right from the start that in V for Vendetta the Wachowski Brothers produced a very entertaining film; that they deserve extra kudos for a completely unexpected and quite funny Benny Hill-style variety show sequence; that they’ve produced one of the better (loose) adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo with a nice political twist (hero suffers long imprisonment, gains strength of character, then escapes to the free world to mete out justice—Joseph the Biblical hero without his compassion); and that if you like futuristic action films you won’t regret spending $9.00 to see this one.
I first saw V for free in a March 15 preview but then paid to see it again over a month later. I’ll probably pay to see it yet again sometime before it leaves the theaters, will certainly see it again when it hits the dollar theaters, and will probably buy the DVD when it comes out. If I’m really lucky one of my boys will buy me V for Vendetta Lego figurines for my birthday (I already own a Pulp Fiction set). I have a little cardboard Guy Fawkes mask from the preview and a few Vendetta postcards. They’re in my office. I might even be V for Halloween this year if I can get my wife to dress up like Natalie Portman. Especially that one scene. You know which one I’m talking about.
Maybe it’d be more appropriate if I were the naughty bishop instead.
My complaint about the film is its degeneration of the Wachowski Brothers’ socio-political critique. The Matrix Trilogy represented a largely adult view of society, one that recognizes the need for compromise with force as a political principle and takes seriously the cost of failure to do so. This compromise made the ending of Revolutions, and the Matrix series itself, unsatisfactory for much of its adolescent-boy audience. V for Vendetta gives the adolescent boy the ending he wants and consequently takes a big step backwards into silly political melodrama. But I don’t think the Wachowski Brothers were motivated only by a desire to please their audience: V for Vendetta vents their hysterical paranoia about George W. Bush’s America.
These differences, and this possible motivation, may become apparent after a brief review of the timeline and themes of The Matrix Trilogy. The Wachowskis released the first Matrix film in 1999 with Reloaded and Revolutions following in 2003. The Matrix film series was largely conceived during the Clinton Administration and the Wachowskis completed most film production well before 9/11. For example, John Gaeta began production for the last two films’ visual effects in March of 2000 and the principal stars resumed their martial arts training in November of 2000, while the final two films’ original 270 day schedule ran from March 2001 to August of 2002. Conceptually, “The Wachowskis envisioned the epic story they unleashed in The Matrix as a trilogy, and approached the production of the second and third installments as a single film that would be presented in two parts.” The Matrix Trilogy is a Clinton-era brainchild almost completely brought to fruition before 9/11 or the October 26, 2001 passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, and certainly well before the Iraqi war.
This Clinton-era brainchild’s hero, Neo, experiences a progressive growth that transforms him from a Baudrillardian nihilist engaged in petty criminal resistances to a compassionate adult able to compromise to save lives. In The Matrix, Neo’s enlightenment consists of an awareness of the system of control and his ability to manipulate it. In Reloaded he learns both that the keystone of the revolutionary movement—the Oracle—is itself part of this system of control, and that even the free city of Zion itself was established by the system of control. Reloaded’s Architect explains the existence of Zion to Neo in terms of deviation from a statistical norm—a clear metaphor for any social norm—a deviation that periodically grows to the point where it threatens to destabilize the entire system. In response the system of control eradicates Zion then rebuilds it, eradicates then rebuilds. Neo is the latest of a series of liberators of a series of Zions. In Revolutions, Neo works out the trajectory of his enlightenment to its most humane end: compromise with the machines.
The Wachowski brothers’ chief insight in The Matrix Trilogy is that freedom and control exist in a dialectic; in their films this dialectic is maintained with almost mathematical precision. The rise of a Neo requires a consequent and equivalent rise of an Agent Smith. Human beings are caught within this metaxy, this betweenness, between the poles of this dialectic, so to undermine one pole for the sake of another is to undermine human stability and security. In the world of The Matrix, undermining this dialectic would eradicate all human life. Compromise with the machines was the only possible way to save humanity. Should human beings assert control through destruction they would commit an act of self-destruction; if this isn’t clear enough through simple plot structure, Councillor Hamann’s exposition in Reloaded spells it out. He and Neo are in the Engineering system looking over the machines that provide the people of Zion with clean air and water:
Councillor Hamann: I suppose we do, but down here sometimes I think about all those people still plugged into the Matrix and when I look at these machines, I . . . I can’t help thinking that in a way, we are plugged into them.
Neo: But we control these machines, they don’t control us.
Councillor Hamann: Of course not, how could they? The idea’s pure nonsense, but . . . it does make one wonder just . . . what is control?
Neo: If we wanted, we could shut these machines down.
Councillor Hamann: Of course . . . that’s it. You hit it! That’s control, isn’t it? If we wanted, we could smash them to bits. Although if we did, we’d have to consider what would happen to our lights, our heat, our air.
While the machines in the Engineering section were “dumb” compared to the AI machines behind the system of control, the principle is the same: human freedom and human control systems exist in a dialectic that cannot be undermined, at least not without drastic consequences.
Furthermore, the machines of the Matrix aren’t solely controlling or oppressive. Neo’s encounter with an AI Indian family at the train station in Revolutions taught him these machines are capable of love, while his discovery of the Oracle’s true identity revealed that even some elements of the machine world resist the hegemonic oppression of the Matrix. The bad guys weren’t all bad. The totalitarianism of The Matrix had a human face.
All these same themes are repeated in V for Vendetta without any nuance. While Vendetta downplays The Matrix Trilogy’s ubiquitous technology, a quite-human cabal still exercises almost complete control. Unfortunately, I have more sympathy for the compassionate machines of The Matrix Trilogy than I do for the human controllers of Vendetta’s world. For that matter, I have more sympathy for Agent Smith than I do for any of the human fascists of Vendetta: Unredeemably evil bad guys are a sure sign of melodrama. Vendetta does provide the sole exception of Inspector Eric Finch (played by Stephen Rea), but Finch is a completely unrealistic personality for his proximity to Vendetta’s fascist leadership and lack of awareness of his government’s great, dirty secret—that they disseminated a fatal virus to profit from the cure and to destabilize British society enough to seize absolute power. His innocent non-complicity makes him a poor parallel to The Matrix Trilogy’s Oracle. As I watched Vendetta a second time I got the sinking feeling that Inspector Finch is really the film’s central character when he is not supposed to be: Evey Hammond (played by Natalie Portman) is the character we follow from beginning to end, the character who grows and develops . . . or is supposed to.
While Neo made discrete and understandable steps toward enlightenment that explain the logic of his final decision to negotiate a peace with the machines, Portman’s Hammond makes little sense. Her demeanor, attitude, and bearing are initially of an unscathed, innocent young woman who expects good from the world, but we meet her as she’s leaving for a sexual rendezvous with a celebrity—presumably for professional advancement—and we later find out her parents were murdered by the government for their resistance. Evey Hammond is simultaneously innocent and hardened, dependent and risk-taking, naïve and worldly, all in a way that’s not so much complex as confused because none of these characteristics are successfully integrated into a single personality. Portman’s character is blithely required to take on whatever characteristics and history are needed at the moment for plot advancement. She does follow the Count of Monte Cristo paradigm of imprisonment leading to strength for resistance and justice, coming out of her imprisonment in a fairly well-acted, dramatic scene, but this development bears little relationship to her previous personality as it is so vague and undefined.
While Vendetta concludes with no confusion at all—the leaders responsible for the plague are destroyed one at a time, the film culminates in the destruction of the unoccupied, unused, and otherwise irrelevant Parliament building—Vendetta’s ending also repeats all the themes of The Matrix Trilogy with none of the trilogy’s nuance. All of England is, at the end of the film, divided into Fawkesian revolutionaries or soldiers standing against them, a grand reproduction of the film’s earlier Benny Hill sequence in which the unmasking of V revealed the face of the Chancellor, the fascist, leaving two Chancellors on the stage, each ordering soldiers to kill the other. The soldiers, of course, shoot both the faux Chancellors.
Again, systems of control work with a dialectic yielding mathematical precision; a fascist dictatorship produces a superhero revolutionary, the two of them together turn all England into reproductions of either faceless Fawkesian revolutionaries or agents of control (soldiers). These stark, simplistic juxtapositions run through all the film’s characterizations: the central religious characters are either a hate-filled televangelist or a pedophile bishop while the gay and lesbian characters are sensitive, intelligent, humane, and creative.
The real V later explains to Hammond that Parliament isn’t really important. What's important is Parliament’s symbolic significance, so the destruction of the symbol would give people “hope”—presumably hope to resist, to change. Thus Vendetta ends with the insurrection every adolescent boy wanted at the end of Revolutions. I have to admit, watching Parliament blow up gratified the adolescent boy in me—why else do we watch action films?—but the act was ultimately meaningless and dumb; meaningless because Parliament is no longer a seat of power, and dumb because V mistakes symbolic significance for real significance, for physical power. A little Baudrillard is being taken much too far. The hundreds of thousands witnessing the destruction of Parliament take off their masks when Parliament is destroyed and in doing so recover their individuality, their subjectivity. England is liberated when a building is blown up.
If only life really were so simple.
The Wachowski Brothers are more intelligent than this. If the destruction of symbols are meaningful on such a literalistic level, 9/11 would have been justified and the destruction of the symbols of capitalism (the World Trade Center) and the US military (the Pentagon) would have liberated us all. But it didn’t, because most of us really don’t feel all that oppressed. In the real world, these attacks only initiated retaliatory wars, in which far more Arab Muslims than westerners have died, and legislation that threatens to scale back individual rights. But the Wachowski brothers can’t face these self-evident realities because they are driven by hysterical paranoia: the face behind the terrorist mask is the same face as the government leader’s, for to the Wachowskis there is no difference between government force and terrorist force, between government violence and terrorist violence, between a system that provides support, stability, and infrastucture and private vigilantes meting out a perverse justice.
The Matrix Trilogy sustains its dialectic by sustaining an absolute distinction between machine and human, Zion and the Matrix, the virtual and the real. V for Vendetta collapses the relatively complex dialectic of The Matrix Trilogy (actually itself quite simplistic when compared with the real world) into a simple opposition between freedom and power in which only one can exist. I thought this way when I was sixteen, but then I grew up. Even Pete Townsend once said in a Rolling Stone interview that “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was the dumbest song he’d ever written because it was an apolitical song, and how can you live in a world without politics, a world without power structures?
Why the change in the Wachowskis from Matrix to Vendetta? It’s not hard to see from Vendetta’s plot. The Afghan war led to the Iraqi war to a series of wars in the Middle East to the destabilization of US society through economic collapse and, finally, to US civil war. In the world of V for Vendetta, then, V, the Chancellor, English fascism, the plague, and starvation and civil war in the US are all directly attributable to George W. Bush’s reaction to 9/11. V for Vendetta is, videlicet, Andy and Larry Wachowski’s vindictive vituperation vindicating vapid hysteria about presumably venal, venomous vermin violating veritably holy verisimilitudes of vestal . . . ummm . . . democracy.