Angels & Demons is probably the only movie ever made about a papal conclave that includes a tracking shot following the white smoke rising from the inside of the conclave stove, where we see the burning ballots, up through the chimney pipe, and finally out and over the roof of the Sistine Chapel.

It’s definitely the only movie about a conclave held while Vatican City is threatened with imminent annihilation from an antimatter bomb, and four kidnapped papabili — sorry, preferiti — face gruesome executions, ostensibly from an ancient enemy of the Church calling itself the Illuminati. I hate it when that happens.

At least the Vatican officials know who to call to try to sort things out: Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks).

“Why me?” Langdon wants to know.

“Your recent involvement in certain … shall we say … mysteries,” the Vatican official tries to explain.

Langdon looks skeptical. “I wasn’t aware that episode had endeared me to Church authorities,” he answers. No kidding. That’s why, instead of visiting the real St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, Langdon has to make do with a scale replica built in Los Angeles.

The “episode” Langdon refers to is The Da Vinci Code affair. And the “mysteries” in question are that Jesus Christ was not divine, though he married into divinity, or something, and that from this union was born a powerful character in the Matrix sequels, and ultimately, wouldn’t you know it, Langdon’s love interest in The Da Vinci Code.

Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code as a sequel to his novel Angels & Demons, but the movies reverse the order — so we now have Langdon running around Rome trying to save high-ranking officials of what he already knows is a false religion that’s been murdering people for centuries to cover up the lie on which the institution is founded.

Perhaps aware that more incentive is needed, director Ron Howard and screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman dovetail the book’s parallel search plots, suggesting that the Path of Illumination marking the locations where the kidnapped cardinals will be murdered could ultimately lead to the antimatter bomb threatening to destroy Vatican City.

So Langdon’s scavenger hunt across Rome isn’t just about trying to save four celibate geezers from being brutally murdered by the Illuminati — it could also wind up saving the priceless treasures of Vatican City.

Can we slow down a moment to get our bearings? Sorry, no time. The movie never stops to catch its breath, and neither can we. Besides, either you already know what I’m talking about, or you already know that you don’t need to know, right?

The bottom line, for those of us who care about such things, is this: Once you’ve established that your story is set in a world in which Jesus Christ is explicitly not God and the Catholic religion is an established fraud perpetuated by murder and cover-ups, it sort of sucks the wind out of whatever story it was you were going to tell us next.

Langdon could be ironing his chinos and helping little old ladies across the street and it would still be set in that world, and those of us who care about such things will find it hard to bracket that and just go along with the thrill machine.

Which, I think, is what the filmmakers would like you to do. Reviewing The Da Vinci Code three years ago, I wrote that if that movie isn’t anti-Catholic, no movie is. Angels & Demons is a different story. Partly that’s because the novel is less virulent than The Da Vinci Code, which Brown was still ramping up to. Also, where The Da Vinci Code movie followed the book as reverentially as possible, the new movie not only seeks to jettison as much baggage as possible; it even makes a few additions and changes expressing a more sympathetic disposition toward the Church.

The most important positive changes involve key plot points toward the end of the story. For those who know the story — warning: major book spoilers follow — I can say that the novel recounts the gruesome murder of four cardinals, each of whom in turn Langdon tries and fails to rescue, followed by the subversion of the conclave by one of the story’s villains, who briefly ascends to the Chair of Peter.

Without revealing too much more, I can say that the story the movie tells is somewhat different from this, and that, to that extent, the movie substantially — though not completely — ameliorates the book’s anti-Catholicism.

On the other hand, the omission of the scurrilous bit of papal back story results in a different motive for the story’s first murder — and the motive that is supplied directly reinforces the anti-Catholic master myth driving Angels & Demons: the Church’s murderous war against science.

Yes, it turns out that Churchmen are still willing to murder — even the Church’s own highest leaders — to protect faith from the encroachment of science. We have met the enemy, and he is still us.

Now consider the movie’s assassin. The assassin in the novel is an Arab Muslim — not devout, but contemptuous of Christianity, with a deep respect for the anti-Church Illuminati; a sadistic, misogynistic monster who enjoys torturing and killing the cardinals and lasciviously looks forward to using and murdering Vittoria.

The movie oh so sensitively replaces this anti-Muslim stereotype with a non-religious European professional (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) whose acts are strictly business, not personal. Not only does this kinder, gentler assassin let Langdon and Vittoria go because he wasn’t paid to kill them; he cautions them against the really dangerous characters: “Be careful. These are men of God.”

Underscoring his warning — spoiler alert — the assassin’s own end in the movie differs strikingly from the book. Where the novel assassin receives his just desserts in an action scene involving Langdon and Vittoria, the movie assassin is double-crossed by men of God. That’s a trick that even Brown’s duplicitous Churchmen missed.

By and large, though, the movie’s Churchmen are like the book’s: unyielding and unsympathetic, with the exception of the charismatic camerlengo (chamberlain), who has his own issues. When old Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) smiles gently at Langdon in the end and says, “Thank God he sent you to us,” it’s hard to forget that this is the same man who refused to evacuate St. Peter’s Square during the antimatter bomb threat because he wanted to keep it a secret, and “we are all bound for heaven eventually.” Yikes.

Incidentally, the Vatican press office deals with the story’s disturbing events entirely through lies and cover-ups. That may be somewhat understandable under the circumstances and more an exaggeration than a Church-bashing distortion, but, either way, it’s melancholy to see Angels & Demonscamerlengo futilely urging combating secrecy with openness. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Steven D. Greydanus is

editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.


Content advisory: Some violent and gruesome imagery, including gory execution-style murders and a brief post-mortem examination of a decomposing body; mixed treatment of religious themes.