Ain't it Cool News
February, 14 2006
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab…
It’s been interesting to sit silently on the sidelines for this one so far, having seen it at Butt-Numb-A-Thon with everyone who rushed here to AICN to sing hosannahs about this “revolutionary” motion picture that would “change the world,” and also paying close attention to the brewing controversy so articulately summed up by a reviewer on the Liberty Film Festival site, who I know has also seen the film.
I haven’t written about it yet because… I just haven’t. Other things took priority. It’s not coming out until March, so it’s not like I missed anything. This past weekend, it finally started screening for the public at WonderCon in San Francisco and at the Berlin Film Festival. That odd dichotomy should say a lot about what kind of film this is. It’ll play well at a serious festival like South by Southwest, certainly, but it’s also perfect for the New York Comic-Con, where it’s showing as well. Publications like THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER and VANITY FAIR have flipped for the movie, while VARIETY dismissed it and took the opportunity to fire off a few more shots at the MATRIX trilogy for good measure. Finally, audiences are getting their first chances to decide for themselves what they think about this provocative film from writer/producers Andy and Larry Wachowski, directed by James McTeigue, and adapted (loosely or succinctly, depending on who you talk to) from the work of Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
Before we even begin, I want to address the elephant in the room and say that anyone who thinks this film is just a simplistic attack on conservative America is missing the point. I’m sure that right now, being on one side of the wall or the other in the polemic war that’s been simmering ever since Bush took office must make it incredibly difficult to see something outside the narrow prism of current political metaphor, but not everything that has a political opinion is, in fact, about Bush. There is imagery in this film that refers to our present, but just as much refers to our past and even a hypothetical future.
Alan Moore’s book, and this movie, are larger than any simple direct political targets, though. They are instead a reminder of how fascism works, and if the conservatives in this country are going to get upset about that, then perhaps they need to examine their own agenda. Are you a fascist? No? Well, then the movie’s probably not directly about you. Remember when the source material was written… Margaret Thatcher is a more direct political target in terms of the origins of this story than Bush is. And there are many other real-world parallels that find their way into the film that have nothing to do with any current administration anywhere. And remember… the Wachowskis first started trying to adapt this and get it produced well before Bush took office.
All of that is real world business, stuff that some people will choose to carry into the theater with them, and maybe you’ll even argue that you can’t help but carry that baggage into the theater. I would argue back that anytime you do that, you’re limiting your own ability to enjoy or even understand a film. Yes, THE CRUCIBLE was written as a direct reaction to McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist, but the reason THE CRUCIBLE will endure is because it’s a potent piece about any situation where mass hysteria and crowd thinking gets out of hand, and will always be accurate in terms of the way people relate. It’s great writing.
The original Alan Moore/David Lloyd book is pretty damn great in its own right. It’s not the best thing Moore ever wrote, and it’s pretty obvious that it’s early in his career. It’s a major turning point for him as an artist, I think. It is to Moore what RUBBER SOUL is to the Beatles. I’m sure there are people who think RUBBER SOUL is their best record, and I’d never argue against it, but I think more people would say SGT. PEPPER or even THE WHITE ALBUM are their masterworks, so maybe it’s WATCHMEN or FROM HELL that you prefer. V FOR VENDETTA works because of how much Moore and Lloyd believe in the world that they’ve created, a fascist England where freedom was traded for a stifling, artificial safety, and because it focuses on particular characters in a particular situation.
Calling the fears that V FOR VENDETTA articulates “left-wing” or “liberal” is rather limiting, and limited. I’m sure no one anywhere ever believes that they would be capable of survival and conformity in a world where fascism is acceptable, the norm. No one wants to believe they’d be capable of having been a “good German” during WWII. No one wants to think they’d allow something like that to happen. But it can. Of course it can. And it has and it will. And that’s why a film like this resonates. This is about the way any monolith that wants to control a nation treats its people, the way they are dehumanized, the way their spirits can be broken, and the way they are treated as less than human by the ruling class. V FOR VENDETTA makes personal that process of dehumanization in such a powerful way that I can’t imagine resisting it. Especially since Evey, the central character in both the book and the film, is brought to vivid life by Natalie Portman, doing arguably her best work since THE PROFESSIONAL.
So. All of that is precursor. Let’s get down to the actual film, and let’s put everything else aside. Let’s put aside comparisons to the book. Let’s put aside real-world politics. Let’s just discuss it as a movie.
As a movie, I think it’s pretty good. I think it’s got moments of greatness, and I think it also misses some of the opportunites that it sets up. Overall, I think it’s a potent piece of SF that fits neatly into a tradition of films like PLANET OF THE APES and THE OMEGA MAN, movies that wear their earnest metaphors on their sleeves, totally obvious. It’s lushly photographed by Adrian Biddle, his last film, and it’s got a great hyper-real look and feel thanks to the production design of Owen Paterson and Martin Walsh’s ultra-slick editing. The score by Dario Marianelli is particularly good, effective and memorable.
What makes the film work, though, isn’t the SF setting or the look or the buckets of money that have obviously been spent on it. Nope. What makes it work is the fact that we have here something that we rarely see in SF films these days… a movie about ideas over action, character over special effects, and emotion over action.
Y’know… like THE MATRIX.
I’m sure there will be a lot of speculation about just how much control the Wachowskis really had over the film, and I’m equally willing to bet we’ll see a whole lot of “McTeigue didn’t really direct this” comments, and this will probably end up being the new POLTERGEIST in terms of a director being disrespected or ignored in favor of the producer, but without actually having been on-set for the whole shoot, it’s kind of hard to say who did what. McTeigue is indeed the credited director, and it’s a really accomplished bit of filmmaking for someone’s first time out. It’s obvious that the creative influence of the Wachowskis can be felt in every frame of the film, and that this is of a piece with their MATRIX films in terms of production value. It feels like the logical next step fro them, and it will fit neatly into their filmographies when people look back at their careers. Many of the things that concern them the most as writers are on display here, and it helps that Hugo Weaving gives voice to V.
There are two performances that have to work if V FOR VENDETTA is going to deliver. The first is Evey, and as I said before, Natalie Portman does really nice work here. I know that James Purefoy was replaced during production, and that Hugo Weaving stepped in to play V. I’m not sure how much of what we see onscreen is Weaving, but the voice is his throughout, and he’s wonderful, commanding and playful and sad and angry in equal measure. He has the incredibly difficult task of never once showing his face, but still having to give a nuanced and subtle performance as a human being, and not just a mask. As with the book, the emotional highlight of the film is an extended sequence in which Evey is captured by the government, held for weeks, and tortured in an effort to get information from her about the identity and location of V. It’s translated to the screen almost word for word from the book, beat for beat, and it’s even more powerful than I expected it to be. It also serves as one of the most succinct and beautiful summations of what torture is meant to do and how it can be withstood that exists in any film.
So why am I not raving about the movie the way many of the BNAT attendees were in December? Why didn’t I make it a part of my “best of the year” list like Harry did?
Because this film is so heavy on the metaphor, there are places where I think it disconnects from real human experience, and that bothered me. I also think it has an easy third act.
There’s never really any danger that V will not accomplish his goals, because he seems to be omnipotent and magic, able to do anything, be anywhere, and ignore whatever laws of physics he feels like. There are a few action sequences where there’s a sort of next-step-bullet-time effect that’s used to show the movement of knives through the air that seem unnecessary. This isn’t an action film, and in a way, the few action scenes that are included sort of stop the show cold.
Having said that, I would still recommend this to anyone who wants to see SF treated with respect, or who has wondered when we would finally see a film capture the precise flavor of an Alan Moore book. Even though this film take liberties with the narrative, it works overtime to maintain the same ideas that the book tried to express, and it’s sort of incredible that this is being released by a studio as huge as Warner Bros.
Just remember… conservatives aren’t fascists, and liberals aren’t hippies or pinkos, and it is possible to watch and even enjoy a film that deals with political themes without having to agree with every single idea in it. I don’t think V FOR VENDETTA is going to change the world. I don’t think it’s going to cause any sort of revolution. I don’t think this film will even set off a major debate in the media. I do think that it will provide potent fodder for conversation to anyone who approaches it with an open mind, though, and that alone makes it worthwhile.
I’ve been down with a particularly nasty stomach virus for a little while, so everything I was working on got waylaid. I’m starting to get up and around, so keep your eyes peeled for the real return of the DVD SHELF and some new reviews for both films and, yes, scripts. Also, get ready for a series of special articles and surprises all designed to help celebrate the tenth anniversary of AICN, all starting soon. 2006 is going to be a great year here at the site, and I look forward to sharing it with all of you. Until then…