The story, essentially, is that Jesus had a child, and that he chose his wife, Mary Magdalene, to lead the church instead of Peter, whom the Catholic tradition considers the bedrock of the faith. The council of Nicaea, convened 300 years after Jesus' death, was what struck Mary from the biblical canon and made Peter its icon. The secret of Christ's wife and child, though, was kept alive by an ultra-powerful order of knights. Back in the present day, there are factions at work within the Church that want to destroy the secret forever, because Christ having a kid and picking his wife as the head of the Church would force equality upon a patriarchal faith. Somewhere in the world, we learn, are the remains of Mary Magdalene and the last descendent of her union with Jesus.
It's a monolithic story, and out of reverence toward it, Howard has created nothing less than a cathedral of crane shots, computer graphics, and voluminous, angelic overtures (from composer Hans Zimmer at his most comically animated). Like the cathedrals of Europe, his film is a cavernous space, grand and precisely constructed. Too bad that the temple to this enthralling, potentially earth-shattering idea is almost completely empty. Novelist Dan Brown created a similar space with less precise tools -- a suspense writer's plotting and a pulp writer's sense of dialogue. The book wasn't nearly as magnificent to behold, but he filled it with the articles of his faith, all the tawdry and conspiratorial details he could dig up, 500-odd pages of the vagaries of translating Greek, the brutality of the early Church and the symbology of pagan culture. Howard, a man of greater talent than Brown, flits on these topics in the most superficial way. Granted, Howard only has two and a half hours to explain what took Brown 500 pages, but he picks the least important battles to fight, spending too much time on issues of too little importance.
DNA matching the Christ-apparent to Magdalene's remains, for example, is the lynchpin of Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's story, except that such a test doesn't even prove descent from Christ. It proves descent from Mary Magdalene. All that means, given her dogmatic rep (prostitute in an era devoid of contraception), is that the father could be basically anyone living in Judea around 30 BC.
The film dedicates far more time to looking beautiful than to creating cultural weight. Thus the prospect of having Jesus' descendent walking among us lacks real significance, which makes the Church's desire to kill him or her seem more like pride than a matter of survival. Dan Brown's pulpy plot and hundreds of pages of quasi-religious explication did the exact opposite, explaining the implications in grueling detail, and the book was a much better, tenser product for it.
The one thing that absolutely should have been improved upon for the film, though, isn't even addressed. Brown's absurd, flat dialogue is lifted wholesale, with Hanks and Tautou helpless in its grip. (The only performance worth mentioning is Ian McKellen, who almost saves the film by his crazy-ass self.)
There's an exquisite sense of symmetry here, like the symmetry found in the gorgeous symbols and icons in the story. Symbols without the weight of understanding, though, are meaningless. Symmetry in service of itself is elegance without substance; empty temples signal dead faiths. The Da Vinci Code, doing the ultimate disservice to its namesake, is a picture with no depth. (Rated PG-13)