Tron: Episode 3

In a short preview clip from Matrix Reloaded, Lawrence Fishburne is Moses/Maud’Dib giving a motivational seminar in a big cave, with all his torchlit followers getting ready to jump on some sandworms and show the machines who’s boss.

From what I hear, the scene that follows is a rave/orgy. It looks bad…

But only bad in terms of plot and theme and consistency and blah blah blah. Some advance reviewers are saying the effects are good enough that no one needs no stinkin’ plot. For example Ross Anthony enthuses about an early scene where Neo fights an ever growing array of agents:

Smith spreads himself like a computer virus and Keanu finds himself fighting two Smiths, then three, until the entire urban courtyard is teaming with Smiths. The camera spins around the street fight as if it was a rock at the end of a string. The graphics are awesome, the choreography artful, and the build in intensity worthy of being likened to Ravel’s Bolero. Bravo! Bravo!

I suppose that kind of irrational exuberance is the only viable attitude to take when going in to a summer blockbuster movie. But Adam Gopnik in the hoity-toity New Yorker describes these same superhero antics in a more jaded light:

He fights the identical agents for fifteen minutes, practically yawning while he does, and then flies away, and you wonder–why didn’t he fly away to start with? As he chops and jabs at his enemies, there isn’t the slightest doubt about the outcome, and Keanu Reeves seems merely preoccupied, as though ready to get on his cell phone for a few sage words with Slavoj Zizek.

Gopnik points out that much of the appeal of the first movie had to do with certain very old mythologies about the world which have become increasingly relevant to a technologically mediated society. Although the idea that the entire world is an imprisoning illusion dates much earlier, he goes back to the medieval Cathars, a group based mostly in the Languedoc region of France who believed the world was an illusion created by Satan.

Gopnik wonders why a group who believed “there is no spoon” would take up non-existent swords to do battle for their beilefs. Maybe more interesting question than “why did they fight,” is the question, why was this particular heresy the target of such violent oppression? In addition to their belief in an illusionary world, the Cathars were also egalitarian, vegetarian, had women priests, lived lives of poverty and chastity, and maybe had homosexual rituals. In other words, totally doomed.

The Cathars were actually the only target of an official intra-European crusade. In a tourist’s guide to Cathar sites, the Guardian offers this description of the Albigensian Crusade:

The pope did not approve of buggery, even less of non-payment of tithes, so in 1208 he declared a crusade against the Cathars, a call eagerly answered by the King of France, who was covetous of the wealth of Languedoc. The crusade was motivated by the usual mixture of self-righteousness and greed, and conducted with extreme brutality.

When the armies of Languedoc were finally crushed, the Inquisition moved in and did such a good job that the heresy was almost totally eradicated.

It’s fascinating history, all the more so for being off to the side of the more official histories of Europe and the Church. Sly references to these beliefs and this history gave the Matrix a kind of depth, more interesting in the way the film seemed only half aware of how it embodied and enacted the illusions it claimed to discuss.

The best explaination of the relationship of a gnostic worldview to technology is the first episode of The Matrix, the 1982 Disney movie Tron. And like Tron, the second episode of The Matrix from 1999 seemed only partially aware of how cybertastically cynical it was being. It was a dot.kung.fu fashon cartoon, just like most of the news in the late 90’s, which offered enough frisson that the aforementioned Zizek was able to crib a title from it, by way of Baudrillard and Philip K Dick. Fun!

But this third episode of Tron being reloaded tonight seems altogether far too aware of how cynical it is. Matrix Reloaded apparently tries to overtly feed on gnostic history and the many conspiracies swirling around it , even calling one of its evil characters “the Merovingian.” Yeah, real clever.

Maybe it will be a fine cartoon, with lots of kicks and jumps and Pow Biff Zing, “whoa watch out for the coat tails, G — that’s digitized fawn skin!” zooom! Maybe if the screen is big enough and the speakers are world-dominating enough. Maybe if there is doubleplus mediation…

And speaking of total world-obiterating escapism, Gopnik’s New Yorker review also discusses the brain-in-the-vat problem (if you were a happy brain in a vat, why wouldn’t you want to stay that way?) and more specifically, the idea of “vat-English” — a language spoken by a community of disembodied brains in reference to the shared the image-experiences they’re processing (did someone say “blogosphere“?).