Review by Nate Sala
Perhaps you’re thinking: What else can be said about “The Matrix”? Fifteen years later, much ink (or pixels) has been spilled ruminating on the philosophical/religious/fill-in-the-blank themes found in the 1999 film that became a cultural phenomenon.
For example, in Faith, Film, and Philosophy David P. Hunt argues that “The Matrix” (and its sequels) is a retelling of gnostic mythology. In Flickering Reality F. David Peat suggests that the film is really about the Hindu understanding of maya or the illusion of the phenomenal universe. I once heard an iTunes podcast speculating that the “The Matrix” is really a story about the Illuminati.
For reasons that will come up later in this series, I believe the Wachowskis (the creators of the trilogy) chose to appropriate religious symbols and imagery to further their story. But I do not believe that they were selectively utilizing one particular religious theme. Therefore, they would be just as happy with Hunt’s gnostic assessment as Peat’s Hindu interpretation. I would imagine just about anyone’s religious interpretation of the trilogy is equally welcomed in the Wachowskis’ minds. However, I will argue that the Wachowskis had a decidedly non-religious idea in mind for the underlying allegory of “The Matrix.”
But first, let us revisit the story.
Thomas Anderson, hacker name – Neo (Keanu Reeves), is the typical everyman struck by a sense that something is wrong with his world. His boss treats him like a number. His clothes don’t quite fit him properly. And he can’t quite shake the disoriented feeling of being caught between wakefulness and sleep. His search for answers leads him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), two leather-clad fugitives that have actually been searching for him as well. Turns out Neo’s world is a false construct created by sentient machines to keep human beings asleep. But the deception is much more sinister. The machines are in full control pulling the strings of power while the people are exploited for their energy. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and gang are guardian programs tasked with policing the Matrix from troublemakers like Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo. The Smiths can be anywhere and anyone at any time. Their mission is to destroy the last bastion of humanity: Zion.
The story and fight sequences are still just as captivating after all these years (although bullet-time has been run into the ground). Reeves’ portrayal of Neo still effectively comes across as it should: he is subdued, unsure of himself, yet rebellious and curious enough to swallow just about any old pill placed in his hands. Fishburne is inspired as Morpheus, Neo’s mentor and friend, a kind of smoother, wiser Han Solo. Moss is equal parts elegant, vicious, and vulnerable as Trinity, the motorcycle riding, acrobatic heroine, and Neo’s love interest. The reveal at the end (that Neo is “The One”) pays huge dividends. The shootout at the police station, face-off at the subway, and final confrontation between Neo and the Smiths satisfies our desire to see where his training is leading. And, of course, Neo’s final threat (or promise?) and ascension whets the audience’s appetite for the coming war in the sequels.
Even though the Matrix world is programmed for 1999 the look of the film still feels rather contemporary. The set designs and costumes capture a timeless undercurrent relevant to the plot (that is, the real year is closer to 2199). The dark streets and shadowy rooms are of a richly Noirish texture. The colors of the Matrix-world – blacks, browns, greens – are juxtaposed with the pale flesh of its human inhabitants, as if to reflect their energy being robbed by the machines in the real world. The Wachowskis have not wasted any shots here. As a matter of fact, they brilliantly give us clues (before the big reveal) that Neo’s world is a binary simulation. Two quick examples: First, Neo’s apartment number is 101, as in the binary code of computer programming; second, all of Neo’s digital contraband is stored inside a hollowed out copy of Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard. So it is obvious that a lot of attention and care was given to, not only the story, but each shot in general.
What is The Matrix?
Some believers like to tout the film (and the trilogy) as a Christian tale; or, at least a story rife with biblical themes (as Sonny Sandoval from P.O.D. once described it). Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the main allegory has nothing to do with religion. The religious aspects of the film are there specifically because the Wachowskis have adopted particular language and imagery connoting those concepts (like “Savior”, “Trinity” and “The One”). But, and this is an important distinction for us Christians to be aware, “The Matrix” is not espousing the Christian message. It is using Christian (and other religious) motifs to tell a different story. This is not to suggest that we cannot use the movie to further our particular theological agenda. I’m simply suggesting that we should be aware that we do so in spite of the movie’s purpose not because of it.
Largely, the movie is a sociological commentary on the control of the masses through imagery in a consumer driven society. As I mentioned earlier, Jean Baudrillard’s work Simulacra and Simulation rests on Neo’s bookshelf. But this book is not an accidental prop piece. In an interview for the documentary “The Matrix: Revisited,” Keanu Reeves admits that the Wachowskis told him to read Baudrillard before even opening the script. The central idea of this book is that innumerable simulations of objects have saturated us all such that we no longer have a grasp of “the real.” Concepts like “the desert of the real” and “models of control” or “matrices” come directly out of the book and onto the screen in Morpheus’ human battery speech. “What is the Matrix?” he asks. It is control. A control brought on by a system of simulation causing a full disconnection from truth and reality.
Christianity, Simulation, and Truth
Baudrillard argues that his third order of simulacra (which is what the movie Matrix is modeled after) has no referent at all. Think of a simulation as the television show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and its referent as the real Kardashian family. The television version is essentially a bad copy of the real family since it can only present them in a limited, skewed way. Baudrillard says that, since people only know about the Kardashians through the bad copy, then the only thing the bad copy can represent is itself. More important to note: the bad copy is so pervasive and influential that it can actually turn the real into a copy of the simulation as well. Therefore, people no longer have a grasp of “real” truth, only simulated truth. Baudrillard initially applies this notion of simulacra to media, that is, movies and television and, by extension, literature, history, politics, social groups, you name it. Essentially, he is suggesting that there can be no correspondence between what people perceive (via the simulation) and true reality. That is, truth is no longer an objective fact that holds regardless of the shifting realities of the simulation. Truth is itself constructed by the simulation. However, if truth no longer corresponds to reality then it has become relativistic. So the first thing that we Christians must distinguish is that the Bible rejects Baudrillard’s worldview.
John 1:3 says that Jesus created the universe and everything in it. Jesus also said that He is “the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through [Him]” (14:6). But these are not words spoken by a character in a postmodern narrative. Jesus is a real, historical figure that walked the earth in the first century. What He said about Himself and the world were spoken at a real time and geographical location in the past. Since the Bible purports to be true (Psalm 119:160; John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16) and treats truth as an historical reality to be reckoned with, Jesus’ words are meant to match up with the world as it is. This corresponding relationship trades on philosophical realism, otherwise known as the correspondence theory of truth. In light of this relationship, the Bible instructs us to value truth such that we keep it very close (Ephesians 6:14) as well as to seek it as something objective to be grasped beyond mere appearances (John 7:24). It therefore rejects Baudrillard’s theory.
Interestingly enough, the first installment of “The Matrix” veers from a crucial aspect of his theory. Remember, Neo wakes up from the Matrix into an objectively real world of human vats and spider creatures. That is, he awakens to discover that there is a referent after all to the simulation. But this referent is in utter ruin after the humans blotted out the sun to thwart the machines. This actually upset Baudrillard who went on to bemoan the movie’s misappropriation “of the virtual for an irrefutable fact…” But notice what Baudrillard has done to himself here. According to his own theory, Baudrillard must assert that “The Matrix” movie (and sequels) is part of the system of simulation. That is, it presents a slightly skewed or “bad copy” of his original theory. Remember, according to the theory, a simulation can only represent itself not its referent. But Baudrillard argued in his interview as if the Wachowskis had not represented his book accurately. So Baudrillard does not consistently live in the world that he envisions. And I believe it is our duty as Christians to point this out to others who also commit Baudrillard’s mistake in similar ways — see relativists and postmodernists.
Christianity and Control
The Bible makes it clear that we are being controlled. We are either controlled by our flesh (Romans 8:6-7; Galatians 5:17; James 1:14-15), sin (Romans 6:12, 20; 7:14; John 8:34), the devil (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:1-2; 1 John 5:19), or the Spirit (Romans 8:4-5, 14; 1 Corinthians 6:19; Galatians 5:16, 18). This control is not necessarily due to imagery (according to the movie’s allegory) but influence. Influence from the temptations of our flesh, influence from the enemy and his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11), or influence from the Spirit of God. Solomon said that, “Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit” (Proverbs 25:28). In other words, in order to withstand the influences of evil, we must control ourselves. Since self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) then it follows that the way to control ourselves is to be under the influence of the Spirit of God.
Romans 12:2 says that we can render ourselves immune to the conformity of this world (i.e. its influence and control) by being transformed by the renewing of our minds. At a more fundamental level, if we renew our minds through various techniques (for example, dwelling on what is true – Philippians 4:8), we will be able to identify the “lofty thing[s] raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This particular description of what spiritual battle entails is the only one Paul gives in the New Testament for good reason. Ideas and speculations are what we Christians have always been facing. False ideas about the beginning of the universe, the nature of the world, the existence of God, Jesus’ divinity, the plausibility of miracles, the list goes on and on. And each new false idea pulls someone away from the truth and further into the world’s system of control.
We cheer for Morpheus’ Nebuchadnezzar crew because we must be like them. We must always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks” (1 Peter 3:15), to “be alert and sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6), and to “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). We must be vigilante and on the lookout for those who are willing to wake up from the world’s system of control. This comes through much prayer, reading Scripture, and familiarizing ourselves with crucial subjects like philosophy and science. If we can do these things, we will then be able to stand firm in the faith and be strong (1 Corinthians 16:13). This notion is expressed in a quick exchange during Neo’s training. Neo asks Morpheus if what he is being trained for is to dodge the Smiths’ bullets; to which Morpheus replies, “When you’re ready you won’t have to.” Likewise, if we can always be ready to make that defense and stand firm in our faith then we won’t have to dodge the enemy’s arrows. We will extinguish them.
Next week, we will descend further down the rabbit hole with a reexamination of “The Matrix Reloaded” (Link here). There we will discuss the Wachowskis’ appropriation of religious imagery as well as consider some theological positions with respect to the film’s question of control.