What was most surprising about attending the opening-day, 9:45 A.M. screening of Angels & Demons was not that 200 or so folks had shown up, but how many of these attendees were wolfing down buttered popcorn for breakfast. Hadn't any watched The Biggest Loser or La Grande Bouffe?
As for the 138-minute Ron Howard adaptation of Dan Brown's superbly entertaining novel? It's brisk, brutal, and absorbing. Several ticket holders even applauded as the end credits rolled. But they certainly weren't bowled over by the directorial flourishes. There are none.
Howard has always been more of a storyteller than a stylist, and he often chooses his tales wisely and humanely (Frost/Nixon; A Beautiful Mind; Splash). He seeks challenges, not assured successes.
As for Tom Hanks, he is as affable as ever, and he deserves his continued box office success. Who else could ever have attracted audiences to a feature about a gay man dying from AIDS or to a romance between a castaway and his volleyball? But star power and character development certainly aren't on the top of anyone's priority list here. Action is.
Within the first ten minutes, the Pope dies, antimatter is created and stolen, an eye is gouged out and used for ID purposes, four cardinals are kidnapped, and Hanks swims across a pool and showcases a pretty terrific torso for a 53-year-old. What's being tossed at us instead of complex souls are a black-and-white critical history of the Church (especially pertaining to the Illuminati), Italian art, and places to sightsee when in Rome.
Clearly, Brown's point of view is that the Vatican City is a tightly run little country and her major export is Faith. How many people have to be killed and manipulated and lied to to keep that faith churning out doesn't matter. The leadership's goal: Let's keep the billions of Christian believers happy and within our power.
So who makes Church leaders most jittery? Those who place science above religion. Let's get rid of the Science Channel and Michio Kaku. For a Jewish take on the matter that just came out in paperback, try A.J. Jacobs' deliciously funny memoir, The Year of Living Biblically. This secular Jewish Esquire editor tries to put aside modern technical comforts and etiquette while embracing God's word for twelve months. Will he be able to comprehend Creationism and the Bible's stance on the horrors of menstruating women, homosexuality, and the ban against wearing clothing composed of mixed fabrics (cotton and wool)? By the end of his journey, Jacobs does learn to understand the merits of a spiritual journey while not exactly giving up his former stance:
"I've started to look at life differently. When you're thanking God for every little joy -- every meal, every time you wake up, every time you take a sip of water -- you can't help but be more thankful for life itself, for the unlikely and miraculous fact that you exist at all."
In A&D, however, there's no transformation for Hanks's Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, a sort of academic atheist who winds up as irreligious as he starts out -- and with good reason.
At the rousing finale of Angels & Demons, the followers of Stephen Hawking, Darwin, and his ilk seem to fare far better than the Pontiff and his followers. Langdon's view (and Brown's, and apparently the filmmakers) is that religion is a house of cards that will fall in on itself if the truth is consistently told. One cardinal, though, does argue convincingly that religion is flawed because man is flawed, but those flaws need not reflect on the perfection at Christianity's core. He's possibly mirroring Einstein's take on the matter: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."