Recently, three very different films (all three the third in their own series!) passed through our local theaters, all of them fantastical enough that they gave the screen-writers and directors the freedom to express their world views without the constrictions of needing to be believable. Of the three, one expressed the mimetic world-view unapologetically (Terminator 3, Rise of the Machines), one struggled mightily not to fall into that trap, but ultimately failed to rise above the dualism of mimetic thinking (The Return of the King, LOTR III), and one actually conformed to the nature of Gospel (no, not The Passion of Christ, but Matrix III, Revolution). It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that of the three, the third one listed above was the least successful. Of course, T3 was widely criticized for its devotion to technical effects at the expense of real movie-making, but the film’s failure finally was one of geekiness, too much reliance on their supercomputers, not of story, which would have succeeded far better than Revolution in the theaters if they had taken the story more seriously than the effects during the shooting. (In the interest of brevity, the three movies and their series will be referred to in future as Terminator, Matrix and LOTR)
Mimesis manifests itself in a wide variety of ways. By looking at the way that all three films deal with several of these manifestations, we’ll show here how only the third of the Matrix series manages to escape the mimetic trap and represent Gospel. Both Michael and I are enormous fans of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings, and we know that what we say here may be construed to be critical of this classic trilogy. Neither of us enjoys the prospect of naming the mimetic process that ultimately wins the day in Middle Earth. Still, we hope that by doing so, we’ll show the thoroughly mimesis inhabits our thinking, even in the work of someone who tried so hard to avoid it. (One other quick note: For the sake of this discussion we’ll refer only to the cinematic version of The Return of the King.)
The manifestations of mimetic process we’ll examine here are:
- The representation of the Other
- The locus of Power in the world views of the films
- The place of sacrifice in the narrative
- The character of victory
- The Representations of the Other
One of the primary characteristics of the scapegoating process is the rendering of the scapegoat as “foreign.” In many cases, among humans, it also includes the dehumanization of person or persons whose expulsion or destruction is desired for the restoration of the false peace.
In the arenas of science fiction and fantasy, the authors aren’t constricted by the need to make the “other” look human, and in our three movies, none of them do! In the Terminator and Matrix series the “others” are as inhuman as they can be, they are machines. In The Lord of the Rings the “Others” are a coalition of the non-human, Orcs, Urukai, and Wizards.
We may be tempted to include “Smith” and Sauron in the category of “other” here, but I resist for the following reasons. First, neither exists in the real world of the combatants, except as an influence. Sauron is never seen, and Smith can only influence the actions of others in the physical world. Neither of these characters, no matter how influential on the story, functions as “other” in the primary battles. T3 lacks this driving force, and is, in this sense, most purely “myth” in the Girardian sense.
How then, do the three films deal differently with these “others?”
In Terminator, the others are depicted as machines. In the third movie, the murderous machine appears masquerading as a woman. These terminators never speak, never express feelings, and in times of stress, reveal their non-humanity by changing shapes or demonstrating inhuman strength or dexterity.
With the exception of the re-programmed terminator who appears to protect the hero (John Connor) in T2 (I’ll deal with him momentarily) there is absolutely nothing done in any of the films to encourage the audience to identify with them. When they are defeated in their attempts to eliminate the hero, there are no mixed feelings about their ultimate demise.
In the second movie, a re-programmed terminator is sent from the future to protect Connor in his adolescent years. The fatherless boy “teaches” the terminator how to be human, demonstrating that the terminator can “learn” to be more human. (He even says, near the end that, if he were able, he would cry.) This should not be mistaken for a humanization of the machines for these reasons: 1) This is an imperfect machine, one that was captured and re-programmed, 2) The more advanced machines have perfected their “machine-ness,” moving farther and farther from human-ness, and 3) That the machine can be taught implies that the machines, at their best as machines, are “incomplete” humans. Humanity remains the only measure of worth, conformity to human standards the only way to increase ones values.
Terminator, then, has completely and utterly rendered the enemy as “other.” Their utter destruction as scapegoat is completely and utterly appropriate.
LOTR uses characters that have flesh and bones, at the least. They are, however rendered as unrepentant cannibals, feasting as often on each other as on human flesh. They also experience some human emotions, greed, anger and fear. There are, however, no positive emotions attributed to them (unless we count the obedience of the Urukai, which seems to be a swipe at fascism more than anything).
LOTR does, however, include men among the “enemy.” They appear rarely, and never in leadership, but it must be mentioned that the author does see the enemy’s agenda as one to which humans might also subscribe. It is worth noting that, in the film, when men appear (I apologize for the non-inclusive terminology here, but all the human enemies that appear in LOTR are men!) they are either dark skinned, with numerous tattoos, or they hide their faces behind masks of one sort or another. It is as if joining Sauron’s side requires that you be “other” in color, or that you mask your humanity.
LOTR, then, has somewhat mixed results, but in the end, the only “human” attributes borne by the “enemy” are greed and fear. There is also no signal of repentance even in their defeat. They continue, to the end, to function adequately as scapegoat.
Matrix, like Terminator, begins with a world divided between humans and machines. The “others” however, evolve in our awareness as the series progresses. The “Oracle,” the humanizing influence in the machine world is present in the first film, but it isn’t until the second one that her identity as a “program” within the Matrix is revealed. When this fact emerges, her reliability as a guide for the human hero (Neo) is called seriously into question. Throughout the second movie, this question remains. She is further undermined when the “One” fails to overcome the Matrix when he enters its heart.
In the third film, however, we discover (if we’re paying attention!) that the machine world is capable of “love.” The Neo’s first conversation in this movie with three more programs in the “train station,” the “parent” program speaks of his “love” (he equates his connectedness to his progeny with the human connection called love, one that would inspire him to die for his “daughter.” It is worth noting that this revelation is foreshadowed in the longing for love displayed by the paramour of the Merovingian in the second film.
Suddenly, the potential exists that the machines’ war on humankind is motivated by something other than inhuman calculations, something as irrational as “love.”
The evolution of the perception of the machine world (and the hero’s understanding of his relationship to them, as well) continues when the Neo’s eyes are destroyed, and he must learn to rely on another kind of vision. First it reveals the mysterious presence of “Smith” in the human who has attacked him, but then, when he travels to the machine city, it reveals the beauty of that world. The director cuts time and again from the physical vision of the machine world to Neo’s spiritual vision, contrasting them, but also treating them as equally reliable.
Finally, once the war of the machines on the humans has been shown to be more a result of a difference in seeing than of their non-humanity, they also demonstrate that they are capable of repentance. When the “One” (who is the only one able to cross the boundaries between the two world views) offers to save both worlds from “Smith” in exchange for a cessation of hostility, the machines stop their war, even though they are on the brink of destroying utterly the human colony.
Matrix, then, gradually reveals that the “otherness” of the enemy is a false one. Though they are never revealed in the form of flesh, they prove to be more “human” than the humans enemies is LOTR. Their function as scapegoat is thereby destroyed.
The Locus of Power in the world of the films
In “I See Satan Fall Like Lightening,” Girard personifies the mimetic process by referring to it as “Satan.” By doing this, the violent expression of conflict between different human factions is clearly represented as the result of the influence of the mimetic process, an influence that has the potential to influence both sides of any conflict.
Terminator lacks the influence of anything resembling Girard’s “Satan.” Power resides almost entirely in the machine world. Humans survive in the last two movies only because machines from the future intervene on their behalf. In the first movie, courage and perseverance, two (positive) values never displayed by the machines (except perhaps the re-programmed terminator of T2, after learning it from the hero) make it possible for Connors and his mother to escape that initial assassination attempt.
By locating power almost entirely in the “enemy” the “other’s” destruction is thoroughly justified. As in many mimetic crises, where the scapegoat is accused of causing a plague or some other catastrophe, myth depends on the perception that the intended victim has some sort of disproportionate power to cause upheaval. In this regard, Terminator conforms entirely.
LOTR and Matrix avoid locating power to cause crisis entirely in the “other.” LOTR uses Sauron as the influencer, while Matrix continually shifts the apparent source. At first, the machines seem to be the locus, then a part of the matrix (the Architect) then, perhaps, the Merovingian. In the end, though, the locus of power, the creator of crisis turns out to be Smith. We’ll return to Smith shortly.
LOTR recognizes that the “others” are led into the conflict by another, greater “evil.” However, their inherent violence makes them less than totally exonerated. In addition, the power, located both in Sauron and the Ring, is not equally felt among all the parties to the conflict. Humans are subject to the Ring’s power, but with a few notable exceptions, they successfully resist falling under its sway. In the end, perhaps the locus of power in LOTR lies entirely in the Ring. Though created by Sauron, it soon seems to possess, to fascinate him as much as it does Gollum or any of the others. He can more successfully wield its power, but he is, perhaps more than any other, also wholly owned by the ring, as its destruction is also his own.
Finally, however, the success of the humans (and Gandalf) to resist the temptation of using the Ring’s power, combined with the relative immunity of the Hobbits to the Ring’s attractions makes the power in LOTR primarily an attribute of the “other.”
Like LOTR, the locus of power in the Matrix series, once fully revealed, turns out to be the creation of the machines, an element of their control of the matrix. (Smith) (But, as the machines are a result of human creative activity, even this is mitigated.) But in the Matrix, the source of destructive power ultimately threatens both factions equally. This is not implied with regard to the machines (as it is only implied in LOTR) but explicitly put forward when Neo says to the machine face near the end of M3 that Smith will ultimately take over both worlds. The machine face agrees with this assessment, and therefore grants peace with the human community in return for Neo’s battle with Smith.
In this way, the holder of power is demonstrated to be the creation of one of the parties to the conflict (as the scapegoat mechanism is the creation of humans seeking to relieve a crisis created by mimetic desire) but one that threatens, in the end, to control all of them. LOTR approaches this understanding by locating so much power in the invisible Sauron, but, as we saw above, finally fails. Matrix, on the other hand, shows the only clear understanding among the three movies that the threat finally comes not from the “other” but from an independent influencer that threatens “us” and “them” equally.
The Place of Sacrifice in the Narrative
All three of the movies/series we are discussing highlight sacrifice as a characteristic valued by the people (or machines) with whom we are intended to identify.
In Terminator (3) the sacrifice is largely one of personal choice. That is to say, John Connor is asked to sacrifice his sense of identity, to accept a role he does not want as “savior” of the human race. This third movie has been criticized for the absence of human interest in the first half of the film, but the second half does try to deal with some of the kinds of issues that made the earlier two movies more interesting.
The real hero of the second film is the Terminator sent to protect John Connor, who sacrifices himself to prevent the circuitry in his head from becoming the springboard for a the development of the hostile machines of the future. There is a dramatic scene at the end of the film where the Terminator allows himself to be lowered into molten steel. The absence of the ability to feel pain in this character is undermined in our viewing of him by his human appearance. His sacrifice seems logical and painful at the same time.
There are no comparable kinds of sacrifice in the third movie. John Connor struggles to prevent the “Rise of the Machines,” but does so in order to keep from having to assume the mantle of leadership he will one day be forced to wear. As the movie progresses to the inevitable emergence of “SkyNet” and the domination of the machines, Connor gradually becomes the man he must be in order to lead the human war of survival.
In every case, though, the sacrifice described in the Terminator films serves the purpose of the destruction of the enemy. However heroic, it remains mimetic in origin.
In LOTR, sacrifice takes on a variety of guises. Frodo and Sam sacrifice their comfort and the company of the Fellowship of the Ring for the sake of the destruction of the ring. The other members of the Fellowship sacrifice their safety (and in the case of Beomir, his life) in order to support the quest.
Aragorn sacrifices his identity as “Strider” to assume the kingship to which he was born. He is forced to do this in the third film in order to persuade the army under the mountain to fight for him.
Eowyn sacrifices her desire to go to battle to support her uncle in the second film, and sacrifices her health to protect the king in the third
Gandalf sacrifices his (grey) life to save the Fellowship, and also to gain the insight and power he brings back with him when he returns as Gandalf the White.
Theoden rides out to die for the sake of honor in the second film, and passes the baton of leadership to Aragorn in the third. In the end he sacrifices his life defending Minas Tirith.
Elrond sacrifices his neutrality for the sake of the defeat of Sauron, his daughter her immortality for love.
If we were to say what value is most highly held in LOTR, we would be hard pressed to find anything to surpass self-sacrifice. Indeed, Gimli makes light of this propensity as the army of Aragorn plans a suicidal assault on the “Black Gate” in order to buy time for Frodo to complete his mission. “No chance of success, likelihood of defeat, certainty of death, what are we waiting for!”
Not every sacrifice is for the sake of the destruction of the enemy, which is noteworthy. Arwen’s sacrifice for the sake of love stands out in particular. While the world dissolves in warfare, Arwen, who need never have died, accepts death in order to be in relationship with Aragorn. This sacrifice for the sake of the Other, rather than for the sake of the destruction of the Other, speaks of Tolkien’s (as well as the film-makers’) desire to break free from the prison of mimesis. Sadly, in the film, Arwen’s sacrifice becomes the secondary cause of Elrond’s decision to join the battle against Sauron (even if from a distance). Her vulnerability to the evil of the day is the only cause strong enough to change his decision to leave “men” to deal with Sauron.
Even were this not true, Arwen’s solitary sacrifice for anything other than the destruction of the “enemy” is overwhelmed by the innumerable occasions of death and injury suffered in the struggle against Sauron and his minions. Though LOTR hints at a value of sacrifice that goes beyond the mimetic, the hint remains undeveloped.
In Matrix, sacrifice looks a lot like it does in LOTR. Courageous self-sacrifice in the struggle against the machines and their enforcers, the “agents” (Smith in particular) are held in high esteem. The third film demonstrates this value more vividly than any of the others, as the army of the humans finally confronts the unrelenting swarm of machine invaders at the gates of Zion. Male and female show incredible bravery and determination as they fight against an impossibly numerous and powerful army of “squids.”
If Matrix were never to escape the trap of mimesis, these acts of sacrifice would be no less inspiring than those of any other film centered on conflict. But Matrix is not content to put sacrifice only the service of the destruction of the enemy.
By the time we have reached the final minutes of the third film, Neo has gone above to deal directly with the machines in their city. As he and his partner Trinity cruise toward the city’s center, Neo wards off an attack by using his newly discovered and amazing powers. It appears that his willingness to sacrifice himself will indeed result in the defeat of the machine empire.
Even Neo’s powers aren’t adequate to the immediate task, however, and in the process of evading the attackers, Neo’s ship is destroyed and Trinity loses her life. Still, Neo persists, and we are left to believe that he will yet defeat the machines. (Unless we have been paying careful attention to Neo’s new appreciation of the machine world, as he sees with his new “spiritual” vision.)
When Neo finally meets the machine face, he discloses his purpose, the cessation of hostility. He offers coexistence as his price for the destruction (still!) of the creation (Smith, like the sacrificial system, is a creation of the dominant group) that threatens human and machine alike. He has come to understand that the machines are not the “other” he had thought them to be.
Neo goes on to do battle with Smith. Over time, it becomes apparent that, while he cannot win, neither can he, as long as he wills it, be defeated. Recalling the words of the Oracle that all things must one day come to an end, Neo finally realizes that in order to defeat Smith, one more sacrifice is required. He must surrender.
His willing surrender finally destroys the power of Smith, freeing both machines and humans from the power of the sacrificial system. Neo dies, and while we do not see him again, his return is promised at some distant moment in the future. (How reminiscent of the original ending of Mark at Mk. 16:8!)
Sacrifice then, conforms to the cultural standard of the warrior’s courageous death with few exceptions in any of the films until the Matrix trilogy explodes the meaning of the word by adding the word “surrender” to the definition. LOTR demonstrates an awareness that there is more to valuable sacrifice than the soldier’s death in battle, but fails to work out what that might be in the larger narrative.
Matrix, though, shows the audience the only way out of the mimetic cycle of violence breeding violence. It lies not in the sacrifice offered in the service of destruction, but sacrifice intentionally offered as surrender. This is the Gospel answer to mimesis.
By now, it is clear that the nature of victory in Matrix is very different from that of the other two films.
Victory in LOTR conforms mostly closely to the mythic norm, though. Sauron is utterly defeated when the Ring is destroyed, and a new era of “peace” is inaugurated in the coronation of Aragorn. Only the sacralization of the victim is missing. (This element of myth seems to us to have been increasingly difficult to sustain in modernity.) Frodo and his friends return to the Shire, where Sam, at least, resumes his idyllic existence. (The absence of Sharkey in the film was disappointing!) At the close of the film, our mimetic wrath is spent, and a lengthy period without conflict is promised.
Terminator’s definition of victory is much darker. Connor survives, but fails to divert the disaster that leads to the war between humans and machines that caused all the violence in the first place. Victory seems possible, perhaps even likely, in the distant future. The machines’ determination to destroy Connor in childhood suggests that they, too, anticipate the humans’ ultimate victory, but the time of fulfillment is highly uncertain.
For Terminator, “victory” means “survival.” In the world of the story, conflict cannot be averted. Victory consists of nothing greater than persistent existence. There is no change. There is no hope.
Victory for Matrix means “conversion.” The program known as Smith has no existence of his own. Instead he takes over the inhabitants of the Matrix in order to do what he does. (As do all of the “agents”) By the end of the film, every person in the Matrix has succumbed to his influence and shares his appearance.
When the One who could not be defeated surrenders to Smith, he appears momentarily to have been converted to Smith’s world-view, too. He too bears Smith’s visage. But Smith cannot withstand the power of surrender. The image of Smith that hides Neo shatters, triggering a chain reaction that frees all the people so imprisoned. They are not defeated, they are changed, freed.
Victory, then, is construed as defeat/destruction of the enemy in LOTR, perpetual survival of the enemy in Terminator, and conversion in Matrix. In the world of the Matrix, the initial “enemy” is discovered to be far more “human” than it first seemed. Both humans and machines, though, were subject to the influence of the creation “Smith,” and only in this film is “conversion” the very definition of victory.
Three trilogies were concluded in the last year, each of them with a very different take on violence and Gospel.
The Terminator had no interest in Gospel. There was no struggle to escape the trap of mimesis that we see in LOTR.
Tolkien and his interpreters in the film project do attempt to move from myth to gospel. Love (read surrender) is represented as a real value, but when confronted by the “enemy” neither Tolkien nor the film-makers are able to make the next step. The nearness of gospel is tantalizing, but the promise goes unfulfilled. LOTR is finally unable to escape the Augustinian dualism of Tolkien’s beloved Roman Catholicism.
Matrix showed us a radically different approach to the resolution of conflict. While beautifully made, and while containing incredible effects and scenes heroic bravery, this film was financially disappointing. We believe that the reason for this is that the conflict was not resolved by mythic means. Audiences found it ultimately unsatisfying. It seems that preaching peace in Hollywood isn’t any easier than it is anywhere else.