MOVIE TALK: Angels & Demons

Hey, guys–

So sorry I’ve been awol for several days… we upgraded our software, and due to some unforeseen technical glitches, I haven’t been able to post!

But I’m glad to be back, and wanted to take today to talk a bit about Angels & Demons, Imagine and Ron Howard‘s sequel to The Da Vinci Code which opens tonight.

The movie picks up a couple years after The Da Vinci Code (unlike Dan Brown’s book, this movie is a Da Vinci sequel, not a prequel), and follows symbologist Robert Langdon as he races to unlock another Vatican-centric puzzle.  This mystery takes place almost entirely in Rome, and Langdon has six hours to track down four kidnapped cardinals and stop a terrorist from blowing up Vatican City with an antimatter bomb.  Like its predecessor, he must find the priests by find the hostages and their captors by solving ancient religious codes, symbols, and hidden texts.  (I’m guessing we’ve all read The Da Vinci Code or know how it works…)

Well, I hated the first Da Vinci Code movie.  And this made me miss it.

There are a million things wrong with this particular movie, but there was one thing in particular that it made me think about, especially from when it comes to screenwriting…


I find this happens most with mysteries and thrillers (probably because they’re so logic-based and procedural), and here’s what I mean…

Writers devise an intriguing, complicated mystery for their protagonist to solve.  The clues all lead to one another.  The puzzles engage the audience and make them think.  It all makes sense… except for: the antagonist who perpetrates the whole thing has no logical reason to set the mystery in motion.

In other words, the mystery exists solely because the writer wanted to create fun puzzles for the hero to solve, not because those puzzles stem from the bad guy’s relatable human behavior.

This happens in Angels & Demons in two disturbing ways…  (and before you read on: I will try not to give away anything major that happens in the movie, but if you’re dying to see it and don’t want anything revealed or hinted at—DON’T READ THIS)…

1)  The antagonists, who are either the ancient Illuminati (an omnipotent secret organization of anti-Catholic scientists and scholars) or someone framing the Illuminati, are threatening to blow up Rome so they can either make a power grab for the Papacy… or discredit it.  Either way, they lead Langdon and the police through an obstacle course of ancient codes and puzzles, trying to kill them every step of the way.  

BUT WHY???  Looking at this from the bad guys’ perspective, there’s almost no rational motivation for them to do any of this!  Let’s look at this from each perspective…  

First, say the bad guys have gone to all this trouble simply to frame the Illuminati.  Surely, there’s an easier way to destroy the Vatican than by constructing a mind-boggling mystery singling out an ancient organization.  

I mean, why bring any attention to yourselves at all?  Wouldn’t it be easier to leave as few clues as possible?  Just kidnap the priests and blow up the Vatican.  What’s the point of creating a giant red herring?  And second of all, what if it fails?  What if Langdon and the detectives never crack your clues and realize you’re framing the Illuminati?  (Which very well could’ve happened)  Then you’ve gone to all the trouble for nothing, and the group you were trying to frame never gets framed.

Not to mention… if the antagonists went to all the pains to construct this nearly-impossible obstacle course—why are they trying to kill Langdon and the cops as they try to solve it?  If they don’t want the cops to solve it… DON’T CREATE IT TO BEGIN WITH!  And if they DO want the cops to solve it, in order to frame the Illuminati, WHY ARE THEY KILLING THEM OFF?

Now, let’s say the Illuminati are real, and they’re actually trying to destroy the Catholic Church.  This is an ancient underground society of thinkers and researchers who “worship” only science and fact.  So, A) Wouldn’t they be smarter than to leave an intentional trail of clues?  And B) They’re scientists and thinkers living in 2009, not 1609.  Why aren’t they using computers, technology, email?  They’re scientific geniuses trying to commit a crime… the LAST thing they would do is concoct some bizarre, solve-able sideshow indulging in religious symbols and rituals.

So those are the first reasons the story makes little sense from the bad guys’ perspective, and secondly…

2)  Robert Langdon, world-renowned symbologist, solves this mystery in about five hours. FIVE HOURS.  And we’re to believe that while it takes Langdon only FIVE HOURS to unravel half the ancient secrets of the Catholic Church…

A) No one else has been able to do this in hundreds of years,
B) These puzzles are so mind-rattling no other detective in Europe could figure them out, and
C)  The criminals themselves were able to solve all these mysteries FIRST in order to “reconstruct” them for their wild goose chase.

Sorry, Dan Brown, David Koepp, and Akiva Goldsman—I just don’t buy it.  I do thank you, however, because you guys have reminded me of one of the important rules of storytelling…


Bad guys can’t do things simply because they’re “evil” and the writer wants to give the hero a nice challenge.  Bad guys have to do things because they’re people… with rational human behaviors and motivations… not merely puppets of someone telling a tale.

So next time you’re outlining your next blockbuster thriller, and you’re choreographing the bad guys’ moves, ask yourself: Do these moves genuinely help the antagonist achieve his/her goal… and how?  Is this what you would do if you were performing this crime… and why or why not?  Is there an easier way to accomplish what the villain is trying to accomplish?  Is this the best way to achieve their goal?

And now, folks, to either entice or frustrate you, here’s the trailer for Angels & Demons

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2 thoughts on “MOVIE TALK: Angels & Demons

  1. Matt Starr-Chan

    Haha you go Chad! 😀

    Considering the talent level involved in these movies–Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Akiva Goldsman–it’s surprising they can still somehow fail to write a strong, believable screenplay. Not to mention even make it any more exciting than a tv movie of the week.
    I know this firsthand after unfortunately paying to see The Da Vinci Code in the theater. I walked out halfway and didn’t look back.

  2. Gareth Wilson

    In fairness, I believe all of these problems were in the original book, so the screenwriters had no way of avoiding them if they wanted an faithful adaption. You have identified a very basic problem with almost all puzzle stories, though. Puzzles are a way of restricting information to people smart enough to solve them. But very few people are interested in that – they usually want to provide information to their allies and keep it away from their enemies. Using a puzzle means you can’t cope with dumb allies or smart enemies. To have a puzzle make sense, you have to break the symmetry and make the answer obvious to whoever’s supposed to figure it out.