Let’s be honest: No one was really looking forward to Inferno, the latest adaptation of Dan Brown’s “Robert Langdon” adventure series starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard. Well, maybe except me.
For whatever reason, the Langdon books have not translated well to the big screen. The Da Vinci Code was a relative disappointment given the hype, though I thought—if you could take the preposterousness seriously—Angels and Demons was an improvement and even occasionally exciting. But I knew Inferno was facing an uphill battle because any remaining Da Vinci Code hype had likely evaporated, and the book, which came out 3 years ago (review here), was not as good as its predecessors.
That said, I really wanted to like Inferno. I am still a sucker for adventure thrillers that wove in real history and puzzle-solving, shady government organisations and operatives, and plots that feature intriguing twists and turns.
And Inferno certainly had potential, starting off with a bang by getting right into the heart of the film’s core issue—the overpopulation of the Earth—with snippets of a presentation from Bertrand Zobrist (Best Foster), an extremist billionaire who believes the human race is heading to extinction because population growth is spiralling out of control. Before long, we’re getting horrific images of hell as described by Dante’s epic poem, Inferno, and a Tom Hanks—with normal hair too—who appears to be in the most pain he’s been in since he had urinary tract infection in The Green Mile.
So far so good. In terms of basic elements, Inferno has it all: An attractive woman who decides to help Langdon out (this time it’s the lovely Felicity Jones), a dangerous assassin (Ana Ularu), government operatives you don’t know if you can trust (Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen), and a shady underground organisation (headed by Irrfan Khan).
As you would expect, Tom Hanks spends much of the movie running around Europe with Felicity Jones, solving riddles and piecing together puzzles while dodging bullets and trying to shake their pursuers. Having learned from the mistakes of Da Vinci Code, much of the exposition (the historical facts and stuff about Dante, in particular) is summarised and explained on the go, so that the momentum isn’t slowed.
And yet, it still feels like there’s a whole lot of expository dialogue all throughout the film. It’s one of those situations where you have two leading experts on Dante who keep telling each other facts they already know about Dante. It’s for the benefit of the audience, of course, but it feels awfully clumsy and trite. Perhaps that’s the fatal problem in adapting all of these Langdon movies—there’s just no way of explaining the most interesting parts of the books in a way that’s doesn’t come across as either boring or stupid in the films.
Furthermore, while some elements from the book have already been streamlined for the film (including the ending), the story is still so outrageously preposterous and filled with plot holes that it becomes hard to take seriously. I was more forgiving in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons about these sorts of things, but in this film it got to the extent where I couldn’t simply ignore it. The plot was far too silly for the film to take itself so seriously, and that’s why I’ve tended to enjoy the National Treasure films more.
Look, the cast is good, the performances are decent, the production values are solid, and you’ll always get a certain level of quality whenever Hanks and Howard are involved. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t bring myself to like Inferno. While I didn’t dislike the film, it just felt like they were just going through the motions because they were contracted to do the movie. Having been intrigued by The Da Vinci Code and surprisingly thrilled by Angels and Demons, Inferno came out as easily the tamest and least inspiring of the trilogy.
I’ve got no new material and I’m getting tired of studying all day, so I’ve decided to have a rant about a couple of things.
There’s nothing that irritates me more right now than bandwagon reviewers – people who jump to unequivocally praise or attack a film without having experienced it themselves, for no reason other than the fact that everyone else is.
After putting up my reviews of Angels & Demons, I decided to have a look around at some other reviews on the ‘Internets’ to see what others thought of the film. The reviews were mixed, but the general consensus was that the film was an upgrade on and had more action than its ‘dull’ predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, though the silliness of the plot and its conspiracies were heavily criticised. As someone who enjoyed the movie, I thought the comments were fair. The film was far from perfect, but it was, after all, based on a novel, and it already did its best to minimise the most preposterous elements of the plot.
One thing led to another and I found myself on some forum discussing the film, and I was appalled by the number of people blasting the film, and the novel on which it was based, to bits. The problem was, almost none of these people had actually SEEN the movie or READ the book. They had based their views entirely on an unflattering review of the film (1.5/4 stars) found on the forum’s website (and the reviewer had not read the book either). All of a sudden, Angels & Demons had become the worst movie and the worst book of all-time. They fed off each other, seemingly getting more and more excited at deriding a film they have never seen and never will. Look, if they had seen the film or read the book and thought it sucked the big one or had issues with its themes because of religious sensitivities or even had genuine reservations about the film for whatever reason then fair enough. But what do they think they are gaining from this self-validating, bandwagon behaviour? The irony is that in trying to make themselves seem ‘above’ movies like Angels & Demons through their baseless barrages, all they are really doing is exposing their own insecurities.
One poster even criticised the film’s screenwriters, Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp, saying that those two alone were enough to for him to ‘keep away’. Goldsmith has worked on films such as I Robot, The Da Vinci Code, A Time to Kill, I Am Legend and won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, whereas Koepp has to his name films like Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, Snake Eyes, Stir of Echoes, Mission: Impossible, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Panic Room and Spider-Man. Just about every screenwriter has a few stinkers in their resume, but one must have exceptionally high (or phoney) standards to make a conscious effort to avoid movies written by those two.
Anyway, it got me thinking – just to what extent do film reviews alter our perception of a film, even on a subconscious level? I refuse outright to read any full review of movies I intend on seeing at the cinema beforehand (though I do try to gauge things on a more general level), but the fact is, many people make their decisions on what movies to see and avoid based purely on reviews they have seen or read. And consequently, oftentimes those people may go into the film with a pre-conceived opinion of it, which rarely changes even after they’ve actually seen the movie because they’ve already made up their mind about it. Or perhaps people generally have a tendency to conform to popular opinion – if everyone thought a movie sucked but you secretly liked it, would it in some way impact your outward expressions about the film?
I wonder how far this extends – do reviewers themselves get influenced by what other reviewers may have said? I think it’s a possibility. If all the top reviewers are declaring a film a masterpiece, would a lesser known reviewer be willing to risk his credibility by panning it (or vice versa)? Given reviews and (consequently) word-of-mouth can essentially make or break a film at the box office, I think this raises some very interesting questions. Sometimes all it takes is a few bad reviews from critics at advanced screenings for things to snowball and doom a film to failure (or worse, straight to DVD!).
Two things that ruin a movie
(1) Previews that reveal too much or show the best scenes
To me, the movie preview/trailer is a double-edged sword. It’s intended to attract people to watch the film, and so they are tempted to show you the best scenes by cramming them all into a couple of minutes. But in doing so, they tend to reveal too much, to the point where they almost need to put a SPOILER warning on the preview. Especially if they show scenes from the end of the film where there is a twist. When audiences actually go see the movie, they know it’s not over because they haven’t seen that particular scene yet.
Another problem is peculiar to previews for comedies, where they feel they must show all the best jokes. I don’t know how many times I went to see a comedy because of the couple of good jokes in the preview, and they turn out to be the ONLY worthy jokes of the entire film!
My best movie experiences have been the ones where I knew virtually nothing about the film, going in not knowing more than just a basic premise. If the movie turns out to be good, it exceeds all expectations, but if it’s crap, no advance knowledge would have rectified that.
I still remember when I was back in high school and planned to see Armageddon with a friend after school one day, but he was late and we missed it. Instead we went to see the only other movie on at that time, a film neither of us had even heard of, called There’s Something About Mary. To this day, that film still ranks as my best movie experience of all time. We both came out feeling like we had torn all our abdominal muscles. I’m sure I would have loved the movie even if I had heard about it beforehand, but going into it completely clueless made it very special.
I understand the need to sell the movie, and for infrequent movie-goers, knowing what a film is about and getting a sense of whether it is any good is crucial in deciding what movies to watch. But for people who watch a lot of movies (like me), it can definitely ruin a movie by revealing too much or creating unrealistic expectations.
These days, if a preview of a movie I want to watch comes up in the cinema, I close my eyes and turn away. If I have no intention of watching the film, I’ll check out the preview to see if it can change my mind. Recently I’ve taken a liking to ‘Teaser’ trailers – they let you know the movie is coming and give you a taste, but no more.
PS: I couldn’t help but sneak a preview of Night At the Museum 2 during my last trip to the movies. Was it just me or was the preview really unfunny? For its sake I hope they kept the best jokes out of the preview!
(2) Movie reviews that reveal too much plot
Another reason why I don’t read full reviews before seeing a movie anymore is because they reveal way too much.
Nowadays, most movie reviews, professional or otherwise, provide SPOILER warnings in advance – but these are largely limited to ‘twists’ – and even so, simply knowing that there is a twist in the movie will often end up spoiling it. I remember when my sister came home from watching The Sixth Sense and began raving about the ‘twist’ ending. She wasn’t the only one because everyone was talking about it. Consequently, despite not knowing what the actual twist was, I ended up figuring it out minutes into the film when I got around to seeing it for myself. It was still a good film, but I wonder how mindblowing it would have been had I not been been warned about the twist in advance. The same thing happened when I watched The Usual Suspects, though to its credit, that twist still got me!
It’s not just the twists either. So many reviews I read these days spend half the word count (or more!) outlining the plot. I don’t have a problem with revealing the general premise of a film because most people want to have an idea of what the film is about, but what’s the point of summarising what is going to happen in the first half of the film? I want to know if the movie is worth seeing, not read a synopsis of the plot!
Take an example of a review of Angels & Demons I found at a respected newspaper’s website (skip this paragraph NOW if you don’t want SPOILERS!). In this relatively short, 15-paragraph review, it tells us that: (1) Langdon wants to but is denied access to the Vatican archives, so he can’t finish his book; (2) they are about to elect a new Pope and the 4 leading candidates have been kidnapped; (3) the villain has a canister of antimatter and will blow up the Vatican if he is not stopped before midnight; (4) it seems the secret ancient sect of the Illuminati is behind it all; (5) Skarsgard’s Swiiss Guard character is against Langdon and Mueller-Stahl’s character is an ‘arrogant’ cardinal; (6) there are a number of ingeniously sadistic murders ; (7) the film has a fanciful climax; (8) the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Square and Piazza Navona are among the places Langdon will visit.
Taken together, that’s pretty much half the film right there. If I hadn’t read the book and accidentally stumbled upon this review before seeing the movie it would have KILLED half the excitement and enjoyment. At least the first half-hour of the film would have been sat through in boredom because the review already tells us what’s going to happen!
Yesterday I saw Angels & Demons, you know, the highly anticipated follow-up to the controversial (and hugely successful) The Da Vinci Code, also adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dan Brown.
After the somewhat modest reactions to the The Da Vinci Code (which I actually think deserved more credit), my expectations were held in check this time. Another good thing is that it had been so long since I read the book that I had kind of forgotten what it was all about. Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised. It was fun, exciting, and the pieces came together at the right moments.
In short, it was a vast improvement on the first film and I totally enjoyed it!
Angels & Demons the book is a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, but the movie is filmed as a sequel (and there are several references to the events of the first film in the opening scenes). As per my review etiquette, I won’t divulge plot details, but given the success of the novel, it’s safe to assume most people at least have an idea of what it is about. All I will say is that, like its predecessor, Angels & Demons is heavily influenced by religious themes and involves a desperate race against time that leads to a lot of running around. Whereas The Da Vinci Code was set predominantly in Paris, Angels & Demons leads you through a breath-taking adventure through the various attractions and sights of Rome and Vatican City.
Action, action and more action
Dan Brown’s novels are known to unveil at neck-breaking pace. However, unlike the book, many felt that The Da Vinci Code movie was, frankly, a bit of a bore. Angels & Demons doesn’t suffer from the same problem because it’s made as more of a popcorn movie with full-throttle action right from the beginning, rarely pausing to catch its breath.
The difference is in the adaptation. The Da Vinci Code movie was bogged down by the need to fully explain its complex conspiracy theories, and despite doing so very well (and innovatively), it led to dull patches that killed the momentum. Director Ron Howard certainly learned his lesson, because even though the plot and theories of Angels & Demons also require a fair amount of explanation, this time they did it right – by giving you the essentials upfront and then feeding you bits of information at a time so that the pace never sags for very long and things are kept moving.
Though I couldn’t recall much from the book, Ron Howard definitely changed or deliberately left out certain parts of the storyline in the film – and I think it was for the better. To be honest, the conspiracy theories in Angels & Demons sounded pretty silly when transformed from the page to the big screen (and coming from me that says a lot because I tend to believe in a lot of that stuff), so I felt it was a smart choice to leave the emphasis off all of that and focus on keeping the foot on the gas pedal. There’s probably another reason why they decided to do it, but I won’t say because it may lead to a potential spoiler. Nevertheless, the end product was much closer in style and pace to the novel than The Da Vinci Code was, and therein lies the biggest contrast between the two films.
Terrific all-star cast.
Of course, Tom Hanks returned as professor Robert Langdon, sans the infamous mullet from last time (I still think the new hairdo is a FAIL, just not an EPIC FAIL – perhaps he needs sideburns or something). Hanks clearly got into good shape to portray the character, as evident from his very first scene, but there was still some awkwardness to him. Maybe he just wasn’t the right choice for Langdon, but it’s too late now because like it or not the character will forever be associated with the actor.
The big upgrade was Ayelet Zurer (Israeli actress best known from Munich – the film not the city), who portrays the scientist/sidekick to Hank’s Langdon. As much as I like Audrey Tautou (from The Da Vinci Code), Zurer’s chemistry with Hanks was so much better, and she more than holds her own in the film.
There were other solid supporting roles too, such as Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter of the Swiss Guard and the always trusty Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss. Note both names were changed from the novel.
Ron Howard and his special effects team really worked miracles in Angels & Demons, because despite the film being set almost entirely in Rome and Vatican City, the Vatican made it virtually impossible for them to shoot there. And yet you would have never noticed if no one had told you.
I don’t know how they did it, but it must have involved building full-scale replicas, smaller scale replicas and lots of digital effects. Really just shows you can pretty much do whatever you want in movies these days (as long as you have the budget).
There were also some other sensational special effects sequences that were done with amazing realism, though I can’t discuss them without spoiling the plot. You’ll just have to watch it!
I found it interesting that the Vatican basically condemned this film before it even began shooting. It probably had a lot to do with the anti-church reputation The Da Vinci Code had developed, but I actually thought that Angels & Demons had a pro-churchand pro-faith undercurrent. Sure, there were some thinly-veiled criticisms of the Catholic Church, but on the whole the film did a decent job of reconciling science and religion, and reminding everyone that religion is, ultimately, a man-made thing that is not perfect. Perhaps Catholics might even find the film uplifting. Regardless, I’m sure the boycotts are already in motion.
Angels & Demons, apart from being a fun action flick, really reminded me of what Dan Brown is capable of. You see all the copycat authors that are out there today and it tends to dilute what Brown accomplished with his two most popular novels. Seeing the film made me remember how great the storyline was and how brilliant Brown was in being able to link everything together so intricately, making all the pieces fit so perfectly. A mind-boggling amount of research and thought must have gone into it. It’s a great example for aspiring writers who want to pen the next international bestseller. Brown may not be a great (or even good) writer but he’s put a lot of effort into creating these engaging stories.
This has definitely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which is coming out this September (s0me preliminary thoughts here).
In all, Angels & Demons is a great action film (with a little extra) that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It’s a movie that caters for a wide audience.
Those that have been to Rome or the Vatican will get a kick out of seeing all those places being used in the film (I had a few ‘remember that place?’ moments myself). It’s also good for people who haven’t, because it will probably make them want to go now!
I’m sure those who have already read the book will enjoy the film because it is genuinely exciting and captures the thrill ride entailed in the novel. However, I think those that will like the film most are those who haven’t read the book (and there’s probably not many out there), because they will be even more impressed by the scale of the story and the way the symbols, conspiracies, science, religion, action and storyline is all woven together.
Just go in with an open mind, don’t expect everything to make sense, take the conspiracy theories with a large chunk of salt – and you might be surprised how enjoyable the film can be.