Open a newsmagazine and see the terrified faces of Sudanese refugees and grisly scenes from Iraq. Open a history book and read about the violent crimes committed in the 20th century alone. Then listen to the language of our “safe” society. Hear the micro-murder with every word of slander and hatred towards individuality. The world tries to oppress individuality with words; if this does not work, it uses action. Always know that a dark force seeks to rule this world, smothering life and creativity. Suddenly, every act of creativity seems like a noble act of counter-terrorism.
A film that addresses this attempt to oppress and veil individuality should be applauded, for such a message can never be outdated. However, V for Vendetta, the futuristic action film based on David Lloyd’s graphic novel of the same name, should receive only a modicum of applause in this area. It does not deserve much more.
V for Vendetta, with a screenplay by the creators of the Matrix movies, the acclaimed Wachowski brothers, certainly has noble intentions. It takes the frame of the Guy Fawkes story and fleshes it out in a futuristic setting. That same narrative, the film tries to say, can be the story of any society or person. Fawkes, the English Catholic rebel who in 1605 tried to blow up the Protestant-dominated Parliament, serves as the archetypal man of mettle who stands up to an oppressive regime. In the first moments of the film, we see his shadowed face creeping through the tunnels beneath Parliament; the droves of guards who overtake him as he valiantly swings his saber, but in vain; his defiant pride at the scaffold, and his wife’s despair as we watch his lifeless body swing from the noose. A few centuries pass. We find ourselves in 21st century England amidst a new government and new rebels. The Conservative Party has taken over the country. It has marked non-Christians, homosexuals, political activists and dissidents, and excessively “creative” art as “undesirable” elements of society. Party members are wooed by the idea of a better political, cultural, and genetic England. They must swear loyalty to the government and bear the constant fear of accusations of sedition. Only one man has the strength and courage to face up to this totalitarian regime. His tall, muscular figure is veiled by a dark cape. A white mask hides his scarred face. He has vowed vengeance on the leaders of England, and he has the power to destroy all of them. He leaves a red rose behind with each of his victims. He calls himself V.
Keep watching the film, and you will find some curiously familiar themes. Is the description of the totalitarian government and its internment camps for “undesirables,” for instance, reminiscent of something you learned in European history class? Or perhaps V’s appearance—white mask, black cape, red rose in hand—is strikingly similar to that of an elusive man in an opera house who has been known to sing well? Vendetta is also riddled with allusions to Shakespeare, The Count of Monte Cristo, and 1984. Such references to eminent literature, works of art, and moments in history have the potential to develop a weighty film indeed. Unfortunately, Vendetta fails to do more than contain this mélange of allusions to great things. It is no great thing itself.
For if Vendetta has one artistic flaw (and I would argue it has many more), it is the film’s misguided and maladroit effort to make a significant and subtle commentary on the human condition. The Wachowski brothers attempt to deliver a “deep” message about the resiliency and ability of the human spirit to endure and rise above suffering, but they flounder and drown in the process. They seek to make symbolism the film’s foundation. Unfortunately, the symbolism is often frustratingly obvious and cliché. For instance, when V takes Evie, the heroine played by Natalie Portman, outside for the first time since her internment and torture, rain pours onto the rooftop where she stands. She lifts her face to the sky, looking pitiably cold in her meager prison uniform, but unafraid of the discomfort. Lighting flashes in the distance, and she raises her arms in a gesture of empowerment and joy. She is a new person, “without fear” as V phrases it, baptized after her trial in prison. Rain falling, lightning flashing, protagonists standing on a roof, religious symbolism—seems like a common recipe for a cliché scene. At another point in the film, we see that V has been literally “baptized with fire” to become the quasi-super-hero that he is. Such scenes are intended to stir up wonder and empathy among the audience. But when the intent of the filmmakers is so obvious, the symbolism so formulaic, it achieves the opposite response. This audience member, for one, felt empathy only for Portman, as she struggled to save an action flick’s sorry attempt at subtlety.
Vendetta takes another swing with its saber and misses when it appears to accuse Christianity and conservatism of leading to totalitarianism. The lack of subtlety is almost humorous here, for the film’s creators fail to distinguish between these three very different concepts. In Vendetta, Christianity consists of hatred towards homosexuals, non-Caucasian ethnicities, non-Christian religions, and anyone who tries to point out that this intolerant attitude is misguided. As a Christian, it is sad to see this portrayal of hate being nurtured in the name of Love. But the Wachowski brothers pull Vendetta in such disparate directions—subtle commentary and shoot-’em-up action (the latter wins, of course)—that the audience hardly has time to mull over the film’s portrayal of Christianity. Indeed, lack of a nuanced approach does not allow the Wachowskis to present a cogent argument against the faith, if this is indeed their intention. The film takes a few cheap shots, but they are simply too cliché and juvenile to be troublesome. For example, there is a malevolent bishop who likes to sleep with little girls and is in league with the government’s plot to use “undesirables” as scientific experiments. So, we are presented with a corrupt child molester who calls himself a man of God. After seeing this especially anti-Catholic clergyman, we are supposed to take a cheap laugh at the Catholic Church.
The film has a few other cynical moments towards Christianity, including one cantankerous television host’s assertion that “God is on our side,” as he proceeds to berate homosexuals and Muslims. But ultimately, the film uses its critiques of Christianity as clumsily as it uses literary allusions and symbolism. Vendetta is no threat to its audience’s faith. And by the final scene, the film demonstrates that its intention is beneficent, if still misguided. A fantastic mass of black capes and white masks gather to watch Parliament explode (the earlier work of our hero). As fireworks erupt from the building, people remove their masks one by one. We see the chief investigator (a superb performance by Steven Rea), Evie’s executed uncle, the prisoners of the concentration camps; every citizen, alive or dead, is free to be “unmasked,” to find his individual identity, following the destruction of the regime. Vendetta suggests that “unmasking,” then, is the source of fulfillment and peace for society. A Christian would not argue with this. But a Christian would insist that the route to unmasking is not through violence, defiance against authority, or even ardent individualism. Rather, it is through Christ that we find our identities. Christ is the true hero. Christ has the power to overcome an oppressive and sinister regime. Christ takes off our masks and lets us be who we are created to be.
Unfortunately, V for Vendetta cannot reconcile its cynicism with a Christian perspective. It offers its audience pessimism, flashy explosions, and excellent acting while bringing attention to various social and religious issues. In other words, it brims with blockbuster potential. So if it carries a winning formula in its pocket, why does it never use it? The screenplay’s lack of subtlety hinders Vendetta from excellence. If it had a more nuanced approach it might avoid, among other things, making trite generalizations about conservatism and Christianity. But if Vendetta tried to be truly thoughtful, it likely would have fewer explosions and less gore. And that might be awfully dull for today’s average audience.