There was every reason to assume that Angels & Demons would be a better movie than The Da Vinci Code back in 2006, for a simple reason: the novel by Dan Brown that Angels is based on was better than its sequel, which was largely content to repeat it in most important ways, with the only difference being that The Da Vinci Code replaced Angels's fairly sedate Illuminati-flavored adventure mystery with a crazed story about Jesus's children and a conspiracy buried in outrageous misreadings of Renaissance art. And better still, while the original film was written by the unfathomably talentless Akiva Goldsman, the new one is co-written by Goldsman and David Koepp, who at least sometimes manages to knock out a decent script. So the degree to which Angels the movie is better than Da Vinci the movie can be referred to as -0.5 Goldsmans, a unit describing the shittiness of any particular piece of cinema writing which can only now be described in any sort of precise way (1 Goldsman is exactly twice the amount that the first film is worse than the second).

I have lost the thread of my original argument.

Right, yes, Angels & Demons is a better movie than The Da Vinci Code; a simple achievement, given how damn bad the first one was. Besides the source material and the addition of Koepp, this can largely be credited to director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks, two men who were both working on just about the worst level they were capable of in 2006, but have much improved in this second go-round. Hanks was especially shocking back then; no matter how bad the movie he appeared in (and he'd appeared in some really dreadful movies), I'd never known him to be personally bad in anything. And yet there he was, devoured by the Mullet That Time Forgot, stifled by inexpressible dialogue, lost in the absurdity of the whole scenario, as dull-eyed and uncharismatic as I think he could possibly be. By no means is his current performance one of the great things in his career, but at least he exudes some kind of vitality in this outing.

For Howard's part, it was the simple matter that he'd not made an action adventure in many years, and his new skills in nobly bland drama betrayed him; he got too caught up by DVC's interminable, prolix exposition, and so masterminded an Indiana Jones knockoff with all the fast-paced excitement of CSPAN-2. Thankfully, he's figured out that this does not work; and while Angels has very nearly the same amount of mouthy dialogue, at least time the scenes that need to hurry along hurry a great deal faster.

None of this means that Angels is exactly a good movie; for it is not. It is still much too esoteric, chasing down ideas that are neither profound nor particularly interesting nor factual in even the most forgiving sense. But it isn't insipid. Let no man be so crude as to accuse it of its predecessor's insipidity. Let us be forgiving, and say that it is merely weak. It is the vanilla soft-serve of summer adventure movies.

The plot... is daunting to recap. In brief, the film opens shortly after the death of an undisclosed Pope (evidence later in the film suggests that he was either British or Irish, something that has not happened since the mid-12th century), and concerns a conspiracy most foul to use the short time in which the Roman Catholic church is without a leader to burn that institution to the ground. It is - the Illuminati! - the shadowy group of radical freethinkers that has provided many a pulp author with a convenient cloak-and-dagger group of anti-Catholics when you need something that smacks of history but is sufficiently made-up that nobody is going to sue you, or knee-cap you, or whatever secret societies do to uppity pulp novelists. The people responsible for Church security and stability during the period of the new Pope's election agree to ask Prof. Robert Langdon (Hanks) for help, recalling that it was his nifty skills with ancient symbology - like the Illuminati use - that enabled him to embarrass the church so very much a few years back with that whole "Jesus had kids" thing. Ah, but it's not as simple as that! See, the Illuminati are apparently editorialists as well as radicals, and they've snagged a canister of antimatter from the CERN laboratories in Geneva, and they're going to use it to demonstrate the supremacy of science over religion by blowing up Vatican City after they've finished killing the four cardinals whom they've kidnapped. Langdon, along with sexy CERN researcher Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), Commander Richter of the Vatican's Swiss Guard (Stellan Skarsgรฅrd), Roman police inspector Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino), and the late Pope's camerlengo Patrick (Ewan McGregor) - a camerlengo being something like the Pope's chief of staff - has but five hours to stop the secret conspirators from completing their wicked plan, which I must repeat, involves an antimatter bomb.

Compared to the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, there are several more changes made to the source material in this case, most of them fairly neutral and easily explicable (giving Vittoria more to do, making the ending not quite so asinine, and so forth). None of it stops the film from stumbling into the same trap that the first one did; the same trap that Dan Brown's books rather easily step into themselves, come to think of it. Namely, the stories are painfully episodic, with every new development requiring Langdon to sit and furrow his brow and solve a puzzle like it's a freaking video game, only to come up with the solution through some kind of marvelous anti-logic, and arrive at the next location only about 30 seconds too late to do anything useful. It is like a mystery where all the fun has been taken out, not because we are given the answers without having all the clues in front of us, but because the clues make no fucking sense.

Add to this the film's tedious insistence on ladling A Message on us at every possible moment - that message is, "faith and science are not enemies and are in fact necessary complements to each other, although sometimes they try to blow each other up" - and it becomes increasingly hard to regard Angels & Demons as any kind of summertime fun, though it moves fast enough that if you're squinting, sometimes it looks like swashbuckling.

Still, like I said, it's an improvement in nearly every way over the first movie, and the only exception is that the first movie had Ian McKellen being an absolute delight, enjoying the fact of being in a cheesy movie as much as any actor has ever enjoyed being in anything. There's nobody in the new film with half his level of energy, though McGregor, Skarsgรฅrd and Armin Mueller-Stahl (as the mysterious cardinal who is running the conclave to choose the new Pope) all try their best.

At least the movie has postcard-perfect shots of landmarks all over Rome, gorgeously captured by Salvatore Totino as though he were a lover caressing the city's face. The movie looks absolutely, undeniably beautiful; it is a gilt surface covering nothing but air, maybe, but hey! air is better than the mushy rot of the last picture in the series. I hate this faint praise stuff sometimes, I really do.