Ron Howard's ultra-successful adaptation of The Da Vinci Code took Dan Brown's exhilarating novel and, somehow, managed to only filter out a watchable, stiff mystery that dodges the whimsy and fun of its page-a-minute inspiration. So, naturally, both excitement and reservation could be felt when the announcement came that Ron Howard and his writers would return for an adaptation of Dan Brown's superior novel, "Angels & Demons", a story that easily bests his claim-to-fame piece of work by being far more suspenseful, leaner, and all-around "cinematic" within its prose. Luckily, Howard and company deliver exactly what's expected in a film adaptation of Angels & Demons -- tighter suspense and less meddling plot elements -- even though they make several of the same mistakes as The Da Vinci Code with weak chemistry and single-dimensional tones.
Once again, we follow Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) as he blitzes through an overnight puzzle-solving race, one that only his symbologist brain can dissect. He's hurriedly trying to save four Catholic cardinals from being murdered, an act of religious terrorism sparked by a secret organization called The Illuminati amid a papal election. The cult organization threatens to have a deadly hassassin (an Arabic derivation of 'assassin') kill one of these four cardinals -- the 'preferiti', or the preferred individuals to take over the Pope's duties -- per hour at significant "elemental" spots until midnight, where they'll then explode the Vatican City in a flash of light. That 'flash of light' refers to an explosion from a vial of antimatter stolen by the Illuminati from the Large Hadron Collider, a project in matter creation that Robert's sleuthing companion Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) oversaw as a CERN scientist. With the help of the intermediary pope, the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), and the head of Swiss/Vatican Police Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård), Robert and Vittoria set out to make sense of the historic symbols and artwork scattered across the city that'll lead them to the end of the Illuminati's riddle-laden plot.
Going in with hopes of seeing the book word-for-word spread across the screen will leave viewers as satisfied as, well, those who did the same with The Da Vinci Code -- not very much so. That's something I personally had to temper down, as an adaptation of "Angels & Demons" had been on my brain since the second after shutting the rear cover. Writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman have taken liberties with the narrative to make it more "filmic", all approved by Dan Brown as executive producer, but they've also made sure to stick to the core elements that shape the book into a real nail-biter. Angels & Demons isn't a prequel like the novel, but a sequel that uses Langdon's experience in The Da Vinci Code as motivation to bring him in on this new case. That's a shame since one of the intriguing elements in "The Da Vinci Code" novel occurs with repeated allusions to the events that "happened in Vatican City", but it's a negligible tactic in simplifying the myriad of story connections. Sticklers will spot other inaccuracies, like missing links between characters and alterations to the overall outcome of the murders; however, the script diligently adheres to everything it needs to illustrate the story's core purposes, building it into a fine standalone film that doesn't require knowledge of the former. Still, the devil's in the details.
Some of these missing elements cause Angels & Demons to lose out on a fair share of intrigue and dimensionality on-screen, such as the void connection between Robert and Vittoria -- which, seen with a splash of flirtatious passion in the book, is crippled to barely more than a business association similar to Hanks and Tautou's link in The Da Vinci Code. Hanks loses his wild Nick Cage hairdo and finds a center with Langdon that comes much closer to the character's charm than he did with Da Vinci, while Ayelet Zurer rustles up a low key yet aptly realized turn as Vittoria. Her mannerisms fit Vittoria to a forgiving degree, reaching for her essence without tapping into the romantic link with Langdon. She's not a yoga-master sexpot sporting an earthy presence nor personally linked to any of the events in the book outside of being a CERN employee, lowering her to a face-level shadow who's missing a sense of stirring intrigue. That impression sums up the rest of the characters as well, from McGregor's Camerlengo to Skarsgård's police chief; they're all finely played and sketched out well enough, but somehow nondescript against the story arc even when they're growing more and more integral.
However, what's the real point behind soaking in Angels & Demons? It's in all the puzzle-solving and red herrings that Robert and Vittoria follow through across Vatican City, which creates start-to-finish tension that mixes dashes of politics with a layer of intrigue about the endless religion-science conflict. Ron Howard has obviously taken some of the critiques shot at his first Brown adaptation to heart, because his second labyrinthine mystery easily bests The Da Vinci Code in suspense and excitement. He makes an effort not to halt the furious movement simply to badger us with textual explanations, a heavy-handed issue that transformed his first film into an overly talky mess. Instead, a lot of the explanations and historical wordplay occur in motion, during discussions with the police officers in darting cars and with the Camerlengo in brief but nervous spurts. It's anticipated for the novel's simmering intrigue to mount into a non-stop blur through semi-historical hearsay and compelling connect-the-dots mechanics, but it's worth praising Ron Howard's improvement in nailing down a vastly more kinetic line of gripping mystery.
Both visually with cinematographer Salvatore Totino's photography and in the intricate production design, Angels & Demons continues the eye-candy magnetism from The Da Vinci -- which, by and large, is an impressive blend of artistry and computer-generated trickery that flows alongside the Vatican rat race with top-notch authenticity. Howard takes us through a myriad of locations across Rome where they weren't allowed to shoot (couldn't imagine why after the protests The Da Vinci Code garnished), many built on-set and featuring solid green-screen work. All $150 million of its production budget can be seen clear as day, through faux Raphael frescos and crowds upon crowds outside the papal election. It creates an claustrophobic yet "joyous" environment as history buff Langdon and Vittoria descend into the air-tight Vatican library for research, as well as the accurate settings of each of the elemental murder sites scattered across Rome.
Essentially, what we're working with in Angels & Demons is more of the same from Howard's construction of Brown's neo-religious thriller universe, only with the dials cranked up a few notches to heighten the energy. For what it sets out to accomplish -- swirling together swift, vigorous suspense instead of a point-for-point adaptation -- it'll satisfy a curious need for unspooling, thought-provoking chills all the way until its mind-boggling conclusion. Even if it still wobbles and creaks along with the same stilted rigidity, follies, and adaptive faux pas as its "predecessor", the material skimmed from the top of the novel whips together into a taut little contorted thrillride. To answer the question likely simmering in many minds: yes, Angels & Demons outmatches The Da Vinci Code in a similar but more tightly-realized fashion, just remember to go in looking for a blur of fantasy breadcrumb suspense and not for some kind of history lesson or scene-by-scene replication of the book.
In this two-disc edition, Sony Pictures have wisely made the Extended Cut available for Angels & Demons instead of attempting to milk another release out of it. The film has been extended a good eight minutes, from 138 minutes to 146 minutes, and contains a few grueling elements likely trimmed so the film could land a PG-13 rating. Note that only the 146-minute extended cut of the film is available in this presentation, while the theatrical cut can only be found in a single-disc package.
Video and Audio:
Considering the fact that the picture runs nearly two-and-a-half hours and fights for space with special features on one disc, Angels & Demons looks stunning in its 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image. It's a naturally dark film, existing mostly in winding corridors and deep nighttime sequences. That means contrast becomes a big factor in its success, which is handled in a way that presents mostly rich black levels and accurate details amid shadows. Outdoor sequences and interior shots showcase the transfer's true shining moments, allowing close-ups, dense texture, and the stylish color palette -- especially in the Vatican archive sequences -- to really pop. The image is, however, a bit on the hazy side at many points, while some colors do break a bit and a few moments showcase graying contrast. However, it rarely looks artificial and shows no sign of edge enhancement, compiling Salvatore Totino's photography into a punchy, sleek transfer that finely handles both depth and darkness.
Angels & Demons has a noticeably more intriguing sound design, which holds up well in this Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Though the musical cues are strikingly familiar, Hanz Zimmer's score has taken a stronger stance in this presentation -- likely to add further punch in fast-paced Point-A-to-Point-B sequences. His score takes the most initiative in reaching to the rear channels, while a few other elements -- like the ringing of a bell, the roar of the crowd, and a few other subtle surround points -- strategically make their presence known. Dialogue remains naturally clean throughout and without distortion, while other sound elements like silenced gunfire from the hassassin's pistol, the splashing of fire, and the flickering of flames pour through with impressive robustness. It's not a thunderous track, and it's not meant to be, but the design here suits the picture well. English and French subtitles are available, along with a French language track.
Though the single-disc edition isn't available for direct comparison to verify this, it appears -- based on back cover comparisons -- that Sony have only included three extra supplements on this two-disc edition of Angels & Demons that the theatrical edition doesn't have. Instead of using the second disc specifically for the special features and possibly freeing up some space for the film itself, they instead only include roughly twenty-six (26) minutes of extra material dropped onto a second disc.
Rome Was Not Built In a Day (17:30, 16x9):
This rather lengthy featurette covers the lack of creative license with replicating the city of Rome, as well as how they bring Brown's novel onto the screen. Director Ron Howard talks about shooting on the streets of Rome over the course of a month, combining visual effects with the actual set design, filming the final explosive sequence,and trying to make it look as if there really wasn't a visual effects crew. Rough construct CG footage mixes with interviews, location shots, and scenes from the film in this nicely elaborative piece.
Writing Angels & Demons (10:09, 16x9):
Director Howard talks a bit about the differences between adapting The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, along with interview from the writers themselves about the topic. He talks about never making a sequel before, addressing right out of the gate that he, Brown, and Hanks tried to play with the film as a sequel instead of a prequel. Howard also addresses the modern style as opposed to the flickers of history in the previous film, as well as a bit on the Writer's Guild strike. Goldsman and Koepp pop in to talk about their work, as well as some discussion from Brown about the origin behind Angels & Demons. Furthermore, there's actually a lot of discussion on the little tweaks and changes which make this one worth the time.
Characters in Search of the True Story (17:10, 16x9):
Systematically, this piece covers each of the characters and their inspirations. Of course, Hanks finds the spotlight at the beginning, harping on his intellect and refinement in rendering the character. Ayelet Zurer comes in second, as Howard and producer Brian Grazer talk about the Israeli actress' screen test and chemistry with Hanks. They follow through with the rest of the cast, backslapping to a degree but also revealing tidbits about each -- the nature of Stellan Skarsgård as a gruff diversion, the nuance behind Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Ewan McGregor's charisma.
CERN: Pushing the Frontiers of Knowledge (14:52, 16x9):
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, becomes the focus of this expansive featurette, discussing working with the crew at their facilities and the science they're working on. It talks about the Large Hadron Collider, getting into a lot of scientific jargon about the temperature and other dimensions of its operating prowess. It also delves into the theory behind recreating the moment of creation, as well as the combination of matter and antimatter. You know, lots and lots of scientific stuff that, actually, doesn't get too overly complex -- well, that often.
Handling the Props (11:36, 16x9):
Here, we dive into the world of the Property Master, discussing the myriad of detailed pieces utilized in the film. It contains a lot of interview time with Trish Gallaher Glenn, as well as a broad line-up of behind-the-scenes photography featuring the actors and crew handling the props. Just wait until you get to the part featuring the aged book from the 1600s that they replicated by hand (and aged with computer assistance). She also goes into the props constructed for the papal enclave, a lot more than it might appear on-screen during those sequences.
Angels & Demons: The Full Story (9:47, 16x9):
Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and the rest of the crew shed even more light on the stuff covered on disc one, essentially covering any of the elements that were glossed over or not addressed in the previous features. It covers the opening day of shooting, filming outside of the Pantheon, costume design, as well as the "safe points" from a giant billowing fire.
This is An Ambigram (4:47, 16x9):
Wordplay author John Langdon -- Dan Brown's symbolic research resource -- comes into focus in this brief piece. Langdon talks about the origin of the word "ambigram", where his connection with Dan Brown stems from, and the fact that Tom Hanks is running around with his last name attached to the character. It could've likely delved a little deeper into the nature of the ambigram, but the coverage is fine for its brevity.
To put it in simple, brief words, Angels & Demons does a lot of the same things as The Da Vinci Code with a few mindful improvements that right some of the areas where Ron Howard's first film went awry. Brown's novel is a naturally cinematic narrative filled with quick pacing and a wealth of murderous, riddle-fueled activity, and its translation to screen -- though different -- is enjoyable. Sure, a true adaptation would've been preferred, placing the story as a prequel and utilizing some of the more delicate, character-driven elements from the book. However, the breakneck blitzing across Vatican City is preserved well underneath Howard's direction, much to my highly reserved delight. It took two screenings to forgive the film for its deviation from the source material, yet it's a finely crafted and thought-provoking suspense film that earns forgiveness for its differences. Sony's disc, looking and sounding great while offering a satisfying array of footage-heavy special features, earns a firm Recommendation for this presentation of a thrilling, albeit singularly-focused, adaptation of a superbly engaging novel.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site