Their long-awaited next project, "V for Vendetta," hit multiplexes everywhere this weekend, although the Wachowski brothers were only attached as producers. James McTeigue, their first assistant director on the Matrix films, takes the helm for the first time in this adaptation of the classic Alan Moore graphic novel of the same name.
The story takes place in London, now a futuristic dystopia of Orwellian proportions. The totalitarian regime runs the city with an iron fist, combining curfews, police forces and pervasive propaganda to achieve their ends.
Our heroes come in two forms. The male goes only by the name of V (Hugo Weaving), and is a fierce freedom fighter/terrorist whose ridiculous Guy Fawkes mask always obscures his face. He spends his days orchestrating an overthrow of the government from his underground haven of contraband jukeboxes and works of art.
His female counterpart is a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman). She is unwittingly pulled into V's plot when he saves her from jail time and a possible death. Evey is a reluctant revolutionary who is unsure about V's methods and whether or not she even subscribes to his system of beliefs.
The plot, both V's and the film's, kicks in when he blows up a government building on Guy Fawkes Day, calling the people of London to action.
The film inspired markedly different reactions from two film critics, and individual thoughts follow.
If an intelligent person wants to enjoy V for Vendetta, he or she has to suspend the astringent cynicism and oh-so-austere gravity that typically plague critical minds. Please remember what even the director seems to have forgotten: V for Vendetta is a comic book movie, not a cogent treatise on political philosophy.
However, what makes the film an especially good comic book movie is the fact that it is able to wow its audience with stylized ultra-violence (à la Sin City) without sacrificing a refreshing amount of engaging ideas about American political values.
In keeping with the general comic-book movie milieu, V for Vendetta is hyperbolic, rather simplistic and sometimes downright campy. The pertinent question, then, is whether these idiosyncratic features undercut the film's ability to arouse both genuine emotion and intelligent reflection in the audience. I think that V for Vendetta succeeds in both these undertakings, though not without exception.
If I may propose an analogy: It is generally acknowledged that most of our cultural myths such as the Boston Tea Party and the storming of the Bastille are also hyperbolic, rather simplistic and sometimes downright campy. Nevertheless, these myths succeed in stirring up our passions and, more importantly, they remind us of our constitutive values.
These are not nonsense yarns told purely for entertainment these stories define our society and ask us to reflect upon it. Of course there is a more complex and ethically dubious story for revisionist historians to tell about the actual events behind these stories, but their separate status as resonant and inspirational myths relies more on their exaggeration and simplicity than their factual accuracy. "V for Vendetta" is best understood with a similar mindset.
However, V for Vendetta will not become the Boston Tea Party of the new millennium let's all thank God for that. In its attempts to address highly sensitive contemporary issues, the film becomes way more self-important than it ever should be. Constant visual allusions to Abu Ghraib are more than unpalatable and if you're going to address the terrorist/freedom-fighter distinction, it should be done with a bit more depth and earnestness.
I know that issues movies were all the rage this year, but "V for Vendetta" cannot be Crash anymore than The Matrix trilogy could be The Passion of the Christ. James McTeigue didn't realize this limitation, but if you can forgive him, I promise that you will have a hell of a good time at this movie.
If an intelligent person wants to enjoy "V for Vendetta," it's certainly his prerogative. Heck, if an intelligent person wants to dress terribly, speak incessantly in pig Latin, or chew with his mouth open, I would say the same thing. Of course, this says nothing about whether or not an intelligent person should do these things. After all, in an often mercilessly stupid world, is it unreasonable to expect more from him?
Don't get me wrong: "V for Vendetta" has its fun moments. Who doesn't love to see slow-motion, operatic, ultra-violent fight-scenes (à la "Sin City," or "The Matrix," "The Matrix Reloaded," "The Matrix Revolutions," "X-Men," "X-Men 2," and half of the other movies playing at any given moment in a multiplex since we were 15)? Who doesn't love a gluttonously, senselessly indie-pop soundtrack? (Did you know that the jukeboxes of mutilated, political-extremist superheroes still play Cat Power in the year 2020?)
Who doesn't love Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving and that guy whose stomach exploded over a spaghetti dinner in the first Alien movie? (His name is John Hurt, by the way.)
But when the smoke clears, does "V" offer us anything beyond standard video game fare? Sure, the film talks about ideas. But does it have any of its own?
Its hero speaks broadly and vaguely about action and oppression, but his actions add up to borderline nihilism and mainline terrorism. He blows up national monuments, knifes cops and television studio interns and proselytizes his converts through torture. Sure, our Superman could be a dud, but are we really this cynical?
As for "V's" thinly veiled political commentary, it indicts nothing more than a transparent straw man. Face it, lambasting President George W. Bush for the war in Iraq is about as hip as slow-motion fight scenes these days. And when such ill-articulated complaints are couched in such giddy, hyperbolic unserious film language, do they really elicit anything more than a popcorn-munching complacency in their audience?
Certainly, we need extravagant cultural myths. But in matters of myth, precision counts. The story of a genial, diplomatic first Thanksgiving helped to bury the facts about Native American subjugation and genocide. Is it too much to ask that our myths are good ones? Heck, the Greeks had Homer! When did we start taking it for granted that our cultural folktales were such crap?
I don't mean to say that "V for Vendetta" is necessarily completely unethical. It just seems to have forgotten that sometimes, more attention needs to be paid to a film's ideology than the choreography of its explosions. Otherwise, all we get is pseudo-profundity and high self-seriousness. And there has to be something more fun than that.