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Souls, machines, and Bloodshot

The new superhero movie starring Vin Diesel asks, are the machines serving our human purposes or are we turning into machines serving purposes we misunderstand?

Vin Diesel stars in the movie "Bloodshot." (CNS photo/Columbia)

Vin Diesel is trying to start yet another action franchise with Bloodshot—a superhero created neither by Marvel nor D.C., but by another remarkably successful publisher, Valiant. An entire comic book universe would follow on the success of the movie, taking its graphics and aesthetics from modern warfare computer games, eschewing the mythological and magical trappings of Marvel in favor of sci-fi technology.

Bloodshot is a fascinating new kind of superhero, psychologically as well as aesthetically. He is not sarcastic like Marvel characters; how could he be, when he is endlessly forced to relive a tragedy? His enemies are not colorful aliens, but corporations and scientists who use technology to enslave humanity. Unlike the frivolous stories Marvel tells so well, Bloodshot’s story is as grim as his name and the inhuman techno-corporate setting he moves in.

Bloodshot’s angry body

Diesel plays a veteran of our Middle Eastern wars. Killed in action, his body was acquired by a defense contractor and technologically resurrected. His blood was replaced with nano-robots which amplify his powers and continuously heal his injuries, making him almost immortal for a while, but utterly dependent on energy. He gained power, but lost his freedom. Worse, he is the mental slave of a villainous doctor-scientist trying to revolutionize warfare, played by the wonderful Guy Pearce.

This is our introduction to a question we don’t often hear: how do you create a god, a being so powerful it overcomes our limits? And how do you control such a being? Our villain astutely uses Bloodshot’s morality against him. Every time he is awakened from techno-induced sleep, he experiences a nightmare, reliving the murder of his beloved, which he is forced helplessly to watch before being killed himself.

When Bloodshot is set loose to hunt down the man responsible for the murders, his sense of outrage and his moral indignation make him thoughtless—he becomes the perfect weapon, one which will not fail or err, because it really wants to kill its target. This takes war from missiles to smart missiles to living, breathing, thinking missiles. Military technology overpowers Bloodshot’s soul, because it offers the power necessary for vengeance.

Love of justice and revenge

Curiously, Bloodshot’s superhuman power is tied up with his all-too-human vulnerability, fear, and loss. He is forced again and again to remember how much he loved the woman he lost and how beautiful their life together was, until he forgets that he freely chose the life of a soldier. His full and fierce identification with his peaceful beloved, and the grief of losing her, the suffering and the guilt, leads him to seek revenge.

He wants justice, as he thinks, except he is being manipulated through virtual reality. Again and again, he is sent out to destroy his villainous doctor’s enemies. He does achieve poetic justice this way: everyone involved in creating this horrifying nightmare for him ends up dead. But this depends on the terrible injustice of these technological wizards, who fall out among themselves and grab all weapons at hand, including people.

This makes for the psychological interest of the story. Power and vulnerability are joined in the creature Bloodshot as much as in his technological creators, but in different ways. Bloodshot thinks he was once a man in full, when he had the love of a beautiful woman. That’s what he wants to return to. Of course, revenge cannot bring back the dead—but it can show that the survivors are not powerless.

Something of the beauty of the life he once had is saved in revenge. At least the world is not so horrifyingly ugly that monsters get away with the worst injustices. But pursuing revenge, Bloodshot gradually remembers himself, who he was without the technology—his intense longing to return to that beautiful past allows him to actually confront his old life, good, bad, and all. He manages to recover self-control, but not without some help.

Souls and machines

He realizes that he is not strong enough alone, and he happily finds a number of people gentler than his warlike self who need him and whom he needs in turn. This mutual need leads him to friendship—people to love and trust who in turn trust and love him. Here, we reach the pinnacle of a Vin Diesel movie. In this suffering, Diesel retrieves the ancient virtues and the natural joys of life.

This natural attitude opposes the desire to murder whoever gets in the way, itself an answer to the problem of trust and facing danger, one we know from ancient and modern wars of extermination. Technology, however, makes this perennial problem worse by creating new bodies for scientific minds to control, without ever facing personal risks. Machines replace friends, allowing our villain to treat everyone as mere bodies—they obey or they are destroyed.

Ancient wisdom teaches us indeed that tyrants have no friends, because fear compels them to destroy all nobility, and friendship requires a certain nobility, freedom to act on one’s own thoughts. This is what Diesel’s Bloodshot dramatizes with such glaring contrasts. In the depth of this repeated tragedy, there is the hope of freedom, our animating instinct as Americans: there’s gotta be some kind of way out. It’s why we watch action movies.

It’s not an accident that an action star like Vin Diesel would insist on a story like Bloodshot. It’s not by chance that he raises a fundamental question: are the machines serving our human purposes or are we turning into machines serving purposes we misunderstand? Freedom, nobility, friendship—we should take them seriously, since digital technology, automation, and robots will make us question whether we even have souls or not.

Finally, Christians should especially pay attention to such stories, because they assert that human beings are ensouled, not merely bodies in motion or minds in control of matter. Admittedly, they put justice before redemption, but in the very attempt, resurrection of the body and the symbolism of blood are central. Our heroic stories are more Christ-haunted than we usually notice—we should find our opportunity for storytelling in our most honest longing for justice.

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About Titus Techera 25 Articles
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a contributor to National Review, The Federalist, Law & Liberty, and Modern Age.

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