I thought that I understood the root of my complete lack of interest, almost outright revile of author Dan Brown and all things "Da Vinci Code."
With the Da Vinci phenomenon in full bloom I always resisted reading the ultra-popular, 2003 thriller novel. When the blockbuster Tom Hanks-Ron Howard adaptation came out in 2006 I carefully avoided it.
I interpreted my ambivalence was due to a holdover from my rebellious teen years: an immature animosity toward anything "popular." If it's a bestseller or a blockbuster then it can't be good, right?
And maybe that was a piece of it, but now, having actually seen a Brown story adapted to screen it's become quite clear why a passionate fan of author Robert Anton Wilson, occultism, "alternative" history, conspiracy theories, and the illuminati would be so turned off by a property that should seem like an obvious fit for my tastes.
"Angels and Demons" the film is a sequel to "The Da Vinci Code" and again features Hanks as Harvard symbologist and Indiana Jones-style adventurer Robert Langdon embroiled in a mystery involving the Catholic church and occult conspiracy theories.
The last film had something to do with a Catholic Church conspiracy to cover up that Jesus married Mary Magdalene or some such absurdity like that. Now, given his expertise in obscure symbols, art, architecture, and whatever arcane historical trivia the narrative needs him to know, the Vatican has summoned Langdon for help with a sinister threat: Four leading cardinals, all favorites to be selected to be the next Pope, have been kidnapped. The mysterious substance anti-matter has been stolen and hidden in Vatican City, thus making it a bomb ready to go off. And the Church leadership is insisting on continuing with picking the next Pope regardless of the threat that they might all die in an unholy explosion.
And who's taking credit? An ancient adversary of the church, the notorious Illuminati, a secret society of freethinkers and scientists who Catholics had allegedly tortured and persecuted in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They're getting their revenge and the religion vs science culture war is getting a shot in the arm.
It's up to Langdon, Vatican priest Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor,) and anti-matter expert Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) to race around the Vatican and Rome uncovering different historical clues as they pursue the Illuminati, the kidnapped cardinals, the location of the bomb, and the mystery behind it all.
I suppose a bit of background is in order to really understand my revulsion at Brown's series and the failure of "Angels and Demons" the film.
Since college my most important philosophical influence has been Wilson. In the mid ‘70s he and co-author Robert Shea published The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a book that would come to be regarded as an underground classic. In it they satirized everything, using conspiracy theory as a jumping point. Following the novel Wilson wrote about two dozen other books - fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, plays, and memoirs - often with conspiracies and the illuminati in either the title or the background.
Wilson liked conspiracy theory because it was a great tool for teaching the central subject of his life: skepticism. In looking at conspiracy theories and ideas about the illuminati it's not a matter of whether one theory is 100% true or 0% false but rather how much of it is true? How much of it might be true? It helped people begin to see how we can only make guesses about truth and should instead operate under degrees of probability.
Wilson studied conspiracy theory for decades and he could never really find some kind of massive global conspiracy that actually lasted and was sustainable for very long. The people within a conspiracy always double-crossed one another or split into new conspiracies. To believe that there's an illuminati secretly running the world, or some shadowy organization that's existed since the middle ages, or some great big secret - like that the Catholic Church knows Jesus married Mary Magdalene - is ultimately so absurd when you begin to learn anything about people, human nature, and what men and women actually can do.
So, as a result of drinking quite deeply of Wilson's writings for the past six years or so I'm absolutely unable to take conspiracy theory seriously. It's all a great teaching tool, a fascinating study of human beliefs, and a nice big joke.
Brown, Hanks, and Howard seem to have a different view of how we're to take conspiracy theory. In "Angels and Demons" the idea of an illuminati conspiracy is a thick, heavy, serious plot point. The film is a thriller and uses an idea as absurd as the illuminati in a serious way. And I can't buy it for one second. It's like making a movie from the basis that the earth might actually be flat.
Absent my Wilsonian skepticism though, this seriousness is, well, a serious problem for even the untainted viewer. The film never has any wink at all, and rarely any humor. It does not realize that it's ridiculous. And that's why the Langdon series fails while "Indiana Jones" and even its younger cousin "National Treasure" succeed. Both of those conspiracy/alternate history franchises at least have the brains to know that their subject matter is absurd and to just have fun with it, especially the underrated "National Treasure." Brown might have the brains to concoct a wild, twisty-turny plot that continually spins around and doubles back on itself in creative ways but he's not smart enough to know when he's gone too far.
This fact is further evidenced in the next Langdon novel that Brown has coming out later this year, The Lost Symbol which will supposedly involve Washington D.C. and the freemasons. One can imagine - and dread - another Hanks/Howard adaptation will follow.
I wonder how much Brown will continue to milk the conspiracy stuff? When's he going to have Langdon investigating whether the world is actually run by shapeshifting, blood-drinking, child-molesting, lizard humanoids like famed conspirator David Icke says? How about Langdon discovering that Wilhelm Reich was right in his discovery of Orgone energy? Oh, I know, maybe Langdon follows the clues to reveal that 9/11 was an inside job?
What's that? Such plots would be ridiculous and no audience would take them seriously as a thriller? Oh. Silly me.