How is Robert Langdon interesting?
Played by Tom Hanks, the symbologist explains his outlook: "I'm not meant to believe. Faith is a gift I've yet to receive." But the disparity between his work and belief isn't used to make him any more charismatic in Angels & Demons than in its even-worse predecessor, The Da Vinci Code. Langdon is still a woodblock. Neither a daring adventurer nor a philosopher, he's merely an uptight academic.
Angels & Demons might sound pretty wild. It features murdered cardinals, a burning pope, the attempted chemical destruction of Vatican City and Tom Hanks in a Speedo. But the reality is a lot less. The first half follows The Da Vinci Code's dramatic template: 1) Langdon will refer to some religious history, or era-appropriate artwork; 2) The other characters will express confusion; 3) Langdon becomes annoyed at their ignorance, and explains its meaning to them (and the audience). Maybe this works in Dan Brown's novel, but it's deadly cinema.
Ron Howard directs without attempting to make any of the exposition visual. The suspense scenes are welcome because they're a relief from the talk, rather than because they're suspenseful. One high angle of the city at night, taken from behind a rooftop statue, captures the spiritual feeling the rest of the film needs. Mostly, Howard makes Rome feel claustrophobic. Angels & Demons needed a better director than Howard (the most white-bread contemporary pop filmmaker) to make its battle between science and religion urgent and magical.
When a vengeful member of the Illuminati steals a canister of anti-matter that's ready to explode, it's up to Langdon to use his anagram-decoding and Sudoku expertise. The man without faith is also the man to save the Catholic Church. This point should have the inclusive good humour of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. That movie's melding of action sensibility with the old series' humanism has set a high bar for the 2009 escapist blockbuster. Where Kirk and Spock are children trying to honour their parents' legacies, the family ties of a papal official (Ewan McGregor) in Angels & Demons is mentioned, but (like everything else) leads nowhere interesting.
That the film improves on The Da Vinci Code simply comes down to it serving its weak aspects in smaller quantities. At two hours and 15 minutes, it's easier to endure. The chattiness finally gives way to action. Until that point, Langdon's only adversary is his own limits of expert code-cracking. It's a movie that keeps telling you the apocalypse is coming, without delivering the passion to make you feel it.