With as much hype as any movie in recent memory, "The Da Vinci Code" has finally hit the screens. Making a film from a complicated novel with a variety of controversial and complex themes is no easy task. Add to that the scrutiny this story has received, and the hill to climb gets higher; in this case, it was probably too high in the first place. The result is not a bad movie--just an average one.

Demystifying 'Da Vinci'The film's primary flaw is that for viewers who don't already know the story, the first 30 minutes come off like an MTV video, flashing quickly from scene to scene with no context or explanation for what is taking place. All of this makes for what seems like a set of very loose ends, as the key characters, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and the French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) are introduced.

The opening was so convoluted that I almost fell asleep toward the end of it. Hanks plays a too-subdued Langdon, someone who stumbles into his predicament rather than someone curious and passionate about the pursuit of symbols and their deeper meaning. He and Sophie never connect, except as two people caught in a wave of events sweeping them along their quest. There is little humor to the story, and their pursuit of answers is oddly understated.

Things pick up only when the eccentric Grail enthusiast Leigh Teabing enters the mix. Ian McKellen’s Teabing is the key to the movie--an almost-wacky character, whose over-the-top nature reinforces that the story is fiction. However entertaining, though, his excess makes the story far less “believable” as an action thriller. It is hard to connect with someone acting so strangely. But his character helps pick up the pace and drama of the story, rescuing the film from disaster and helping to make the experience more entertaining. So much for "The Da Vinci Code" as a movie. But this story has a dual character--there is the plot and then there are its religious messages. Those messages are still present in the movie, only slightly toned down. Summing up the crux of the matter that they're investigating, one character asks, “What if the greatest story ever told was a lie?” Those who challenge the church’s truth are the “keepers of the proof of the true past.” As the story is spun of Jesus having a child and his descendant emerging from a surprising place (I will not give away more of the story), the characters repeatedly comment on history and religion: “God uses us all”; “Jesus is a human inspiration”; “As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing in his name”; “So dark the con of man”; and finally, “The only thing that matters is what you believe.”

Here is pop-ideology stripped of the supernatural, other than to note that it is there to be molded by our own perceptions and distortions of it. This secular version of Proverbs--presented in one-sentence words of "wisdom" that appear up throughout the movie like popcorn--is empty when it comes to spiritual issues. It translates even less convincingly when it is on the screen than on the page.

Most of the novel's hotly debated issues and claims remain in the movie. Jesus was married and had a child. We are told this fact thanks to “evidence” from the gospels of Philip and Mary, some of which Teabing explains in a lively scene in which he begins to lay out the rationale for the pursuit of the Holy Grail as a human being and not a cup. Present is the claim about a human Jesus, but it is stated with more ambivalence and subject to more debate than in the novel. Gone is the book's claim that 80 different gospels once existed, and the Council of Nicea is hardly noted aside from one set of remarks. Maybe the debunking books had an impact.

But Opus Dei still looks very sinister, as does the Catholic church. The divine feminine also plays a role, as does the issue of sacred sex (handled briefly and discreetly by Ron Howard). These ideas are rather loosely strung together in a way that seems more odd on screen than in narration.

The film offers an awkward, secular attempt to grasp for a type of faith without divinity, whose message is, essentially: All that matters is to believe something, even if that something has nothing to do with truth and lacks any real substance. Ads for the movie challenge us to "seek the truth," but in the end, there is little truth worth seeking in the story's groping for a coherent spiritual message. An average movie, "The Da Vinci Code" offers nothing more than spirituality lite.

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