Give 'em enough pope ...

It seems we’re in a season of prequels. We’ve just had X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the reboot of Star Trek, while this week we have Angels and Demons, prequel to The Da Vinci Code, and coming in a few weeks is Terminator: Salvation.

Actually, in the case of Angels and Demons (and possibly Terminator: Salvation too) it’s not entirely clear that these are prequels as such. Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons, featuring “symbologist” Robert Langdon, likewise the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code, came out before that megabestseller of a book and the blockbuster of a movie.

Hence it must technically be deemed a prequel, though there’s nothing in the film to tell us whether this story comes before or after the one about the bloodline of Christ. Also, I’m not clear about where in the Terminator saga Salvation will fall. Maybe the correct term for this kind of movie is not “prequel” but “paraquel”. (And I’m copyrighting that term immediately.)

Perhaps, not having seen The Da Vinci Code, I’m missing some clues. But then, in the welter of clues of different kinds that are thrown at us and Dr Langdon during the course of Angels and Demons, it would hardly be surprising if the viewer and non-symbologist missed a couple. Not Dr Langdon, though; he’s got a sharp eye for any symbol going, whether sculptural, textual or technological. Bit slow on the uptake when it comes to symbols of human intent, I think, but so are many of us. The South African electorate, for instance.

The film starts off at Cern, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. This is a particle accelerator where, in a great underground tunnel, scientists zoom protons or atomic nuclei towards one another and examine the results of the smash-up to see if the “God particle” has emerged. At least that’s what Angels and Demons tells us, which would explain why there’s a priest on duty as the protons collide: if the God particle does pop up, the church should be first to know. After all, they have hitherto neglected to inform us that God is in fact a particle.

In fact, the so-called God particle is officially named the Higgs boson, a particle that must exist if our present maths about mass in the universe is correct, but it has yet to be physically located. This raises interesting questions about the Name of God. Some mystics believe the Name is a word of infinite length that constitutes the substance of all that exists. Does the Cern experiment in Angels and Demons indicate that the Name of God is in fact “Higgs”?

Or such is the kind of speculation encouraged by Angels and Demons—all that heady symbology! But let’s get back to concrete things like plot. The Cern stuff is going on in parallel with the election of a new pope, the old pope, Clementine XCVIII or something, having just died. The film tells us he was a liberal pope, so historically speaking we should be in 1963, when John XXIII went to the big Sistine Chapel in the sky. He was the last liberal pope, no? We’ve had reactionaries ever since. Anyway, Langdon is called in by the Vatican after a murder at Cern, and next thing he’s on the trail of some Illuminati, who are threatening the very fabric of ... well, the Vatican.

Langdon, with a beautiful young scientist from Cern (Ayelet Zurer) and sundry Vatican officials and Italian cops, is soon caught up in a desperate race against time. That’s just as well, because a two-hour film is itself a race against time—the lifetime of the viewer, ticking away second by second as one watches yet another useless movie.

Langdon’s investigation proceeds repetitively. He thinks up some symbolic link, locates a Roman church or other key spot, and everyone races there in a squeal of Fiat tyres. They get there, Langdon thinks deeply for a bit, spots a statue that gives him a clue, or just happens to find himself standing on an important symbol on the floor, gets another important symbolic idea, finds a corpse or something, and then everyone races off again in another squeal of Fiat tyres.

This happens about six times on the way to the big-bang climax. Squeal, symbol, squeal. And so on. If only the election of popes were always this exciting—it hasn’t been like this since the Renaissance. There’s a speech to do with science versus religion part-way through, but it tells us nothing the intelligent-designers haven’t already. (I half-expected a subtitle saying “Author’s message! Author’s message!” to arrive on screen.) And there’s a bit of other information chucked in too, with characters constantly swapping historical snippets they surely know but the viewer might not. Galileo was accused of heresy for saying the earth revolved around the sun! Gosh, who knew?

Perhaps I have trouble taking Angels and Demons seriously because Tom Hanks is Robert Langdon. That means we have to look at Hanks’s face all the way through—either deep in symbological thought or furrowed by anxiety, not that one can tell the difference. He used to be reasonably cute, Hanks did, round the time of The Man with One Red Shoe and Splash. He also seemed to have a sense of humour. On the basis of this film, he has lost that with his looks. I am not usually a proponent of extensive plastic surgery, but watch Hanks frowning for two hours and you will agree that something must be done.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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