The Illuminati were harshly persecuted and killed by the Church, it seems, and now they're back - with a vengeance. The four cardinals in line to succeed the pope have been kidnapped, and even worse, a cylinder containing antimatter has been snatched from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and is now somewhere in Vatican City: a ticking time bomb set to obliterate the Holy See at midnight. It's a smackdown between faith and science, see - like this past weekend's Notre Dame kerfuffle writ large; but instead of heroic Obama representing the voice of reason and reconciliation, Angels & Demons has Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), Harvard symbologist and man of action. Oh, the irony: Langdon's the nemesis of the Vatican, but now they've called on him to help due to his singular expertise regarding the Illuminati.
Langdon's great gift is his ability to make baloney sound like ancient wisdom, and to simultaneously walk and talk, lecture and sleuth. Angels & Demons, like its predecessor, is directed by Ron Howard and written by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, but the movie is less hysterical than The Da Vinci Code, and overall better. The Da Vinci Code admittedly set the bar pretty low, but Angels & Demons is decently diverting and fast-paced, as Langdon and his sidekick, CERN physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), vandalize the Vatican archives, decipher clues, uncover Illuminati mysteries and run around trying to save the world from a small Big Bang.
Dr. Vetra specializes in something called "bioetanglement physics," but her role here is to be the "talk-to": the audience stand-in to whom Langdon explains what's going on and why and what it has to do with Galileo and obelisks and the sculptures of Bernini. She also translates a little Latin (which, somewhat incredibly, the Harvard symbologist can't manage on his own) and, being a physicist, stands ready to change some batteries in that antimatter container, should it be found in time. Langdon gets himself into several close scrapes - including a few with the kidnapper/cardinal torturer/assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) - and proves to be a resourceful and resilient scholar in the Indiana Jones mold. He doesn't have a whip or a fedora (or a sense of humor), but he's got God on his side. Or maybe it's science. Or both. Or neither.
Meanwhile, there's a jurisdictional cat-fight and power struggle within the Vatican: The head of the Swiss Guard, Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), Inspector Olivetti of the Vatican police (Pierfrancesco Favino), the vaguely menacing Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and the devoted, doe-eyed Camerlengo Father Patrick (Ewan MacGregor) all compete to aid and/or obstruct Langdon's investigation, rescue the papacy and protect the Church and its faithful. It all comes to down to faith versus science, capital-T Truth versus Big Lies, religion versus the Catholic Church. I take it that these are the standard themes of Angels & Demons author Dan Brown, along with a general preoccupation with conspiracy theories about the Catholic Church's centuries-old CYA mission.
Angels & Demons is fairly silly and generally implausible when you pay any attention at all to the details, and the dialogue is utterly bursting with poppycock and bunkum; but it has been expertly constructed by an able team, so it looks great and moves briskly (despite clocking in at well over two hours). The costumes and sets (needless to say, access to the actual Vatican was denied) are glorious, and Rome looks wonderfully picturesque even on the eve of the Apocalypse.
The international cast of potential heroes and villains performs with enough subtlety to maintain a modicum of mystery about who will be the angels and who the demons when the plot finally turns its last twist. Hanks is in serious scholar mode as Langdon, which I suppose is a necessity given the assortment of half-truths, urban legends and conspiracy theories that count for serious scholarship here - hey, he's from Harvard, so it must be smart stuff, right? I'm all for intellectualizing summer blockbusters, although Angels & Demons achieves this not so much by undumbing the action movie than by tossing some half-smart-sounding jargon and Latin at it. At least they give props to Galileo. It's a start.