A ticking-bomb thriller tightly wrapped in a papal plot and cinched with the ribbons of religion and science, Angels & Demons is Ron Howard's trimmer follow-up to his bulky The Da Vinci Code.

A&D is a far sight nimbler than its plodding predecessor, where the Holy Grail turns out to be a Holy Girl. The sequel is a little like CSI: Vatican City - a professor and a physicist search for a stolen casket of antimatter before it blows St. Peter's to kingdom come.

Harvard "symbologist" - that is to say, human decoder ring and gasbag - Robert Langdon is back, this time with a much better haircut and a fractionally better script.

Summoned by Vatican authorities still annoyed at his exposure of ancient church secrets, Langdon (Tom Hanks) teams with brainy Bond girl - make that fetching particle physicist - Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) on a semiotic scavenger hunt through Rome to find imperiled cardinals and save an imperiled church.

The pope is dead, and the College of Cardinals is meeting to name his successor as four likely candidates are abducted. They will be killed on the hour from 8 to 11 p.m. Then their captor will unleash antimatter at midnight, rocking the Vatican to its foundations. The captor claims to be part of a sect of scientists belatedly avenging the papal persecution of Galileo (branded a heretic in 1615 for hypothesizing that the Earth revolved around the sun).

In a gruesome robbery, the abductor has stolen the antimatter from the Supercollider in Geneva, drawing a new battle line in the war of those historic adversaries, Faith and Science. If science claims creation, what is left to God? If God created man, how does the church explain evolution?

And is antimatter really stored in a vacuum tube and kept stable by what looks to be a laptop battery?

As Howard frames it, the threat of the Supercollision between physics and faith establishes a palpable tension.

Still, Howard's fluid camera movement, Salvatore Totino's old master-ly cinematography, and the Gregorian rants of Hans Zimmer's score cannot redeem the Hardy Boys plotting of Dan Brown's source material. Hanks, Zurer, Armin Mueller-Stahl (as an old-guard cardinal), Stellan Skarsgård (as chief of the Vatican's Swiss Guards), and Ewan McGregor (as the dead pope's exalted personal assistant) deserve points for earnest recitations of the often-stilted dialogue.

Rome wasn't built in a day, but Dan Brown's plot was. Evidently, an unknown Illuminati master carved statues representing each of the four elements - and the captor will kill a cardinal with earth, air, fire, and water.

Given roughly five hours to save Christendom, Langdon and Vetra bone up on the sculptor Bernini and sprint from Pantheon to Piazza Navona and from statue to statue.

There's Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa! Does the angel's finger point to where the captor has hidden a cardinal? Does Vetra always have to ask a question in order for Langdon to explain what's happening? Does Langdon always sound like a know-it-all?

Meanwhile, cardinals are branded, savaged, and incinerated in most grotesque fashion. (The film is rated PG-13, but the violence curdles the blood and wrenches the gut.)

Up to a point, a puzzle-solving momentum carries the film. For one who hasn't read the book, there is too much exposition to swallow, let alone digest. But even while gagging on plot, I enjoyed the location shots and the artful reproductions of St. Peter's Square and the Sistine Chapel (shot in L.A.). The sets so persuasively reproduce the actual locations that you can almost smell the Tiber and feel St. Peter's marble chill.

As is the new convention in thrillers, A&D concludes, twists, concludes, and twists again. And Faith and Science get wrung into a kind of double helix. Maybe they aren't on a Supercollision course. Maybe, as Langdon says, paraphrasing Galileo, they are different languages telling the same story.

From his mouth to God's ear.

Angels & Demons **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Ron Howard. With Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skårsgard and Ewan McGregor. Distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Running time: 2 hours, 18 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (graphic, bloodcurdling and gutwrenching violence)

Showing at: area theatersEndText