The Wachowski brothers are back on IMAX screens across the country with V for Vendetta, which they wrote for their protégé, director James McTeigue. A sci- fi political thriller based on the 1980s graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, it tells the story of the mysterious V, who blows up the Old Bailey on Guy Fawkes Day in 2020 and then takes over the government’s television transmission to announce that he will blow up Parliament exactly one year later. V’s England is an Orwellian totalitarian state run by secret police and censors under the iron hand of the Big Brotherish Adam Sutler. It’s almost as though Winston Smith of Orwell’s 1984 was more like a vengeful Batman, with some Phantom of the Opera and The Count of Monte Cristo thrown in as well. The resultant film is dreadful—pretentious and visually flat, and it indicates the further deterioration of the once- promising Wachowski brothers, the directors of the stunning 1999 blockbuster, The Matrix.
Like its motivating character, V for Vendetta is endlessly talky, tedious, and static. There’s not much thrilling in this supposed thriller. Even the visuals are surprisingly mundane, and almost everything in the story seems perfectly predictable. When Evey (Natalie Portman) is arrested by the police for abetting V, she is subsequently tortured, but only the dimmest of viewers will be unable to comprehend whom her torturer really is. Similarly obvious is the fate of Deitrich (Stephen Fry), a television personality who decides to parody Sutler on national television. Even the film’s “I am Spartacus” ending is totally predictable and part of the reason that the comic’s originator, Alan Moore, demanded that his name be removed from the film.
Even worse is the shallowness of the characters. Portman seems to be sleep-walking through the movie, while John Hurt (who ironically played Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s film version of 1984) is particularly over-the-top and ridiculous as the ranting Sutler. Only Stephen Rea as the police inspector Finch manages to add a human dimension to his role. Unfortunately, the flatness of V (Hugo Weaving) is exacerbated by his stilted, windbag rambles, which are periodically peppered with quotes from Shakespeare. The fact that he speaks all of his dialogue through a Guy Fawkes mask is no help either. Eventually, V’s personal motives are revealed as we learn that he was once tortured in a government reclamation center where the prisoners were used as guinea pigs for biological testing. When a fire destroys the center, V, burned from head to foot, somehow survives and vows to get revenge on the individuals responsible for his torture and to destroy the totalitarian regime that made it happen. Yet we never learn anything more about his past, leaving him just as flat as the rest of the characters. At the end, Evey can only intone with portentousness, “He was everyone.”
Despite its numerous narrative and filmic failures, Vendetta sinks even lower with its relentless political correctness.
The original comic book series was an intentional attack on the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, and the updated film similarly indicts President Bush. England has become a totalitarian state because of an “American war” that has somehow gone wrong;the United States itself is described as “the world’s largest leper colony,” and the film contains specific references to Abu Ghraib, 9/11, and Iraq. Totalitarian England is now killing all homosexuals, Muslims, and various other “undesirables,” and a romantic subplot portrays a heroic lesbian relationship. Naturally, the totalitarians are Christians as well as conservatives, and their motto is “StrengthThrough Unity, Unity Through Faith.” The most powerful media personality in England is a deranged televangelist, and the only Christian religious portrayed in the film is a pedophilic bishop who aids and abets the government’s atrocities. In a recent interview with UGO. com, McTeigue denied that he was a “super-leftist,” but the film is flush with all the typical adolescent cant of the radical left.
Curiously, the film makes a great deal of V’s obsession with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He wears a Guy Fawkes mask; he first appears on Guy Fawkes Day (November 5), and he plans his final demolition and revolution for the subsequent Fawkes anniversary. The film begins with a brief dramatization of the capture and execution of Fawkes, reverentially narrated by Evey. Ironically, the Gunpowder Plot was a religious (Catholic) conspiracy to blow up Parliament while it was in session with King James I. Its purpose was to protest the crown’s newly reinforced anti-Catholic laws with the hope of inciting a Catholic rebellion. It was an attempted regicide and an act of terrorism plotted by a small group of Catholic royalty, and when it was exposed, Fawkes and seven others were executed. While it’s true that Guy Fawkes Day has come to be symbolic of any protest against the government of England, its relevance to V is tenuous at best. He is clearly motivated by his vendetta, not religion; and the film openly disparages religion, with the exception (predictably) of Islam. Maybe such simple- mindedness is what one should expect from a comic book, but the film is so self-important that it’s begging to be taken seriously.
Once there was a time when it seemed reasonable to respect the Wachowski brothers. Their unheralded futuristic film The Matrix stunned audiences with its extraordinary visuals and its thoughtful story about a young computer hacker named Neo (Keanu Reeves) who learns that the world he lives in is actually a computer- generated dream. Once he accepts the reality of this Plato’s cave existence, he also learns that he might be the “One” who has the ability to save humanity from the hateful oppressions of a controlling artificial intelligence. Numerous books and essays have been written about the philosophical and religious underpinnings of The Matrix, and there is no doubt that Neo is drawn as a Christ symbol. His coming is predicted;he has a forerunner (Morpheus); he sacrifices himself; he dies and then resurrects (inspired by the love and kiss of Trinity); and at the end of the film, he stands at a phone booth within the Matrix and ascends of his own power. It might seem odd to find Christian symbology in a film-noirish sci-fi replete with raw language and extreme violence, but it never seems intentionally blasphemous and rather gives depth to the story.
The Matrix soon became the most influential film of the past ten years, and it grossed more than $440 million worldwide. The Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry), always insistent on their privacy, refused all interviews and even had their performers and crew sign nondisclosure contracts. But the information that did leak out indicated that they were rather down-to- earth college drop-outs from Chicago with an interest in perception and philosophy. Previously they’d worked as carpenters, written for Marvel Comics, and directed a first film, Bound (a “lesbian heist” movie), that developed a limited cult following and attracted the interest of the studios. In the wake of The Matrix phenomenon, the brothers wrote two sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions), which were shot back-to-back in Australia. Unfortunately, despite good box-office numbers, these subsequent films were rightly considered muddled disasters. The narrative of the first Matrix film became distorted with incomprehensible plot turns and pseudo-philosophical gibberish, and even the action was repetitive and uninventive.
The Wachowski brothers’ films have clearly deteriorated from Reloaded to Revolutions to Vendetta. The Matrix, although not for everyone, was thoughtful and amazingly inventive, but their three subsequent films have been self-absorbed, illogical, and dull. Even worse, with V for Vendetta, their work has become puerile and silly.