Since "The Da Vinci Code" sparked an un- holy religious controversy, let's take a moment to catch our collective breath before plunging into "Angels & Demons." Like most Hollywood thrillers, "Angels" is a collection of factual, historical and scientific nonsense that would take more than the film's 139-minute running time to debunk. Although it cloaks itself in a mantle of scholarship, it's rooted in reality about as firmly as "Twilight," "Harry Potter" and "Star Trek." That said, how does it work as fantasy?

Not so well, even though the sluggish "Da Vinci Code" is an easy act to follow. There's not a moment of inspiration on display here, but ample craft and professional technique.

This time the story of international intrigue is structured around an old-fashioned American chase. A canister of antimatter -- a crackling cloud of static in a vacuum tube -- has been stolen from the CERN Large Hadron Collider lab in Switzerland. It appears that the Illuminati, a secret society of freethinkers nursing a centuries-old grudge against Catholic Church, turned the device into a doomsday weapon.

It will detonate at midnight, vaporizing the conclave of cardinals gathered to elect the new Pope, as well as thousands of faithful assembled in St. Peter's Square. Only Harvard symbol expert Robert Langdon, who considers religion the enemy of reason if not the root of all evil, can unravel the plot and save the center of Catholicism.

The movie looks great -- millions of dollars of set design, brocade and incense went into it -- but it's grandiose and coldly lacking in human dimensions. All the familiar buffoonery of the suspense-thriller genre is here, the better to simplify author Dan Brown's convoluted plot onscreen. We have a ticking clock, with four kidnapped church leaders to be scheduled for assassination in the hours before the detonation. Langdon's mysterious nemesis leaves taunting clues requiring him to dash across the city in a wild goose chase. The tweedy codebuster ricochets around Rome, director Ron Howard swings the camera like Barry Bonds, and Hans Zimmer's agitated orchestra and choir tingle our spines.

Inside each church is an angel sculpture pointing to another church. With clockwork precision, Langdon always arrives moments too late. Time and again, he bursts in on gruesome slasher-film tableaus of aged churchmen branded with the symbols for Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman don't even try for plausibility. They just hurl us from one crisis to the next, propelling the movie by fits and starts.

Langdon is an appealing hero, a brain who never throws a punch or fires a gun, but cracks open deadly conspiracies with arcane knowledge and street smarts. Tom Hanks again brings his everyman decency to the role, and this time he has thankfully retired the mullet. What a gift he has, spitting out arcane historical material as if it were plainspoken dialogue. As his sidekick, Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra, Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer has a winning balance of intelligence, moxie and snake-hipped sexiness. In "Da Vinci," the absence of chemistry between Hanks and Audrey Tatou seemed like an oversight. Here the costars are so reserved and businesslike that their lack of a relationship feels correct. They've got four hours to save Rome from an antimatter explosion. Who's got time to throw coins in the fountains?

Ewan McGregor is all wide-eyed innocence as the young interim overseer of the papacy, Armin Mueller-Stahl brings a menacing dignity to the role of mysterious Cardinal Strauss, and Stellan Skarsgärd growls and glowers as the sour head of Vatican security.

For all the talk of Galileo, Michelangelo and Bernini, this is fast, flashy, empty-minded entertainment. When Hanks runs through catacombs with a flashlight in hand, you half expect him to run into Nic Cage coming the other way.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186