What is The Matrix?: An Existential Quest
John David Pressman
This is an essay I wrote for a college class. While I don’t usually post my college essays this particular one is an incarnation of a thing which I had been trying to write for a while.
For questions, comments and clarification email email@example.com
Special thanks to Heather for her help with research ideas.
Released in 1999, The Matrix is an influential science fiction thriller. William Gibson called it “arguably the ‘ultimate’ cyberpunk artifact” (Gibson, 2003). It pioneered the now-ubiquitous ‘bullet time’ special effect (Gaines, 2001) and lent pop culture a rhetorically powerful shorthand for facing a difficult hidden truth: the choice between a blue pill that will allow blissful ignorance and a red pill that strips reality bare (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999). It has been partial inspiration for many later works, ranging from Zizek’s Welcome To the desert of the real (Zizek, 2003) to the choreography in the recent broadway hit Hamilton (Patton, 2016). Its wide reaching influence is still felt today, often credited with the creation of concepts that didn’t originate with it (Channel Awesome, 2015).
At the same time The Matrix is commonly taken to be something like a work of philosophy, having inspired a spate of pop-philosophy books in its wake analyzing the meaning of the film (Channel Awesome, 2015). This means that in addition to its cultural influence we can also consider the films philosophical influence on viewers. In this essay we analyze the cultural influences on the matrix, dissect some of its symbolism, examine connections to older mythologies, and put it all together to look at what message viewers walk away with from the film. While ostensibly The Matrix presents viewers with a new perspective on reality, this perspective is fundamentally flawed in changing the philosophical situation of viewers.
“I play a man named Thomas Anderson, who’s looking for a man named Morpheus who’s played by Laurence Fishburne. I’m searching for the answer to a question: the question is ‘what is the matrix’, my character feels that the answer to this question will somehow make sense of his life.” - Keanu Reeves on the protagonist Neo, Making The Matrix
While the film does not reveal its entire premise up front, foreknowledge of it is required to understand the analysis in the rest of this document.
Our protagonist is named Thomas Anderson, he works as a computer programmer at a software firm. Anderson moonlights as a member of the computer underground using the alias ‘Neo’. Neo is searching for a man named Morpheus who can answer his questions about something called ‘the matrix’. Morpheus is an international terrorist wanted by authorities, and is thus not easy to find. Neo spends his nights on an obsessive quest for information about the matrix, having turned his apartment into a wire infested mess whose focal point is the workspace dedicated to the search.
Ostensibly, The Matrix takes place in 1999. In actuality, the world known by the protagonist is a virtual reality sham maintained by a race of machines that have enslaved humanity. Nearly the entire population has been hooked up to a giant computer simulation of the 20th century, the titular matrix. Humans are grown in fields, intraveniously fed the nutrients of the dead for sustinence. The machines do this because humanity blackened out the sky in an effort to destroy them, impoverishing the world. The resistance are the few humans still free in the real world, living underground near the earths core. They use antique hoverships to slink through the ruins of human civilization and ‘jack into’ the matrix trying to free their fellows.
Unbeknownst to Neo, he is ‘the one’, an entity who is said to have been born inside the matrix to eventually be reincarnated and bring freedom to humanity. As Neo has been searching for Morpheus, Morpheus has been searching for him. Rather than explain this in a prologue, the matrix chooses to slowly reveal the stories premise through the first and second acts, allowing viewers to place themselves in Neo’s shoes. Most of our analysis will focus on these first two acts, as they’re the ones which contain the bulk of the movies philosophical content. The second act onwards is more of an extended action sequence once the basic rules of the film universe have been outlined. In this analysis we’ll be referring to separate ‘acts’ of the film, since these have not been officially delineated they are provided in the table below.
|Act One||Film start to Neo taking the red pill.|
|Act Two||Red pill to Neo seeing the Oracle|
|Act Three||Oracle to Cypher getting zapped|
|Act Four||Cypher zapped to Trinity jacking out of the Matrix after rescuing Morpheus|
|Act Five||Trinity jacking out to film end|
“Have you ever had a dream Neo that you were so sure was real, what if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” - Morpheus, The Matrix
In its first act The Matrix takes place in the liminal space between dream and reality. When we first meet the protagonist he has fallen asleep in front of his computer monitor. He wakes up in a half-stupor to find that the program he’s running has been replaced by a series of eerie messages instructing him to ‘follow the white rabbit’. The mysterious interloper on his computer takes on a touch of the unreal as it mentions a guest about to knock on his door moments before their arrival. Startled by the sudden noise, Thomas turns towards his apartment door and looks back to find his monitor blank. When the guest comments on his shaken appearance, Thomas asks him if ``You ever have that feeling, where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?’’
The question is foreshadowing in more ways than one. Thomas spends his day time hours almost numb, sleepwalking through a life he hates in the same kind of muted half-awareness he had when he woke up. In the first act, it’s never quite clear where dreams end and reality begins. For example, Thomas is brought into questioning by ‘agents’, entities that patrol the virtual environment of the matrix to make sure the truth about reality stays suppressed. During his interview with the agents Thomas’s mouth is sealed shut as they hold him down and plant a metallic ‘bug’ in his stomach. Moments later he shoots up panic stricken in bed, apparently the victim of a nightmare. A few scenes later the bug is removed from Anderson’s stomach, proving that it wasn’t a dream after all.
‘The Mental Projection Of Your Digital Self’: Persona In The Matrix
The tension we witness in the first act between dream and reality stems from the dualistic nature of Neo’s existence. On the one hand his mind is in the matrix, living an average life as a simulation of his own ancestors. On the other hand Neo’s body is sitting in a containment pod in the real world, a prison he is subconsciously aware of at all times and subtly resisting. He may not know it, but in seeking out answers about the matrix Neo is bringing himself into contact with the boundary between the two worlds, and beyond his own. Invisible battle lines drawn at this barrier define a strict border across which Neo is pulled back and forth in a game of tug-o-war.
For entities that aren’t native to the matrix such as the machines or rebels, an important part of jacking in is choosing a persona. The choice of persona reflects what goals underlie their visit. Both major factions choose personas that render their activities invisible, or at least blended into the texture of society. Agents of the system are caucasian males with nondescript officious clothing and menacing sunglasses. This look, which is most commonly associated with ‘g-men’ and the secret service, allows the agents an aura of secretive state power which normalizes their intervention (Godvin, 2012). They speak with cultured authority in slow measured speech, reinforcing their image as agents of an entirely different system than the one they truly serve.
By contrast, the rebel look is very formal but with an edge to it. It’s a cohesive mix of suits that might be worn to church, leather, ties, sunglasses, and nice shoes. On page nine of the story “A Life Less Empty” in The Matrix Comics the rebel Morpheus is described by a woman whose perspective is fully within the virtual reality she inhabits as “The dealer…The master hacker and king of all data.” (Wachowski’s & Darrow, 2003). Just before that on page eight Neo and Trinity are mentioned by name as myths of hacker lore. Rather than shout from the rooftops that reality is a lie, rebels cloak their activities under the cover of being a fringe terrorist group with deep ties to the computer underground. The terrorism aspect of their persona gains magnified importance when you consider that the rebels are looking to recruit in ways that the machines aren’t. In the three films, only the betrayer cypher is witnessed as being recruited by the machines (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999; Silver & Wachowski’s, 2003; Silver & Wachowski’s, 2003). Later in the plot continuation The Matrix Online an MMORPG based on the films, one of the playable factions is the machines: however players take the role of redpills assisting the machines rather than agents of the system (Twedt, 2006). As a dominant faction, the machines have no need to recruit outsiders to accomplish their goals. The rebels existence however is precarious, which means that the persona they adopt must both let them hide their activities and awaken new recruits to the true nature of the matrix.
Rebel Recruitment and Ideology
Rebel recruitment is frequently done over the Internet, as evidenced by the examples of Neo, The Kid, Tiera, and The Detective. When Neo wakes up to his computer monitor instructing him to ‘follow the white rabbit’, it’s the white rabbit tattoo on the arm of a girl his guest brought with him that Neo follows to meet Trinity at an S&M club (Moss, Gaeta, & Staenberg, 2001). In the Animatrix short “Kid’s Story”, The Kid is using a terminal program to write poetry about existential questions when an intruding force interrupts his writing to tell him that knowing the truth will require him to ‘risk everything’. He’s later seen doodling the question “What is the matrix?” in class (Watanabe, 2003). Tiera is the hacker protagonist of “A Life Less Empty”, having been considered as a potential recruit for the rebels who ultimately declined their offer by taking the blue pill (Wachowski’s & Darrow, 2003). The Detective is featured as the main character in the Animatrix short “A Detective Story”. He’s hired to hunt down Trinity only to end up nearly recruited by her after a brief discussion in a chatroom. Ultimately the detective subconsciously chooses to stay in the matrix. This allows an agent to possess his body forcing Trinity to shoot him (Watanabe, 2003). All of these cases present very strong evidence that the primary recruiting channel for the rebels is the digital underground, making their persona a strong fit for their organizations mission.
A comparison might be drawn between the rebels and fundamentalist groups like ISIS, though care should be taken not to lump them together based on shared superficial features. Critical for a film directed in 1999, the events of September 11th have not happened yet and fears of terror attack are not at the fever pitch they would reach in the years following. Fight Club, which came out the same year featured an ending in which the protagonist physically levels wall street with bombs (Linson & Fincher, 1999). ISIS uses the Internet as a primary recruitment channel, hanging out on social media such as twitter and using chatrooms to convince western citizens to accept a radical foreign ideology (Callimachi, 2015). Rebels in The Matrix are clearly depicted engaging in similar behavior, though with interesting philosophical differences.
Instead of an ethos based on an Abrahamic faith, the rebels ideology is based more in East Asian philosophy. For example, the section quote about distinguishing between the real world and the dream world is lifted almost verbatim from Taoism:
Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.
- Zhuangzi, chapter 2 (Watson translation) (Zhuangzi (book), 2017).
Astute readers might observe that a similar scenario is presented in Plato’s Allegory Of The Cave, which The Matrix is commonly compared to. However there are further hints that it is the interpretation from Chinese Philosophy which is supposed to take primacy. Plato uses a complicated notion of men chained in a cave watching puppet shows, whereas Zhuangzi takes on the question of dreams directly. In the films there are significant overall influences from Asian culture such as the complex martial arts which are a direct transplant from Asian martial arts films (Matthies & Oreck, 2001). Furthermore, the game Path Of Neo includes a koan from Zen Buddhism at each level up screen, making a direct connection between the story and Eastern Philosophy. The prophecy of Neo’s journey is often referred to as the ‘path of the one’, notably including the Wachowski Brothers themselves in a bonus cutscene included at the end of Path Of Neo. (Shiny Entertainment, 2005). The word Tao means ‘path’ and is often referred to as ‘The Tao’ (Lin, n.d.). However, the rebel ideology is not exclusively East Asian. As we’ll explore later The Matrix includes significant symbolism from Abrahamic faiths as well.
A curious aspect of the usual profile for an ISIS militant is their relatively weak knowledge of Islam (Dearden, 2016). By contrast, rebel recruits are usually coming from a place of genuine existential skepticism. The profile for a rebel recruit would be: A person that buys works like Simulacra and Simulation, seen in the possession of both Neo and Tiera (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999; Wachowski’s & Darrow, 2003). Someone who asks existential questions in chatrooms, or is questioning the nature of their reality like the titular kid in Kid’s Story (Watanabe, 2003). Like Neo, Tiera, The Detective, and perhaps to some extent The Kid they would have a connection to the computer underground which allows them to make contact with rebels. Towards the end of Kid’s Story, an authority visiting the kid’s funeral remarks the kid was suffering from a ‘typical mental delusion’ and they get ‘unbalanced kids like this all the time’ (Watanabe, 2003). Reinforcing that the experiences of these characters are typical and indicative of a larger recruitment trend.
More than just introducing the characters, this first act acclimates the audience to the idea that Morpheus is not just a cult leader and the rebellion can be trusted by the protagonist. Neo is desperate to get answers about the matrix, and while he does eventually join the rebels it’s not clear he would have if the agents hadn’t threatened him with jail time for not complying during their interrogation. Even in the final stretch when Neo is being driven to see Morpheus, he nearly refuses to continue when a resistance member levels a gun on him during the car ride. By the time we see Morpheus give Neo the iconic choice between the red and blue pills, the plot has already conspired to make the fanatic leader seem like a safer option than forgetting the whole mess and going home.
This need to reinforce the viewers perception that Morpheus is not ‘just’ a cult leader intensifies once Neo exits the matrix and meets his crew in the real world. They live on a hover ship in ragged conditions, eat communally, and all live together in relatively close quarters. A more skeptical mind would wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just a very elaborate ruse on the part of Morpheus. The viewer does not have to wonder for long, soon after this Morpheus and Neo use the headjacks they retain from once having been part of the matrix to load themselves into ‘the construct’. The construct is a matrix simulator, and in its default state appears as a completely white room. The ensuing scene in which Morpheus explains the nature of the matrix to Neo serves two purposes: Its chief purpose is to explain the premise of the movie to viewers, but it also has the secondary purpose of convincing the audience that Morpheus is telling the truth. When the scene begins Neo looks around to find that his entire appearance has changed in ways that would be impossible to fake without the use of the construct. These changes are explicitly discussed by the two, making sure that the audience is drawn to and notices them. The use of a completely white ‘debug’ room reinforces the unreality of what is being experienced even though it looks real.
Blue Boxes, Red Pills: Phreakers and The Matrix
Arguably the central, most obvious cultural influence on The Matrix is its overwhelming reliance on cyberpunk and the computer underground to establish theme, motif, persona and other aesthetic elements of the film. There are striking similarities between the narrative that computer underground participants use to mythologize themselves and major plot elements of The Matrix. Even stronger parallels exist with an older breed of electronic trespassers who explored the phone system during the 60’s and 70’s. These phone enthusiasts, or as they liked to call themselves phone phreaks (sic) would spend obsessive hours like any modern computer hacker on learning about the phone system and probing its network. A consistent pattern in the stories told by these old school phone hackers is how they first got into phreaking: they noticed something weird about the phone system. As we will see shortly, this is also a common origin story for denizens of the matrix who have become aware of its true nature and want out.
In the fan lore of this franchise a character who has become aware of the true nature of the matrix is called a ‘redpill’. This usage probably comes from the video game Path Of Neo which uses that terminology to refer to potential rebels that Neo has to save, itself taking liberties with the concept of the red pill offered by a hovercraft operator to a sleeping human that can free them from the matrix (Shiny Entertainment, 2005; Redpill, n.d.). Most redpills gain awareness through a ‘glitch in the matrix’, an anomaly which can’t be explained by the ordinary laws of physics that represents a bug or debug mechanism in the programming of the matrix. Before a redpill has been fully unplugged from the matrix they’re referred to as a potential. A mission in which Neo must rescue five potentials from agents depicts four of the five as having first found their awareness by witnessing ‘impossible’ behavior. The healer uses a miracle cure on his daughter, a librarian pulls a book off the shelf that duplicates itself in place, a young girl uses a ‘magic key’ to get herself trapped in a hidden area of the matrix (Shiny Entertainment, 2005). These events spark questions, but it’s Neo’s outside intervention which answers them.
Phone phreaks can often cite a similar narrative arc to their origin story, as recounted in Phil Lapsley’s (2013) meticulous book on the subject. Lapsley presents tale after tale of curious, intelligent individuals investigating an anomaly in the phone system that takes them on a fantastic electronic adventure. While there are many roads to get there, the ultimate destination for many of these explorers was gaining fundamental insight into the phone system that would allow the construction of a device known merely as the ‘blue box’ (Lapsley, 2013). To a phone phreak that knew how to wield it, the blue box was an incredible device that allowed for total control of the phone system from free calls to obscure call routes through multiple satellites just for the sake of it. The blue box served the same function as the red pill, liberating a curious truth seeker from the artificial confines of an oppressive electronic system, allowing them to gain control over and for a select few master it. It seems apt that Bell Telephone had a reputation for being especially uptight and officious (Doorbell, n.d.). The two objects even share distinctive colors as the identifying features in their names. While it might be a stretch to say that the blue box was direct inspiration for the red pill, it seems that the two concepts converge from the same underlying environmental elements.
Rather than just a thematic influence, analogue telephone equipment pervades the aesthetic presentation of the matrix. As mentioned earlier, redpills who want to reenter the matrix once they’ve left have to ‘jack in’. The process of jacking in is depicted as being reliant on ‘hard lines’, or a telecommunications line which is manifest as a copper wire rather than a cell signal. This serves to add dramatic tension to the process of entering and exiting the matrix, because a landline phone is still common in 1999 but not so common that one can be had in any situation. If the rebels could simply dial themselves out at any time it would spoil the sense of danger that accompanies a trip into the matrix. Rather than just a coincidence, the directors of the film have gone on record that this aesthetic influence is real and intentional. During an interview conducted as part of an online showing of the matrix, Larry and Andy Wachowski stated that the use of analog phone technology was a ‘suggestion of old original phone hackers’ (Larry & Andy Wachowski, 1999). Further influence can be seen in rube goldberg machine esque props which incorporate analogue phone components into their framework and interface. Phone phreaking is also suggested by the specific use of phone booths and residential rotary phones to exit the matrix rather than a splice or tap into a line without the use of existing phone apparatus. These allusions to phone phreaking, the ancient art of exploring and controlling phone networks confirm a major influence on the matrix that could already be inferred from the text.
“They’re able to bring together so called ‘high culture’, so called ‘middle brow’, so called ‘low culture’ in a composite artform. You’ve got 400 different levels in the movie, some people walk away with two, some people walk away with 50, some people walk away with 400.” - Cornel West on depth of the Wachowski’s writing, Preload
In the previous section we already discussed one major piece of the films symbolism, the connection between phone phreakers and redpill operatives. Even beyond colored pills and electronic joyriders however, The Matrix is rife with symbolism. Nothing less should be expected from a film that implicitly claims inspiration from Baudrillard (1981), a philosopher whose work has an overarching theme of examining the relationship between symbols and reality. Other major pieces of symbolism include the films emphasis on martial arts, Neo’s ‘path’ which ultimately ends with his Christ-like sacrifice for humanity, The Oracle, The Architect, and the human city Zion.
Mind Over Matter: Martial Arts in The Matrix
More than just providing aggressive dance scenes, martial arts in The Matrix help underscore the films key themes. One of the benefits humans freed from the power plant find when they re-enter the matrix is their newfound ability to alter the reality they experience. Unlike our world, it is ultimately mental acuity that determines strength inside the matrix. This is pointed out in a famous sparring scene between Neo and Morpheus, where the latter explains that his speed and strength have little to do with muscles inside the construct; Neo isn’t even breathing real air as he collects himself from his exhausting defeat (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999). It’s a thought provoking lesson that hints at the deeper role martial arts play in creating the films cinematic universe.
One immediate consequence is the combat capabilities of female redpill operatives. Neo’s love interest Trinity is portrayed as of about equal competence to him in combat, at least before Neo comes into his full power as the One. In the first scene of the first film, Trinity is portrayed fighting an entire room of police officers and escaping pursuit by leaping from rooftop to rooftop (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999). Far from being unique in this aspect, other rebel women such as Switch and Niobe are portrayed as being combat proficient (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999; Silver & Wachowski’s, 2003). Elite knowledge of the matrices true nature separates redpill operatives from ‘bluepills’ still plugged in, but inside this clique the knowledge acts as an egalitaritan force which allows men and women to fight side by side as equals.
At a deeper level, the martial arts allow the directors to avoid a classic problem spot in hacker media: the hacking itself. The rebels are portrayed as savvy electronic break in artists, technical wizards with mythic reputations inside the computer underground. Naturally, this means that we should expect to see their skills on screen. However, as the directors of USA’s Mr. Robot are no doubt aware, it takes herculean effort to correctly portray hacking and herculean effort squared to make it compelling on film (Doctorow, 2016). Martial arts provide a substitute feat which stands in for the rebels hacking capabilities and shows genuine ability to ‘subvert the system’ by performing impossible stunts of human skill. Morpheus explicitly makes this connection in his spar with Neo, noting that inside the matrix even gravity isn’t fundamentally different from the ‘rules of a computer system’ which can be bent or broken.
This interpretation of the martial arts featured in the matrix allows us an interesting return to the question of female participation. Because while it is true that inside a computer system it is mental ability that defines strength, women do not participate in computer underground activities nearly as often as men. Gabriella Coleman, hacker anthropologist and author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy speculates that women are both repulsed by the criminal nature of the activity and its ‘braggodocious’ culture which is often dismissive of women. In the first film, Neo’s initial meeting with Trinity is frought with skepticism, he thought she was a man. Trinity is however clearly depicted as a skilled computer security specialist, using a real world remote login vulnerability in the second movie to break into a power plants internal grid controller.
Furthermore, the analogy between martial arts and computer programming is not merely an invention of the Wachowski’s imagination. The hacker historian Eric Raymond writes in appendix B of his version of the Jargon File, an iconic dictionary of hacker slang, that martial arts have long been admired by computer experts as a comparable field of endeavor (Raymond, 2004). Rather than a cheesy substitute for difficult technical scenes, martial arts in the matrix reflect the authentic experiences of computer experts and respect their world.
The Prime Program
In The Matrix’s grand finale it is revealed that to save humanity Neo must sacrifice himself to stop the virus Agent Smith. Smith was a program working for the machines that went rogue after the events of the first film (Silver & Wachowski’s, 2003). While this plot point might seem cliche to modern viewers, it ties together enigmatic elements of a narrative that might seem increasingly scattered by the conclusion of the third film. Before we can discuss the full symbolism of this sacrifice, it is necessary to explain more of the films premise as elaborated on in the second and third movies. As it turns out, Morpheus did not tell Neo the entire story when he explained the nature of the matrix. The matrix is older than any living person knows, Neo’s role is a part of the system rather than in opposition to it, and to truly save humanity from the machines Neo must step outside this role to find his own path.
A deeper story behind the matrix is hinted at in the first film when Morpheus is captured and interrogated by agents. As their methods fail to produce results, Agent Smith requests time alone with Morpheus. During this one on one session Smith explains that the first matrix was a ‘perfect world’ without suffering, but it failed because people would not accept it (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999). In the next film, The Matrix Reloaded, it is explained that the matrix is a cyclic system. Everything Neo is experiencing in the films has happened before. There have been six versions of the matrix including its current incarnation. Rather than a singular messiah whose coming will save humanity, Neo is included in the system as a result of a forced compromise made in creating the matrix.
As Smith explained, the first matrix failed because humanity would not accept the program. Its creator, an entity who calls himself The Architect, tried correcting this error by creating a hellish second matrix based on the horrors lurking inside the human mind. This matrix too was something that humans would not accept. Eventually a solution was found by another program featured in all three films known as The Oracle. Her solution compromised by setting things up in such a way that 99% of humans would accept the program as long as they were given a choice in accepting it, even if this choice was only something at the edge of their consciousness. The 1% which refuse are ejected from the power plant (Silver & Wachowski’s, 2003). Survivors of this process congregate in the city Zion, which must be occasionally destroyed so that it does not threaten the machines existence. Worse, the presence of rebel interference slowly destabilizes the otherwise perfectly controlled matrix forcing a hard reboot to prevent a system crash which would kill its inhabitants. Neo is a computer program that is part human and part machine whose function is to reset the matrix.
At the end of each cycle Zion is destroyed and the One has to pick a founding population to recreate it. The prophecy that Neo’s coming will hail the destruction of the matrix is a lie that is told to each generation of Zionites so that they will play their part in perpetuating the cycle. In reality, the One is a way for the machines to manage the necessary exile of certain humans from the matrix. While it is unknown exactly why they allow the existence of Zion in the first place as opposed to killing humans that can’t be integrated, the necessity of choice implies that the ability to live free in the real world is a literal requirement for the matrix to function. Zion then is ultimately just another method of control.
When the virus Smith finds a way to copy himself onto other minds connected to the matrix, the cycle is disrupted. In the ensuing chaos agents of the system find themselves as vulnerable to infection as anyone else and thus unable to resist Smith (Silver & Wachowski, 2003). This gives Neo the opportunity to strike a compact with the machines to free humanity in exchange for removing Smith from the system. A comparison might be made between Smith and HIV, as a virus which attacks the very system meant to suppress it (‘U.S Department of Health & Human Services’, 2016). Neo performs a literal miracle cure in exchange for humanity’s freedom, but at the terrible cost of his life.
Neo’s sacrifice is also obvious imagery for the crucifixion of Christ. Crucially, we do not have to speculate on this interpretation: the Wachowski’s confirm it in a special cutscene at the end of Path of Neo, referring to Neo’s sacrifice as the ‘Jesus thing’. There is also in text imagery to make it clear that Neo’s sacrifice is meant to be interpreted as an allegory for Christ. When Neo is being overwhelmed with the power of the machine mainframe, light bursts forth from his chest in the shape of a cross. As we will see in the next section, far from being idle inspiration this sacrifice is foreshadowed from the very start. The Wachwoski brothers draw on Judao-Christian notions of the messiah to create Neo as a character.
Satori and Mythology - What does it all mean?
“Which brings us at last to the moment of truth wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed and the anomaly revealed as both beginning and end.” - The Architect on Neo’s path, The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix is a work of philosophy as much as it is a work of fiction. At the core of its philosophical discourse The Matrix includes diverse themes such as free will versus fate, eastern versus western philosophy, reality versus dream, humanity versus machine, and meaning versus its absence. Neo’s sacrifice at the end of the third film represents the climax of both the plot and philosophy presented to viewers. Because of the films major philosophical component and its role in teaching many people a significant part of their worldview, The Matrix is open to pedagogic criticism which would be inappropriate for other works. In this final section we’ll analyze pedagogic mistakes, the conflict between singularity and infinity in The Matrix, and dreaming as a mythological theme.
Reincarnation and Singularity - Philosophical Arc of The Matrix
As The Matrix expands from a discourse encompassing a single film to one that spans a trilogy it gains a new dimension. When audiences witness Neo sacrifice himself in the final film the allegory to Jesus is overt and overwhelming. It’s so ‘in your face’ that it could be argued as not even symbolism or subtext so much as just text. While this is the obvious and correct interpretation of the trilogies conclusion as confirmed by the Wachowski’s (Shiny Entertainment, 2005) underlying it is a conflict between the notion of singularity and infinity. This conflict is almost meta to the plot structure, referenced and discussed one layer removed from itself but definitely present in the narrative.
To spell it out directly, in the first film we witness the coming of The One as a singular event which will bring about the end of the matrix. Its sequel turns this narrative on its head, recontextualizing Neo’s arrival as merely the final stage in a cycle of death and rebirth. If Neo wants to truly put an end to the matrix he’ll have to seek answers from a different place than the Path of The One. Because of the aforementioned fundamental flaw wherein some humans must be allowed to roam free for The Matrix to function, the system represents an ambiguous liminal state between two outcomes. In one the matrix is destroyed and humanity goes free, in the other the matrix is perfected and machines run it indefinitely without further interference.
Many viewers may not have picked up on one versus infinity as a theme, and part of the reason for that is it’s probably not apparent to most viewers why this would be a theme at all. It’s not something they’re looking for. However just because it’s not obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there. In traditional Western mythology men are born, live a single life and then pass on to the afterlife. Each of these things is a single distinct stage which a soul passes through once. Eastern mythology by contrast often focuses on the concept of reincarnation, in which souls pass through the world of the living and the dead continuously coming back in new forms (Pattanaik, 2009). While there are exceptions such as Aristotle’s belief that a man mastered by his emotions is reincarnated as a woman, the general trend is in this direction (Haidt, 2012). This means that the first sequel creates a conflict between singularity and infinity, which the final entry resolves.
Naively then Neo is a Christ figure whose singular Western narrative is pitted against the Eastern narrative of reincarnation, and the conclusion of the trilogy rules in favor of Christ. While at first glance this interpretation seems solid, further inspection should give readers pause. Neither Buddhism or Hinduism teach an infinite cycle of reincarnation, both have the concept of a final state of attainment which liberates a soul from the cycle. In Buddhism this concept is called Nirvana and in Hinduism it’s known as Moshka (Merriam Webster, n.d.a; Merriam Webster, n.d.b). Jesus is of course also not quite a singular messiah, part of what makes him special is his ability to pass between the world of the living and the world of the dead more than once. The singular Western narrative and the cyclic Eastern narrative both contain important exceptions in their mythology for special characters.
As a messiah, Neo shares elements with the profile of a savior featured in both Buddhism and Christianity. This brings us then to the more concrete question of whether Neo is Christ, Buddha, or something in between. Up to this point we’ve mostly focused on the ending of the 3rd film, but the Christ interpretation has textual support starting at Neo’s first on screen appearance. When Neo produces the malware that his guest, Choi, has come to pick up Choi jokingly refers to Neo as ‘my savior’; his ‘own personal Jesus Christ’. This is obvious foreshadowing for the role Neo plays later in the film coming into his power as The One. The first film also provides an analogy to Judas in the form of Cipher, who betrays Morpheus’s crew so he can be plugged back into the matrix (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999). Moving beyond the mainline films, The Animatrix also features a significant biblical theme in its depiction of the human-machine war. Coming in two short films, The Second Renaissance depicts the human-machine war with significant biblical theming and a peppering of overt references to abrahamic scripture. Starting from the first scene in which it is explained that ‘man made the machine in his own likeness’ to B166ER committing the first machine murder in a parallel to Cain to a ‘promised land’ for the machines after the’re expelled from human society, the biblical metaphor is thick and runs across the text with no subtlety. Taken in combination with the final moments of the trilogy it would seem that if Neo isn’t Christ he’s at least Christ-inspired.
At the same time there are also more subtle elements suggesting Buddhist influence on Neo’s role as messiah. For one thing Neo’s journey is catalyzed by a fundamental truth which has been hidden from him. This is analogous to the famous upbringing of the Buddha, whose father prevented him from knowing about suffering so that he would become a great king instead of a great holy man as the sages predicted from his birth (Biography.com Editors, 2015). Neo’s power is depicted as coming from a place of both fated strength and freeing his mind to see the world as it really is. In Buddhism, the source of Buddha’s strength is not just that he was born to be great, but that he worked to achieve enlightenment and gain full awareness (Biography.com Editiors, 2015). Further Neo is explicitly reincarnated multiple times, and his ascension represents the end of a cycle of life and rebirth. The Buddha is of course part of a similar cycle, and the ultimate state of enlightenment frees one from it. Christ by contrast has powers which are anointed by divinity, and is not reincarnated so much as he is waiting for the day of judgement to make his return.
Neo’s character is influenced by both of these archetypes, and it’s not clear that one is necessarily meant to take precedence over the other. In the game Path of Neo for example the Path of The One is portrayed basically in the context of Eastern philosophy, and while the films add more Abrahamic influence that undercurrent is strong throughout the whole series even if there are overt references to Christ. At the same time the biblical references are almost certainly there to help influence our thoughts on the character and give a window into the directors opinion. It’s also possible that the Abrahamic elements are magnified so that Western viewers have some familiar reference point to contextualize Neo in. There is also an element of transcendance to Neo’s sacrifice, as the machines carry him away a sacred lotus is shown which in Buddhism represents detachment (Kimberly, 2011; Silver & Wachowski’s 2003). The trilogies conclusion provides symbolism for both interpretations because both are correct, Neo’s narrative arc is inspired by both of them.
The dream motif in The Matrix is deliberately used in a way that borrows from several mythologies. While most overt references center around the character Morpheus, deeper connections exist between the story’s core premise and older notions of religious and mythic skepticism about reality. On the subject of dreaming The Matrix references a tapestry of perspectives from the nearly ancient Dream Yoga in Tibetan Buddhism to the interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the bible. Lying at the root of such myths is the inability to entirely explain the phenomena that carries people from wakefulness to the world of dreams. More than just dreams in general, The Matrix is particularly concerned with ‘lucid’ dreams in which the dreamer is aware that they’re asleep.
Lucid dreaming is the focal point connecting several disparate narrative elements in The Matrix. Most directly connected is Eastern philosophy, besides the previously discussed Butterfly Dream in Taoism there is also the concept of Dream Yoga in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist practitioners of Dream Yoga maintain conscious awareness of the fact that they are sleeping, allowing them to see dreams for the illusions they are even as they experience them (Wallace, n.d.). Advanced practitioners gain the ability to control dreams as well, morphing them into a fantasy or vision of their choosing (Wallace, n.d.). Rather than a form of entertainment, the purpose of this practice is so that Tibetan Buddhists can cross the border between dream and wakefulness without taking them as fundamentally different, revealing the reality they inhabit to be just another kind of dream.
Controlling a dream by gaining awareness of its true nature is almost a single sentence summary of the core plot conceit of The Matrix. As we discussed earlier, this plot conceit is basically analogous to the journey undergone by many phone phreaks and computer hackers in gaining the mindset that led them to their skills. Further connection can be found however in the idea of awareness granted by anomalies which violate fundamental expectations about reality. Lucid Dreamers have the concept of a ‘reality check’, in which prospective dreamers ask themselves at multiple points during their day whether they’re in a dream (Tuccillo, Zeizel & Peisel as cited in Parade, 2013). At some point this habit will filter into their sleep, allowing them to perceive the anomalous nature of the phenomena they’re experiencing and realize they’re dreaming.
More traditionally, The Matrix uses the frame of dreaming in general as a connection to classical mythology. The Greek tradition holds that Morpheus is the god of dreams. He often carries messages, especially prophecies, from the realm of the Olympians to mortals (Dhwty, 2014). In the Bible King Nebuchadnezzar calls on the prophet Daniel to interpret his dreams for him (Peterson, 1993). Morpheus’s ship is named after King Nebachanezzer and his front organization in the matrix is called the “Daniel Institute of Dream Interpretation”, leading some to speculate that his original name was Daniel (Shiny Entertainment, 2003). While these references may satisfy audience members with a classical education, the question of dream interpretation runs somewhat deeper in the universe of The Matrix.
The fuzzy line between wakefulness and sleep delineates the border between our world and the world of dreams. Strangely, when we enter the dream world our sense of normality becomes unhinged, accepting even the most surreal scenarios at face value. While we might laugh at these when we wake up, there is a sense of existential horror that accompanies the knowledge we were fooled by a reality that’s paper thin. In The Matrix this existential horror is justified by the rare phenomena in which a trip into the world of dreams lands travelers inside their containment pod in the real world. The Matrix Comics story “Artistic Freedom” features an artist who glimpsed the machines in their dreams and has made an art exhibit showcasing lifelike statues of them (Spoon Boy, n.d.). Unending nightmares experienced by visitors to the gallery imply that others are aware of the machines presence at an unconscious level. If in our world when we dream it touches the outer rim of a controllable illusion, something like virtual reality, then sleeping in the matrix causes one to grope at the fringes of the real world.
What’s in the red pill? - A Critical Analysis
The red pill is a central point in the philosophy of The Matrix, which can be interpreted literally and as allegory. In a literal sense, the red pill is a ‘trace program’ that allows hovercraft operators to locate a sleeping person in the power plant. It disrupts their connection to the matrix, forcing their ejection from the system (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999). As an allegory the red pill symbolizes much more, potentially several things at once. From the acceptance of an unpleasant truth to more specific interpretations such as ‘waking up’ to the illusory nature of social reality. This latter interpretation points towards a fundamental flaw in the behavior being modeled for viewers.
Let’s imagine that a viewer goes to see The Matrix, and comes out of the theater feeling energized with a new perspective on life. They start looking critically at the world around them for cracks, anomalies, ‘glitches in the matrix’. It will soon occur to them that while they can find many conspiracy theories and perhaps even minor esoteric mysteries in occult realms, finding the Red Pill, the unvarnished uncomfortable truth is like seeking the proverbial needle in the haystack. While Neo might be portrayed as going through a great journey to find Morpheus, this portrayal is weak and reinforced only a few times throughout the first film. By contrast, the fantastic tumble down the rabbit hole and exploration of a new world by gaining perspective on the old takes up the vast majority of screen time.
The source of this flaw can be summarized in a single sentence: when we first meet Neo he is already searching for Morpheus. Morpheus of course has the unvarnished truth on his person and is ready to dispense it to the committed. The Matrix stacks the deck in favor of its protagonist by skipping the hard work of sifting through noise to find the important clues towards epiphany, instead showing the very tail end of this initial journey and the rewards thereafter. Contrast this for example with a phreakers complete origin story, which often goes into great detail about the exact mechanism by which a phone phreak gained their first awareness that there might be more than meets the eye to the phone system. For example, Lapsley’s 2013 book on the subject opens with a story about someone previously uninterested in phones who, upon answering a strange classified ad, goes on a research binge and uncovers the secret of phone phreaking.
If we take such stories as having a moral, it might be that lying underneath the surface of systems that people take for granted are deeper mechanisms that can provide enlightenment to those curious enough to find them. By contrast, if we take The Matrix in the same vein then a decidedly uncharitable moral might be that sometimes if you join fringe terrorist groups you’ll find out that they’re right and society is wrong. By presenting only the intellectual riches of a journey ‘down the rabbit hole’ without an accompanying grounding in how to pick rabbit holes to traverse, The Matrix is philosophically irresponsible with its message. As a result many ill prepared viewers find themselves jumping down the first rabbit hole they see or paralyzed by conflicting alternative narratives of reality without finding true enlightenment.
The Matrix presents viewers with a philosophy that is based in the mythology of the computer underground, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, postmodern philosophy, and more. These disparate perspectives allow the Wachowski’s to present a compelling skeptical theory of both physical and social reality. By drawing on the subversive mythology of the computer underground The Matrix invites viewers to take a different look at the world they live in. People who accept this invitation however are likely to be disappointed by the lack of clarity it offers. The film misleads by presenting the hard part of truthseeking as being the choice to look for truth from somewhere besides the usual sources and accept it in the first place, as opposed to evaluating what is and isn’t the path to truth.
Confusing the matter somewhat is the use of something like lucid dreaming as a theme. Blue pills can’t exit the matrix until they encounter some sort of anomaly that would let them know they’re in a simulation. The problem is that this particular piece of lore is depicted more in the expanded universe than the main films. So while it is accurate to the computer underground material being drawn from in this respect, that aspect is not included in the primary presentation given to most viewers. Morpheus explicitly states in the first film that most people inside The Matrix are ‘not ready to be unplugged’ (Silver & Wachowski’s, 1999), implying a flight from truth rather than failure to find it.
The fundamental flaw in the philosophical narrative of The Matrix is present from the first scene in which Thomas Anderson appears. When viewers meet Thomas he has already found the path of truth and merely needs to walk and accept it. This can be taken in stark contrast to real world stories of phone phreaks and hackers which spend a great deal of time on how their protagonists decided on what route to take in the pursuit of hidden knowledge. By leaving out this critical portion of the mythology being borrowed from, The Matrix has spawned a host of fakers who use the powerful rhetorical device offered by the notion of a ‘red pill’ as a way to peddle their particular brand of ‘new age’, conspiratorial or crankish ideas. While it may dazzle on the silver screen, the Path of The One does not lead to enlightenment.
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