ANGELS & DEMONS – Blu-ray review

I was one of the few reviewers who gave “The Da Vinci Code” the equivalent of a 7 out of 10 (or 3 stars), and I stand by that assessment. That 2006 film featured Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) as a professor of religious symbology at Harvard who gets involved in a tug-of-war between two secret societies–the Priory of Sion and the Opus Dei. There was enough mystery in the film version of the popular Dan Brown novel to make it flow in an interesting way. But it was a dark and murky affair that had just a little too much of Langdon’s impromptu lectures included at every juncture–even in the middle of a chase scene. The professor, unfortunately, just couldn’t keep from lecturing. For the most part, we’re spared that in “Angels & Demons.” There are a few pedantic moments, but at least they come during quiet spells in the plot.

Set in Rome rather than Paris, “Angels & Demons” is in some ways a better movie than “The Da Vinci Code,” and the Blu-ray production values are better as well. “The Da Vinci Code” merited a low 7, but “Angels & Demons” scores a high 7 in my book, though the plot isn’t as complex and the mystery isn’t as multi-textured. This time there’s just one secret society that surfaces: The Illuminati, who believe in science and religion in equal measure, and who were driven underground by the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century. The main narrative thrust of the film involves that secret society’s reemergence and their threats to destroy the Church, apparently in belated retaliation, as well as Langdon’s attempts to help the Vatican and Roman police catch them before they kill the four cardinals they’ve kidnapped and before a pilfered bomb can destroy the Vatican and a big chunk of Rome. This, he does by trying to figure out and retrace the “Path of Illumination” that new inductees to the society had to follow.

In many respects, “Angels & Demons” is a pretty straightforward terrorist-hostage film that has as much in common with “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” as it does “The Da Vinci Code.” But when you add the mystery and pageantry of the Vatican City and set it in beautiful history-rich Rome, then throw in the curiosity of the papal selection process, you have a fascinating film that holds your interest for the whole 139 minutes–146, if you watch the extended cut that’s also included in this two-disc package.

I’ll say this, though: “Angels & Demons” is not for the squeamish. The opening shows scientists engaged in trying to create “antimatter,” to isolate the “God particle” that gives all matter mass. But it’s not long into the movie before one of the lead scientists is found murdered, his eyeball ripped out of him and the container of antimatter stolen. This is like an atomic bomb, but the real bomb is about to drop: the beloved pope who just died may have been poisoned, and the cardinals who have come to the Vatican to elect a new pope are all in danger. “Angels & Demons” includes almost as many gruesome shots of corpses or people dying as there are shots of angelic and demonic statuary.

But the demonic aspects of the film are, as the title implies, offset by the angelic. In many respects, the film has two heroes: Langdon and the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), the late pope’s trusted assistant and the person who is acting Pope until a new pope can be agreed upon by the cardinals in conclave. McGregor and Hanks have great screen presence and charisma that make us cheer for them as they work separately and together toward apparently the same end. And speaking of ends, though you can see the twist coming, at least you can’t see it from afar. In the meantime, what sustains the dramatic tension is the requisite time-factor that comes with every terrorist-hostage situation. In this case, the Illuminati kidnapped not just ANY cardinals, but the Preferiti–the four men thought to be prime candidates to be named the new pope. Threats to kill the hostages take on considerably more meaning, and each individual hostage death-situation provides a new challenge for the “angels” in this film.

Director Ron Howard does a fine job of taking what could have been a complex mess and turning it into something readily understandable. And I’d like to think that he’s responsible for toning down the professorial monologues as well. The cutaways to scenic Rome contribute symbolic or associative content rather than simply being travelogue shots, and the camera angles add interest without seeming heavy-handed or intrusive. When all is said and done, “Angels & Demons” is an entertaining film that may send audiences to their church histories to find out how much of the church history contained here is true.

“The Da Vinci Code” Blu-ray looked a little soft in bright scenes and murky in dark ones, with more grain than I would have wanted, but “Angels & Demons” looks fantastic in 1080p. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc is a decent one, with no discernible artifacts and only the tiniest hint of film grain–enough to add texture, but not distraction. The color palette and overall look of the film changes according to night/cavern and daytime/pageantry scenes, but the level of detail remains consistently high. Still, judge this film by those brightly lit interiors that feature all the worldly splendors of The Vatican, not by the dimly lit night scenes. “Angels & Demons” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

The audio is equally stellar. Once again, Sony went with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, this time in English or French, with subtitles in English, English SDH, and French. “Angels & Demons” offers great atmospheric sound, filling the room rather than lingering in the corners. All speakers get involved, and the rear effects speakers complement rather than compete with the front mains and center speaker. You really notice how fine the soundtrack is in quieter moments, when you can hear every little rustle of clothing or tap of shoe on stone. I don’t have a single thing to complain about with the audio.

Don’t be confused by a packaging banner that says this is a “two-disc theatrical and extended edition.” There are three discs included, with the third being a Digital Copy (for PC, PSP, Mac or iPod) and promo version of “Hans Zimmer Music Studio Powered by Sequel 2,” a program that would-be composers can use. The film and some features are on the first disc, while most of the extras are on the second.

For those with Profile 2.0 players and Internet connection, there’s BD-Live and CineChat to engage others in the wider community of fandom. I’ve said numerous times that I don’t get Sony’s MovieIQ, which also requires an Internet connection to get “up-to-date” pop-up trivia on the film, but that’s here as well if you’re into that sort of thing. There’s also “The Path of Illumination,” which enables viewers to “follow Robert Langdon’s journey through rome and see if you can unlock the path of illumination.”

According to press materials, the two-disc DVD includes only the Extended Edition of the film, while the Blu-ray contains both the theatrical version and the Extended Edition. So in a way, the theatrical version is also a “bonus feature” on the first Blu-ray disc. Sony trailers round out the extras on the first disc.

Disc 2 is full of goodies. I especially liked three short features. The longest (17 min.), “Rome Was Not Built in a Day,” is a better-than-average making-of feature on how the film was adapted from Brown’s novel and the challenges that location filming presented. Seeing what wasn’t an actual location was just as fascinating, as Howard’s film crew had to construct some gargantuan sets. I also liked “CERN: Pushing the Frontiers of Knowledge” (15 min.), which gets into issues of science and religion that were raised in the film, and “The Full Story” (10 min.), which looks at the set and costume design, as well as some of the stunt work. Also on this disc are “Writing ‘Angels & Demons'” (10 min.), which explains how it’s not a sequel despite references to Langdon’s “previous problems” with the Church; “Characters in Search of the True Story” (17 min.), which looks at the individual characters and their backstories and arcs; and “This is an Ambigram” (5 min.), which explains this puzzlement and the way it’s used in the screenplay.

Bottom Line:
“Angels & Demons” is the kind of Church mystery with historical backstories that you’d expect from author Dan Brown, but it’s also a terrorist story. And director Ron Howard manages to blend both genres without losing any of the tropes from either. The result is some pretty solid entertainment.