Film and Conspiracy Theory

Film and Conspiracy Theory
Film and Conspiracy Theory
Films that center on or significantly include a conspiracy have been around as long as most other genres of fiction films. To take one notorious early example, The Birth of a Nation (dir. D. W. Griffith 1915) portrays the original Ku Klux Klan (KKK), positively, as a conspiracy by Southern whites to overturn gains made by African Americans during the post–Civil War Reconstruction.

Generally, though, traditional “secret societies” such as the KKK have appeared in films only sporadically. (Two recent examples are the organization based on Yale University’s Skull and Bones society in The Skulls [dir. Rob Cohen 2000], and the legendary Illuminati in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider [dir. Simon West 2001].) As in many conspiracy theories, conspiracies in films tend to be amorphous.

And as with all genres of popular film, conspiracy movies follow cycles that vary with changing trends in the wider culture (Altman). There have been three major cycles: from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s during the cold war, from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s in the postVietnam, post-Watergate era, and from the early 1990s to the present.

The Cold War and the “International Communist Conspiracy”

The first important cycle of conspiracy films begins in the late 1940s with the start of the cold war and concern over the so-called international Communist conspiracy. Some of these films follow the efforts of federal agents to combat Communist spy rings and fifth columns, such as I Was a Communist for the FBI (dir. Gordon Douglas 1951); the similarly premised TV series I Led Three Lives (1953– 1956), scripts for which were vetted in advance by the FBI; Walk East on Beacon (dir. Alfred Werker 1952); and the perfectly ludicrous Big Jim McClain (dir. Edward Ludwig 1952), featuring western stars John Wayne and James Arness as agents of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) foiling a Soviet plot to take control of Hawaiian ports by infiltrating waterfront labor unions.

Another group of Communist conspiracy films concerns the protagonists’ discovery that people close to them are secretly Communists: a woman’s husband in Conspirator (dir. Arthur Hornblow 1949) and I Married a Communist (a.k.a. Woman on Pier 13) (dir. Robert Stevenson 1950); a war veteran’s girlfriend in The Red Menace (dir. R. G. Springsteen 1949); a couple’s son in My Son John (dir. Leo McCarey 1952); and a man’s coworkers in The Fearmakers (dir. Jacques Tourneur 1958).

These and dozens more along the same lines, none of them successful at the box office, were probably released to allay suspicions about the patriotism of people in the film industry (Leab, 26) at a time when it was widely alleged that Hollywood had been infiltrated by clandestine subversives, and many film workers, especially writers, were blacklisted by the studios and some (the “Hollywood 10”) were even jailed by the government. Unsurprisingly, no real effort to understand the Communists and their aims is made in these “red” conspiracy films, except to suggest that they are motivated by greed, hunger for power, and so on.

A pastiche with a clever twist is The House on Carroll Street (dir. Peter Yates 1988), written by Walter Bernstein, who had himself been put on the blacklist, about a leftist writer persecuted for refusing to cooperate with the HUAC who teams up with an FBI agent to uncover a government conspiracy to smuggle Nazi war criminals into the United States to aid in the cold war. Blacklisted screenwriters feature in The Front (dir. Martin Ritt 1976), also scripted by Bernstein, and in The Majestic (dir. Frank Darabont 2001).

The classic Communist conspiracy film The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer 1962) was released at a time when relations with the Communist bloc were already beginning to move toward détente and the fear of communist subversion within the United States had greatly diminished. In consequence, films began openly critiquing cold war paranoia, as in Seven Days in May (dir. John Frankenheimer 1964), in which opposition to U.S.

Soviet nuclear disarmament inspires a plot to overthrow the government and install a military regime. (The generals’ coup concept was more recently, and prophetically, recycled in The Siege [dir. Edward Zwick 1998], in which a terrorist campaign by Arab fundamentalists in New York provides the military an excuse to impose martial law.) By the late 1960s, international conspiracy paranoia had become spoof material in The President’s Analyst (dir. Theodore J. Flicker 1967) and in James Bond movies.

Subsequent “straight” cold war conspiracy suspense films usually seem like throwbacks to a distant past, although a few are quite well made, such as Telefon (dir. Don Siegel 1977), with its Soviet agents preprogrammed to blow up military installations, and The Package (dir. Andrew Davis 1989), in which rogue U.S. and Soviet spies conspire to undermine progress toward peace.

Alien Invasions and Body Snatchers

Three excellent alien invasion films from the early cold war period, Invaders from Mars (dir. William Cameron Menzies 1953), It Came from Outer Space (dir. Jack Arnold 1953)—in which, however, it turns out that the intruders are not invading but only want to repair their spaceship—and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (dir. Don Siegel 1956), along with less memorable knockoffs like The Brain Eaters (dir. Bruno VeSota 1958) and Invisible Invaders (dir. Edward L. Cahn 1959), are often regarded as commentary on the Communist witch-hunting hysteria of the time.

They were freer to criticize or even ridicule this anticommunism owing to their fantastic plot lines, involving ordinary people whose identities are “taken over” by extraterrestrials in a conspiracy to wrest control of the earth from humans. Siegel’s film in particular lends itself to complementary interpretations as both a metaphoric, perhaps even satiric exaggeration of the internal Communist menace and as a critique of the rigid conformity to traditional “American values” that was seen as a sign of loyalty (Bartholomew, 374).

Also worth mentioning in this context is the archly titled Red Planet Mars (dir. Harry Horner 1952), which, before descending into vacuous spiritualism, flirts with the intriguing idea of the Soviets faking an alien contact in order to destabilize the West.

The body-snatching concept—whether the aliens appropriate real people’s bodies or disguise themselves to resemble humans—reappears not only in two remakes of Siegel’s film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (dir. Philip Kaufman 1978) and Body Snatchers (dir. Abel Ferrara 1993), and in more or less direct imitations such as two TV series, The Invaders (1967–1968) and Dark Skies (1996–1997), the miniseries V (dir. Kenneth Johnson 1983), and The Puppet Masters (dir. Stuart Orme 1994), and the made-for-TV Target Earth (dir. Philip Markle 1998), but also in several other films, in each case with a different angle in keeping with the changing zeitgeist.

The Stepford Wives (dir. Bryan Forbes 1975) echoes—or perhaps the word should be confirms—feminist critiques of the patriarchal nuclear family in a “male fantasy” about men in a small town turning their wives into docile automatons, “living dolls” (Borzello, Kuhn, Pack, and Wedd, 14). The 1990s resurgence of environmental activism is reflected in The Arrival (dir. David Twohy 1996) when aliens from a hot planet who have assumed human identities plot to replace us by hastening the global warming that we instigated.

Young “slackers” are targeted for takeover by aliens who have bodysnatched their teachers in The Faculty (dir. Robert Rodriguez 1998), and in Disturbing Behavior (dir. David Nutter 1998) a similar contingent from Generation X is mind-controlled through brain implants administered by a mad scientist in collusion with the teenagers’ own parents.

Late-twentieth-century anxiety about illegal immigrants is humorously played upon in Men in Black (dir. Barry Sonnenfeld 1997) (Dean, 155), in which an ultrasecret agency polices extraterrestrial “aliens” who have been living on earth for decades in the guise of humans, domesticated animals, and even celebrities such as Newt Gingrich, Dennis Rodman, and Sylvester Stallone. (Elvis too, but he has since returned to his home planet.)

The Post-Vietnam, Post-Watergate Era

Given the cinematic obsolescence of the international Communist conspiracy, the next significant cycle of conspiracy films, which begins in the early 1970s, can be attributed to a variety of causes, domestic and international, cultural and commercial. First, the assassinations, ghetto rebellions, and other upheavals of the 1960s had left a legacy of disappointed hopes, cynicism, and pessimism, which was further augmented by the lightless tunnel that was the war in Vietnam.

Then, as the new decade wore on, there were additional blows to national self-confidence: Watergate and other political scandals, the energy crisis and resulting recession, the ignominious fall of Saigon, and the Iran hostage crisis. The early to mid-1970s also saw a downturn in movie attendance, leading the studios, uncharacteristically, to take chances.

One result was the “Hollywood renaissance” sparked by the emergence of “movie brats” (young, sophisticated directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola) who were given unprecedented freedom to pursue their visions, and another was an opportunity for African Americans to make films for the major studios in the so-called blaxploitation boom.

Hollywood’s unaccustomed risk-taking, combined with the mood of the times, also helped make it possible to bring forth a slew of darkly antiestablishment films involving evil conspiracies, often perpetrated by forces within the government. Fredric Jameson perceptively characterizes these films as “an unconscious, collective effort at trying to figure out where we are ... in a late twentieth century whose abominations are heightened by their concealment and their bureaucratic impersonality” (Jameson, 3).

Governmental, Corporate, and Police Conspiracies

A few of the films are directly inspired by the political assassinations of the 1960s. Executive Action (dir. David Miller 1973) anticipates Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) in dramatizing a conspiracy theory of the Kennedy assassination, while Winter Kills (dir. William Richert 1979, reedited 1983) is about the cover-up of a conspiracy in the assassination of a fictional president, and more recently the made-forTV First Target (dir. Armand Mastroianni 2000) also concerns a presidential assassination conspiracy.

The Parallax View (dir. Alan J. Pakula 1974), which follows a reporter’s investigation of a shadowy corporation that carries out assassinations, is more representative of the decade’s pessimistic new trend as Jameson describes it. A similar aura of sinister hidden power pervades the conspiratorial Nixon White House in Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976).

The president’s paranoid personality is explored in Secret Honor (a.k.a. Lords of Treason) (dir. Robert Altman 1984) and Nixon (dir. Oliver Stone 1995); the intelligence community in Three Days of the Condor (dir. Sydney Pollack 1975), The Killer Elite (dir. Sam Peckinpah 1975), and The Osterman Weekend (dir. Sam Peckinpah 1983); and the nuclear power industry in The China Syndrome (dir. James Bridges 1979) and Silkwood (dir. Mike Nichols 1983), in which a brave woman dies while trying to expose practices that could lead to environmental disaster. (Although both stories are based on fact, it is in keeping with their respective timeframes that in Erin Brockovich [dir. Steven Soderbergh 2000] another female whistle-blower is successful in exposing a corporate conspiracy to cover up an environmental disaster.

By contrast, in the barely coherent Chain Reaction [dir. Andrew Davis 1996], the conspiracy, which is connected to the CIA, rather than causing or covering up an environmental disaster, seeks to prevent the development of an environmental panacea: a cheap, nonpolluting energy source.)

In more recent reworkings of this dark motif, the tobacco industry is in collusion with a major television network to hide the truth about nicotine addiction in The Insider (dir. Michael Mann 1999); the United Nations is the locus of a murky plot (in both senses) to sabotage a global free-trade agreement in The Art of War (dir. Christian Duguay 2000); a Microsoft-like software company secretively but ruthlessly pursues worldwide domination of electronic communications in AntiTrust (dir. Peter Howitt 2001); and in the conspiracy film parody Zoolander (dir. Ben Stiller 2001) the clothing industry maintains a healthy profit margin by washing the unimposing brains of male fashion models until they become supporters of child labor and Manchurian Candidate–like assassins of would-be reformers. (The Insider also inspired an ingenious antismoking public service short designed to resemble a trailer for a fictitious conspiracy film.) There should also be mentioned in this context three films from African American filmmakers that concern deep-rooted racist conspiracies in law enforcement.

In Deep Cover (dir. Bill Duke 1992) an undercover black policeman discovers that his Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) handlers are permitting corrupt Latin American governments to saturate his own community with hard drugs, while in both The Glass Shield (dir. Charles Burnett 1995) and the made-for-cable Gang in Blue (dir. Mario van Peebles and Melvin van Peebles 1996), other young black officers uncover white vigilante organizations within the police force.

In view of the widespread currency of similar conspiracy theories, regarding, for instance, the origin of AIDS/HIV, in African American culture (Turner), which some call “black paranoia,” it is strange, perhaps suspiciously so, that there have not been many more such films.

Surveillance and Control

In keeping with Watergate-era revelations of secret tape recordings and government surveillance regimes, high technology in such areas as media manipulation, advanced weaponry, and above all surveillance quickly became a prominent fixture in conspiracy films.

A sound surveillance specialist unwittingly becomes an accomplice to a murderous conspiracy in The Conversation (dir. Francis Ford Coppola 1974), and another soundman accidentally discovers a politically motivated conspiracy in Blow Out (dir. Brian De Palma 1981), while a high-tech helicopter with a secret agenda of surveillance and crowd control is at the center of Blue Thunder (dir. John Badham 1983).

NASA conspires to deceive the public with a faked Mars mission in Capricorn One (dir. Peter Hyams 1978), and in Alien (dir. Ridley Scott 1979) a faceless organization called “The Company” with vast, apparently quasi-governmental powers surreptitiously arranges for the crew of a deep-space mining ship to sacrifice themselves in retrieving a lethal life form for development as a weapon. Similarly, and in anticipation of The X-Files, politicians plot to keep secret a captured UFO in Hangar 18 (dir. James L. Conway 1980).

Two additional science fiction films of the 1980s anticipate another conspiracy trend of the 1990s, of surveillance and media manipulation becoming almost literally ubiquitous: in Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg 1983), television signals exert strange powers over viewers, while aliens disguised as humans keep the population under constant surveillance and control through nonstop subliminal advertising in They Live (dir. John Carpenter 1988). A more recent variation on Cronenberg’s idea about mind-destroying video signals occurs in Batman Forever (dir. Joel Schumacher 1995), in which The Riddler distributes a set-top box in order to assimilate viewers’ brainwaves.

Carpenter’s idea about hidden commercials is echoed in the teenpic Josie and the Pussycats (dir. Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan 2001), as the music industry inserts subliminal messages in pop tunes in order to further, in the words of the film’s title character, a “conspiracy to brainwash the youth of America.”

The Contemporary Period

Several significant trends of the 1990s show little sign of abating in the new century. First, the number of films (and TV programs) with a conspiracy angle has grown enormously. Second, the nature of film conspiracies has moved beyond the normal channels of politics, whether traditionally left or right, cold war international or Watergate domestic.

Now film conspiracies are not only vast in size and/or in power and could be unfolding anywhere at any time, but the participants, rather than individuals implementing perfidious but intelligible left- or right-wing schemes, seem to have no goals except expanding the conspiracy. Moreover, the conspirators seem to be discrete individuals in appearance only but in fact are part of a seamless whole, in some films even to the extent of having a collective mind, like the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact.

Finally, rather than merely projecting an illusion of innocuous normality in order to mask its subversive reality, the new-style conspiracy so pervades every facet of existence, from the universal to the singular, as to cast doubt on the reality/illusion distinction itself.

Observers are divided on how to explain these developments. Jonathan Romney, interestingly, sees the trend as a consequence of new cinema technology such as CGI (computer graphics imaging), which has disrupted the relationship between what we are actually seeing (computer simulations) and what we think we are seeing (physical objects that have been photographed), instilling a paranoia that is more epistemological or even existential than political.

“The new paranoia movies,” he writes, “have less to do with political anxieties, more to do with the feeling that there is little verifiable reality in the screen image itself and, by extension, in the world we know through visual media”. Other commentators adopt a more analytical approach.

Mark Fenster follows Fredric Jameson in attributing it to an unthought-out but justified discontent with the status quo among the general population, while Peter Knight argues that globalization has made conspiracy theory less a political position than a “default mode” of experiencing culture in the New World Order, and Timothy Melley points to what he calls “agency panic,” which he describes as “a feeling that individuals cannot effect meaningful social action, and, in extreme cases, may not be able to control their behavior” (Melley, 11).

Unquestionably, whatever the specific cause of the increased preoccupation with conspiracy, it is fed by the realization that more and more aspects of daily life, and not only in the popular culture, are being subsumed into regimes of manipulation, surveillance, and control, for no obvious reason, unless merely as an end in itself (Garfinkel, Rushkoff).

Obscurity and Inscrutability

A rogue intelligence group that not even its enemies can identify exerts mind control to program assassins and even uses the space shuttle to cause earthquakes in Conspiracy Theory (dir. Richard Donner 1997). The film’s protagonist, a taxi driver who is also a conspiracy theorist, conceives of the entire world as dominated by two “opposing factions” that “at some levels [are] at war but at other levels [are] the same.” He learns that the extent to which he is under constant surveillance exceeds his wildest paranoid nightmares, which is a common experience in these films.

In The End of Violence (dir. Wim Wenders 1997) the government (or some unspecified part of it) seeks to suppress street crime by secretly installing satellitecoordinated hidden cameras in all public places, and in Enemy of the State (dir. Tony Scott 1998) a similar but even more omnipresent surveillance regime has been instituted by the National Security Agency (NSA), apparently to no purpose other than for the sake of having it. (The story is premised on covering up the murder of a congressman who opposes a Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act that would give the NSA greater power to violate the latter in the name of the former. Such is their electronic reach that they wipe out all traces of the hero’s identity, as had happened to the heroine in an earlier film, The Net [dir. Irwin Winkler 1995]).

There is a similar obscurity or even inscrutability about the plotters’ true goals in a spate of White House coverup films that all appeared in 1997, inspired perhaps by the cumulative effect of years of pre–Monica Lewinsky Clinton rumors: Shadow Conspiracy (dir. George P. Cosmatos), Absolute Power (dir. Clint Eastwood), Murder at 1600 (dir. Dwight Little), and the best of the lot, the brilliant satire Wag the Dog (dir. Barry Levinson), in which a war is manufactured in order to divert attention from sex allegations concerning the president and an underage girl.

Antiestablishment Conspiracies: Beyond “Left” and “Right”

In several films the source of the conspiracy is found not in the establishment or some part of it, but comes from the opposition to the establishment. The nature of the conspiracy is nevertheless the same: it is usually vast, has sweeping but (at best) only vaguely defined goals, and can operate anywhere at any time, with everyone potentially a secret adherent of it. In political terms, these antiestablishment conspiracies resist ascription to traditional categories like right- and left-wing.

The all male and almost all white members of the aptly named Project Mayhem conspiracy in Fight Club (dir. David Fincher 1999) seek to blow up corporate buildings, but not so much to subvert capitalism as to restore their masculinity, which they believe they have forfeited in the empty consumerism of modern life.

Threatening a police commissioner with (appropriately enough) castration for trying to shut down the “fight clubs” from which he recruits volunteers, their charismatic leader boasts that “we know everything about you ... We control every part of your life.”

Going one better than The Parallax View’s Joseph Frady, who was blamed for the political assassination he died trying to prevent, Michael Faraday in Arlington Road (dir. Mark Pellington 1999) unwittingly delivers the explosives that blow up the FBI building, for which he also takes the blame posthumously, rather than the antigovernment conspirators, who appear to be ordinary middle-class suburbanites with no interest in politics of any kind.

Similarly opposed to the status quo is the eponymous conspiracy in Twelve Monkeys (dir. Terry Gilliam 1995), which plans to return the planet to the animals, a goal that is accomplished by releasing a plague virus that affects only humans.

Epidemics, Medical Experiments, and the Unexplainable

The epidemic motif has featured in other conspiracy films, notably The Andromeda Strain (dir. Robert Wise 1971) and Outbreak (dir. Wolfgang Petersen 1995), in both of which scientists are co-opted by the military into developing as weapons new disease organisms, from outer space in the former film and from Africa in the latter. (The cold war era film The Satan Bug [dir. John Sturges 1965] also has a secret government lab experimenting with deadly microorganisms, one of which is stolen for use in an extortion plot.) Sometimes the government experiments on people directly, but without their knowledge, to alter them in desired ways.

This happens during the Vietnam War to the protagonists of both Jacob’s Ladder (dir. Adrian Lyne 1990) and the Roger Corman-produced The Capitol Conspiracy (a.k.a. The Prophet) (dir. Fred Olen Ray 1999). In the former the purpose is to enhance soldiers’ will to fight and in the latter to endow orphaned children with extrasensory powers.

Paranormal children are also created by the government in the miniseries Sole Survivor (dir. Mikael Salomon 2000), while a conspiracy of mutant teenagers to take over the world is opposed by pro-human mutants in X-Men (dir. Bryan Singer 2000), and a conspiracy to use massproduced human clones to do the same features in The 6th Day (dir. Roger Spottiswoode 2000).

In four eerie films from the mid-1990s, so little is revealed about what seems like a conspiracy that it is left uncertain whether there even is one. In Safe (dir. Todd Haynes 1995) and The Trigger Effect (dir. David Koepp 1996), something in the environment causes mysterious allergic reactions in the former film and a general breakdown of the entire social fabric in the latter.

The prisoners in Cube (dir. Vincenzo Natali 1997) are unacquainted with each other and have no idea who imprisoned them or why, while the mathematician protagonist of Pi: Faith in Chaos (dir. Darren Aronofsky 1997) finds himself pursued by stockbrokers and Orthodox Jews because he may possess a secret that no one can begin to explain rationally. These are so-called independent films and their quirkiness might be dismissed as typical of “indies,” but in the late 1990s conspiracy films more in the mainstream displayed comparable characteristics.

Conspiracies of Infinite Regress

As billionaire Nicholas Van Orton learns in The Game (dir. David Fincher 1997), the employees of Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) could be anyone and everyone he might encounter, and therefore what he takes to be the real world populated by real people could be just that, but then again it might also be an elaborate fiction engineered as a birthday present from his brother for making his life more exhilarating; or as a scheme for stealing his money in which his brother may or may not be complicit; or as a benign plot to help him overcome the childhood trauma of his father’s suicide; or as a malign plot to induce him into following in his father’s footsteps (i.e., off a roof); or as something the film cagily refuses to reveal, inasmuch as the ending leaves open the possibility that the “game” is still being played, or even that there has never been a time when it wasn’t.

In other words, the real world/game world distinction is in an infinite regress that doesn’t need to be sustained by resorting to more obvious devices like “virtual reality” (VR)—although the VR concept can be intelligently exploited, as in The Thirteenth Floor (dir. Josef Rusnak 1999), in which the solution to a murder in “our” world must be sought in a VR world inhabited by virtual “people” whose motivations, despite their preprogramming, are ultimately as indeterminable as those of the CRS employees in The Game.

The Truman Show, Dark City, and The Matrix

Three important conspiracy films from the last years of the last century add a further twist. Not only is the conspiracy vast, beyond politics and existential in its implications, but all of us are made to feel a part of it, actually or potentially.

Truman Burbank in The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir 1998) lives in an artificial world, but for him, and for him alone, there is no other world, because everyone except him is complicit in a conspiracy to sustain his belief that his world is the only one.

This is because the town in which he has been raised since birth and subtly prevented ever escaping from is really a giant television studio equipped with countless hidden cameras and microphones, and all the people he has ever known whether intimately or casually are, unknown to him, actors in the employ of a director with the sacrilegious name of Christof.

At the same time, everyone in the world Truman has never met is a voyeur of his life as Christof arranges it to unfold in his round-the-clock TV show, the popularity of which implies acceptance of the ever-increasing surveillance and control in their own daily lives on the part of the television audience and, by extension, of the film’s audience. As Christof says of Truman, he “prefers his cell.”

In Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas 1998) another artificial world has been created in space and populated with kidnapped humans by a dying race of aliens, the Strangers, who possess “the ability to alter physical reality by will alone,” as explained in the opening voice-over narration from Daniel Paul Schreber, a psychiatrist ironically named after a turn-of-the-last-century paranoid whose delusions were studied by Sigmund Freud.

Every night, while the Strangers are altering physical reality, Schreber rearranges the entire population’s memories so that the aliens can experiment on them. One human, Murdoch, discovers that he has the same powers. But after defeating the Strangers he simply takes their place, instituting a regime that, although presumably more benign, is no less total in its control over the malleable populace.

So total and all enveloping is the conspiracy in The Matrix (dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski 1999) that it has a name that evokes the womb. In the far future renegade computers have imprisoned most of the human race in pods in order to harvest their bodies’ electrical energy, while keeping them pacified with the cybernetically induced illusion that they are in 1999 New York.

As Agent Smith puts it (he is part of a special program that hunts down members of the human resistance who have escaped their pods and reentered the VR environment of the Matrix to carry out sabotage), in their own minds they are merely “billions of people just living out their lives, oblivious.”

But unfortunately for them (or so it would seem), the contentment they experience in their “prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch,” as the rebel leader Morpheus describes the Matrix, is so great that “they will fight to protect it.” This means that, in order to prevail, Morpheus’s people, who of course also constitute a conspiracy, would need to destroy all those oblivious billions.

Freedom versus Security?

In these films, ordinary people’s acceptance of and complicity in a conspiracy against their own autonomy, their privacy, their individuality and even their existence leave a depressing aftertaste despite saccharine romantic endings.

Perhaps the message is one of resignation: the emerging regime of surveillance and control is inexorably eroding what remains of our freedom, and many of us, if not all, are resigned to accept this, and, perhaps in hope of greater security as a trade-off, even to embrace it.