Monday, 18 May 2009

Angels and Demons

I gave in to the hype today, as I knew I would.

Everyone whose opinion I respect and has seen Angels and Demons has one of three reactions: they don't want to talk about how bad they thought it was, they break down into fits of hysterical laughter, or they go off on a rant.

I've already displayed the first two reactions today, so here's my chance for the third, having seen it this afternoon. This little rant (I can't really call it a review) will be spoiler-free but of course if anyone wishes to engage with anything I have to say, it would help if you've seen it...

On my way home from the cinema, I starting developing a mental list of pros and cons about this movie. Regrettably the only pro I could come up with is that Tom Hanks has had a haircut since the Da Vinci Code (bearing in mind that his odd barnet was one of the LEAST ridiculous things about that particular movie).

In the meantime, the con column just got longer and longer.

Let's start with one of the first characters we encounter, Ewan McGregor. Don't get me wrong, Ewan's a decent actor and he's been called upon to play characters of all kinds of backgrounds from all sorts of places in his career, and has normally acquitted himself quite admirably.

Where this particular character comes from is fairly important, so it's a major disappointment that he was capable of five or six different accents within the same sentence at times, ranging from his native Scottish, through "proper" English, mid-Atlantic, generic North American and even a bit of several Mediterranean countries. By my count, through the whole movie he pronounced maybe half a dozen words the way he should have.

Also, I may be wrong here, but his character's name is only ever mentioned once in the two hours-plus running time although he appears in every second scene. He is generally referred to by his job description/title as if the dimmer members of the audience need to be reminded just who he is and what he does rather than gleam any symbolic importance from his rather bland name.

There's a principle in dramatic writing known as Chekov's Gun, which has two basic facets. These are generally summarised as: if a gun appears in Act One, make sure it's fired by Act Three; also, if you plan to fire a gun in Act Three, make sure we know it's been introduced beforehand.

In painting-by-numbers movies like this, the writers always remember that lesson from creative-writing class whenever they need to introduce a deus-ex-machina means of resolving a plot point. The problem is that it all becomes a bit simplistic and the introductions often come out of any rational context, perhaps even moreso than their use might.

For instance, it's only a question of time before we discover why we're shown during his otherwise pointless first scene that Tom Hanks's character is an EXCELLENT swimmer... Or when another character informs us that he used to be a helicopter pilot, you can bet your bottom dollar that at some point, he's going to be called upon to fly one!

There's an adjunct to the principle of Chekov's Gun, which is fairly basic to dramatic narratives: remember who's got the gun, and who knows how to use it! This is a big element of many thrillers or murder mysteries, along the lines of "ah, but how did you know she was throttled with a silk scarf, if you didn't do it?"

Regrettably, the writers of this piece of garbage seem to have forgotten those principles, such as for instance remembering which skills which character possesses.

Why, for instance, would Tom Hanks's eminent symbologist Robert Langdon, who is working on multi-tome analysis of Galileo, require assistance in translating Latin? I'm a multi-lingual kind of guy with a bit of academic textual analysis behind me, and if there's one thing I know, it's that at this level of scholarly discipline, you don't work from translations!

Langdon isn't the only one who seems to forget what he knows, as at least two other characters need to have Latin translated to them, when they'd previously shown more-than-adequate skills in that themselves.

This parallels one of the other shortcomings of this poor excuse for cinematic entertainment: no fact or argument is valid unless it's been explained to us in dialogue, at least a couple of times. It's not enough to show, for example, a montage of statues featuring very prominent arrows, Hanks has to shout "The Arrows!", before we're shown them all again. And then someone else has to shout "Oh, the Arrows!" before they all set off at speed to discover the next clue.

I don't like being patronised and even more than that, I don't like being patronised with a tautological and self-referencing script that thinks it's oh-so-clever when in fact it's dumber than it thinks its audience might be. I have no idea whether this is Dan Brown's fault (I never read the book, and I now have even less desire to do so than ever before) or the writers of the film. I really expected more of David Koepp, who has a fairly distinguished track record to date.

It became a running (ha ha) joke in the most recent season of Doctor Who that the Doctor and his assistant had to do a lot of running. Well, the running the Doctor & Co have to do isn't a patch on Robert Langdon and his friends. Angels and Demons should really be called The Running, Jumping, Standing Still and Pointing Film (as a vague tribute to this). He reads a map to find out where to run to, they run (or drive, which anyone who's ever been in a car in Rome will know is impossible) there, find something gruesome and then run again.

And frankly, the way it's all put together makes one not care one iota where they are running, whether they'll get there in time to stop the gruesomeness or, indeed, whether it means anything. At least the Da Vinci Code sparked a debate about whether the basic ideas behind the plot had any merit; this waste of celluloid doesn't even have the benefit of that.

About half an hour into the film, I suspected I'd worked out where it was all going, and cringed. An age later, about 15 minutes before the end, I was pleased because they threw a curveball and I thought I'd got it wrong. That didn't last long though, because the train got onto the tracks it had been on all along, towards the inevitable crash. Except that even then, I didn't care.

There are SO many more things I don't like about this film, but I've come to realisation that I don't care enough to continue. I needed to get off my chest a few ways of saying that is a pile of manure from which anyone with more than two grey cells should stay as far away as possible, and I've done that. I welcome anyone who disagrees with me about any of the facts, or who found this film to have kind of merit, to comment - I really don't bite.

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