Here’s an idea for a movie: everything you think about reality is wrong; turns out, we’re being manipulated by The Powers That Be. They control us for outcomes of their choosing. Free will is an illusion. Your life has already been plotted for you.
That post-modern fantasy has been done to death, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it again, as long as we copy a version that was done in the 1950s. In this story, Matt Damon discovers The Powers That Be have a life plan for him (and everyone else) and that he’s deviated by falling for the wrong woman. A woman screws it all up again. In order to get course corrected, They have arranged to have hot coffee spill on his shirt so that he’ll have to go back and change, and thus miss the chance meeting with her. We all know what happens when a butterfly flaps its wings; now you know who makes them flap.
He tries to resist it, he tries to run, but you can’t fight them, they are omnipotent and omniscient.
And etc. Looks like The Matrix, but if you’re focused on the plot or the hats you’ll miss something subtle but more interesting, because what makes this movie a little different than the dystopian visions of The Matrix/Dark City, is that these Powers are controlling humans for their benefit. Not some underhanded Brezhnev “well you’re better off, trust us” deprivational benefit, but really, truly, for your benefit.
And so in the logic of the movie, Matt Damon isn’t chasing a better life for himself, he’s pursuing a worse one.
In this case, if he hooks up with Chesty, his dreams will be destroyed. And so will hers. This isn’t true love conquering all; this is love today that will turn into misery later.
The major exposition occurs when Matt Damon asks if there’s any free will, and Donaldson, the senior Adjuster, responds (paraphrased):
we chaperoned you from apes to the Roman Empire, then we let you have free will. You immediately went into the Dark Ages. So we stepped back in, and brought you through the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, and then gave you back free will in 1910. And since then you’ve generated several wars and brought the planet to the brink of ecological collapse.
Agent Smith made a similar point about humans in The Matrix, but we hear this message differently. In 1999 at the height of the sexual and financial orgy, we valued freedom above everything else because we didn’t have anything else to compare it to. Now, when Donaldson says humans can’t be trusted with free will, we’re not so terribly upset by that– because in 2011 we’re not surprised by that. Which is why the unconscious subtext of his speech is actually comforting: “we’re here, and even when you completely wreck things, we’ll step in and save your sorry asses.”
Now the movie flips The Matrix on its head. No mythic hero here, no little boy hearing the Call To Adventure, returning three acts later a man. Not only are we children with grown ups cleaning up after us and nudging us along the path, but when we disobey them or throw a fit or hook up with the wrong woman, they’ll dutifully try to adjust it all again for us, like the parents of spoiled private school Manhattanites.
They’re going to make it all okay. Strange coincidence that the movie was released just as Japan was devastated– or not. Movies represent waking life’s wish fulfillment, and what we wish for is proof that someone more powerful than us could exist and offer a solution to our troubles, even if we have to be kicked down a few notches on the superiority scale. Cue cross marketing strategy with stories about billions of extrasolar planets and life on Mars.
The other thing you’ll (not) have noticed is that these Adjusters, these other worldy powers, are– limited. They can jump through dimensional space, but only if they’re wearing their hats. They pant when they run, fall when they get punched, and no, they don’t see it coming. Damon asks one if he’s an angel; and their boss “has gone by many names, but we just refer to him as The Chairman.” (Sort of a newish title for an ancient power, but they do have offices in a NY skyscraper.) Yet knowing this, Damon still tries, and succeeds, in tricking them.
I know that a lot of people think this is a metaphor for God. You could say that the movie doesn’t call him God so as not to exclude any of the audience, but God just couldn’t be this frazzled by the portly Matt Damon. So The Chairman isn’t God. Perhaps The Chiarman is the Demiurge? After all, the word means “public worker,” which seems quite in line with his job description.
But isn’t the demiurge evil? Depends who you ask. Some gnostic sects have him as evil but Plato started him as the benevolent manipulator of the material universe, though not the creator of the universe. That fits.
But even that explanation misses the point. The audience isn’t looking for a religion, a set of rules for existence, they’re looking for comfort. Movies are wish fulfillments, not necessarily the plot or the theme but some aspect of it which makes us happy or quells an anxiety.
So while Donaldson says there’s no free will, in fact there is– Damon exerts it all the time- but it’s guided by these Adjusters and their powers. That’s what we want.
These powers are powerful but they are not limitless, and in this sense they are what all conspiracy theories are: comfort in times of crisis that this isn’t your doing, you’re powerless, and, if things get really bad, there exists someone with enough power to handle it.
At the end of the movie, Matt Damon gets to be with his woman not because he tricked the Adjusters but because they let him– the plan was changed. There’s the wish fulfillment. Make it okay that I get what I want, with no consequences.
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