Angels & Demons is basically National Treasure, set in Rome ... which could have been so much cooler than National Treasure. But it was so much worse.
Jerry Bruckheimer’s work may have been derivative, commercial and silly. But as it turns out, that works better for a treasure hunt story than ponderous, arrogant and overblown.
My wife and daughters reviled me for paying money to see Angels & Demons and propping up the anti-religious culture with Hoopes dollars. They pointed out that I “othercotted” The Da Vinci Code. All Hoopeses saw Over the Hedge on opening night.
But when I saw Angels & Demons, it wasn’t opening weekend, and I had told Gus Lloyd’s listeners I would see it, so I had to.
How was National Treasure better than Angels & Demons?
1. Nicholas Cage is unusually likeable in National Treasure. Tom Hanks is unusually grumpy and unlikeable in Angels & Demons.
This is clear from the beginning, when he is cranky and arrogant to the people who were fawning on him with attention, giving him an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome. He fixes an angry squint straight ahead and avoids eye contact with his hosts.
When he claims some mumbo jumbo about the Illuminati is true, and no one has ever heard of it, he sighs: “You guys don’t even read your own history.”
He points out that Pius IX had the genitalia removed from Vatican statues and is superior about it. “Are you anti-Catholic?” asks a priest. “No, I’m against vandalism,” he says. (Honestly, though, who doesn’t secretly prefer the fig leaves?)
2. The clues are treated properly in National Treasure (I mean only the first film, not the sequel). When National Treasure introduces a clue in its treasure hunt, Nicholas Cage’s character has to spend some time figuring it out. His guesses aren’t self assured, and they aren’t always 100% accurate.
In Angels & Demons, the clue is discovered and the Hanks professor immediatley knows what it is, and follows it, and is invariably right. This does three things simultaneously:
a. Kills suspense.
b. Kills believability.
c. Kills interest in the clues.
3. National Treasure invented a silly history for the American masons that is annoying and irritating. Angels & Demons changes actual history about science and the Church (including falling for the myth that Galileo’s heliocentrism was something new) with inventions that are stupid and monstrous.
Then, Angels & Demons tries lamely to make its made-up battle vs. science battle relevant to 2009.
In bustling around St. Peter’s Square, our heroes have to contend with the huge crowds that are there, one supposes, for the conclave, but seem to center around a late-night anti-embryonic stem cell demonstration. Right there in St. Peter’s Square. You know, the embryonic stem-cell demonstrations that so often break out in after-hours Italy, with American old ladies shouting about “faith not science” and getting so worked up that violence breaks out with the “pro-science” counter-protesters.
At one point in the movie, a Vatican priest laments that Catholic leaders prefer the “divine world” to the “real world.” As if the the divine world weren’t real, and as if the circumstances proposed in this movie in any way resembled the “real world.”
4. National Treasure is far-fetched, but fun: Ancient odd-ball masons have left a treasure map of clues in American landmarks. Angels & Demons is confusing and disturbing: A single psycho “Illuminati” member has decided to kill cardinals at Roman landmarks for no believeable reason.
In National Treasure, you get heists, secret passageways and narrow escapes. In Angels & Demons, you get a series of sprints to the grisly resting places of twisted elderly corpses.
You also get blood.
The first murder is discovered when the woman scientist discovers blood on her after touching something that shouldn’t have blood on it. It’s an intriguing way to introduce a murder. Ron Howard thought so, too, and so he used it again, only this time with a little girl and her favorite doll, which is not so intriguing.
5. National Treasure ends with the national landmarks pretty much intact — and, in fact, with a new national landmark added to the mix.
Angels & Demons starts with an ancient Galileo manuscript unceremoniously ripped and ends with the partial destruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, including the pulverization of important Bernini statues.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-secular.
I’m just against vandalism.