The James Clayton column: Angels & Demons

Nobody expected the tolerant inquisition! Perhaps the makers of Angels & Demons should have aimed at scientology instead...

Tom Hanks showing us that the mullet is gone in Angels & Demons.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but I don’t think anyone would’ve been surprised at all to see the Papal Inquisition as Angels & Demons makes its way into the cinemas. The new Ron Howard adaptation of a Dan Brown bestseller follows in the footsteps of The Da Vinci Code and dabbles in conspiracy theories and ideas about the clandestine workings of the Roman Catholic Church. Such pop cultural representations of the Papal institution that don’t conform to the official doctrine are more likely to be cast aside as offensive articles of blasphemy than warmly received by the Vatican City.

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks should consider themselves lucky. If they had been rousing the wrath of the Holy See several hundred years ago they’d have found themselves strapped to a stake ready for roasting or subjected to some grotesque torture treatment.

A remake of The Pit And The Pendulum starring Hanks has potential I think. The older he gets, the more the Forrest Gump actor physically resembles Vincent Price – his character Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr in the Coen Brothers’ version of The Ladykillers is a dead ringer. I can see it now – Hanks would be both victim and inquisitor and deliver an immense double-performance, simultaneously sliding from sadistic glee to suffering expressions and sorrowful statements of “Life is like a box of thumb-screws…”

In all honesty though, Hanks doesn’t deserve to be subjected to macabre methods of punishment and is generally one of the most inoffensive men in Hollywood. I, personally, would only take him to task for his involvement in the atrocious affairs that were Charlie Wilson’s War and The Da Vinci Code. Ron Howard is also on trial for the latter film – a feature that turned a pacey page-turner into a poor sub-standard thriller movie that wasted a starry cast.

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The Roman Catholic Church wasn’t critical of The Da Vinci Code because of its ropiness though, but because of what it suggested. The plot of Dan Brown’s thriller focuses on several esoteric theories and traditions that state – amongst other things – that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that they had children and that the bloodline surreptitiously survives, kept alive by a secret society. Such notions – interwoven into a landmark-hopping narrative of murder mystery and Holy Grail-chasing – clash with the official creed, and the presentation of such postulations on celluloid thus does not get the Papal seal of approval.

After the mass apoplexy that accompanied the last Dan Brown movie, it’s a bit of a letdown to find Angels & Demons greeted with relative indifference from ecclesiastical quarters. Aside from refusals to film at certain sights in Rome, the movie hasn’t been met with the same vehement opposition of protests and plans for theatre boycotts that The Da Vinci Code received. Roman Catholic authorities and figures of some spiritual repute have recognised that condemning Angels & Demons will probably only achieve the opposite effect of drawing people to the movie whilst others have recognised the value in such works in promoting tourism to holy sights.

The Papal newspaper L’Osservatore Romano even praises the film as “harmless entertainment” in its review and suggests – shock! – that it may even be “fun”. Nobody expected the Tolerant Inquisition. The iron maiden in the crypt isn’t going to see action any time soon it appears…

The powers-that-be in the Holy See are quite right in reckoning that boldly beating on Angels & Demons would be counterproductive from their point of view. Kicking up a fuss and critiquing things as heretical, blasphemous or hell-spawned only serves to raise awareness of and advertise the alleged offender. Finger-wagging (or pulpit-thumping) also tends to have the effect that the offended parties come across as pompous, preachy moral guardians or over-sensitive whingers, which isn’t likely to inspire sympathy in the hearts of cinemagoing audiences.

Time after time, media products have conveniently captured popular attention and gained infamy thanks to condemnation from riled religious sources. Many a heavy metal record has had sales boosted thanks to ‘diabolical’ branding and Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses no doubt shifted more units following the issuing of a fatwa, and the same is true for film. I’m pretty sure that a significant share of The Da Vinci Code’s bumper box office taking can be credited to the very vocal protests from insulted Catholics, and likewise, you only have to look to flicks like The Exorcist and Monty Python’s Life Of Brian to see how religious resistance offers excellent PR.

I’d say that the makers of Angels & Demons, far from being relieved that inquisitors aren’t threatening the rack and burning pokers, are probably really disappointed that the film is failing to arouse mass ecclesiastical ire. If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Angels & Demons could’ve done with some controversy – whether it be in the form of a humble grassroots theatre boycott or in the sermons of some crazed fundamentalist condemning Tom Hanks as the Anti-Christ.

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Without the same sort of antagonism experienced by The Da Vinci Code upon its 2006 release, Angels & Demons is going to struggle to be a summer blockbuster hit and compete to be box office king against the likes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator: Salvation, which have both had scandals – in the form of an internet leak and an on-set Christian Bale tantrum, respectively.

If only Dan Brown had set his original novel in the Sunset Strip and sent Robert Langdon deep into the murky world of Scientology. As illustrated by that BBC Panorama doc in which John Sweeney exploded and in the disgusted Isaac Hayes’s departure from South Park, when you upset Scientologists, they let you know about it. If conspiracy-theory thriller moviemakers want a religious crusade cast down upon them, all you have to do is talk about Scientology without the approval of the church’s lawyers and you’re assured a counter-attack and consequent considerable media exposure.

Nobody now expects the Papal Inquisition, so perhaps Scientologists will now become the marketing target to insult in order to generate movie hype. They could have had Hanks vs. Cruise in a ‘Tom-on-Tom’ sofa-leaping pillow fight, John Travolta blasting Dan Brown on the news and herds of Hollywood citizens marching through Beverly Hills to express their revulsion. As it is, Angels & Demons isn’t actively despised – Angels & Thetans, however, would have been a movie marketer’s dream.

James’ previous column can be found here.