Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 29, 2014)
Was 2006’s Da Vinci Code a hit? Yes – with a gross of $217 million in the US, I’d find it tough to argue otherwise.
Was it a smash hit, however? In my opinion, no. Given the hype behind the film and its connection to the insanely successful book, I think $200 million was the minimum the flick could make and not be viewed as a dud. Code crept past that threshold, so I see it as an acceptable success but not one that really found a great audience.
Perhaps due to the lackluster reception that Code received, 2009’s Angels & Demons hit the scene without nearly the same level of hype. Demons boasted virtually the same creative crew, but it didn’t produce the same box office results. Indeed, with a $133 million take in the US, it pulled in only 61 percent of its predecessor’s earnings. In an era during which sequels regularly outgross prior efforts, that was a big drop.
But not a surprising one. Really, given the general public dissatisfaction with Code, it made sense that a major percentage of the Code audience failed to return for the next tale in the series. However, those who came back for more were likely to enjoy it, as Demons provided the much more satisfying film.
After the death of the Pope, Catholic leaders search for a new pontiff. Someone kidnaps four cardinals who are considered to be strong candidates for the gig.
The parties responsible leave indications that they represent the Illuminati, an ancient society devoted to scientific truth that the church once drove underground and tried to eliminate. To help decode various clues and rescue the cardinals, the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) – the Catholic representative who acts as surrogate Pope during the selection process – recruits Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), an expert on matters related to the Illuminati.
In the meantime, researchers in Switzerland make an unprecedented amount of antimatter, a substance that could reveal secrets of the creation of the universe – or that could destroy a wide swath of land if unleashed. How do the two sides connect? Those behind the kidnappings also steal the Swiss antimatter and plan to let it destroy the Vatican. Along with various authorities, Langdon teams with scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) to help work through various symbols, rescue the cardinals, and halt the obliteration of Vatican City.
As I noted when I reviewed it, I regarded Code as a significant disappointment. In fact, I viewed the flick as such a bore that I read the novel in an attempt to figure out why it merited so much fuss. How could a book that excited such a massive audience produce such a dull movie?
I never bothered with Demons the book, and I’m not quite sure why I decided to give the movie a look during its theatrical run. While it failed to bowl me over, I was fairly glad I did check it out, as Demons provided a significantly stronger experience.
Why does Demons work so much better than Code? Mostly because it actually displays a pulse. Code was a depressingly logy affair. Every time it confronted a chance to excite the senses, it tended to drag. All possible climaxes became anti-climactic, so the end result was a movie that felt more like a tedious scavenger hunt than a coherent, compelling tale.
On the other hand, Demons provides much more excitement. A lot of that stems from the basic nature of the plot. Most of the film’s events transpire over a period of a few hours, and the tale involves a literal ticking clock. The kidnappers intend to kill the cardinals every hour on the hour from 8 PM to 11 PM, and then they’ll let the antimatter go kaboom at midnight. This factor adds a lot of pressure absent from the more leisurely Code, and it lends a great deal of tension to the movie.
While I’m not sure that director Ron Howard does anything to add to the movie’s zippiness, at least he doesn’t actively impede the flick ala Code. I don’t think he makes matters truly seem urgent, but he comes close. The story moves along at a good clip; even during the more scholarly first act, we still find more than a few intriguing elements, and once the clock strikes 8, the movie really gets going.
Don’t mistake my rating of Demons over Code as a simple preference for action over thought. Yes, Code was more introspective and contemplative, while Demons veers much closer to a pure action flick. However, the fault in Code wasn’t due to its lack of violence and flash; it came from the flat nature in which Howard told it.
If Howard approached Demons in the same woefully understated manner, it also would’ve been a snoozefest. Happily, he learned from his mistakes, so he knew enough to give Demons a reasonable amount of energy. No one will mistake it for tremendously dynamic adventure, but at least it keeps us interested.
That sense of energy trickles down to others involved. Hanks looked half-asleep in Code, but he shows more life here. He tamps down his movie star charisma well enough to still allow us to believe him as a bookish scholar, but at least he allows the character’s personality and passion emerge.
Zurer also feels like a more satisfying kinda-sorta love interest than Audrey Tautou in Code. Again, some of this stems from the nature of the story, as Zurer’s Vetra simply gets a more active role in the proceedings, Tautou’s Sophie Neveu was largely just a lovely plot device. Vetra still takes a backseat to Langdon, but at least she doesn’t feel like she’s there just as eye candy.
I don’t want to go overboard in my praise for Angels & Demons, as I don’t really see it as a great film. However, it does much more right than wrong, and it certainly outdoes its dull predecessor by a wide margin. Demons provides a reasonably satisfying thriller that helps restore much of the goodwill obliterated by Da Vinci Code.