The Zen of Wanted
Timur Bekmambetov’s “Wanted” is a pretty crappy film, but I think there’s something to be said for the traces of Buddhism it inadvertently picks up by way of its shameless pilfering from “Fight Club” and “The Matrix.”
Both of those films consciously aimed for some sort of philosophical meditation; as far as Zen/Buddhism is concerned, “The Matrix” more than “Fight Club”, but it nonetheless applies to both. In all three films a corporate drone wakes up from his mundane everyday life, where he is spineless and disaffected, to a world of violence, sensation, truth, and oddly, some sort of superpower (this is looser in “Fight Club”, but I think it still holds with Tyler Durden being a more capable alter-ego/Superman to nameless Edward Norton/Clark Kent).
“Fight Club” has that great scene where Durden pours an acidic solution of Norton’s hand and refuses him the base with which to end the chemical reaction. He wants him to feel the pain, feel the present moment, and stop retreating to some stupid therapeutic mental safe place.
That’s Zen right there, minus the masochism (though I guess you can argue Zen has that as well). Norton goes on to strip himself of worldly possessions, blowing up his apartment and denouncing consumerism.
The Buddhism in “The Matrix” is a little more overt, with Neo discovering the world is false, and that he has a choice to live in this false world or awaken to a new state of reality. In this new state he is faced with the burden of the knowledge of humanity’s oppression, but it also gives him new superpowers when operating in the “false world.”
Both films miss the mark on enlightenment. “Fight Club” takes Norton’s enlightenment but folds it into a revelation of his schizophrenia — at that point the film ceases to be about its themes and subtexts; it’s a film about a nut job, essentially. “The Matrix” equates enlightenment with superpowers, nihilism, and convoluted philosophy (Granted, this could be playing off of another sect of Buddhism, but my concern here is with Zen.)
But “Wanted”, despite its flaws, does a decent job of articulating a Zen Buddhist worldview. Yes, James McAvoy’s Wesley Gibson character wakes up from his daily cubicle nightmare to a world of fantastic power and constant physical/mental sensations. But in the end, the main lesson is that his everyday life WAS the enlightenment. The cubicle, the cheating girlfriend, the asshole friends, the whole shebang — this dreary life WAS enlightenment. He was just too caught up in desire to notice.
So yes, the universe is at his fingertips, Gibson is God, but it’s not about curving bullets, making out with Angelina Jolie and giving the finger to the mundane. Nor is it about shutting up and putting up with the pain of existence. But he discovers, for himself, that it’s up to you to figure out what comes between those two poles. Zen is about living (until of course you’re dying, in which case it’s about being dead) — it’s pretty boring but it’s also everything that exists and that’s pretty cool.
Everyone else in “Wanted” who doesn’t get this is killed off, either literally or figuratively. Unlike in “Fight Club” or “The Matrix”, life goes on in “Wanted”; but it’s the same but different.