To say I was excited for "The Da Vinci Code" is like saying I'd like to see Natalie Portman naked - it goes without saying. The book is exciting and thought-provoking, and the movie is one of the most anticipated films of the year. It has a great cast and a good director - what possibly could go wrong?
Yes, what possibly could go wrong... The acting? The directing? The screenplay? The visuals? Pacing? In the long run, "The Da Vinci Code" isn't a bad movie, and considering only ten to fifteen really good movies come out a year, it will probably rank around #25. But, given the fact that I can't think of a single Ron Howard film that I haven't at least liked, and that Tom Hanks is one of the most consistent actors on the face of the planet, I was hoping for more. I was hoping for at least a well-directed thriller with some thought-provoking moments, a sense of urgency and some decent suspense. I just didn't get it.
Let's tackle things one at a time...
The acting. The movie starts off with Paul Bettany, made out to look like a religious and tortured albino, killing off a man in the Louvre. Bettany's first lines of dialogue are cringe inducing, and they only get worse from there. And I like Bettany. Then we are introduced to Tom Hanks, who goes through the whole movie talking like he's reading off a teleprompter and not showing even a remote interest in appearing livid on screen. Audrey Tatou isn't noticeably bad, but I've seen her do better, and Jean Reno is also substantially below par. The only actor who really rose to the occasion was Ian McKellan, who apparently figured that he might as well kick ass in two of the biggest blockbusters of the year two weeks in a row (hence "X-Men: The Last Stand"). But even he has done better. So how can the acting be so bad with such a good cast?
The screenplay. The dialogue is so matter-of-fact that it never allows us to get engaged with the characters. The movie drops us right into the action the way the book did, but books are able to give characters more depth without taking a step back. Movies have to make a more concentrated effort to do the same. The character of Robert Langdon is hardly explained, and that's bad when he's your main character. Who cares if he is claustrophobic? When the time is right, he suddenly has a photographic memory? Movies have to plant seeds ahead of time.
But it's the directing that really kills the movie. Ron Howard, who some say plays it safe but who also turns out consistently quality films year after year, is a disaster here. From the movie's pacing to the general sense of suspense, "The Da Vinci Code" is lacking in every way. The book was exciting and interesting from beginning to end; I almost fell asleep in the movie. Through the use of proper editing and musical score, you can "easily" make a dialogue-filled movie exciting and suspenseful - see the trailers for the movie as an example. The music never keeps you on edge, and the movie goes at a sluggish pace. The action scenes are dull, and the bad guys even duller. Silas, who was super creepy in the book, is watered down here, and the main bad guy is nothing at all too intimidating. And the storyline with the Opus Dei leader is all but muted.
Ron Howard made three crucial mistakes:
1. He assumed people already knew the ending. I read the book two or three years ago, and honestly I had already forgotten the twist at the end. Hell, there's probably people out there who don't even know that the story is about a cover-up to hide "the truth" about Jesus and Mary Magdalene getting it on and having a baby. Regardless, you have to make the movie as if you're revealing things for the first time. Don't present major story arcs as matter of fact. Think of "The Sixth Sense." Having watched it several times, I know how it's going to end but my hair still sticks on end when the twist is revealed. Even the "Harry Potter" movies, which are based on one of the best selling series of all time, treat developments as if no one is expecting them. So why is it that I never got the hair-tingling feeling when the truth about Jesus is revealed, or when the twist at the end is revealed, or the final resting place of Mary Magdalene is revealed? Those scenes should have been amazing, and they just weren't.
2. He assumed that even after eliminating things from the book, people would still buy it. I've talked to people who have watched the movie but didn't read the book. They liked the movie, but didn't buy in for a second to the plot. Who cares what Da Vinci painted in a single painting? That doesn't mean anything. The whole movie is based around one scene where everything is explained, but didn't Dan Brown need a whole book to convince us? Okay, so the book's fiction, but if you've read the book you have to admit it's pretty damn convincing. Brown didn't just present one symbolic interpretation of a painting and call it quits - he "proved" his theory by linking it in with countless other facts and theories to support his argument, or his plotline, or whatever you want to call it. The book touched on several paintings and historian's arguments, and also went into detail as to how people know Da Vinci was a Priory. The movie doesn't explain this. The movie says Da Vinci was one of the protectors, and that the painting of The Last Supper tells the truth. Wow, that sure is convincing. I truly believe that more historical information could have been woven throughout the book without adding to its running time.
3. Ron Howard stayed too close to the book. While he understandably couldn't veer very far away from the book, he chose to keep the literal scenes without keeping enough of the substance beneath it. While he should have been keeping more of the back story, he ran the movie like things took place in the book - action scenes are short, dialogue scenes are long, and so on and so on. A movie can extend some action scenes and modify other suspenseful moments without stepping on any fan's toes, but Howard's action scenes are bland and uninspiring. Tighten a few moments here, edit out a couple lines of bad dialogue, and the movie could have been a lot better.
As for the visual effects, what there is of them are lame beyond all comparison. Howard, as expected, used his technique to "highlight" symbols as he did in his Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind," but in this movie everything just looks like a cartoon. Why are symbols floating around Hanks' head? Why, as they walk to the church, are they also walking through hazy outlines of people from the past? What about the bird who distracts that killer in the church? Oh, and the flashbacks just look goofy. They were a good idea, but the way that Howard randomly fades into them didn't make any sense. This was another misstep by the popular director.
"The Da Vinci Code" could have been a lot worse and will probably make a decent rental someday, but whether you compare it to the book or not, it is certainly lacking in most ways.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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