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Matrix Metaphysics

Daniel J. Castellano (2004)

The 1999 film The Matrix represented a triumph in the crossover of cyberpunk science fiction into the cinema mainstream, as well as a breakthrough in CGI effects and action choreography that would often be imitated. Though these achievements would suffice to establish the film’s artistic importance, the most fascinating aspect of the Matrix phenomenon was the movie’s ability to present profound philosophical questions in an accessible manner. The Wachowski brothers had been apprehensive that high-brow intellectual discussion would detract from the movie’s entertainment value, and such criticism would in fact be unfairly leveled against the second film in the trilogy. If anything, the second and third films were intellectually disappointing when compared with the promise held in the first. It appears that the Wachowskis’ pretensions at profundity are sustained by deliberate obscurity. When they are forced to address the questions they raise, they display an appalling lack of imagination. Fortunately, they leave enough loose threads for the audience to pursue its own insights, hopefully with greater ingenuity than the writers have shown. The Matrix sequels have the intellectual value of an artwork, rather than a philosophical treatise: they pose questions which the spectator may address with his own intellectual arsenal, with the film acting only as a springboard for thought. This function was adequately achieved by the first film on its own; the second and third film do little to develop the themes of the first, and in some ways undermine the original. Whatever intellectual merits the Matrix trilogy may have, it is certainly not a coherent cosmology. While we should not expect these films to give nice, pat answers to the questions they raise, they should at least point us in a direction to look for these answers if they are to have any claim at providing philosophical insight, much less establish a new school of metaphysics.

The Matrix: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Starring Keanu Reeves

The most intellectually stimulating problem presented by the Matrix trilogy is the question of the nature of reality posed by the premise of the first film. This is actually an ancient question, which Plato asked and attempted to answer in his Dialogues, especially in the famous allegory of the cave given in the Republic. The Matrix provides a new form of this allegory, which held that the ultimate reality lay in immutable Forms, while sensible objects were merely their imperfect realizations. The inhabitants of Plato’s cave could perceive only shadows, and only the one who stepped outside the cave could see the real objects represented by the shadows. The real world in The Matrix is a tangible physical reality of men and machines where humans are harvested for energy by their machine masters, and kept in a virtual reality computer program which perfectly replicates twentieth-century Earth. Thus absorbed in their pseudo-lives, they pose no threat to the machines in the real world. The Matrix asks Plato’s question again: how do we know if the world of sense is truly reality? Plato had a definite answer to this question, and arguments to support it, while the Wachowskis are content to leave the viewer in awe of the conundrum. They allow a traitorous character to suggest that there is no objective reality, so he would content himself with the psychological reality of the Matrix in order to be spared the bleak machine world, which hardly has claim to ultimate reality. He insists that the Matrix is real, a view that is antithetical to that of the hero Neo.

Neo’s power comes from his ability to fully transcend the unreality of the Matrix, freeing his mind from the artificial constraints imposed by the program. Inside the Matrix, he can defy the laws of physics and even bend them to his will, which refuses to assent to the simulated reality. This aspect of the film obliquely touches religious themes, particularly those of Christianity and Zen Buddhism. Christ impresses the need for faith in order to transcend the limitations of the flesh, urging his disciples that they could uproot trees and move mountains if they prayed in faith. In Christianity, the power of faith comes from God, not from the one who has faith. The apostles performed miracles by petitioning divine intervention; it was not a question of mind over matter. Buddhists attempt to free themselves from the physical world by abandoning all carnal desire. The Wachowskis have apparently adopted the martial arts version of Buddhism, in which refusal to accept the reality of physical limitations enables one to defy them. Outside of kung fu movies, this belief system has held little currency, save among fanatical groups such as the Red Spears in pre-communist China. These warriors believed they could become literally invulnerable by swallowing paper charms. It is strange that the Wachowskis should give homage to a cosmology that has enjoyed little support outside of exotic cults, and is a trite device used in many fictional works. The message seems to be that a person can do anything if he will only believe. While this makes sense in the virtual reality of the Matrix, it hardly serves as a useful allegory for the real world. Our physical limitations generally cannot be overcome by mere refusal to believe in them, though it is true that we can impose artificial constraints on ourselves by choosing to believe we are incapable. Yet Neo’s power is limitless, so it is not an accurate metaphor of anything save the fictitious gravity-defying Zen master or Jedi knight. The Jedi, at least, uses the Force, a pantheistic entity, but Neo seems to possess this capacity naturally.

Neo, of course, is the One, a messianic figure who will liberate the unsubtly-named Zion from the machines, and the rest of humanity from the Matrix. At least, we are led to believe so from the story, from the Oracle’s prophecy to Neo’s phone message at the end of the film. This salvific role is consistent with Plato’s understanding of his cave allegory. In Plato’s view, the noblest act the philosopher performs is not that of stepping outside the cave to see reality, but to go back into the cave and enlighten the other prisoners. Anyone expecting Neo to free people from the Matrix will be disappointed; no progress is ever shown in this mission. In a film with the tagline “free your mind”, Neo does not free any minds other than his own, leaving his messianic role unfulfilled. Once again showing only a superficial understanding of the world’s great religions, the Wachowskis inappropriately show Neo resurrecting himself inside the Matrix, to bludgeon us with the idea that he is a savior, like Christ. This comparison is only skin-deep, since Christ conquered death by virtue of having real power over life and death, not by simply refusing to believe that death is real. Neo has faith, but the omniscient Son of God is the object of faith. Furthermore, Christ’s death achieved the redemption of mankind, and fictional works mimicking the messianic theme have generally taken care to give their hero’s death some redemptive value. Neo’s momentary death is not redemptive, and his resurrection has no immediate significance for humanity. Neo’s salvific work will come later, we are told at the very end of the film, which leaves us with promise.

The open-endedness of the finale is appropriate to one of the film’s dominant themes: the nature of choice and free-will. Neo’s emancipation from the Matrix is presented as a choice, a triumph of the will rather than the intellect. In Plato’s cosmos, philosophical understanding is required to transcend the world of sense. Buddhists also place a premium on contemplation of loftier truths in order to extricate oneself from fleshly concerns. In Christendom, St. Augustine presented the problem of religious morality as a choice between the earthly good and the heavenly good. Since then, Christian theologians have never fully resolved the relationship between divine grace and human free will. Secular attempts to deny the existence of free will or reduce it to an epiphenomenon of biochemistry are irreconcilable with our psychological experience and the notion of moral responsibility, thereby undermining criminal law and the ideas of justice and morality. A denial of free will also sabotages the possibility of human life having any intrinsic meaning. The diabolical Agent Smith provides a nihilistic foil for Neo, who is strangely caught up in Morpheus’ world of prophecies and fate. The Oracle appears to have foreknowledge of everything that transpires in the Matrix, yet she is obscure when it comes to predicting what a character will choose. She only predicts that the character will make a choice or do what he is supposed to do. This ambiguity may be exasperating to viewers, but it is necessary to the Wachowskis’ assertion of the existence of free will. Since no one has adequately resolved the enigma of free will, we should not expect the Wachowskis to do so, but should be content with their declaration of its reality, and an exploration of the implications and difficulties of this fact.

The Matrix outlines all the major metaphysical questions that are to be addressed in the trilogy, and explores them in about as much depth as we will ever see in the sequels. For the purposes of explicating Matrix metaphysics, the first film would have sufficed. If a sequel were to be made, we would expect at least two things from it, based on the promises of the first film. First, Neo should realize his messianic potential by directly freeing minds from the Matrix through enlightenment, rather than the laborious method of unplugging people one by one. He should at least attempt this, since it was promised in the original. Second, the film should explore the implications of free will in a computer simulation, and the significance of choice as central to man’s quest for meaning. There are several other themes that could be explored, affording the writers a wide range of creativity. Unfortunately, none of this promise will be realized. In fact, much of what has been advanced in the first movie will be undone in the second, only to be summarily recovered in the final installment.

The Matrix Unloaded: Forget Everything You Learned

Widespread fascination with The Matrix and its ideas encouraged the Wachowski brothers to expand the film into a trilogy and satiate the desire for a full-blown Matrix cosmology. If the directors believed they were writing a myth for modern times, like George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise, they imitated Lucas in at least one respect. When writing the original Star Wars, Lucas had no intention of making Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa all related to each other. This was done as an afterthought in the sequel. Similarly, C3PO was no creation of Anakin Skywalker, until the prequel Episode I, which necessitates a plot-convenient memory dump of the android sometime before Episode IV. In Star Wars, these mid-series changes did little harm to the overall coherence of the narrative. The same cannot be said for similar changes made in The Matrix Reloaded.

At the end of the first film, Neo was on the cusp of unleashing his potential for omnipotence within the Matrix. His powers included self-resurrection and the ability to “infect” Agents the way they overtook other bodies. These talents will not be on display again, and Neo is largely limited to airborne kung-fu. His fighting ability is dramatically improved, to reflect his advanced enlightenment, yet given the artificial structure of the Matrix’s physics, he should be capable of much more. Though some of Neo’s limitations might be accounted for by comparable improvements in Agent Smith, overall they are a disappointment compared to the enormous promise shown in the last scenes of the first film.

In the first film, the Oracle foretold that the climax of Neo’s journey would be when he chose to die to save one of his friends. By the end of the trilogy, this action will appear utterly insignificant, or at most a step toward Neo’s real mission. The dramatic climax of the second episode involves Neo resuscitating Trinity. The special effects used to achieve this are superior to those of Neo’s resurrection, showing how technical impressiveness takes priority over narrative. Resurrecting someone else is considerably less remarkable than raising oneself from the dead; it is as anticlimactic as if Christ had raised Lazarus after the Resurrection. The characters are surprised that Neo is able to accomplish this feat, reflecting expectations considerably lower than what was seen at the end of the first film. Neo’s lack of progress, though disappointing, is scarcely the greatest inconsistency to be found in this sequel.

As The Matrix concluded, Neo boasted to Agent Smith and other programs that he would subvert their control of the Matrix and free people to pursue their own destiny. In Reloaded, the heroes do not liberate people from the Matrix, but seem to be constantly on the retreat from the machines in the real world, and the programs in the Matrix. This is the case even when dealing with programs other than the improved Agent Smith. Instead, the dual focus is on Neo’s personal destiny and an imminent assault on Zion by an army of robotic Sentinels. We are asked to forget about Neo’s promise at the end of The Matrix, or at least to await its fulfillment in the third episode, which will not happen.

The most spectacular denial of what was established in the first movie is the degrading of Neo’s status as the One. In his meeting with the Architect, Neo is told that the One is itself a self-correcting mechanism of the Matrix programming, and that there have been many “Ones” in the past, all of whom made a critical decision resulting in the destruction of Zion. This revelation is extremely awkward to reconcile with what the Oracle and Morpheus had told Neo in the first film, not to mention the intrinsic implausibility of the powerful machines resorting to such Byzantine lengths in order to foment and suppress rebellion. It is probable, therefore, that the Wachowskis have departed from their original scheme in The Matrix, and insulted the audience with plot trickery as contemptible as the “it was all a dream” ruse. The idea that “the One” is itself a program corrective – whatever that means, since Neo is not a program – does little to advance the philosophical ideas of the series, though it does threaten Neo’s faith in his self-determination. In fact, this demotion of Neo is effectively negated or ignored in the third episode, making the Architect’s revelation even more pointless.

The film’s only intellectual bright spot is its discussion of choice and free will by characters such as the Merovingian and the Architect, discourses which were unfairly panned by critics. The Merovingian adopts the position of strong determinism, which is a sensible philosophy for a program who lives inside a computer program. His omniscience enables him to see the unconscious forces which precede human thought and decision, so he regards people as mere machines. The Architect allows for some random variation in human behavior, and attempts to compensate for it in his programming. Neo’s interactions with these characters and the Oracle are constructed to leave us ambivalent as to whether Neo has free will or not. The directors do a good job of presenting the problem of free will, yet they must also show its implications.

In the first film, Neo made a critical choice to save Morpheus, resulting in his own death, resurrection, and enlightenment. In Reloaded, the Architect forces Neo to choose between saving Trinity’s life or preventing Zion’s destruction. As is always the case in these scenarios, the hero tries to have it both ways by saving his girlfriend first and then saving the world against all odds. It is unclear to me why this self-serving course of action is always portrayed as heroic; only a monster or a lunatic would condemn the world to certain destruction in order to save his lover. Fortunately, the hero has read the script, and knows that the world can be saved anyway, so he risks nothing by saving his girl. According to the Architect, however, Neo has made the decision that results in the destruction of Zion, which is where Neo and Trinity live, making his choice even more illogical. Following the Merovingian’s theme, the Architect details the neural processes which lead Neo inexorably to this irrational choice.

The final scenes show Neo using apparent telekinetic powers against Sentinels in the real world. Thus we are tantalized with the possibility that the machine world is itself a program, a prospect that the filmmakers thankfully do not pursue. In fact, Neo’s ability to act telekinetically in the real world is never explained, except by an oblique hint that he has achieved some bond with the machines. The Wachowskis have done well to avoid this issue, as it makes precious little sense. Perhaps it is an instance of their taking anime-style Buddhism too seriously.

The influence of anime is also apparent in repeated platitudes about love in the scenes with Persephone and Trinity. Mercifully, ultimate victory will not be achieved through the “power of love”, though “love” is the motivating factor of Neo’s critical and potentially disastrous decision at the story’s climax. The importance of “love” and other hedonistic forms of self-expression is also the motivation for the notorious “rave” scene in Zion. Apparently, humanity uses its freedom to enjoy sensual pleasures that can just as easily be found in the Matrix. We have fallen quite far from the Platonists. Cute references to Greek mythology and Eastern mysticism cannot disguise the vapidity of the filmmakers’ worldview, apart from their musings on free will. If the actors Reeves and Moss could convey that the “love” between Neo and Trinity was anything beyond mere sexual attraction (and they have enough trouble trying to convey even that), we might see that “love” is a worthy cause for fighting the Matrix.

The Matrix Reloaded overturns much of what was established in The Matrix, yet does little to advance the ideas presented in the original. Only in the discussions of free will is a metaphysical problem clearly presented, though we are not allowed to see the implications of Neo’s critical choices until the next installment. Neo’s foresight of Trinity’s death was technically accurate, so nothing has been resolved about the question of fate. We do not necessarily expect a resolution to such a difficult problem, but if the only function of the sequels is to present the same questions that were articulated in The Matrix, we must ask why these movies were made. Of course, the cynics know the answer to this question.

The Matrix Restored

As part of a disturbing trend, the last two installments of the Matrix trilogy were filmed together, and released as two halves of a four-hour film. The Matrix Reloaded is not a complete story, and ends appallingly on an explicit “to be continued” cliffhanger. The narrative of Reloaded, unlike that of The Matrix, is completely unsatisfying without the subsequent installment. Thus viewers pay full price to see half of a movie. Whether in protest, apathy or disgust with the abominable narration and dialogue of Reloaded, most viewers of the second film stayed away from the third. While Matrix Revolutions undoes much of the mess created in Reloaded, it accomplishes little besides restoring the status quo of the first movie, even up to its ambiguous finale. Those who gave Reloaded the benefit of the doubt, hoping that it was leading to some profound revelation or insight in Revolutions, would be terribly disillusioned.

The third chapter begins with Neo trapped in some limbo between the real world and the Matrix, depicted as a train station where sentient programs may travel between realities. It is left entirely unclear what it would mean for a program to travel to the real world, since by definition it can exist only in cyberspace, unless some Pinocchio-like transformation takes place. One such program, depicted as an Indian, appears to have developed the capacity for love, and finds meaning in life by accepting his karma or purpose. He makes this revelation only after tediously pointing out that “karma” and “love” are words. If the Wachowskis think their audience does not understand the difference between ideas and their representations, it is no wonder that the rest of the film’s philosophy remains so pedantic. Nonetheless, this scene sets up the final theme of trilogy, which is a blurring of the lines between men and machines.

After an obligatory rescue scene, the film gets straight to business and attempts to clear up the confusion left in Reloaded. Neo confronts the Oracle and asks her to explain why the Architect’s soliloquy totally contradicted what was established in the first film. She artfully sidesteps this by saying that he was not yet ready to know, and that he will make a choice. To their credit, both actresses who played the Oracle were able to deliver such frustratingly Delphic pronouncements in a natural cadence that made them less irritating. The same cannot be said for Morpheus and Niobe, who solemnly exchange vacuous statements like, “Some things never change,” “But other things do,” in increasingly contrived situations. The Oracle also tells Neo not to worry about the Architect’s declaration that his choice to save Trinity would lead to Zion’s certain destruction. Of course, we already deduced that from standard cookie-cutter action movie logic, where inevitable apocalypses are always avoided. Just as the second movie tried to tease the audience, and Neo, into thinking that perhaps everything is fated after all, the third will establish the reality of free choice.

Hugo Weaving remains the cast’s brightest spot as Agent Smith, who overtakes the Oracle, but not without being frustrated by the fact that she foreknew his action, yet did not prevent it. This conundrum is dismissed as soon as it is raised, leaving it among the many moments where the Wachowskis show enough intelligence to identify a problem, but not enough to say anything about it. Only in the final scene do we learn something about the nature of the Oracle’s prescience, when she admits she did not know whether Neo would succeed, but believed that he would. Free choice is essentially unpredictable, but the actions of the program Smith can be foreknown. Endowed with the Oracle’s foresight, Smith knows his triumph is certain, and he will taunt Neo with a deliciously nihilistic diatribe in their final showdown.

The culmination of the relationship between Neo and Trinity is a tremendous disappointment. While it would normally be commendable to defy convention by killing the hero’s love interest, in Revolutions the death of Trinity has the effect of making Reloaded seem pointless. Everything Neo did in Reloaded led up to saving Trinity, whose loss he feared more than anything. Now, in Revolutions, which takes place a couple days later, Trinity stoically faces death, using her second chance at life to come up with a better set of last words. One could argue that Trinity’s resurrection was not in vain, since she was essential to the last stage of Neo’s mission, yet this role is as artificial a plot contrivance as the crash-landing that results in her death. Neo put an entire civilization in peril to save this woman’s life, and she dies anyway a couple days later. The writers may defend this as deliberate nihilism to cause Neo and the audience to doubt all the way until the end, but this is just emotional manipulation in lieu of plot advancement. The treatment of Trinity is just one example of a broader scheme in which the humanist optimism of The Matrix is debunked in Reloaded, then rehabilitated at the very end of Revolutions. The original Star Wars trilogy followed a similar pattern, but not with violent reversals that overturned the established premises of previous episodes. If the Wachowskis had written Return of the Jedi, Han Solo would have been killed by stormtroopers shortly after being liberated from Tatooine. If Trinity’s death does not cause us as much revulsion as Solo’s would, it is only because her character is not nearly as warm and likable.

The characters in the Matrix trilogy are flat, which is acceptable in a parable like the first film, but the sequels expect us to get involved with the characters and care about their personal lives. Stiff acting by Moss and Reeves forces us to accept their love as an informed attribute, rather than something we see on screen. Reloaded beat into our heads that Neo and Trinity loved each other ecstatically, even if it seemed unlikely that the hard-nosed Trinity could be infatuated like a schoolgirl. In Revolutions, their love becomes a plot point in the Mexican standoff with the Merovingian, when Persephone, herself a connoisseur of the sensuous, notes that Trinity is not bluffing, because she is in love. Our heroes’ epic romance is what enables Trinity to save Neo from the plot digression in the train station. If the writers considered rekindling a romance between Morpheus and Niobe, they eventually thought better of it, though in the process they reduced Morpheus to a pitiful co-pilot for the final chapter. John the Baptist had a better end than this; it is a shame that Fishburne’s Morpheus, whose presence inspired such awe in the first film, is utterly unremarkable in the last. The other denizens of Zion are too stereotypical to merit comment.

The blinding of Neo ironically leads to his final revelation and enables him to find his way to the Source. He continues to display telekinetic powers against the machines, a contradiction of this world’s principles, since the machine world is simply the real physical world. This might be explained as some sort of rapport Neo has with the machines, as he is mystically bridging the gap between man and machine. This crossover from science fiction to mysticism is emphasized by the role of mediator Neo assumes between the Source and humanity. Viewers may miss the allegory the first time around, because they are too distracted by the presence of a giant talking head, which is a reliable sign of film mediocrity. On the other hand, the Source’s resemblance to the “God” of Star Trek V might jolt us to the understanding that that the Source represents God, while Neo is a Christ-like intercessor who offers himself as a sacrifice to free humanity from the satanic Agent Smith. Unlike the rest of the trilogy, which is replete with inappropriate religious and literary name-dropping, the allegory here is coherent and self-consistent. Taken by itself, this is an insightful, thought-provoking scene. As part of a trilogy, however, we can only be reminded that we’ve been here before. Neo has resurrected himself, and resurrected Trinity; the Christ analogy has already been run into the ground. Nonetheless, the Wachowskis recycle the metaphor one last time, though Neo is not a particularly ambitious messiah. In exchange for saving the Source from the virus Smith, Neo asks merely for a truce between machines and humans, maintaining the status quo.

Neo’s agreement with the Source is a total betrayal of the mission of the One that was outlined in The Matrix. Granted, that premise was undone in the second film, but only by deliberate and awkward artifice that was meant mainly as a tease to cause Morpheus, Neo and the audience to doubt the prophecy. Neo’s purpose was to free humanity from the Matrix; the whole film was about the Matrix, hence the title. Zion was a small community of people who were already free. Reloaded introduces a menace that threatens to destroy Zion, and in Revolutions Neo counteracts this new peril. By the standards of the first film, the One has failed, since then the objective was to free the rest of humanity from the Matrix. The sequels have moved the goal posts, and now the humans are supposed to be thrilled about a status quo that was abhorrent to them a year ago. Neo’s triumphant act does not free any minds; in fact, this bizarre truce might even preclude humans attempting to liberate others from the Matrix.

The final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith is a simple conflict between free will and determinism. As the physical combat draws to a close, the participants articulate what is really at stake. Smith asks Neo why he continues to fight, even though Smith is the destined victor. He mocks the artificial constructs of justice, peace, and “insipid” love, yet is still frustrated by his failure to understand what motivates Neo. Smith had been similarly annoyed by the Oracle’s incomprehensible decision to allow herself to be overtaken. Stripped bare of the consolations of the mind and of human companionship, on the verge of inevitable defeat, Neo says he fights “because I choose to”. This beautifully succinct answer may seem evasive, yet it neatly articulates that choice, if it is truly free, must be irreducible to other motivations. More strikingly, the Wachowskis assert that free will can exist even without recourse to basic notions such as love and justice. On the contrary, free will is necessary for these things to have meaning; it is the perfectly simple root of our moral life. Even in a world where everything is foreknown, free will may still subsist. Prophecy remains infallible up until the final moment when Smith assimilates Neo’s avatar.

The final sequence may be interpreted as profound or profoundly idiotic depending on one’s level of trust in the intelligence of the Wachowskis’ work; in any event, it is quite incomprehensible. Somehow, for reasons we hope will never be explained in a fourth movie, Neo is able to destroy the Smith clones from within in a flash of blinding white light, and restore the Matrix to what passes for normalcy. Presumably, he achieved this by tapping into the power of the Source, and in some way merging with it. In the end, we see the body of the presumably dead Neo glowing with energy, suggesting he may have somehow merged with the Source. Perhaps acolytes of the Wachowski religion will be able to reconcile these events with the Architect’s monologue, and they alone might find satisfaction with the emerging peace between man and machine, even though it leaves most of humanity still living in vats. If nothing else, the Wachowskis have at least shown an appreciation of the Greek classics, for they have appropriately concluded this Euripidean tragedy with the device of deus ex machina, no pun intended.

© 2004, 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org