Tuesday 26 March 2013

Angels & Demons

After The Da Vinci Code inexplicably made money, Hollywood was always going to squeeze a bit more out of the Dan Brown cash cow. But there was a problem. Having already used the big – and famously nonsensical – bestseller, they had little choice but to go back to an earlier, even more incomprehensible novel.

There’s possibly not enough room on the internet to explain the full plot of this impenetrable book, but here’s a dummy’s guide. The Pope’s been murdered and the four cardinals most likely to succeed him kidnapped by a shadowy, sinister sect called the Illuminati. They are threatening to kill one cardinal each hour then blow up Vatican City at midnight. How? Simples. By using a powerful anti-matter bomb they nicked from priestly scientists who had been constructing it to help find the ‘God’ particle.

If that doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t worry – it’s because it doesn’t make any sense.

Enter expert symbologist Tom Hanks, sporting the kind of hair only ever seen on Hollywood men of a certain age. (Yes, we’re talking about you, Nicholas Cage and Sly Stallone. Indeed, Cage coiffure-watching is almost a spectator sport these days – his hairline seems to bob backwards and forwards like the tide. And, as mentioned in this website’s review of The Expendables 2, it was often hard in that film to tell when Stallone was or wasn’t wearing a black woollen beret.)

The Hankster’s barnet here is a prime example of the ‘Hollywood hair’ form. It’s dark, it’s impressively lustrous, but not really like any recognisable follicle arrangement you and I have ever come across. It’s more like a hair-hat, really. And styled in a demi-mullet, no less.

Sad to report, the problems don’t end with mere tonsorial matters. There’s a fundamental flaw at the heart of this non-movie, which is thus: Angels and Demons is a plot-heavy, labyrinthine novel – virtually a puzzle, in fact – with next to no characterisation. As such, and it’s hard to overstate this point, it’s a terrible fit for film adaptation.

Hanks' hair: an unrecognisable follicle arrangement
This sequel could easily have been called The Exposition Code. As soon as the Hankster meets his obligatory foxy Italian sidekick (Ayelet Zurer), they start busily explaining plot points to each other in a way that doesn’t remotely resemble a human conversation. And they don’t stop for the whole film.

For a deadening first hour, the pair simply rush from church to church, spouting saints’ names and other religious gobbledygook to each other. It’s literally impossible to keep track of what’s happening, and the scriptwriter was clearly as confused as anyone.

All this expository tomfoolery tips over into the absurd during a bizarre scene about half-way through. Tom (a peaceable academic, remember) enters a church to find a cardinal strung up and literally burning alive, then sees his cop friend viciously gunned down and only escapes the assassin’s bullets by diving into a scary, pitch-black cellar. Ye gods.

Finally rescued by the police, he stands in the wrecked church, bruised and battered, his dead cop friend at his feet and the smell of spit-roast cardinal heavy in the air.

So what does he do: collapse into tears? Crumple into a ball on the floor? Show the merest sign of emotion? Nope, he just says: “Right, we’re looking for a statue of a cross-eyed angel pointing westwards next to the Holy Chapel of Saint Badger…” (or something. I may paraphrase slightly) and bounds off to find the next clue.

And that’s it – no hint of upset or trauma: of anything, in fact. The truth is, there’s so little character to Hanks’ ‘character’ – and just so much plot to get through – that director Ron Howard has clearly thrown his hands up in the air and not even bothered to try.

So the whole thing is a (ahem) unholy shambles, but aerial conflagration enthusiasts are given a whiff of potential early on when Ewan MacGregor, dressed in a priestly cassock and with hands clasped in prayer, announces for no earthly reason whatsoever that he knows how to fly a helicopter.

As mentioned previously on Exploding Helicopter, our Ewan never saw a bad script he didn’t like the look of: his cinematic CV has more turkeys than a Tesco refrigerated shelf in mid-December. But even by his own high standards, this is a colossally bad choice. He plays the Vatican’s Camerlengo, a top Vatican official who, following the Pope’s murder, is actually the acting Pope.

That means, after Obi Wan Kinobi, Nick Leeson and numerous other bad choices, we finally get Pope Ewan the First. Truly, the Lord does work in mysterious ways. No wonder Benedict resigned.

But what about that grinding plot? After an arse-numbing amount of time, the action does finally reach a climax of sorts. We’re in some catacombs! They’ve found the bomb! There just happens to be a helicopter parked outside St Peter’s! Pope Ewan is a trained pilot! Surely he’s not going to take off for the high skies with the bomb and sacrifice himself in a spectacular explosion? Oh, yes!

Artistic merit

Given the chopper is already up beyond the clouds, the explosion itself takes the form of a night sky lighting up over the Vatican. The producers haven’t shirked on the tasteful CGI, and there’s something aesthetically pleasing about a ghostly light hovering over such a spiritual location. But then Pope Ewan suddenly ‘appears’ on a parachute and the whole thing turns unintentionally hilarious.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Exploding Helicopter has carefully checked the records, and there’s definitely not a previous entry under: holy man goes straight upwards in a bomb-laden chopper until it explodes, then unfeasibly drops back down on a flimsy piece of tarpaulin. That’s innovation in action, folks.


Scarcely the only entertainment to be gleaned from this mess comes from following the progression of MacGregor’s accent. In his introductory scene, he’s clearly aiming, badly, for an Irish accent, but five minutes later has fallen into the default Alec Guinness clipped English setting he uses for all non-Tartan outings.

A little later, he gets angry and it all goes a bit Trainspotting for a minute, but next thing he’s telling the Hankster ‘I was orphaned at nine years of age by a bombing in Ulster’ and suddenly it’s like the Reverend Ian Paisley has been given a five-minute cameo.

Ewan’s grandstand scene, when he appeals to all the cardinals for more understanding between religion and science, is in itself a model of inclusivity, containing as it does a rich array of accents – including, at one point, possibly Cornish.


Given the profundity of choice on offer here, it’s perhaps best to focus in on the single greatest error – namely, that someone showed Ron Howard the script for Angels and Demons.

Favourite quote

“You’re talking about THE moment of creation…”
This fatuous line, pompously delivered by Hanks in his most sonorous tones, neatly captures all that is hammy and terrible about the movie.

Interesting fact

This movie portrays the Catholic Church as a sinister and introverted organisation beset by deadly rivalries, which will stop at nothing to hide its dirty laundry from the public. So, entirely fictional, then.

Review by: Chopper

Listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast on Angels & Demons on iTunes, Podomatic, Stitcher, or YourListen. Or hear it right now on the embedded player. 


  1. Haha! Great review. Saw this on DVD and I couldn't believe how bad this was. Love the stuff about Hanks' hair.

  2. ....and anyone who jumps in a helicopter and pulls back on the stick in an attempt to go up is most likely going to end up in a big firey mess

  3. Logic is definitely not this film's strong suit.

  4. You no they went to a fair bit of detail trying to match the helicopter (from the time the book was out, in 2000) and the helicopter reference would point to a local Bell 430 UT helicopter registered as I-FREG back in 2000. By the time they shot the movie in 2008/2009 that helicopter was gone, so they actually got a Bell 222 and gave it the I-FREG registration number from the Bell 430 UT that would have been in service when he wrote the book.. now that's attention to detail :D

    1. Thanks Bob, for what is probably my favourite ever comment on the website :)

    2. Thanks for the make and model. I figured it might be a Bell because of the similarities of the copter used in Airwolf.

  5. I stumbled across this page while trying to google the make of the helicopter in the film. It seems a good place to rant because my wife and I watched the film for the first time last night and this scene has been irking the hell out of me ever since.

    Ok, to start, the whole scene is roughly two minutes from takeoff to detonation - taking into account that about the first 15-20 seconds is just getting off the ground. If the copter is, as noted above, supposed to be a Bell 430, then its max climb rate is 1350 feet/minute. Yet at the roughly 50 second mark, we see the priest glance at the altimeter and he's already passed 7000 feet. Right. He went up like a rocket.

    Now, the detonation. Early in the film, the scientist says that much antimatter exploding would generate the equivalent force of a 4-5 kiloton nuclear device. (leaving aside the fact that CERN says it would take one billion years for its collider to produce that much antimatter).

    At any rate, using Nukemap (https://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/) I charted the blast radius of a 5 kt nuke airburst centered on St. Peter's Square.

    If the helicopter had reached the impossible film altitude of probably around 10,000 feet, then the blast effects shown in the film would probably have been accurate. The people in the square would have been within the outer shockwave bubble of around 1psi overpressure. They'd have been thrown around as shown, However, they definitely would *NOT* have immediately got back up again. They'd all have been on the ground screaming in pain from multiple fractures, bleeding from the ears from burst eardrums.

    HOWEVER, if the helicopter had reached a realistic maximum altitude of 2600 feet based on max climb rate and time (and even that is generous, because the chopper would not have been at max climb rate the full two minutes), then the ground would still have been within the primary blast range. The entirety of St. Peter's Square would have been a crater 20 meters deep. Everyone in it obliterated. The entire Vatican City, and the surrounding area of Rome out to a distance of 1.2 km, would have been within the 5psi overpressure zone - buildings flattened, massive casualties.

    1. Kieran, you've probably thought about Angels & Demons more than anyone who was actually involved in making the film.