Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"Wanted": In which I take a dumb summer action flick entirely too seriously

I saw "Wanted" over the weekend, and it was more or less what I was expecting: dumb action movie, neato "Matrix"-like special effects, pretentious effort to hammer home some kind of deep pop-philosophical message. Unfortunately, since this is a relatively new movie, I'm frustrated by my desire to talk about the things that bugged me about it. So here I am, blogging it.

So, this post is going to spoil the movie, a lot. If you haven't seen it yet, and have the intention to, I would strongly recommend that you just stop reading this post, bookmark it, and come back here to discuss when you are finished.

Ready? Spoilers ahead, stop reading now.

Morgan Freeman leads an elite group of super-assassins called "The Fraternity," which has been operating for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. Members of the frat are periodically ordered to go kill somebody they never heard of. Most of them have several natural abilities which, for all practical purposes, are magical superpowers. They can slow down time, shoot bullets in such a way as to curve around obstacles, and there are magic hot tubs in the headquarters which can heal all wounds, bruises, and breaks within a matter of hours. And of course, they have the almighty power of Angelina Jolie's Hotness, which is undoubtedly one of the deadliest forces on the planet.

It is eventually revealed that there is a loom, or a series of looms, which have a mystical hotline to some sort of entity which tells them who to kill. A persistent TCP/IP connection to the gods, if you will, forming a cloth-based internet. The looms weave bits of cloth which, due to imperfection in the threads, contain coded messages in binary form that identify the next target. (We can only assume that the frat has been aware of ASCII for hundreds of years.)

Nobody knows how the powers that be pick the targets; but we are given to understand that they have impeccable judgment about who will soon deserve to die. Angelina Jolie (a.k.a. "Fox") explains that when she was a kid, a frat assassin failed to kill a target, and that target brutally murdered her father. So trust the loom.

The twist, though... hang on a second...

ONE MORE SPOILER WARNING: If the above description has not already turned you away from the movie, I'm really about to totally reveal major plot details!

The twist is that Morgan Freeman is corrupt and so is the organization. They stopped listening to the loom years ago, and now Freeman picks his own targets to suit profit and convenience motives. Devious! So in the end, the message is "don't blindly trust authority" -- which I approve of.

BUT, even as the plot exposes Morgan Freeman as untrustworthy, it still implies that the magic loom is always right to the end.

Now come on, this is a pretty transparent religious allegory. The loom is the Bible. Morgan Freeman is a fallible priest who reads the Bible and hides the truth from others. You can't trust human religion, but you sure can trust the messages you hear direct from God. Okay, the analogy is flimsy, and maybe it's not specifically the Christian religion that is being vindicated. But you know what I'm talking about; lots of people say "I don't follow organized religion because it's just man-made. But do believe in God and have a personal relationship" yadda yadda yadda.

Now here's what I want to know. We'll take it for granted that we can't trust Morgan Freeman, because he's a shifty old bastard anyway. (Although he did play God explicitly, twice.) But even knowing that, what on earth is our justification for trusting the loom? Just because it was right on at least one occasion?

Nobody in the brotherhood seems to know much or care about who the looms are connected to, or the mechanism by which the connection remains secure. What's to stop Satan, or perhaps Loki, from setting up his own spoofed IP address that leads to a server that he controls? How do we know that the man behind the loom isn't evil or capricious, or that he doesn't just possess a wacky sense of humor?

Certainly, like Yahweh, there's no indication that the God Of The Loom is periodically dropping by to explain himself to each member. So while you can argue that our hero was wrong to trust Morgan Freeman, you can't really argue that he could have interpreted the message and been confident in the answer. In fact, the only reason he believes the loom is trustworthy at all, is because Fox (Jolie) tells him so by anecdote. Would that be enough evidence for YOU to start killing strangers?

Suppose it's Loki. Loki isn't evil, he's just sort of "chaotic neutral." No reason he can't tell the truth sometimes and lie sometimes, just to maximize his amusement.

Or suppose it's Faust. This characterization of the devil surely wouldn't hesitate to pull the wool over the eyes of Fox, leveraging the tragedy of her father's death to make her believe that it was somehow the fault of not killing enough people. Surely it's right in character for him to say: "Look here. You want to avenge your father? You can have damn near omnipotent powers. Slow down time... kill people more or less with your mind... instant regeneration. All you have to do is sign right here."

And that, in a nutshell, is a basic problem with believing anything based on faith. It's not just fallible human translation that's the problem. Even if you're The Real God Of The Loom, and think some people need killin', why on earth would you choose to communicate through a medium that is so abstruse, and obviously begging to be abused? And if you're a mortal being ordered to kill somebody by a friggin' loom, what level of extraordinary proof should you require before you actually accept that you're being asked to do a good thing?

This is the Euthyphro dilemma writ large. You say you're good because you're doing what a god wants? Well, how do you know that the god is good?

A few other random observations in closing:

Those magical hot tubs are awesome. They can apparently bring people back from the brink of death most of the time. (Though, mysteriously, some guy dies dramatically right next to a hot tub and nobody thinks to dump him in there.) I think that if the goal of the Frat is to save the world, they would do a LOT more good by simply releasing the hot tub formula to the world and letting everybody benefit from it. I'm just saying, that seems a little more efficient than picking off bad guys one victim at a time. But no... we have to save it for newbies in training who need to recover because people in our organization like to intentionally beat the stuffing out of them.

Final point, memo to self: If 3 million dollars ever mysteriously appears in my bank account, the very first thing I'm going to do is set up a different account, that no one knows about, in a place with an excellent reputation for security, and transfer all the money out immediately. When somebody can put money in your account, they can also take it back. Duh.


  1. Maybe you should have just watched WALL-E instead.

  2. And what might Angelina's dad have done if he'd not been killed? Perhaps he'd have done an even greater act of evil--shot up a kindergarten or something along those lines?

    The loom is flawed in that regard, because there would be no way to ever determine if it was doing "good" or "EE-vil."

    It requires blind trust in an entity that is a black hole with regard to knowledge. "You can't understand the mind and ways of the loom. You just have to trust it is good."

  3. I think we can take it for granted that according to the plot, Fox's dad dying was not a good thing. Even if he did deserve to die, he died in a particularly awful way that traumatized her.

    I'm not questioning the story's ultimate conclusion that the loom was correct. I'm complaining about the unreasonableness of that message.

  4. I certainly agree with your discussion of how we decide who to trust, what is honest versus manipulation, etc. However, I would be very surprised if the the makers of the film had intended this particular philosophical message. Had they done so (or done so intelligently) the movie would have been more internally consistent (how many people died on that train?)

    But I did really like the movie. The final matrix-like action sequence in the factory was really cool!

  5. Ok. I loved it. It created a pretty animated debate between me and my wife, which for me, is always a good sign.

    I didn't think of it as god manipulating the loom, so much as fate; impartial and not particularly good or evil. I like fantasy a lot, and this is a pretty common theme.

    I also liked the idea that if Sloan (Morgan Freemans character) hadn't twisted the loom to his own ends, perhaps the other assassins wouldn't have turned up as targets.

    Yes, your points are all good ones, and I'm glad that such a TCP/IP connection to the winds of fate doesn't really exist, but I got sucked in and enjoyed talking about whether trusting the loom was was good or bad in the context of a fantasy universe. (my wife said "No loom is going to tell ME who to kill without telling me WHY!") which means that my safety is assured, I guess.

  6. I agree with your analysis, but I still thought the movie was cool. AJ was too skinny. One has to suspend disbelief at the movies.

  7. I didn't really take to the premise in the first place -- that is, vigiliante justice or save one in the assumption that it saves a thousand. Killing people you deem by yourself evil seems like a sleazy process to begin with.

    It's like a horrible version of Minority Report without the reasonable ending message.

  8. >my wife said "No loom is going to tell ME who to kill without telling me WHY!") which means that my safety is assured, I guess.

    Of course, it might be better to say "...without giving me a really good reason." Note that there's no indication that "why" needs to be anything compelling. I'm sure that was implied--but just the way it is stated here strikes me as funny.

  9. It WAS funny; I nearly snoggered out some soda through my nose after she said it. (She gets pretty elaborate with the hand gestures the more emphatic her point is...)

    But, yeah, a compelling reason would be better than an arbitrary one.

  10. Utterly and completely off topic, but I just had to point out that "snoggered" is a fantastic word. I feel embiggened just by reading it.

  11. I found it odd that everyone simply believed Sloan when he said the loom called for them all to die. Everyone knows Sloan can 'fabricate' results from the 'loom' to say whatever he wants. Everyone knows Sloan is clever. Isn't it convenient that the best way out of being caught in fraud and having his power usurped is by having the loom call for every ones death? Why didn't it occur to them that he was lying again? Sloan is a cult leader using a loom as is religious power stick.

    As for Angelina's Dad, it was the divine will that his killer die, but the assassin failed. What proof does she have that there was a failed assassin attempt? A piece of fabric, and a convenient story?

    I took the loom to be a religious tool akin to reading tea leaves, cards or throwing bones. You can do it as many times as you like until is says what you want. Then simply display the result, or 'fabricate' them on the loom

    As we have all seen these are religious tools to dupe people into the will of the religious leaders, because it is some "super natural" will.

  12. To me the overall theme was how it is ones responsibility to find out who we are. To get control of our own life and to find meaning for it.

    Is not working in a cube, following a loom or the fact that you have learned mad killing skillz who define the course your life should take.

    Another theme i liked was at the end when the main character asks what have you (the viewer) done with your life. This is really important considering that this life is all we got.

    I may be way off from the true meaning of the movie, but this is what i got out of it.

    (BTW pardon misspellings. English not my first language.)

  13. read the comic book, and I think you should just enjoy the movie and not care about an unnoticeable allegory I think the people who wrote the comic book thought it the assassin frat idea would be a cool thing


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