When I rewatched The Matrix this past weekend, I didn’t realize at the time that it marked the 15th anniversary of the movie’s initial release. I remember how much I loved it when it first came out. I was already pretty emotionally charged because I saw it the week I became a father for the first time. At that point I was still a devout Christian, and the movie’s obvious infusion with Christian symbolism thrilled me to the point that I became obsessed with the film for a while. Little did I know I had taken the bait: hook, line and sinker. I remember trying to convince a few of my friends that the makers of the movie must be closet Christians disguising the gospel as a trenchcoat-clad, anime-style action flick. One of my friends quite summarily dismissed my thesis by matter-of-factly stating, “It’s just Plato’s allegory of the cave; it’s not Christian at all.” He was essentially right,* with the addition of some Decartes, some Nietzsche, some Baudrillard, plus an overarching aesthetic from Schopenhauer. And yes, I know that’s a lot of names and no, I’m not even going to attempt to lay out all the ways those writers influenced this trilogy.
I will say that the elder of the Wachowski siblings is a lifelong student of philosophy (and a huge Ken Wilber fan), so the Matrix trilogy “reads” like an audiovisual dissertation on the evolution of human thought and functions as a cinematic parable of the growing self-awareness of modern humankind as a whole. Neo is the “superman” who questions everything he is told, ultimately rejecting all the explanatory narratives he is given, including the one that tells him he’s “the one.” The great irony there is that since “the one” is defined as one who saves the world by refusing to do what anyone else tells him to do, in rejecting his instructions to be that person he ultimately becomes “the one” in a way the machines could never have understood because following orders is all they know how to do. Neo’s incremental awakening symbolizes our own conscious awakening. His journey from subservient power supply to self-determining hero mirrors our own discovery that the reality with which we have been presented is an elaborately layered system of controls from which we must struggle to free ourselves if we are ever to know the next phase of our evolution. It’s ultimately Nietzsche’s ubermensch presented as a live-action comic book hero.
But minds don’t free immediately, and like the rest of us it takes time for Neo to learn how to decode each of the successive layers of control. Looking back on the Matrix trilogy, I see how cleverly the Wachowskis wove together a story using metaphors pulled from esoteric continental and analytic philosophy, adapting them to the high tech context in which we live. Just as Neo’s mastery of computer code enabled him to ask the most incisive questions about the Matrix, so many of us find ourselves driven to ask the hardest questions about the world around us. For people like me, that means I spent at least some time inhabiting the symbolic world of religion.
While many around me seemed content to go about their daily business without investing noticeable energy into figuring out why we do what we do, or what it’s all about, I was one of those who wanted to know more. I wanted to understand what makes us and the world around us tick. What I didn’t realize, however, was how religions like the one I threw myself into can provide answers which placate that hunger to understand the world without really answering any of the questions I’ve asked. Like the iconoclastic masses which gathered around the messiah narrative in the Matrix sequels, we flock to churches, mosques, and temples to feel a part of something transcendent. We feel it empowers us to rise above the petty pace that creeps in from day to day, giving meaning to our brief lives. But few of them ever thought hard enough to make the unsettling discovery that Neo made: that even the prophecy of “the one” who will free the people of Zion from their mechanical captors serves as an alternative form of control. The machines were using “the one” just like they were using the Matrix itself.
In time it became apparent that the machines had done this many times before. Just as human civilizations keep reinventing religion after religion in their own image (often at a significant profit), so the machines had learned to harness the human desire to question things and use it for their own benefit. The machines figured out how to tap into that curiosity and channel it into occupations which serve their own controlling purposes. Their plan would have worked this time, too, if it hadn’t have been for that meddling virus, Agent Smith. Neo’s detachment from the game plan he was supposed to execute created a break in protocol which made Agent Smith a sort of free radical in the system. He began to copy himself over and over again, gaining new powers each time Neo advanced in his capabilities. Smith was like the yin to Neo’s yang.
In the end, Neo realized he could only defeat Smith with the help of the very machines he was supposed to be conquering. Instead of destroying them, he learned to use the machines to do his own bidding. That, in essence, was the Wachowskis’ take on how each of us can break free from the controls which civilization uses to hold us in place while also acknowledging the symbiotic nature we have with it. If I’m “reading” it right, this trilogy is an interpretation of the history of both philosophy and religion, and it’s intended to illustrate that we must question everything and learn to reject those controlling narratives which enslave us to the social systems around us. Heady stuff, and set to some killer special effects, too!
I’m not sure I could say that the Matrix trilogy served any crucial role in my own awakening from my dogmatic slumber, but it sure does provide an entertaining parable of the struggle for intellectual freedom that many of us went through to get to where we are now (minus the bullets and hand-to-hand combat). And who’s to say we’ve deconstructed all the layers even today? Perhaps as we keep questioning we will discover that each of our prior discoveries along the way were incorrect, or at least misunderstood, so that we still haven’t figured out some of the most basic things there are to know. I for one am fairly comfortable admitting agnosticism toward the ultimate questions of life. I’m not likely as confident in my knowledge as I sometimes seem to other people, but I am fairly confident that the stories I was told before did a poor job of answering the questions that I asked. That’s at least something. I call it progress if we’ve at least eliminated a handful of falsehoods on our long journey to understanding how things really are.
[For more in the series “My Life in Movies,” click here]
[For more articles by Neil, Take the Godless Tour]
*Re: Plato’s cave. . .You hear that, “old friend?” I just admitted above that you (and you know who you are) were right about something and I was wr. . .I was wro. . .I . . .you were right, m’kay? Don’t let it go to your head or anything.