I believed, absolutely, that the little glass thingy hanging around the neck of a cat contained an entire universe. I saw it in Men in Black (1997), a great little romp of a fantasy. I did worry when Tommy Lee Jones got himself swallowed by the monster in order to retrieve his weapon. Stuck in all that goop? How could he breathe? But he was vomited out just in time. That little universe around kitty’s neck looked like swirling smoke…and I thought of it as I saw the glass thingy in Angels and Demons that contained “anti-matter.”
Fantasy, if done skillfully, is a childlike wonder of a gift given to us grownups. As a kid, I accepted absolutely the world of Lost Horizon (1937), when the plane went down in the frozen peaks of the Himalayas and landed in Shangri-La with its perfect weather, its happy people who sang as they grew their organics, its happy children who never fought and its people who lived two hundred peaceful years. I suspect it was probably incredibly boring to live a couple of hundred years without any conflict, but hey, the war in Europe was brewing — the audience was ready for a little peace. And when Ronald Colman’s brother fell in love with a gorgeous gal who said she was 150 years old, he didn’t believe her, and as they crossed out of the hidden mountain pass and he suddenly found himself with a girlfriend older than his great-granny, it was true enough so that my heart broke for him.
I accepted that Cary Grant and Constance Bennet died and came back to bedevil their pal Topper (1937). No problem. It worked. When wonderful Spencer Tracy, as the kindly scientist Dr. Jekyll, began to experiment with the dark side and turned into the monstrous Mr. Hyde and tried to kill Ingrid Bergman (1941), I was an edge-of-my-seat believer. The premise was solid; the fantasies were real.
I love Catholic fantasies with their absolute good and absolute evil. When the possessed girl’s head spun around and the good priest challenged the devil, even to sacrificing his own life to kill the host and expel the unwelcome guest (The Exorcist, 1973) I wept for Max von Sydow. And Rosemary, who was “invaded” by the devil and saw for the first time her claw-handed red-eyed baby, I knew that the young devil was in for conversion. I was a believer. It worked.
So what on Earth did the writers of Angels and Demons have in mind when they recreated the book without even considering altering the loopy plot so anybody could actually buy it? I had to see this film because, like The Da Vinci Code, it alluded to the Illuminati, which is a fascinating subject in religious history and I love the concept of good versus evil presented in classic terms, when today — in a relatively secular society — good and evil are so Freudish and Jungish that they’ve lost their bite. Therefore, I bought my ticket and went in to be transported in fantasy to wonderful dark places.
This is what I got for my ticket: This is a spoiler, but I really couldn’t spoil this plot any more than the writers did.
A good Catholic priest wants to save the concept of God from science, which is about to explain Earth’s beginning in non-religious terms. He conjures up old enemies of the church — The Illuminati — captures four of the church’s Cardinals, holds them prisoner and brands them with hot irons (I mean brand as in hot irons in fire applied to naked skin…ugh) to convince the faithful that these monsters intend to blow up the Vatican. Then he goes to the “collider” — a monster machine producing “anti-matter” which, to my unscientific mind, is the thing which, combined with “matter,” zoops us all into a black hole but is actually something like a neutron bomb. How he does this with all the atom-bomb security is not explained. This “anti-matter,” which is swirling stuff like the universe on the neck of the cat, has a battery which has to be changed every 24 hours — the way I change batteries on the earphones for my TV. He manages to get the hero (nobly played by Tom Hanks) to pursue the bomby-thing by following the outstretched hands of statues until the 23rd hour, in which he takes the no longer batteried “anti-matter,” climbs into his helicoptor, flies high enough for the explosion not to affect the Vatican, and comes down in a parachute like a deity-returned to offer salvation, expecting to be made Pope since the old Pope has been murdered, as proved by his black tongue when he is exhumed, and all this time, the Cardinals are preparing to elect the new Pope, and of course a guy saving the Vatican from extinction and coming down so god-like will surely be the candidate.
In order to get to this critical point, people are killed, maimed, great architecture is destroyed, Vatican libraries are trashed…all this in the desire to convince the faithful to believe in the existence of God.
Come on. What could you guys be thinking?
I absolutely believed in Beetlejuice and the little evil creature who will appear if you say his name three times. I absolutely accepted that Dr. Frankenstein created a man out of spare human parts. I accepted that Michael Keaton could suddenly transmute into a flying hero out to save mankind in Batman Returns. In fact, I cried tears when the dying Penguin slid into the murky waters. Moving moment.
But if you give me fantasy, please make it “real.” I accept that Matthew Bourne drives madly through the city, crashes, smashes, turns his car over and over and over and gets out with a little crick in his neck. But please don’t say you had to stick to the book and offer me a simple papal secretary who could steal anti-matter, kidnap and maim four Cardinals, figure out which statues pointed our hero in the right direction, and please don’t destroy all that wonderful architecture in order to disprove that the world is the creation of a force we cannot fully understand.
There was a great little film called The Lawnmower Man, a Steven King story where a simplistic sort of guy takes this new experimental whatsis and becomes not only the smartest guy in the universe but finally ends up as pure energy. The premise caused me no concern. I just went with it.
But Angels and Demons lacked the essential magic to transport me into that world I really love — the world of make-believe and wild, magical impossibilities.
Too bad, because the source material is so fascinating, the actors were so great, the scenery (before it was smashed up) was so wonderful. But great fantasy? Not by my Hansel and Gretel standards.