When hearing the word "religion", it's a safe assumption that most people will think of the more commonly referenced faiths, like Islam, Catholicism, declaring for Ba'al, what have you. However, I'd like to talk about an often-overlooked sect of Christianity (though even that stipulation is arguable) called Gnosticism.
Essentially -- and know that this is a gross oversimplification, but for the purposes of this article, it'll do -- the Gnostics believed that the material world was an imperfect reflection of a higher, truer reality. This imperfection was created, not by God, but by a lesser being known as a 'demiurge'. While the purpose for this creation isn't always clear, it was said that only by adherence to esoteric knowledge -- or "gnosis" -- can one transcend the trap of the material world and ascend to the higher plane.
Now, run that notion through Hollywood's lens, and what do you get? At least the three movies mentioned in the title: Alex Proyas' Dark City, The Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix, and Christopher Nolan's Inception.
To be clear, I'm not saying that these directors (or the writers of the scripts) were necessarily thinking Gnostically when they made these fine films, merely that they all possess elements that are strikingly similar to the principles outlined above.
In Dark City, we meet John Murdoch, who awakens in a bathtub with little memory of how he got there, or what's going on. Over the course of the movie he begins to put the big picture together, encountering supernatural resistance along the way, and eventually ascends to a place of full knowledge -- and thus, full power -- and begins at last to shape his world to suit him, instead of being at the mercy of forces he didn't previously understand.
The Matrix follows the same plot, with Neo being further along the path of knowledge at the start of the movie than John was, but still unaware of the true nature of his reality. In Inception, Cobb is an acknowledged master of his reality-shaping craft, and his rise to knowledge takes the form of a difficult event he must acknowledge and accept responsibility for before he can achieve real enlightenment.
In which way are these movies any different from the usual rise to power found in most adventure stories? The key element is in the nature of the characters' understanding of reality itself. In each of these, there is a baseline universe that is hidden to those without the proper knowledge of how to access it. In Dark City, control is achieved through "tuning", a way to influence matter through the power of the mind. In The Matrix, the running computer simulation that informs the title of the movie is so convincing that special effort must be made to overcome the illusion and see the world for what it truly is. In Inception things are a little reversed: reality is fine, but through proper training, one's dreams can be shaped into worlds as real-seeming as anything.
These movies -- and to a more obvious parallel, The Truman Show, which hit theaters the same year as Dark City -- exemplify the radical notion that our reality is not what we assume it to be. In fact, the imperfect apprehension of reality is what causes the general dissatisfaction that we feel as humans. Morpheus's speech to Neo lays this all out; in our very beings, we know there is something wrong with the world, but we can't quite figure it out. That search for knowledge, layered heavily over with action, has made for some truly memorable films, and vibrant, wide-ranging philosophical discussions. Whether or not these movies accurately represent the true Gnostic viewpoint, or were even meant to, is best left for the individual to ascertain. What's important about these movies is the way they opened up the minds and imaginations of an otherwise blissfully-unaware public to the notion that questioning reality is a worthwhile pursuit that will put them one step closer to enlightenment.
Can you think of any other films that might be interpreted as Gnostic parables?