right angles - imagine if it had been shown as Langdon deluding himself the whole time and then realising that he'd been played.

And it's tempting to think of what it might have been like with a better director (and better writers); JJ Abrams could have run with it much better. Or Mel Gibson's version. That would have been fun. Is it too soon for the remake?

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