Star Trek: Notes on an iPhone

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Director J.J .Abrams’s latest project is terrific.  Abrams is the television genius that created one of my favorite series of all time: Alias (2001-2006). This new Star Trek space-opera/space-western is really a fun flick that goes back before 1966 when Gene Roddenberry first told the story of the crew of the Starship Enterprise.

There is so much information already available about the Star Trek franchise that includes six television series and eleven feature films (and computer and video games), that I will just comment on this current film.

Here are the notes I tapped out on my iPhone during the screening (so far other movie-goers have not complained about the phone light the way they do about these nice pens that illuminate a traditional note pad and three seats around in every direction):

  •  This is a vast playground that transcends time for the characters (the filmmakers, the audience)
  • It may be sci-fi but it is also “psy-fi”. It’s about character, how everything in life stems from learning empathy, discovering self and one’s identity, emotional intelligence, and the integrated personality, love and self-sacrifice for others, family, ethnic diversity, community
  • n  But let’s not take this too far; Kirk (a wonderful pre-William Shatner Chris Pine) offers  the psychologically damaged Romulan Captain Nemo (a scary Eric Bana; Munich) a compassionate solution to their stalemate during the final battle; Spock (the most excellent Zachary Quinto from Heroes) thinks it is a mistake. Nemo refuses to negotiate, as Kirk figured he would, and blows him away.  Was Kirk’s compassion authentic? Ambiguous; probably not.
  • They talk a lot about food but never eat anything
  •  More about the characters than plot; they are familiar and well cast
  • Faith and reason, emotions and rationality: who is a human person? The perennial science fiction question
  •  What a wonderful universe Abrams has created: diverse and integrated
  • Sharp, smart writing; witty
  • Chris Pine is an actor to watch; he seems to be more than a pretty face;
  • Zachary Quinto was a perfect young Spock and it was great seeing  Leonard Nimoy as “Spock Prime” hundred or so years in the future
  • Very much a guy’s universe though Zoe Saldana as Uhura very good
  • Liked Winona Rider as Amanda Grayson, Kirk’s mother
  • Could win as Oscar nods for script and F/X; music (by Michael Giacchino, Ratatouille) not so much; great ensemble cast

Star Trek: to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before. But I see more sequels flickering across the galaxy of my mind. As a friend of mine said, “Star Trek is a treat.”

Angels & Demons USCCB Review

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Angels & Demons USCCB Review by Harry Forbes on CNS

Angels & Demons USCCB Full Review by Harry Forbes

Angels & Demons: Halos and pitchforks clash in the sequel to “The Da Vinci Code” Film Essay

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When director Ron Howard’s new film Angels & Demons marches into theaters on May 15 some people may be expecting the same controversy that accompanied his 2006 film The Da Vinci Code. Alas, I am sorry to be a killjoy but audiences just may be inspired instead. I know I was.

The Story

Some time has passed since Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard University “symbologist” attempted to solve a mystery that seemed to indicate that Leonardo Da Vinci had hidden in his Last Supper masterpiece not only that Jesus had fathered a daughter with Mary Magdalene, but that she was divine. Langdon, who was not a believer, incurred the ingratitude of the Catholic Church for his efforts. This completely fictitious controversial story was told in best-selling author Dan Brown’s 2003 book The Da Vinci Code and Ron Howard’s 2006 film of the same title.

Now in Angels & Demons (based on Dan Brown’s 2000 novel that actually preceded The Da Vinci Code) Langdon is back at Harvard, working out in the pool early one morning when a Vatican official approaches him with a paper. One word is printed on it in gothic type: Illuminati. The official explains that the Vatican has received threats from this secret society, thought to be long extinct. Indeed, the pope has died and four of the cardinals most favored to be elected the next pope, the “preferiti” or “papabile”, have been kidnapped. The official wants Langdon to accompany him to the Vatican to help interpret the symbols and clues left by the Illuminati. The conclave is about to begin. Langdon is surprised, given his strained relationship with the Church, but agrees.

Meanwhile, another Illuminati threat appears. A canister with a particle of extremely volatile “anti-matter” has been stolen. The priest-scientist who discovered the process that has the potential to recreate the moment of creation, become a weapon of mass destruction, or become an inexpensive source of energy, was murdered. The canister is somewhere in the Vatican and timed to explode when the last of the four cardinals is killed.

Langdon is joined by a beautiful scientist who understands the mechanisms of the canister, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, Munich), and a host of Vatican and Roman police and Papal Guards, in a race is to save the cardinals and the Vatican before midnight. Complicating matters are the deceased pope’s camerlengo, the angelic Father Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge), and the aging, traditional, and ambitious Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl; Shine)in a rather devil’s advocate role. Not all is as it seems, and not everyone is who he appears to be.

Critique

     Angels & Demons is a very different film from The Da Vinci Code. It takes place in the Vatican and Rome with a side trip to Switzerland. The movie was filmed on a set that was constructed not far from Sony Studios in Culver City, CA where I live. The Vatican and the City of Rome refused most requests to film there apparently because of the fall-out from The Da Vinci Code and the cautions circulating about this film. The Catholic Church of Angels & Demons is very male. No mention is made of the “divine feminine” and other points that caused so much doctrinal distress in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, God is hardly mentioned in Angels & Demons. The film is very violent, however, despite the PG-13 rating.

     The pageantry in the film contrasts with the good guys chasing those who seem to be many bad guys – and therein lies the plot. Things are not what they seem.

     One of the major plot points in the film is the relationship between the Catholic Church and science. According to the film, the Illuminati began as a secret society that resisted the Church’s persecution of scientists beginning with Galileo (1564-1642) and now they are emerging again because of scientific developments that interest the Church. (In actuality, a group calling itself Illuminati were formed in Germany in the 1700’s and lasted for about ten years.)

Controversy

Dan Brown’s books as well as the films based on them are fiction. I was in second or third grade when I learned the difference between fiction and non-fiction and admittedly much older when I started asking questions about books, film and television.

There are inaccuracies in Angels & Demons about history and Catholic practice such as who can be elected Pope and how. For example, “acclamation” was one of the valid forms of papal election before 1996, but in the film they call it “election by adoration” which really irritated by Catholic ears.

Despite these annoying elements, I did not find anything controversial in the film, nor did I find the film Angels & Demons anti-Catholic. It is more about action than theology, unlike The Da Vinci Code that attempted to dismantle Christianity. I interpret the worldview of Angels & Demons as commercialism struggling to become art.

Ted Baehr of Movieguide, a Christian organization that reviews films, without having seen the film, had this to say in a fundraising letter on April 29, 2009 about Angels & Demons:

“A clear anti-Christian message that not only are Christians evil and murderers but also that science has proven faith in Jesus Christ to be outdated! In the end, it is the highest echelon of the Catholic Church who is the villain!”

However, the official Vatican newspaper review on May 5, 2009 of Angels & Demons states that the film is “Two hours of harmless entertainment, which hardly affects the genius and mystery of Christianity.”

As hard as some people have tried, Angels & Demons is not controversial. It is a Hollywood movie made with great skill. As the Vatican also noted, the filmmakers masterfully recreated the Vatican and various pieces of art for the film. The film is engaging and entertaining, contains scenes of peril and intense violence, and is about twenty minutes too long.

Should you decide to see it, Angels & Demons is an intense thriller with a surprising, satisfying, moving, and even inspiring, finale. 

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the Cardinals have to turn in their cell phones before they enter the Sistine Chapel for the conclave; it was just like what happens to film critics before they enter a screening for a new movie so they cannot sneak any photos out (I had to laugh).

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the Cardinals have to turn in their cell phones before they enter the Sistine Chapel for the conclave; it was just like what happens to film critics before they enter a screening for a new movie so they cannot sneak any photos out (I had to laugh).

 

Angels & Demons: SIGNIS Statement

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Dr. Robert Langdon in Ron Howard's new film "Angels & Demons"

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Dr. Robert Langdon in Ron Howard's new film "Angels & Demons"

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By Peter Malone, MSH

11th May 2009

Just what everyone has been waiting for: a film of a Dan Brown novel!

However, with the report of a review in L’Osservatore Romano after the film’s premiere in Rome saying that the film was commercial and entertaining and that Ron Howard had made an effective thriller (although the review also suggested a mind game while watching the film, to pick the inaccuracies!), it means that a lot of the heat should have gone out of any controversy. SIGNIS Cinema Desk would certainly endorse the reviewer’s conclusion that the film is ‘two hours of harmless entertainment’ and not a danger to the church. Had there been no The Da Vinci Code novel, film or controversy, then Angels and Demons would have probably been reviewed as a blockbuster doomsday, murder mystery thriller with a Vatican setting (looking rather authentic), discussions about the church and science with the Catholic Church treated quite respectfully. (References to persecution of scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries were sometimes inquisitorial – and are documented; prison was not easy for Galileo.)

There are speculations about the secret society of scientists, The Illuminati, who seem to be a Masonic equivalent. Angels and Demons (2000) was written some years before The Da Vinci Code (2003) and is a better written book though it is an ‘airport novel’, a page-turner. As with many historical novels (and Shakespeare himself was not above creating ‘historical’ scenarios that were inventive rather than factual), the author takes imaginative license with characters, events, and hypotheses: what if…?

But Angels and Demons has a character that seems to do a 180 degree turn in character and behaviour which makes the psychological realism of the book rather absurd. In the film, there is less depth of explaining this character and so the revelation tends to be a cinema twist which, however preposterous, is somewhat more credible, at least in terms of the far-fetched plot itself.

While Ron Howard did not have permissions to film in the Vatican, the sets of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s interiors, the Vatican Archives look quite convincing and were commented on favourably by the L’Osservatore Romano reviewer. The scenes of the CERNS reactor are very impressive.

The key point about Angels and Demons is its church subject: church and science, past conflicts, the present challenge, a feature of recent Vatican discussions about evolution and creationism, the meeting of science and religion rather than antagonism. Not a difficult subject when one thinks of Galileo and Pope John Paul’s apology in 2000. Which means that the central issues are not as threatening or offensive as the hypothesis of The Da Vinci Code with its relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and their descendants.

The day before the preview of Angels and Demons in London, channel 5 screened The Body which came and went several years ago without too much angst or even discussion. Antonio Banderas portrayed a Jesuit from Rome going to Jerusalem to examine bones discovered in what might have been Jesus’ tomb and which would threaten a traditional understanding of the resurrection. There are plenty of novels and films which raise such issues by way of interest and entertainment but are not put forward as theology.

The controversy about The Da Vinci Code, book and film, certainly got people going all around the world, given the number of books sold and the multi-millions of readers. The Opus Dei connection also contributed to some of the furore. However, this time, with only science and the church (and issues of anti-matter and its potential for mass destruction in the wrong hands) and the Vatican itself calling in Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to solve the problems, the potential for argument is limited. As with the screenplay for The Da Vinci Code, lines have been inserted more favourable to the church. Langdon reminds the Vatican that, despite the previous controversy, they have called him in this time. There are respectful lines concerning faith and non-belief – and a final request to Langdon from Cardinal Strauss that he write gently about the church!

One of the issues facing the conclave in the film is the ‘Church in the Modern World’ vis-à-vis science, with the dialogue for the meeting of ideas of science and theology or extremist attitudes towards religion capitulating to science and so destroying the church – the point being that this kind of fanatic stance can become a cause, righteously crusading with violence against those who hold more moderate views – leading to what could be labelled ‘ecclesiastical terrorism’.

A key issue prior to the release of the film has been the raising of controversy about the film, sight unseen – a protest that undermines the protesters’ credibility. Any controversy and protest about a film is a challenge for the church to look at how it responds. The Vatican comments from Fr Federico Lombardi deflected some heat with offhand humour (that he would say something if the film-makers took out 1000 10-year subscriptions to L’Osservatore!). However, several Italian papers began making comments about Vatican officials possibly criticising the film some months earlier. This made headlines in the media that the Vatican would object or was objecting. And publicists must have been offering prayers of thanksgiving that these rumours were doing some of their job for them.

But, in the Catholic world, the main protest has come from William Donohue, president of the Catholic League in the United States. As he did with The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass, he issued lists of errors in the book and said that they were to insult the church. It was alleged that he had a Canadian priest contact, not wearing clerical dress, on the set of Angels and Demons who reported that director Ron Howard and members of the production were verbally anti-Catholic. On the basis of this, spurred by an Indian journalist who is linked with the Catholic League, processions of protest were held in India and Taiwan.

Many of the errors and alleged insults to the church in the Catholic League list are not in the film. Ron Howard’s publicist (or Howard himself) came up with some smart repartee that William Donohue must be a man of faith because ‘he believes without seeing’. And that Donohue and himself were in agreement – that Angels and Demons was fiction. There were some acrid comments reported from the producers about the Vatican prohibiting filming in the Vatican and parts of Rome but there were also many quotes from Tom Hanks and Ron Howard that the film was not anti-Catholic and that the Vatican would enjoy it (as has seemed to be the case from the review). The Donohue one-liner was that Howard was ‘delusional’

This kind of thing (which may not go much further because of the L’Osservatore favourable comments) indicates that there is a profound difference in responding to a film, or anything that is challenging, from an ‘education’ point of view which leads to dialogue rather than a ‘crusading’ point of view which leads to two-sided polemic with antagonists rather enjoying the experience of battle in crusade.

Dialogue can lead somewhere. Polemic leads nowhere but simply confirms antagonists in their positions and stances and introduces the hurling of invective which in no way mirrors the charity and peace of Christ.

The (good) news is that Dan Brown has completed another conspiracy novel, The Lost Code, due for publication and optioned for filming!

ANGELS AND DEMONS: A REVIEW

May to August in the northern hemisphere means spring and summer is a time for almost weekly release of blockbusters with huge budgets, action and effects and potential for high grosses at the box office. 2009 has seen Wolverine, Star Trek, followed by Angels and Demons, with Night at the Museum 2, Transformers 2 and Terminator Salvation in the offing.

Here is a doomsday plot, murder mystery, action thriller with a cast led by Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon and Ewan McGregor as the Vatican Camerlengo and an international cast portraying scientists, police, bishops and cardinals.

Angels and Demons, unlike the film of The Da Vinci Code, is fast-paced, the L’Osservatore Romano review referring to Ron Howard’s dynamic direction. It also used the word ‘commercial’ as well as noting that it was ‘harmless entertainment’ and not a danger to the Church. In fact, the film treats the church quite interestingly, scenes behind a conclave and inside the conclave, fine sets of the Sistine Chapel, the interiors of St Peter’s, Castel San Angelo, the Vatican Necropolis, the Swiss Guards centre, the Vatican archives and several churches with art by Bernini. The film won’t harm tourism to Rome or to the Vatican. Probably, the contrary.

The issue is science and religion. There are some very impressive scenes of CERN in Switzerland where the Big Bang was re-created in 2008. Dan Brown, writing years earlier, posited this explosion and the formation of anti-matter which is then used as a terrorist threat in Rome. Arguments are put forward about the church’s record in persecuting scientists in past centuries, especially Galileo (true) with some inquisitorial interrogations and tortures. The material about the Illuminati, the underground society of scientists has some foundation but was not as extensive as speculated on here – a kind of Masonic brotherhood of scientists. (They appeared in the first Lara Croft film without anybody taking to controversy.)

One of the issues facing the conclave in the film is the Church in the Modern World vis-à-vis science, with the dialogue for the meeting of ideas of science and theology or extremist attitudes towards religion capitulating to science and so destroying the church – the point being that this kind of fanatic stance can become a cause, righteously crusading with violence against those who hold more moderate views – leading to what could be labelled ‘ecclesiastical terrorism’.

Oh, the tale has so many plot-holes (with the action moving so fast you don’t quite have time to follow through on them) that they don’t bear thinking about – so, either one sits irritated at the inaccuracies about dates and historical figures and driven up the wall by the lack of coherence in the course of events or, as one does, offer a willing suspension of disbelief and enjoy the action for what it is, a lavishly-mounted, pot-boiling thriller. ______________________

malonePeter Malone, MSC, a London-based film critic, heads the cinema desk for SIGNIS, the international Catholic organization for communication. He is the award-winning author of many books on theology, scripture and film including the Lights, Camera, Faith series published by Pauline Books & Media, Boston