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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Location: California, United States

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

Note: I purposely didn't read the book in anticipation of the movie.

Logline: An American symbologist and a French cryptographer investigate the murder of an elderly antiquities curator and, while running for their lives, uncover a conspiracy that threatens to expose Christianity as a hoax.

The Good Idea: Tom Hanks starring in Dan Brown's phenomenal best seller.

Why it Didn't Work:

Robert Langdon is not the protagonist. Or, at least, he doesn't behave like one. He is the classic passive main character who takes little action and spends nearly the entire movie reacting to what happens around him.

Langdon is called to investigate a murder while not being told his name was scrawled on the floor. He is told his life is in danger and he is hidden away in the museum by Sophie. The mystery of the fleur de lils is also solved by Sophie. Their escape from the French bank is engineered by the manager Vernet. Their escape from Teabing's chateau is orchestrated by Teabing.

All the while, the scenes are generally made up of exposition (lots and lots), explaining the conspiracy to hide the fact that Jesus was mortal, married and a father... a fact that could bring down all of Christianity because it destroys his aura of divinity.

Time is inconsistent throughout the film. Despite the ticking clock of the ever approaching French police, Langdon and Sophie always seem able to leisurely examine artifacts and trade stories. Clues that seem important (the use of the Fibbonacci sequence) turn out to be red herrings (the numerical series is merely a password).

Coincidences abound. Why was Langdon so important to the story? Ultimately, the puzzle didn't require his vast skills as a symbologist but a halfway decent knowledge of Newtonian trivia. His mentor Teabing just happened to be a Holy Grail freak? or is it that the world's greatest Holy Grail freak just happened to be his mentor? Is there only one living descendant of Jesus or is it possible that the family tree has many branches? The film in its last few minutes may have unintentionally raised this question by introducing a grandmother.

The film lacks a sense of gravitas. To protect a secret that could destroy the foundation of Western culture (think of how many works of art, literature, political movements were inspired or influenced by Christianity), Opus Dei has surprisingly little reach and competence. It is also unclear what they would have done to Langdon and Sophie if they ever caught up with them. Kill them? Make them join? Make them repent? Worship them?

What would have helped is the sense that conspirators and protectors are everywhere. That both have great reach and great power. That somewhere in our lives, we may have sworn allegiance to some organization and now we are called upon to test our own conviction of faith. Because Langdon is a symbologist, there is the potential to reveal new meanings in everyday objects. That once we leave the theater, the next time we see a painting, or a gargoyle or some architectural flourish, we can't help but wonder anew who put it there and what it really means.

Without this, most of the killing in The Da Vinci Code (supposedly in the name of God) has as much impact as when henchmen are dispatched in your typical action films. Neither Langdon nor Sophie's faith is tested because they are not faced with having to kill in the name of God. As a result, the film becomes very small in its scope.

It is probably difficult for anyone seeing this movie to not know a few basic concepts or the premise of the story. For those with some familiarity, the movie doesn't really begin until the halfway point, after Teabing explains the Mary Magdalene connection. However, once this point is reached, the movie continues at the same lugubrious pace as the previous hour... a tense action scene bookended with spoken exposition and flashbacks.

The general flaw is that we never really get to know Langdon or Sophie. They are merely ciphers for information. Though we know Langdon is claustrophobic and Sophie lost her parents, those emotional wounds never create a desire that results in action for either of the main characters. Simply put, there is no strong desire or need that drives Langdon or Sophie to solve the mystery of the Holy Grail.

The ending reminded me of Star Trek V where Kirk and Spock travel to the center of the galaxy to find God and Kirk debunks the deity by asking, "Why does God need a space ship?" The discovery of Jesus's descendant has no emotional impact of Langdon. His beliefs are not shaken to the core. If this knowledge has no effect on our protagonist, then why should we worry that it will have any impact on civilization?


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