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May 27, 2006

DaVinci Code Film Review

It's about as decent a movie as could be made from the book, which is to say, not terribly good at all.

The movie is not terribly offensive -- its anti-Christian zealotry has been greatly toned down by the art-by-committee system that is Hollywood. That doesn't mean it's a good movie, or interesting, or fun, or exciting, or stimulating, or even something you should pay $4 to see on DVD. You probably shouldn't. But it is far less offensive to Christians than the book it's based on.

This review is, as usual, way too long and disorganized. I've put the theology stuff first because that's what I figure most people care about. I've probably spent too many words comparing the book and the movie, but I just experienced both, so, well, that's what I was mostly taking note of.


The film takes great pains to avoid offending anyone. Including albinos. For all the albino anger about yet another albino villain, Paul Bettany does not appear to be a true albino in the movie. His skin is pale and his hair is white blonde, but his eyes are quite clearly light gray-blue. The film almost seems to go out of its way to show us his light gray-blue eyes, to underscore the point This is not a true albino, just a pale featured man. So, don't get angry at us. The pink/red eyes of classic albinism -- repeatedly mentioned in the book -- are nowhere to be seen.

Nor is he ever called an albino by anyone on screen.

As for the film's theology, again, Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman go out of their way to not offend Christians or Catholics, and do the best they can, given the book they've adapted. There's no way to get a pro-Christian or pro-Catholic story out of the book, but they do their level best to make it as anondyne as possible. They even contrive a (very vaguely) pro-Christian message near the end of the film. Like the non-albino albino, it's a wishy-washy whitewash of the adapted subject matter, but they do try.

The book is decidedly anti-Christian and anti-Catholic specifically, and decidedly pro-pagan and pro-goddess-worship. The movie-- not so much. In the book, Dan Brown presents only one view of history (alternate history masquerading as actual history); here, Dan Brown's perspective is represented by Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan), but a critical perspective of Dan Brown's beliefs is provided by Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks).

The book has Teabing, Langdon, and Brown all on the same side, all stating the same basic message: Christ was a counterfeit; Christianity is built upon a colossal lie; the Catholic Church has murdered throughout history to suppress the truth of its fundamental falsity. That's in the movie, too, but only from Ian McKellan's mouth. Tom Hanks argues a number of basic points with him in The Great Big Exposition Scene At The Villa, and plays the Scientifically-Minded Skeptic to McKellan's Fire-Breathing True Believer. Yup-- the movie doubly subverts Dan Brown's neo-pagan, pooterocentric theology, first by changing Teabing from an enlightened seeker of truth to an anti-Christian zealot who uses vague clues and dubious evidence as proof positive of his theories, and second by using Dan Brown's fictional stand-in to take potshots at Dan Brown's own zany pseudoreligion.

For example, in the book, it was basically presented as The Uncontrovertible Historical Record that Jesus' divinity was concocted by Emperor Constantine as a political ploy to keep his Empire intact. "Jesus was made divine by a vote!" someone says in the book (probably Teabing), and is not contradicted. In the movie, Teabing says this, but Langdon immediately objects that many/most Christians already considered Jesus divine, and this vote merely confirmed what was assumed to be fact by most Christians. Teabing rejoins that some Christians didn't think Jesus was divine; Langdon insists that while that's true enough, but that most did.

"Many Christians woke up one day to find that Christ had become divine overnight," Teabing says (approximately).

"For many Christians, his divinity was enhanced," Langdon responds, but I think what is meant is "his divinity was confirmed." Hey, no one's ever accused Akiva Goldsman of being a great writer.

Similarly, in an earlier exchange, Teabing announces that Christians were tearing up the Empire by ruthlessly attacking pagains; Langdon objects that it might just as easily have been pagans attacking Christians, and the historical record is unclear as to "who started it."

Dan Brown's laughably crank figure of "five million" women burned as witches in the Middle Ages by the Church is revised by Howard/Goldsman to a more plausible (but still absurd) figure of "fifty thousand," with Teabing left to insist upon Dan Brown's original figure, muttering "It may have been many more than that... maybe millions!"

When Teabing announces that Mary Magdalene wrote her own Gospel, Langdon again plays skeptic, stating "She may or may not have." He later states that the apocryphal Gospel's mention of Mary as Jesus' "companion" is meant to read as "spouse," but, as he's already called the providence of the alleged gospel into doubt, it's not really a full endorsement of Teabing's theories.

This sort of dynamic continues throughout most of The Great Big Exposition Scene, until an exasperated Langdon says, "You're just seizing upon anything at all that advances your agenda!" Which is, of course, what many people thought of Dan Brown himself. So they'll be happy to hear Dan Brown's alter ego level that criticism.

Even Dan Brown's pet "fact" -- that the Priory of Sion documents are genuine -- is knocked down. Sophie, I think, says "Weren't they proven to be forgeries?" To which, of course, Teabing says "That's what they want you to think." But still, the movie tries to be a little less gung-ho true believer about this balderdash than Brown's book.

This isn't to say that there isn't an awful lot here that Christians and especially Catholics will be bothered by. Dan Brown is given the sop of having Teabing's statement that Christianity has viciously oppressed women throughout history go unchallenged at all -- that of course is Dan Brown's biggest gripe, it seems, and so I guess they felt they had to toss the dope a bone on this point.

And of course there's still all those murders being committed left and right by the Chruch.

But it's made more explicit here that those people are just the proverbial "few bad apples" in an otherwise (basically) innocent organization. The cabal of Catholic conspirators is even given a goofy name -- "The Council of Shadows" -- and its membership seems to be fairly limited. Hell, even Opus Dei is (mostly) absolved of craziness.

Finally, Dan Brown's thesis was 1, that Jesus coupled with Mary Magdalene and sired a royal bloodline, and 2, this proves conclusively that he was not divine, and that Christianity is based on a great lie. The movie keeps the first prong of that thesis intact -- how could it not? -- but disposes of the second in a summing-up by Langdon at the film's end. As Langdon and Sophie discuss the implications of her identity as Jesus' heir, and what effect that will have on faith in the world, Langdon says, basically, that even if Jesus had a child, that doesn't mean he couldn't have done "all those great things" mentioned in the Bible, by which he means miracles, thus suggesting that the Jesus-as-Baby-Daddy theory doesn't really prove anything about his divinity either way.

Incidentally, one conservative reviewer -- I think maybe at NRO -- found this final summing-up to be a gob of spit in the face of Christians. I think that's overstated. Yes, Langdon does offer the cop-out answer of "It only matters what you believe," but:

1) Virtually Hollywood movie about religion cops out as regards "The Truth" in the end. "It only matters what you believe" is probably the take-away from 90% of movies about religion. Oh, God pretty much had the same wishy-washy fake theology, but few considered that to actually offensive.

2) In this case, Howard and Goldsman are doing Christians a favor by copping out, because in the book, Dan Brown didn't cop out at all. He was pretty firm on the "facts" that Christ was just a nice Jewish boy, Christianity is an oppressive lie, and the Roman Catholic Church has forgotten more about killing people than Murder, Inc. ever knew.

3) And finally, in context, Landon's cop-out line about "what you believe" is meant to be just another way of saying "Blood-line or no blood-line, it doesn't prove or disprove Christ's divinity either way, it just depends on how you look at it." As he says, suppose Christ's heir announced herself tomorrow-- would this decrease or increase faith? So it's really not meant in the standard "Believe in whatever you want, the important thing is just to believe" kind of cop-out way. Although, frankly, it does sound like that.

I hate to repeat myself, but just to be clear, this is still not exactly a Christian-friendly film.

Nor is it viewer-friendly. It clocks in at two and a half hours, and it feels more like three and a half.

Howard and Goldsman have done Brown a favor that he should have done himself-- they've edited him. Had the book been a swiftly moving 250 pages rather than a tedious 450, I might have been less angered by it, if simply for wasting less of my time. Howard and Goldsman cut most of the fat from Brown's book, and good riddance to it. The book was marked by endless repetitions and re-visitations; the movie has far fewer of them.

For example: In the book, Langdon looks down at the body of the dead Louvre official and goes on and on about (if I recall correctly) his arms and legs being arrayed to look like the "blade" and "chalice" signs for man and woman, and how this is intended to mean something about the Sacred Feminine, and the suppression of the goddess-figure in monotheistic religion, and et cetera. And then, ten teeth-grinding pages later, he realizes the body is actually posed to look like DaVinci's Vituverian Man, which is the clue that is actually helpful. The book attempts to claim that Langdon's initial pontifications and the simple Vituverian Man solution were both right, that it had a double-meaning, that it was a "coherent symblolic set," and bullshit like that, but-- give me a break. Neither clue is really terribly helpful at all (the actual clue is contained in the anagrams, not the posing of the body), but, to the extent that either bears on the problem at hand, it's the Vituverian Man clue that suggests DaVinci, which is the actual clue. So a lot of wasted pages there.

In the movie, Langdon just looks down at the body and says "The Vituverian Man" immediately, sparing us a dissertation on the male and female elements of the unified unisexual divine.

In the book, Langdon similarly goes on and on about the meaning of "So Dark the Con of Man," how Men have conned the world into thinking God is male, etc., before finally realizing it's another anagram. In the movie, he immediately jumps to guessing it's an anagram, and solves it in a few seconds. (Here, Howard and Goldsman re-use the "lighting-up" of characters as a code is deciphered, as they previously used in A Beautiful Mind. Which is apropos, because this whole venture seems like a paranoid schizophrenic 's fever-dream.)

A revisitation happens in the book fifty pages after that. First Sophie goes to the Madonna on the Rocks painting and finds a key; then Langdon joins her there, examines it himself, and finds another clue. In the movie, they just go there together, look at the thing once, and get the friggin' key.

In the book, we have to read about a character arguing with his pilot about making an unscheduled landing in London not once, but twice. First Teabing bickers with and bribes his pilot to do so; then we have to sit through the same basic bicker/bribe scene with Agrinossa and his pilot a second time. The movie, thankfully, doesn't bother trying thrill us with negotiations with pilots over flight-plans.

And most of the boring crap with the cops, the bishop, and Silas has been cut.

That said, the movie still feels bloated. We have to sit through a lot of unnecessary flashbacks. Why do we have a flashback of Silas' past? Does it really matter what the freaky-looking monk-assassin's backstory is? If you read the book, you know his backstory. If you didn't-- who cares? I don't think James Bond movies ever bothered to explain why Oddjob favored a bowler as a weapon, or how Jaws got his stainless-steel teeth.

On the other hand, Sophie's flashbacks about discovering her grandfather in flagrante divinatio are mercifully short and vague. And we are spared Langdon lecturing us on the perfectly healthy tradition of boinking a stranger as a form of prayer. In fact, the movie never actually specifies what it is Sophie saw, other than noting it was a "ritual" of some kind.

The movie lacks a real sense of fun and excitement. Howard has shown himself to be deft with a mystery/thriller before (The Paper is a fave I have on DVD), and of course his Apollo 13 was just well-crafted crackerjack entertainment. But this film really fails to capture any sense of mystery or awe or excitement in its various locations. The Louvre just looks like a dark museum. For both the Temple Church in London and the Roslyn Church, Howard's big trick in trying to make them seem spooky is to have Sophie look up at the carved faces along the ceiling. But the faces aren't really very scary-looking, and Howard is unable to imbue them with any sense of menace. Paris and London seem as about as mysterious and ancient as a nice suburb of Columbus, Ohio. So, despite what should be an Indiana Jones-ish bit of tomb-raiding fun, the movie just looks like well-shot home movies of a family's trip to Europe. I think European Vacation did a better job of presenting the cities as ominous and dangerous. "Big Ben, Parliament!" Hey, the man was trapped, wasn't he?

The film opens by intercutting between the murder at the Louvre and Robert Landon's, umm, lecture or something. I realize it's a conceit of the book that Robert Langdon is some kind of academic "rock star." There are academics we call "rock stars" in a way, but I'm pretty sure they don't really fill up enormous venues like Def Leppard in their heydey, thrillingcrowds of giddy young girls just moments away from tossing their panties on to the lectern. But Howard follows this absurd conceit, and it looks even sillier on film than it seemed in the book. As Langdon shows various objets d'art, he asks the crowd to identify them, and they're just too eager to shout out "The Devil's pitchfork!" before Langdon makes them look like idiots by showing it's really Poseidon's trident. He does this to them three times, and these retards aren't even hip to the trick the third time around. As he shows them a statue of a woman with a child, they're still gushing to shout out "the Madonna and baby Jesus!" Like, hey, Morons? First of all, he just burned you twice before; are you really this gluttonous for punishment? Second of all, it's a woman with a child -- there have been, you know, quite a few mother and child pairings throughout history besides Mary and Jesus. Like, maybe, I don't know, a couple of dozen billion? Are you really going to be that sure that this particular mother and child is the Madonna and Jesus?

I wished at that moment that Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters would walk out and deadpan, "Yes, it must be Mary and Jesus, because no normal human could hold a child like this."

Langdon concludes his speech by noting the search for symbology is the search for "the truth." Really? I would think it was a search for what our distant ancestors believed, how they viewed their world, etc., not for "the truth." We can learn "the truth" about our distant ancestors, but we can't really learn "the truth" from them, as in "the truth about how the world really works," because they were, how do I put this?, friggin' retards. They thought lightning was made by Thor and disease caused by little gnomes living in your snot. These are the people we're supposed to learn "the truth" from, through their symbology?

That line contrasts in all the wrong ways with Indiana Jones' observation that archeology is the search for fact, not truth, and if you want "truth," you should go down the hall to the philosophy class. That line of Jones' marked him as a scientifically-minded sort of guy, whereas Langdon's pronouncement about the search for "the truth" reveals him to be a pop-religion huckster like Depak Chopra. Or at least a guy peddling a book. (Which he is; here, his manuscript about the sacred feminine has already been published, and he's signing copies of it as the cops request his presence at the Louvre.)

Son of a Bitch: I just finished the review but I lost my wireless connection and lost 1200 or so words. I'm just not writing them all again. The movie hardly warrants an in-depth examination once, let alone twice.

So, I'm sorry, but the review is going to be left uncompleted.

Suffice to say it's dreary, dumb, and mostly bloodless, humorless, and lifeless.


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posted by Ace at 09:54 PM

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