Don't you hate it when the historical timeframes in which futuristic works are set pass by? It makes one feel so old. I remember, for example, when the year 1984 seemed unthinkably far off. And then, the next thing you know, it's ancient history. Ditto with 2001. I felt a similar pang on reading that, when Alan Moore and David Lloyd conceived V For Vendetta in the '80s, the futuristic action in their graphic novel unfolded in the far-off year 1997.
For the purposes of the script for their big-screen adaptation, Andy and Larry Wachowski of Matrix fame have now recalibrated the historical setting to 2020. Which sounds like a long way off until you consider it's only three presidential elections from now. The next thing you know, we'll be looking back at that one, too. Through bifocals.
The future depicted in the brothers' latest is one in which the United States has collapsed into chaos under the weight of terrorism, plague, civil war and years of dubious foreign policymaking. It's a troubled backdrop for the real story, the totalitarian state the United Kingdom has become and the master plan a masked man has hatched to bring it to its knees.
Yup, a masked man. And, like so many individuals who make that particular fashion choice, he also favors a cape, outre headwear, the color black and the martial arts. Hugo Weaving -- Mr. Smith in the Matrix films -- stars as a mysterious revolutionary known as V.
His mask is not just any mask, though. It is modeled on the face of infamous Brit saboteur Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 was caught red-handed as he prepared to blow up Parliament using a sizable stash of gunpowder he'd transported into a tunnel under the structure. Fawkes was tortured and hanged. His memory is perpetuated by a famous rhyme and an annual Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, on which he is often burned in effigy.
V has his own plans for Parliament, and this is where things get thematically dicey. He taps into the government-controlled television channel and invites his fellow citizens to join him outside the place in exactly one year to witness and celebrate his obliteration of it. "The world doesn't need a building," he reasons, "It needs an idea."
The idea of blowing up buildings to make a political point is, of course, touchy stuff in our post-9/11 culture, and the fellow doesn't stop there. He also plans to murder many of the regime's high-ranking officials. What distinguishes him from your standard-issue terrorist, however, is that he has personal reasons for doing all this as well as philosophical or political ones.
Decades earlier, we eventually learn, he was imprisoned in some sort of state detention center for undesirables where Mengele-style experiments were performed on the inmates. To add insult to injury, the place burned down, and the man who would be V was turned into a human s'more in the process. Many of the people who ran the place went on to occupy powerful positions in the government -- and a place on the reinvented revolutionary's hit list.
I'm running out of room and I haven't even gotten to the movie's other star. Natalie Portman gives one of the most compelling performances of her young career in the role of Evey, an oblivious young employee of the government TV outlet whose chance encounter with V leads to her political and spiritual awakening. They happen to meet one evening when she's out past curfew on her way to a friend's home. Secret police detain her and commence what is clearly going to be an ugly gang rape. V steps out of the shadows -- a black whirlwind of flying knives, lethal ballet and Shakespearean quotes -- to save the day, or rather the night.
Their fates become entwined when a government investigator (Stephen Rea) uncovers Evey's connection to the enemy of the state, and she becomes a target herself. At one point, she takes refuge in V's elaborate underground "shadow gallery," and at another attempts to turn him in. Like most relationships between beautiful young women and masked men who live in subterranean lairs, theirs is a complicated but never uninteresting one.
The film is similarly complicated, not to mention cheeky, provocative and captivating. Helmed by longtime Wachowski assistant director James McTeigue, it's a visually dazzling work with a surprisingly potent emotional core. The movie refracts an array of cinematic and historical touch points, from A Clockwork Orange, 1984, The Phantom of the Opera, Brazil, Zorro and "Benny Hill" to ripped-from-the-headlines riffs on religious fundamentalism, government media spin, domestic surveillance, suicide bombers and Abu Ghraib. I'm not sure there's ever been a big-screen blender quite like it.
By the time you file out to blasting strains of the Stones' "Street Fighting Man," you may well feel as though you've heard a call to action. Just what form of action the Wachowski brothers are proposing, and against whom it should be taken, is the tantalizing trick question. The controversy it will spark certainly won't hurt ticket sales.
I wouldn't get sucked into the whole "Hey, they're advocating terrorism, aren't they?" debate, however. Let's remember, this is a comic-book movie with bad guys doing bad deeds and a good guy making sure something bad happens to them in the end. The Wachowskis knew the subject of terrorism would open people's eyes. The better to see the parallels between the UK of 2020 and the U.S. of today. They don't want anyone to blow up a building. They just think a little change might be a good idea.
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