“You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth…” Damn that was a good line! If only I could convey Laurence Fishburn’s smooth basso voice through this medium. No joke, I actually do a pretty fair impression. And that was just the tip of the iceburg. But I’m not here to talk about the Matrix’s best one-liners, most of which were said by Fishburn. That I’ll save for another post! No, today I wanna talk about the sci-fi movie trilogy that was one of the most influential of the late 90’s and early millennium. How it all began with a little film noire, cutting-edge action and f/x, and was then followed up by two decent but critically disappointing sequels. Yep, welcome to the Matrix!
As I already said, this movie was hugely influential, and not just because of what it did right in terms of special effects, tone, and visuals. No, this was a movie that combined all those with a storyline that was so deep and multi-layered, people would spend years afterward trying to discern every level of meaning they could from it. And why shouldn’t they? The concept of an alternate reality where people are deceived into accepting a fantasy world so that the powers that be can continue to exploit them – need I say more? Already you’ve got something that intellectuals ranging from Marxists, Existentialists, Jungians, Freudians, social psychologists and labor critics will want to pour over and lay claim to! And that’s exactly what happened.
Almost immediately after the release of the movie, people from each and every walk of life were trying to say that the movie’s message was something akin to their own philosophies. “The Matrix is a metaphor for industrial society! “No, it’s a metaphor for class-warfare!” “No, it’s a metaphor for false-consciousness!” “No, it’s a metaphor for the futility of belief systems and the need to define your own existence!” “No, it’s a metaphor for the struggle of the individual to self-actualize amidst the herd.” “Shut up, you’re all right!” One of the main reasons the Matrix was so influential and such a big hit was the fact that it had such a broad appeal. It had something for everyone, and I don’t just mean the ivory tower types. It was fun, action-packed, yet smart enough that you didn’t have to check your brain at the door. But I don’t want to go long here so let me just break down what it did well!
Sci-fi Premise: In truth, when I was first watching it I found the movie’s big revelation (as far as science fiction ideas go) just the slightest bit hokey. We created AI, we got into a war with them and destroyed the world as we know it. To survive, they converted us into a great big power plant and feed us an alternate reality to keep us docile and controlled. It was pretty novel, and made perfect sense, but I guess I thought that explaining this alternate reality in any real terms kind of brought it down. Up until that point there was a whole lot of David Lynch-type weirdness and suspense going on, and once the sci-fi foundation became clear… I dunno, just seemed a tad incongruous. In a way, it was like Dark City, a noire-suspense movie that was pretty damn intriguing until they made it about aliens. Somehow, those two genres just didn’t seem to fit.
But that’s when it hit me. The explanation for what the Matrix was almost didn’t matter. At that point, you found yourself so engrossed in the richness of the idea that ANY explanation as to what it really was would feel like a letdown. It was one of those moments where you just went “Oh! Ohhhhh…”. But what can you do? Sooner or later you have to explain what’s going on, otherwise you end up exactly like David Lynch, making movies no one understands but them damn intellectuals! And like I said, the plot made perfect sense and was actually pretty damn cool once they got right down to it. The AI thing has been done to death, but never before had anyone considered how a race of evil machines might come to rely on human physiology to fulfill all their evil-machine needs.
Wake Up!: And let’s not forget the extremely potent metaphor about wakefulness and sleeping. Already, the Wachowski brothers were handing the critics and intellectuals something they could ponder on and fight over like a piece of meat. What is the significance of this being asleep in a false reality and the need to wake up and accept the harsh truth? Is it a metaphor for false consciousness and class conflict, where the workers must wake up and realize they are chained and break free? Is it about the individual who must throw off the comforting illusions about a moral universe and a loving God in order to see the truth of how the universe is a harsh, cruel place? Who knows, who cares? Point is, it worked! And it was done so right that it really didn’t matter. Take for example Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep of dreams who acts as Neo’s guide the world of the Matrix. He is clearly the wise man/father figure of the bunch who is seeking to enlighten Neo, and his dialogue throughout the movie is punctuated by this idea of dreams and the need to awaken:
“I imagine that right now, you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?” “You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up.” “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?” And of course, who can forget the tagline: “Welcome to the real world.” Hell, even Keanu Reeves gets a good one in there: “You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?”
See? It’s appropriate and fitting, relying on existential undertones, mythological/literary references, and poignant imagery to construct a world in which people are suffering from a delusion and need to break free. Even the theme song, “Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine seemed like it was written especially for the movie (Rage can always be counted on to provide a hard rock anthem for anything revolutionary!)
Free-Will vs. Determinism: Here is something that could have easily gone wrong, and yet it didn’t. In truth, this movie managed to present the whole free-will/determinism in a way that was actually pretty faithful and interesting. On the one hand, Neo tells Morpheus that he rejects the idea of fate in favor of free will, and even though Morpheus seems to agree with him on this, he also believes that Neo’s fate has been written. He is the One, you see, the one who’s return was foretold by The Oracle. Seems like we are being told that fate is real and free-will is an illusion. Sounds simple enough. And yet, when Neo goes to see the Oracle, the one who’s been telling everyone what’s to happen, she tells him flat out that he’s not the One. He’s got the gift, but he’s not ready or something. Moreover, she tells him that Morpheus will sacrifice himself needlessly to protect Neo and his belief in him. Now we’re being told that choice is the overriding thing and how blind faith is potentially lethal.
So naturally, Neo goes to save Morpheus when he’s captured and succeeds. All indications point to the very real possibility that he IS the One now. How can this be? Well, Morpheus explains that the Oracle was really telling him what he needed to hear so he could make the right choice when the time came. Or, if you wanna go that route, that the path is set, but its up to the individual to choose whether or not to walk it. Morpheus even says it as such: “She told you exactly what you needed to hear. Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Through all this, it seems that they are making the argument that fate and free will are intertwined, the one very much dependent on the other rather than in conflict with it (which is the point of paradoxes, if I am not mistaken).
Mythology: Already I mentioned Morpheus’ character and the clear mythological reference he represented. Alas, there was the Oracle too, who’s character is also borrowed from Greek mythology (the Fates). Like Morpheus, she acts as a sort of ethereal guide who’s advice is often portentous and vague, but always helpful in the end! And let’s not forget Trinity, a clear reference to the Father-Son-Holy Spirit combo! Granted, I had a hard time figuring out exactly how Trinity fits this profile, but one could argue she’s a trinity of her own: warrior to the cause, lover to Neo, and surrogate daughter to Morpheus. But a better one I’d say comes in the form of her mentoring role to Neo. Already he’s had two mentors who’ve shown him the path. Morpheus who brough him to wakefulness and the Oracle who challenged him to believe and choose. Trinity makes three (no pun!) in the way she at last reveals to him that he is the One through her love. Therein, perhaps, lies the real Trinity: the Guide, the Seer, and the Lover. Woo, that was deep!
And let’s not forget, Neo has plenty of Jesus stuff going on too. He is the prodigal son, after all, the one who was prophecied to return after he first showed up and freed the first of the free people of Zion (speaking of Biblical references!) And remember the way he was resurrected at the end, and through the power of LOVE? Yeah… that’s a Jesus reference all right! But don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t cheesy! It was actually pretty damn stimulating. Here is another thing that can easily go wrong or seem preachy, but the Wachowski’s pulled it off without a hitch!
Literary: And of course there were the numerous references, scriptural and visual, to “Alice in Wonderland”. Morpheus’ greeting to Neo, where he compared Neo to Alice? That was just the first time it came up. Almost immediately thereafter, we get that eerie shot where Morpheus is offering Neo the two pills. The image of the pills and Neo are reflected in Morpheus’ big shades as he tells Neo that he has a chance to keep dreaming or, as he puts it, “stay in Wonderland” and learn the truth. And again, next shot, Neo is in a room where he peers into a cracked mirror and freaky shit begins to happen. Can you say “Alice and the looking glass”? Then there’s the bit about the spoon-bending, and how Neo catches his reflection in it as it bends. And of course near the end where Neo calls Tank and says: “Mr. Wizard, I need an exit.” Dude, all these psychedelic literary references! All I can say is “Whoaaaa!” (Sorry Keanu, I know you hate that!)
Disbelief: One thing I definitely loved about this movie was the many subtle references to truth and belief. Again and again, characters are being confronted with situations that are real, but they cannot accept. It only serves to punctuate the underlying theme of the movie, how reality is sometimes harsh and one must learn to break with comforting delusions. Consider when Neo is told the truth about the Matrix from Morpheus: “No, I don’t believe it. It’s not possible.” “I didn’t say it would be easy, Neo. I only said it would be the truth.” Or the scene where Neo and Morpheus are in the jump program: “You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind.” And of course, when Cypher gets burned: “No! I don’t believe it!” “Believe it or not, you piece of shit, you’re still gonna burn!” replies Tank, right before scorching him! And what does Agent Smith say before Neo blows him away with that minigun? “No!” Oh, and last, when Neo is shot and apparently killed. What does Morpheus say: “Can’t be…” Of course you knew he wasn’t dead, but wasn’t it better that they included that final act twist!
Badass Look: Remember those dark glasses and trench coats and how perfectly they worked with concealed guns? Yeah, we all know what happened with that… terrible! In addition to all the pain and suffering those Columbine assholes caused, they ruined a perfectly innocuous fashion statement! But it was cool while it lasted. And those gun fight scenes and the martial arts… holy hell! Much like Lucas, they knew exactly where to draw their inspirations from (aka. rip off!). Kung Fu classics like the Bruce Lee lineup, westerns and John Woo shoot em ups! And with all the death defying, anti-gravity stuff they were able to throw in, not to mention all the slow motion, bullet-time effects, it was like action was redefined for a new generation. I can’t even recall how many movies ripped off the effects or directorial style the Wachowski brothers pioneered with this movie!
Hacker Theme: Another group of people who must have loved this movie was hackers! For years now I’ve been studying hackers and hacking as a phenomenon, largely because of the relevance it and they play in the digital age. And I can honestly say that this movie was part of what got me interested in the first place. The way every member of the resistance began as a hacker and how it was their natural “affinity for disobedience” (as Morpheus put it in Reloaded) that led them to that path in the first place? Hackers everywhere must have been rejoicing to see that they were the heroes in a movie other than Hackers! And let’s not deny that this added another layer of meaning to an already multi-layered movie. In addition to the Marxist/Existentialist stuff, we also got some commentary about how in the digital age, hackers are tantamount to freedom fighters! Their enemy, government and industry and their attempts to control the flow of information and monitor all our habits. Not bad, huh?
Wicked Lines: I’ve already mentioned a few gems, and like I said, I’ll probably have to dedicate an entire page to them later. But I’ll be damned if I don’t mention how many gold nuggets were to be found in the script here. With this movie, the Wachowski brothers seemed to stumble onto the secret of good dialogue. Short, sweet, sharp, and best when delivered by Fishburn! Yeah, Hugo Weaving too, and this movie was his breakout role after all! Here’s a shortlist (most of which are from Fishburn!)
Morpheus: “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
“Sentient programs. They can move in and out of any software still hard-wired to their system. That means that anyone we haven’t unplugged is potentially an agent. Inside the Matrix, they are everyone and they are no one. We have survived by hiding from them, by running from them, but they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys, which means that sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them.”
“Remember, all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more.”
“What is real? How do you define real? If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
Agent Smith: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization. I say your civilization, because as soon as we started thinking for you it really became our civilization, which is of course what this is all about. Evolution, Morpheus, evolution. Like the dinosaur. Look out that window. You’ve had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus. The future is our time.”
“I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”
“I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.”
Cypher: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? (Takes a bite) Oh… ignorance is bliss!”
Trinity: “Let me tell you what I believe. I believe that Morpheus means more to me than he does to you. I believe if you are really serious about rescuing him, you are going to need my help. And since I am the ranking officer on this ship, if you don’t like it… I believe you can go to hell. Because you’re not going anywhere else. Tank, load us up!”
“Neo, I’m not afraid anymore. The Oracle told me that I would fall in love and that that man… the man that I loved would be The One. So you see, you can’t be dead. You can’t be… because I love you. You hear me? I love you. (kisses Neo, brings him back to life) Now get up!”
Okay, that’s enough! And in reality, that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
And I think my point is clear. Between the martial arts action sequences, the gun fights, the slow motion bullet-time segments, the philosophical journey, the debate between free-will and determinism and a whole lot of commentary on freedom in an age of zeros and ones, this movie pretty well rocked! I’ve seen it too many times for it to be entertaining anymore, but needless to say, I saw it about three times when it first hit theaters and a few times more when it came out on VHS/DVD. It was just something you could watch over and over, and felt the need to since there was too much to really get into in just one sitting! And even at the time, I had to admit there was a certain Star Wars-esque quality to the whole thing, like it was destined to be a pop culture phenomena and a cult-classic at the same time. Like Lucas, the Wachowski’s drew inspiration from a number of sources and knew how to make them work as a package. And wouldn’t you know it, they suffered from the same curse! Years after the release of the original, they followed it up with two more. And… well, you know… more on that next time! Stay tuned for a list of the Matrix’s best lines! I’ve alluded to it enough so expect it next time.
Entertainment Value: 10/10