'Hollywood trash' is not so harmless

  • May 22, 2009
{mosimage}When it comes to Hollywood trash, you can’t beat the combined efforts of director Ron Howard, novelist Dan Brown and actor Tom Hanks.

Angels and Demons, their first collaboration since The Da Vinci Code, features the usual slanders against the Catholic Church, along with dollops of the occult, a suppressed secret society and a smattering of advanced science. The official Vatican newspaper has described the resulting farrago as “harmless entertainment.” I’m not so sure.

The film opens with the death of a pope at the Vatican and the calling of the conclave to elect a successor. Even as the cardinals gather, evil is afoot. At the Large Hadron Collider, the immense scientific research instrument embedded on the French-Swiss border, a scientist has been brutally murdered and thieves have made off with a small container of highly destructive anti-matter. The thieves, believed to be members of a truth-seeking sect called the Illuminati, aim to use the anti-matter to blow up the Vatican in retribution for their suppression by the anti-scientific church four centuries ago.

At the Vatican, meanwhile, the four cardinal front-runners for the papacy have been kidnapped, presumably by the Illuminati. They are set to be executed, one by one, after which the anti-matter bomb will be detonated. Enter Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard “symbologist,” to whom Vatican police give the task of figuring out, from arcane clues, the locations in which the cardinals will be killed and, supremely, the place where the ticking anti-matter bomb is hidden.

The audience of this fantasy is spared Langdon’s tiresome monologues on various historical and philosophical matters that so badly slowed down The Da Vinci Code. Instead, necessary information is shouted out during mad-cap chases down crowded Roman streets or along the corridors of the Vatican. This non-stop action gives the film something of the hectic movement of a Bruce Willis Die Hard thriller — but lacking a good action star like Willis or a sound sense of directorial pacing, Angels and Demons quickly degenerates into so much jumpy, unrelenting commotion and mayhem.

What turns this production from a merely bad movie into an objectionable one, however, is its pandering to a notion of the Catholic Church as a bastion of ignorance and depravity. Granted, Howard’s picture of the church in Angels and Demons reveals it to have a flicker or two of interest in the modern world and modern scientific discoveries. But at the heart of the institution, we learn here, are still high-ranking clerics quite willing to murder and deceive in order to slow down and defeat the church’s rapprochement with contemporary culture. I fail to see how Angels and Demons can be “harmless entertainment” when it so radically defames the integrity and sincerity of the church’s leadership.

Of course, there are probably prelates in Rome and elsewhere who believe that the wide-open embrace of scientific culture set in motion by the Second Vatican Council has turned out to be misguided. The Catholic Church is very large, and there are many strands of opinion about such matters within it. But Angels and Demons depicts the situation of Christians vis-à-vis the world that is absurdly simple and wrong: a struggle to the death between true believers, determined to keep the church out of the 21st (or any other recent) century, and fanatical searchers for the truth about reality.

While there are surely extremists out there, most Catholics find ourselves in a more interesting place. We struggle with the practical and ethical implications of modern scientific discoveries, neither worshipping science nor rejecting it. This ongoing struggle is good for Catholics, intellectually and morally, and we are fortunate to have a leader, in Benedict XVI, who understands the high stakes of this inquiry.

Meanwhile, movies like Angels and Demons do nothing except muddy the water.

If you decide to give it a pass, believe me: you won’t miss a thing.

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