“Symbols are a language that helps us to understand our past. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words, but which words? Understanding our past determines actively our ability to understand the present. So, how do we sift truth from belief? How do we write our own histories, personally and culturally, and thereby define ourselves? How do we penetrate years, centuries of historical distortion to find the original truth? Tonight, that will be our quest.”
Conspiracies can be fun. We all buy into them to one degree or another. I’m not talking about the paranoid nutjob who sees a conspiracy behind every closed door, and even a few open ones. Of course, there is something to the old axiom that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you. Of course, we’re not talking about the persecution complex style conspiracy here. We’re talking about the old fashioned cover-up. It’s what made The X-Files so famous for so many years. It’s why JFK’s death is so much more interesting than anything he did in his remarkable life. There are still some crazy people out there that believe George W. Bush orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, or at the very least was complacent in them. Everywhere from Super Bowl outcomes to manned missions to the moon, someone somewhere thinks it was all a big lie. So, you might as well cop to it now. We all love a good conspiracy theory. In his second Robert Langdon novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown writes about what would be the mother of all cover-ups. As one character put it so well in both the novel and film, “What if the greatest story ever told was a lie?”
Robert Langdon (Hanks) is a famous professor of religious symbology. He’s a best selling book writer and is asked to lecture all over the world. He finds himself lecturing in France at a most inopportune time. The police show up at a book signing and request he accompany them to the world famous Louvre Museum, where a rather grisly murder has just taken place. Unknown to Langdon, he is really a suspect. At the museum, he discovers that an old friend, Jacques Sauniere, was found in the gallery naked. His body was decorated with wounds that appear to be religious symbols. By an unhappy coincidence, Langdon was supposed to meet with the deceased man on some unknown urgent business. Police Captain Fache (Reno) is looking to see how much Langdon is willing to share about the symbols and study his reactions. The procedure is interrupted by another officer who happens to be the victim’s granddaughter and the force’s code-breaking expert. Sophie Neveu (Tautou). She also understands the messages left by her grandfather. She alone knows that Langdon wasn’t incriminated, but rather the victim wanted him to know something. She helps Langdon escape from the police, all the while gathering various clues from the museum before they depart. The film winds its way through what becomes a search for the Holy Grail, which is not the long suspected cup of Christ, but rather the descendants of a union between Christ and Mary Magdalene. The players include a bishop played by Alfred Molina who is a part of a secret committee charged with keeping the union a secret. His instrument of death is the “angel” Silas (Bettany), an albino monk who is deeply devout and willing to be a warrior for the Church. Langdon and Sophie turn to an old scholar friend, the wealthy and eccentric Sir Teabing (McKellen). Clues unravel and folks get killed as this murder mystery with a 2000 year cover-up backdrop leads to the discovery of the well kept secret.
The best part of this film is actually not the story at all. It’s pretty much been done to death with the National Treasure, Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, and even Mummy movies of late. What makes it work on some level is that the casting was rather perfect. The characters are totally believable in their parts, so that this is an easy one to get swept up into. Paul Bettany is absolutely creepy as the assassin Silas. Ian McKellen brings the wisdom of Gandalf and the treachery of Magneto to his part as Teabing. If ever an actor can deliver both in one role, it’s McKellen. Of course, he’s likely not acting as much. He’s had quite a public battle with the Church over the sexual orientation issue. I wouldn’t doubt it for a second that part of this was his way of poking the giant with his stick, or staff as the case may be. Alfred Molina looks exactly as I would picture the character and is the perfect red herring. If you know any Italian, the name says it all, Aringarosa. The French cast adds that final level of believability to the whole thing. Tom Hanks really doesn’t have to play very much here. He’s as much the normal guy caught up in the whirlwind as anything else.
Believe it or not, Robert Langdon did not make his debut in the popular 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 about to become 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 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.
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 French and British 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.
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 extremist 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.
The Da Vinci Code is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The film is presented in full 1080p through an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. I was often disappointed in the film’s black levels. This is often a dark and brooding film that required far better shadow definition than it delivered. There were often vital scenes lost to undefined darkness on the screen. In contrast, the well lit exterior shots are often amazing. Here the detail of the high definition transfer truly shines. The European vistas filled with green grass and cathedral-like church structures adds a level of magnificence that the movie was so much in need of fulfilling. Readers of the novel might well have most looked forward to seeing these grand places that the book took them to only in their imaginations. In this point the film delivers. There were two places that the image appeared to break up for a moment. Could it have been the disc or my player? Certainly.
The Dolby TrueHD audio track does better job than the image quite often. The sound appears to have a fullness without anything overbearing happening in the mix. The Hans Zimmer score remains elegant and subtle, sweeping you toward these locations as if on wings. The dialog is not only clear and understandable, but there’s a rich fullness to the presentation. Perhaps we’re talking some ADR magic here, but the sound of this film just never disappoints. The surrounds are used to pleasant effect, immersing you whenever possible into the story.
There is an Audio Commentary by Ron Howard, but it is sparse and scene specific.
The set is packed. The film has almost a full half hour of extra footage.
All of these features are in HD.:
This is a 2 disc set.
The first contains the film and:
Unlocking The Code PiP: This option allows you to identify the film’s Easter Egg codes.
CineChat: This feature allows you to watch with other friends, connected on-line. You can chat during the movie.
Disc 2 Contains the following features, all in HD:
First Day On The Set With Ron Howard: (2:13) Howard started his shoot inside the Louvre. He explains his goals for the film he is now about to shoot.
A Discussion With Dan Brown: (4:52) Brown talks about his fascination with “hidden history”. He addresses a variety of subjects from book signings to his early work.
A Portrait Of Langdon: (7:18) This piece focuses not only on the character of Langdon, but also on Tom Hanks. Ron Howard turns this thing into a Tom Hanks promo.
Who Is Sophie Neveu?: (6:58) Same kind of character and actress profile. There is some audition footage here.
Unusual Subjects: (17:58) The rest of the cast of important characters and actors are covered here. Brown offers his own insights into the characters and his opinions of the casting choices.
Magical Places: (15:58) Ron Howard talks about the cooperation of the French and British governments and provides his own Chamber Of Commerce-like thoughts on the locations.
Close Up On Mona Lisa: (6:37) The cast and crew talk about their own experiences with seeing the famous painting.
The Filmmaker’s Journey In Two Parts: (24:40/12:20) Obviously split for royalties issues, this is the typical behind the scenes feature. All of the major cast and crew members participate, with plenty of footage from the shoot.
The Codes Of The Da Vinci Code: (5:33) The filmmakers planted a sort of scavenger hunt inside the film. This feature allows you to see if you caught them all. Of course, you can view this in PiP form while the film is running as well.
The Music Of The Da Vinci Code: (2:54) Ron Howard and Hans Zimmer talk about starting the project.
There are features on The Sets, Props, Art, and Music.
I don’t have much patience for the folks out there who like to view these kinds of films and novels as facts. Just when I think the Church is overreacting to these themes, you hear people claiming to be experts on the subject and merely stirring up trouble. If Ron Howard doesn’t understand the issue, he likely hasn’t seen the various television specials and direct to DVD pieces that take this all way too seriously. If he did, he might try and be a little more understanding of the Church’s issues. Does that mean he should censor his film in any way because of those issues? Of course not, but he didn’t need to take such a hostile and confrontational approach to their concerns. A little understanding here would have gone a long way. It’s a movie, to paraphrase William Shatner. “It’s an old wives tale; the original one, in fact.”