Sometimes I live-tweet movies. This is largely a consequence of having wireless in the house and too much time on my hands. Also, being a smart-ass.
Last night, I watched a rental copy of the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s opus Angels & Demons. For those of you who know me, this may surprise you, as I may have mentioned once or twice that the only author that gives Brown any competition for the title of “most successful author least deserving of that success based on the quality of their work” is Ayn Rand. But I watched it anyway. This is the thing; while Brown is pretty much impossible to read, and Akiva Goldsman is responsible for writing the screen-play for some of the worst films of all time, and Ron Howard is at best only a barely competent director…wait…I think I talked myself out of my point.
Anyway, what I mean to say is, the ideas that Brown plays with is stuff that I should like. It’s purely the execution that is absolutely terrible beyond description. So with a film, I can watch it and experience just how bad it can be, without trying to slog my way through some of the most turgid prose in the English language.

So, consider this the “expanded edition” of last night’s tweets, preserved for posterity.

For the sake of Science! I am about to watch “Angel & Demons.” The theory is: you CANNOT make a worse movie than “The DaVinci Code.”
Yes, I misspelled the title.

And we’ve cut from the death of the Pope to the Large Hadron Collider…yeah, may need to live-tweet this.
That really was an abrupt transition. In the hands of a skilled writer, this would have set up a conflict between religion and science. Sadly, we had Brown and Goldsman. So we got a vaguely religious female scientist, Langdon’s casual agnosticism, a supposed enemy in “materialist fundamentalists” and a seemingly hidebound Catholic church. You’d think we’d have conflict, but no…
We’ve also got a scene where a scientist discovers a bloody retinal scanner, a discarded eye-ball inside an airlock, and a mutilated corpse inside the lock room. Because the killer had to get inside the locked room, kill, cut out an eye, and then get out of the room to use the scanner to get into the room…wait…
Brown’s staging needs work.

Tom Hanks in a Speedo. I may not be gay anymore.

I had to go and look up pictures of Jason Statham after seeing that.

He’s an expert on Illuminanti art? Seriously? He got tenure for that?
And he’s supposed to work at a prestigious university as well. I mean, maybe if it was Bob Jones or something, I could understand it.
I wonder what department parties are like at this school…
“So, I just finished a two year study of Dutch Renaissance works that completely rewrites the careers of several masters by proving that many of the works attributed to them were actually done by an apprentice. What have you been working on Rich?”
“I wrote a book about a made up secret society and proved that Jesus got laid.”

“That cannister contains an extremely combustible substance called ‘anti-matter.'” Really, Dan Brown? Really?
Of all the adjectives that could be used to describe anti-matter, “combustible” isn’t the first one that comes to mind.

Is the physicist making an Intelligent Design argument?
Because her description of the work at the LHC and particle physics in particular sounds like the kind of half-accurate assumptions I usually see coming from that camp. I mean, I know that it’s pulp, and not even good pulp. But of all branches of science to be making that argument, someone whose job is actually researching the Big Bang?

I find it slightly hard to believe that the Pope’s secretary gets to be Pope until a new one is selected. But I was raised Adventist, so…
My religion was founded on getting the date of the Apocalypse consistently wrong and not eating meat…what do I know from Catholic hierarchy?

So the Cardinals won’t evacuate Vatican City, even though there’s an anti-matter bomb in it. THAT I find plausible, cynic that I am.
Even though I know that this wasn’t the supposed anti-Catholic subtext that got far right Catholics in the U.S. riled up…seriously, it should have been. That’s a monumental disregard for human safety.

“English was the language of radicals like Shakespeare and Chaucer.” Really, Dan Brown? Really?
I’ll give him Chaucer. That guy was sneaky and subversive and had a mad-on for the Church that would strike stone dead the people who get mad about Dan Brown books, if they bothered to actually read Chaucer (not that they read Dan Brown, but you know what I mean). But Shakespeare? The guy who wrote propaganda plays to help legitimize the Tudor’s claim to the throne? No, not a radical.

Out of curiosity, are there any GOOD writers in the history/art trivia mystery genre?
I got lots of people telling me “Umberto Eco.” But I’m not learning Italian, and the translations of his work kill me. I’m half surprised no one mentioned Arturo Perez-Reverte. I think the fact taht I specified “good” writers threw people off. I probably should have asked for people “not as bad as Dan Brown.” Or “actually readable.”

Murders based on classical elements? Is Dr. Phibes the killer?
Buried alive. Lungs punctured. Burned alive. Drowned. Earth, air, fire, water. If you don’t get the Phibes reference, go bother Sims.

“I need a map showing all the churches of Rome.” Yeah, that would be called “a map of Rome.”
I lived in Italy for three years as a kid. Church a block, I promise you.

“How would someone create a sculpture about air?” You are a fucking ART HISTORIAN! Dude! How did you get tenure?
And a moment later, he realizes that what he’s looking for is a bas relief. While looking at an intaglio.
Which are not the same thing.
Which are pretty much the opposite, in fact.
This from an art expert. With tenure. At a prestigious school.
(And I suspect he’s actually thinking of a high relief.)

Okay, I think we’ve had quite enough shots of sinister looking Arabic men, Ron Howard.
The crowd scenes mostly stopped after this, but it was starting to get a bit…pointed feeling. Like Howard had no way of instilling anxiety over our hero’s safety other than to show dark-skinned men looking at the camera while foreboding music played. Even though we’ve seen the killer, multiple times, and he’s a white guy.

Locked in an air-tight vault. That was obvious.
You pretty much knew, as soon as the air-tight Vatican vaults, buried underground in a lead-lined chamber, were introduced that someone was going to get trapped inside. But Brown is nothing if not painfully predictable.

That was the least dramatic dramatic reveal in cinema history. Of COURSE the Pope was murdered. That was obvious from the opener.
We open the film with the news that a popular, progressive Pope has died suddenly. Then someone starts killing his likely replacements. Gee, do ya think that the murder mystery might have started with an unsuspected earlier killing? Sure, structurally it’s just an excuse to have the super-secret notebooks disappear, but since that was horribly telegraphed as well…

These are the least armed Italian cops I’ve ever seen. They regularly face Mafiosi, and they’re all taken out by a guy with a hand-gun?
I think we’re mean to be impressed with how super-competent our assassin is. But given that he [SPOILER!] gets blown up by his employer because he was so stupid that he used the employer-provided getaway car, I’m not leaning towards the “competent” theory. Which means that the Italian cops are morons. And, no…not buying it. Carabinieri are hard-core.

Of COURSE it’s all a cover for the corrupt Cardinal to take power. Of course it is.
This was almost a half-way decent swerve on Brown’s part. And then I stopped and realized that the film isn’t even half-over, and the killer is never revealed that early on unless the writer is really good. And we’re talking Dan Brown here.

Langdon is bad luck for Italian police.
Two more cops die while Langdon dithers and holds back from the action. He’s got to be the least dynamic thriller hero ever. Even Pendergast and Holmes mix it up with someone every once in awhile.

Flying an anti-matter bomb away in a helicopter does not sound like the smartest solution to me. Just sayin’.
It is an anti-matter bomb. And helicopters, while they do have an impressive vertical list, max out at 8000 feet. And that’s helicopters built to do that, not ones designed to ferry VIPs between Leonardo da Vinci di Fiumicinio and St. Peter’s.
Again, I know, pulp science. But really!

So the probably gay young priest is the only person in this story with a lick of common sense.
Because he’s trying to move away from the anti-matter explosion. Sure, he’s doing so by parachuting out of a helicopter with a bomb in it…

This is the least likely, most coincidence dependent plot ever.
See if you follow the logic here:
“So, I’ll assassinate the Pope. And if I get away with that, I’ll hire a killer to steal anti-matter, which I’ll turn into a bomb at the Vatican. Then I’ll kidnap the four most likely candidates to replace the Pope and kill them off one by one, but make it look like a fictional secret society is doing it. Then, I’ll make it look like the Swiss Guard are conspiring against the Catholic Church. Then, if the anti-matter bomb is found, I’ll fly it up to a high altitude in a helicopter, but parachute to safety before it explodes. Assuming I survive, the Cardinals will be so impressed with my passion and bravery that they’ll make me the new Pope, even though there is no precedent for that and it actually breaks a bunch of ecclesiastic laws. And then, once I’m the Pope, I’ll start a new Inquisition and bring the forces of Science! to their knees!”
I mean, if I wanted to turn the world against science, I’d just make up some bullshit about vaccines making your kids autistic. So much easier.

And thus dies Obi-Wan.

Final Verdict: as bad as “The DaVinci Code.” The core of the story would have worked in the hands of a good writer/screen-writer/director.
I can’t help but think how the mystery authors I do follow would handle this material. John Connolly and Phil Rickman could make it work, but the supernatural edge to their work might make it feel off. Val McDermid would make it sing. Heck, even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child could pull it off, and would keep the appealing elements of cheese that seem to be the root of Brown’s appeal.
And that’s really the heart of the matter. Brown has good ideas, but terrible execution. And he’s massively successful because his ideas appeal to people, but they read so little that they don’t recognize how horrendously bad his writing is. That his work flatters his audience by making them think that there’s more intellectual meat to the books than there actually is is just a bonus.

8 Responses to “Angels & Demons”
  1. Mojo says:

    Can you believe Brown was in an MFA program alongside David Foster Wallace?

  2. Dorian says:

    This will be an unpopular answer, but yes, I can.

  3. Tim O'Neil says:

    Harlen Coben was a part of that crowd as well.

  4. Hal Shipman says:

    The book is far, far worse. And I read it on the plane home from Rome (because I had a term paper due that I should have been writing instead).

    The most egregious issue for me was (aside from the pointed reference to getting a dial tone on a cell phone when the other caller hangs up on you – think about that for a second) was Brown making a huge, hairy deal about how amazing it was that after hundreds of years, the Illuminati figured out how to write words and combinations thereof that read the same upside down and right-side up after thousands of years when it’s fucking obvious that his graphic designer figured it out for his book, so it probably took her a week.

    But it was pretty much a travelogue for our (and probably everyone’s) tour of Rome, so we’re going to watch it anyway.

  5. Sallyp says:

    I’m SO very glad that I’ve never read this. I make it a habit to stay away from best sellers on a matter of principal, and it almost never fails me.

  6. Josh says:

    Richard Condon’s The Oldest Confession? Dunno if that’s “art trivia” enough to fit the genre you’re looking for . . .

  7. Phill says:

    Good job, Dorian. I had to watch this turd due to my wife’s campaign to watch all the crappy new movies she can.

  8. Rocco says:

    I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this. I was pretty hysterical by the end.

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