Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on November 30th, 2009
Believe it or not, Robert Langdon did not make his debut in the Da Vinci Code novel. He was actually introduced in an earlier, but far less known novel, Angels & Demons. When Hollywood came a knockin’ they weren’t interested in that earlier work. The Da Vinci Code was tearing up the literary world, and Hollywood wanted a piece of that overstuffed pie. That meant a strange series of circumstances for Dan Brown and Robert Langdon. In print, The Da Vinci Code is the sequel to Angels & Demons, but in the cinema Angels & Demons is now the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. You might consider it a trivial point, but it’s not. If you’ve read The Da Vinci Code, you know that this isn’t Langdon’s first dance with a murder mystery. He’s much more comfortable around the cops and corpses than the film version appears, by necessity. This first film requires him to be quite the novice and led around the ins and outs by the other characters. That creates an almost new character for fans of the novel. Add that to the incredibly complicated world the novel explores, and you are bound to disappoint fans of the original work. And disappoint fans, the film did. But, the film was still a financial success, breaking the necessary $200 million mark. So, even amid some harsh criticism, Howard and the gang now tackle the actual first novel in Brown’s Langdon series.
Robert Langdon (Hanks) has been called in by the Vatican to help solve a crisis. The Pope has died, and the Cardinal College is about to enter Conclave to select the next Holy Father. A radical group using the name of the ancient Illuminati has kidnapped the top four cardinals in line for the job. They have also stolen a canister of antimatter from the CERN collider labs. They plan to use the antimatter to fulfill an ancient threat against the Vatican to destroy it in light. With little time before the kidnapped cardinals are scheduled to be killed one every hour, Langdon must locate the churches where they are to be executed using clues from the Vatican Archives and the taped threat by the radical group. All the while the Vatican is trying to select a leader. If Langdon can’t solve the clues in time, the entire Vatican City will be destroyed in the largest blast the world has yet seen.
It becomes somewhat of a cliché in these kinds of films that we travel from place to place where we encounter clue after clue. It’s a formula, to be sure. The Vatican and Renaissance Rome locations do add an epic depth to the film that further draws us into this world of ancient intrigue. Give Ron Howard credit both for thinking big and for placing his characters in a real world instead of a green screen box. The truth is that while this film did not generate the money and success of the first film, it really is a much better movie in almost every way. The mystery is far more thrilling, as it involves a ticking clock and the lives of fourcardinals as well as the fate of everyone in the Vatican. Since the explanations must occur on the run for most of the film, it doesn’t give Howard the time he once had to over-explain himself. This one feels less like an ancient religion study lecture.
Tom Hanks has understandably more confidence playing Langdon this time around. He also doesn’t have to share time with so many other characters this time around. I didn’t like the fact that they made him a bit of a bull in the china shop this time around. He tosses ancient artifacts around as if he were dealing with a disposable trash can lid. He’s primarily joined by Vittoria Vetra, a scientist from the antimatter experiment, played quite strongly by Ayelet Zurer. She plays a character equal to Langdon in strength and resolve. In fact, there are moments she takes the lead, even if it means the destruction of valuable vintage documents. I haven’t read any of the books, so I can’t say how she compares to Brown’s invention, but I suspect the actress did more than a little to bring the character to life. The other lead is Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo McKenna. The Camerlengo is the Vatican representative who holds the Pope’s duties during the selection process. He is also a counselor, of sorts, to the Pope who assigns him. He has a complicated part and blends in so well that it’s hard to recognize McGregor within McKenna.
This one came and went rather quickly in the theaters and never even recovered its budget. It likely puts the next Brown book in some kind of limbo, for now. I’m afraid the hassle surrounding Brown and his books along with the disappointment by fans in the first film went a long way toward making sure this one never really got a fair chance. It’s a pretty good thrill with some exotic sets and locations. It should have been the first film as it was in the book series.
Angels And Demons is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The film is presented in full 1080p through an AVC/MPEG-4 codec with an average bit rate between 25 and 30 mbps. Like the film itself, this one sports a far superior transfer to the Blu-ray release of the earlier film. This has the perfect blend of dark realism and super high detail. Colors aren’t often exceptional, but when they are … WOW!. Two great examples are the water in the Four Rivers Fountain and the climactic explosion. Colors just jump out at you and give you something to stare in awe at. The bit rate is an average 20 mbps but looks better than those numbers imply. Black levels are inky black and provide an incredible level of detail and shadow definition. It’s a pretty solid presentation here, one that shows off the elaborate sets and the stunning locations with flair.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally impressive. Again I have to point out the climactic explosion. It surrounds you in an overwhelming blast of sound and fury assisted by exceptional sub response and a dynamic clarity that prevails throughout the film. Much of it is dialog driven, and those moments offer exactly what you need. The score does get a bit loud at times, attempting to build tension not always in concert with the images.
This is a three disc collection. The third disc is the standard Digital Copy. The first contains just the movie but with BDLive and CineChat and CineIQ which allows you to look up things about the actors and film while watching the movie. Disc 2 contains the following bonus features, all in high definition:
Rome Was Not Built In A Day: (17:30) Ron Howard drives this piece that looks at the concept of “keeping it real” that was obvious in this film. There is a lot of detail here that high definition brings out, and here you’ll see what went into that. There’s a lot of time spent on the explosion sequence.
Writing Angels And Demons: (10:09) There’s actually not a lot about the actual writing process here. It’s mostly a compare and contrast piece with both the first film and the original novel. Dan Brown joins mostly Ron Howard and Tom Hanks here.
Characters In Search Of The True Story: (17:10) This piece profiles the film’s main characters with the actors providing some valuable input.
CERN – Pushing The Frontiers Of Knowledge: (14:52) Go behind the scenes of the real CERN lab where the supercollider actually exists. Scientists offer some input into what they actually do and their attempts to study antimatter.
Handling Props: (11:35) Exactly what you might think, it’s a look at the props created for the film.
Angels And Demons – The Full Story: (9:46) This is a production diary that takes you day by day behind the scenes of the production.
This Is An Ambigram: (4:46) This one looks at the ambigrams created for the branding irons and other symbols in the film. An ambigram is a word that can be read upside down and right side up.
Since the film’s release, Ron Howard has found himself in a childish war of words with the Vatican and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. It’s unnecessary in the extreme. The Church is worried that the extremists out there will look at the film as some presentation of fact and hurt their image. Ron Howard makes the mistake of being defensive instead of taking Dan Brown’s more intelligent stand that the film is a work of fiction. Brown has been quite vocal about that point. He has expressed on countless occasions that he is not presenting some kind of personal theory or endorsing the concept of the story. “It’s just a story” is his mantra, and this has kept him from being so embattled with the Church. Now Howard whines that the Vatican has pulled strings to try to hurt the upcoming film. Opie, you need to grow up. I have a ton of respect for Ron Howard. He’s directed some damn fine films. Here, he’s letting whatever personal prejudice he obviously harbors for the Catholic Church to cloud his judgment. Howard says that he doesn’t have an ax to grind and that he’s open-minded about the Church. “How long are we going to sit here and pretend that you haven’t already made up your mind?”