Hollywood Goes Gnostic?

   Ancient themes in pop culture


In Gnostic cosmology, an alien God creates the prototypical human as a male/female androgyne- the World Soul, Sophia, and Christ, the messiah. The material universe is an evil creation by the demiurge (‘half-creator’) Yaldabaoth, a pseudo-God who entraps the souls of men in sleep. The forces of sleep are so overwhelming, they can only be overcome by means of special insight (Gnosis), which forces one to realize the truth and awaken to the true nature of reality. Sophia (wisdom) is responsible for sending the serpent (Christ) to enlighten the inhabitants of the Garden to the nature of their enslavement. These twin messengers continually manifest in the material world to alert its inhabitants of their inherently divine nature.

But what does all of this arcane and outdated theology have to do with the movies? Over the last decade, movies have frequently dealt with apocalyptic themes- but now that the millennium has turned without the fiery destruction of the universe, moviemakers are exploring more subtle theological ideas. Recent technological and scientific advances have led people everywhere to question our perception of reality, and our movies have followed suit. Recent films exploring virtual worlds and false perceptions of reality include Vanilla Sky, the Matrix, The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and the Thirteenth floor.

Philip K. Dick, Gnostic Prophet?

Likewise, there has been a resurgence of interest in the stories of sci-fi author and self-described Gnostic Phillip K. Dick; directors revisiting his stories have produced last year’s Minority Report and Impostor, mimicking themes from earlier films Total Recall and Bladerunner. A Scanner Darkly, coming later this year, will feature Matrix’s Keanu Reeves as a man living seperate lives as two completely different individuals- each unaware of the other. Many of the themes Dick explored in his work stemmed from his very own visionary experiences.

Dick’s stories are ripe with intentional Gnostic emblems, psychological symbols that profoundly affect the emotions on a subconscious level. Take, for example, the unicorn that romps through Decker’s dreams in Bladerunner, a secret clue to his own artificial existence. The Unicorn is also a symbol of the Messiah, or intellect, which provides the knowledge necessary for awakening. These themes parallel Dick’s own experiences with visions and divine communication, as he himself had difficulty deciding whether he was experiencing a religious awakening or losing his grip on reality.

The False World and the Way Out

A common theme in the new genre is the existence of a manufactured world, a virtual reality in which the participants don’t realize they are trapped. In The Matrix, humans exist in a forced dream state so that machines can harvest their bio-electric energy. When hero Neo Anderson (whose name means, literally, ‘son of man’) inquires why the world is not perfect, the computer generated agent responds that were the artificial world to be without suffering, the sleepers would awaken too quickly- better to keep them in continual struggle. This idea is nearly identical to the ages old Gnostic belief that human souls are trapped on earth so that our psychic energy can be consumed- and as we are consumed with the day to day struggle of life, we forget to awaken. The identical hordes of “agents” fulfil the role of archons, evil angels whose role in the Gnostic hierarchy is to thwart awakening humans with temptation, fear, and ignorance. The sequel explores these themes even more, with rogue computer programs fulfilling roles of luciferian liberators, and the manifestation of the Demiurge as the “architect” of the prison world.

The hero of Vanilla Sky is a dead man living unknowingly in a fantasy life of someone else’s creation. His redeemer is none other than the lovely Sophia: “Open your eyes,” she exhorts, until he does. He ultimately awakens with the help of a guide sent from the ‘real’ world, and returns to reality by leaping confidently into the abyss. This scene is paralleled in the Michael Douglas film The Game, where the character takes a similar leap after a rebirth experience, and again in the Matrix, when hero Neo walks off a skyscraper, awakening with the ability to manipulate the false reality of the matrix code. In every case, the jump into the unknown is only taken after the character casts off his false perceptions- the ultimate test of one’s understanding of the nature of illusion. These scenes also illustrate the ultimate uselessness of the intellect in confronting the unknown- sometimes, you just need to take a deep breath and jump.

More Gnostic Themes

In the Thirteenth Floor, programmers of a virtual reality game are concerned that their creation is taking on a life of its own. In the course of their investigation, they discover to their horror that they are simply creations themselves, with imperfect creators.

The Truman Show follows the self discovery of Truman, a man raised in a fully artificial environment, who eventually uncovers the deception. In Pleasantville, townspeople in a sanitized fifties-style sitcom utopia awaken from artificiality when ‘infected’ by outsiders…ultimately liberating the townspeople from their repressed, drab and lifeless existence. The symbol of their liberation, incidentally, is a single red apple shared by a couple, bringing a new twist to the fable of Adam and Eve. (Many Gnostics believed the serpent to be the true hero of Genesis.)

The Cult film Donnie Darko follows the misadventures of bva reluctant Messiah- an angry, disenfranchised teen who awakens only after making the decision to sacrifice himself to save the world- a sacrifice that will go unnoticed. An archontic figure in the form of a demonic rabbit haunts Donnie, and encourages him to give in to his anger at the falseness around him.

In one scene, Donnie chastises his ridiculous companion, “Why are you wearing that stupid Bunny Suit?” The Bunny laconically responds “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” Donnie’s predicament is paralleled in the movie listed on the theater marquee: The Last Temptation of Christ. Donnie feels like an alien, who sees the truth where others cannot and is rejected and punished for speaking it.  Like Dafoe’s Christ, he must face his destiny before he is fully prepared to accept it.

These movies explore gnostic themes in a variety of ways, but the overwhelming Message is Wake up. Is there a larger world outside of this one? Open your eyes and see.



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