A number of American films released in the mid/late 1990s drew on, or have been discussed in the context of, gnosticism—a loose, imprecise umbrella term usually applied to a number of heterodox early Christian literary traditions. The Matrix is the most famous of this group of films, which also includes such films as Pleasantville, Dark City, The Truman Show, and Thirteenth Floor. This curious trend would not have been possible had it not been for the emergence of gnosticism in mainstream culture generally; as well, gnosticism’s emphasis on the spectacular, constructed and ultimately illusory nature of apparent reality became especially relevant and compelling in the context of the digital revolution taking place at that time.

However, the gnosticism that was reborn in late 20th century North American culture differed significantly from the traditions of Late Antiquity on which it drew: in its modern rediscovery or reinvention, “gnosticism” came to mean something that was in many ways more hopeful, more life-affirming, and ultimately more humanistic in its rebirth than in its original form—indeed, something akin to ancient Hermetic thought. In this presentation, I will discuss the wave of “gnosticized” movies of this period, putting them in dialogue with the modern rediscovery of gnosticism and using them as a way of capturing the changes that gnosticism underwent as it emerged into the modern world from its centuries of hibernation. As I will argue, these films—and the ways in which they have been received—present us with a clear view of how this reinvented gnosticism, this revived and adapted ancient heresy, works in a modern context and in dialogue with modern needs.