05/15/2009 11:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Angels and Demons and Religious Politics

Angels and Demons, movie sequel (and novel prequel) to The Da Vinci Code, opened this weekend.

The sequel to one of the most controversial movies in recent memory is opening this weekend. And the collective response is a mild "hmm."

In 2006, The Da Vinci Code was widely condemned by Catholic groups for blasphemy against religious doctrine. Based upon the complex, ultra-bestselling potboiler novel by Dan Brown, starring reliable all-American box office hero Tom Hanks, the movie was probably helped by how seriously religionists took its far-fetched theories. It grossed $217.5 million at the domestic box office. And another $540 million internationally.

This time around, though the ultra-conservative Catholic League has again mobilized to an extent, organized Catholics are taking a different tack with Da Vinci's sequel, Angels and Demons. (Which is actually not a sequel per se, as it's based on a prequel novel of the same name.)

The Da Vinci Code was a huge hit in 2006.

Angels and Demons has actually garnered some (albeit faint) praise from the Vatican. Which probably doesn't please the filmmakers all that much. Director Ron Howard wrote a few weeks ago on the Huffington Post, highlighting the criticism from the Catholic League, denying that he and author Dan Brown "have collaborated in smearing the Catholic Church," as league director William Donohue put it in typically overheated fashion.

But the controversy fizzled, as it was largely re-heated, overheated though some of the rhetoric was.

This time, Hanks's unusual religious scholar action hero character -- he's a professor of symbology, think Indiana Jones, minus the bullwhip, leather jacket, revolver, fisticuffs, wisecracks, etc. -- works with the Catholic Church, kinda, against a plot to use an anti-matter bomb against the Vatican.

Wait, anti-matter weaponry? Is this Star Trek? Nope, even though Tom Hanks is a noted Trekkie, er, Trekker, this is in the Dan Brown novel, which I read, as well as in the movie.

Anyway, the bad guys seem to be the Illuminati, all-purpose boogeymen of conspiracists everywhere, who have a beef against the church from when the church was resolutely anti-science. That apparently set off the ever overheated Mr. Donohue.

But the Catholic hierarchy played this smart, and as a result, there's not much controversy around this picture. Not much buzz, either, with the big scifi franchises -- Star Trek, Terminator, X-Men -- capturing most of the movie-going imagination.

Maybe that's because Da Vinci Code, for all its conspiracists' complexity and derring-do on a European canvass, was a bit on the dull side. I was intrigued enough, after seeing it once in the theater, to buy the special edition DVD. But I've never actually gotten through it.

The Da Vinci Code's intellectual maze made it seem more shocking than it really is.

Angels and Demons isn't boring, it's certainly more action-packed and fast-paced, and will do well. Though not as well as the first. For that, it needed a sense of occasion, that the controversy of religious politics can lend.

Not this time.

So is the lesson that controversy of this nature is only good for a movie?

I've seen a few writers say that. But they apparently have forgotten about another big movie. Which came out, oh, 17 months ago.

Religious conservatives did help shoot down perhaps most controversial children's movie of all time, which opened in December 2007. It's called The Golden Compass.

A good but not great movie, because it's rather rushed and a bit choppy. it's actually truncated from the book it's based on. The Golden Compass -- "Northern Lights" in its original UK publication -- is the first book in an award-winning, best-selling trilogy by British author Philip Pullman called "His Dark Materials." The phrase is taken from a passage in Milton's "Paradise Lost:"

"Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage"

Not exactly Harry Potter. Pullman, like Milton, entertains the notion that perhaps God is wrong. Or this God isn't real. Or we are worshiping the wrong God. Or that the Church erected in God's name has become perverted.

The Golden Compass, a more radical and accomplished literary property, was shot down in part by religious conservatives.

In any event, neither the books nor the movie have, as Fox News sloppily and erroneously put it, a heroine "on a quest to kill God." That error, incidentally, was repeated in the lead sentence of a story in the Los Angeles Daily News, part of the Media News chain, and a lot of TV coverage.

Pullman, along with the filmmakers, brewed up a heady mix of quantum physics, parallel universes, a young female heroine, a powerful explorer/academic out to blow everyone's mind, intelligent armored polar bears, alluring and kindly witches, a deliciously glamorous and mostly evil anti-heroine, "daemons" (animal alter egos) which accompany humans, and a stunning clockwork alternate England compellingly pastiched from Edwardian, Victorian, Art Deco, and steampunk elements.

For an America in which religion is spread like ketchup over politics and many other aspects of life, the arguably anti-religion elements of the saga were toned down in the movie. The authoritarian Magisterium, to many a dead ringer for the Catholic Church, was essentially stripped of most of its religious overtones.

Which didn't stopped conservative Catholic and Mormon activist groups from calling for a boycott of the movie.

The film is a stunner, as are the books. But unlike the books, the film feels rather choppy, with key sequences hurried through. As you may have gathered, I don't much care about theology. The Chronicles of Narnia made for a terrific movie, and it was shot through with overt Christian ideology. I'm for freedom of thought, and free will, to the extent it does not damage others. This happens to have a cracking good story, as well as some underlying values I identify with. Which happen to be Judaeo-Christian values, whether the author is an atheist or not.

As for the movie, it verges at times on the spectacular. Nicole Kidman is great as Mrs. Coulter, the icily glamorous and brilliant scientist and politician of the Magisterium. Daniel Craig, who was so outstanding as the new James Bond in the Casino Royale hard-edged re-boot of the Bond franchise, is perfectly cast as Lord Asriel. Think a much more ruthless and arrogant Indiana Jones. Eva Green, who also shown in Casino Royale as the ill-fated Vesper Lynd, is a friendly, ageless witch queen. Sam Elliot is again the great Western icon as a Texan "aeronaut" signed on to the Arctic expedition.

And Dakota Blue Richards, as the 12-year old heroine Lyra, is very good. A perfectly charming scamp as she romps about a storybook Oxford, then brave adventurer as she learns a hard lesson in London and embarks on an expedition to the Arctic. Helped along the way by colorful companions and guided by the titular golden compass, actually an "alethiometer," something made in Prague which few can read. Fortunate, perhaps, as it tells the truth and foretells the future. Or, at least, seems to.

The main problem with the picture is that it was truncated. It ends three chapters short of the book. Which means that Daniel Craig's part is cut short. Not because of his performance, but because his character Asriel -- explorer, politician, and Oxford fellow -- does something quite spectacular and controversial at the end of the book.

The Golden Compass, the first five minutes of which are shown here, presented a darkly glittering alternate world.

All that was filmed, however, and was intended to open the next movie. Which hasn't occurred. And probably never will.

These movies are extraordinarily expensive, and the attendant religious fuss, coupled with the lack of awareness in America of the Pullman books, and the somewhat truncated and hurried feel of the movie combined to keep the US box office gross to a disappointing $72 million. The film grossed another $300 million at the international box office, but the studio had sold off the international box office rights, so didn't make money from the film's popularity outside the US.

So what is the real lesson?

If you're going to have a big budget movie that upsets religionists, make sure it's based on a wildly popular novel and stars one of the biggest movie stars of the day. And make sure that that novel and that star are both American hit machines. No "foreigners" need apply.

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