April 20, 2003 5:32 PM   Subscribe

Review on SF Site Here’s a question: what if the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 film The Matrix was not just an entertaining piece of sf-action-adventure hokum. What if, instead, it is all true? Imagine it as a message sent via the medium of the Matrix itself (Hollywood cinema) from someplace outside the Matrix, to wake us up to our human condition, to alert us all to the fact ‘that we are slaves’. If so, then we are not living the lives we thought we were living; we are instead inhabiting a virtual reality composed by oppressive machine-intelligences. What if this were literally true? How would it appear to us? Well, clearly, it would appear exactly as our lives presently appear to us. Unless we get ‘unplugged’, unless we become enlightened, we cannot see past the illusion that has been created for us. What should we do in this circumstance? Should we collaborate with the machines and not rock the boat? Or should we fight, free ourselves and eventually free everybody else? Clearly, says The Matrix Warrior, this latter. This is a book that proceeds from the assumption that the situation described in The Matrix is real, and tells you where to go from there.
posted by metameme (54 comments total)
Of course the machine-intelligences are all powerful and oppressive.


Humans are bad enough. If it weren't for the special effects, the Matrix would just be another bad SciFi movie with a hokie plot. Oh, wait, it is just another bad SciFi movie with a hokie plot.

Illusion and suffering isn't imposed from the outside. It's self imposed. Now, if the machine-intelligences were just another illusion and Neo was actually fighting himself, that would be cool.
posted by geekhorde at 5:50 PM on April 20, 2003

if they're gonna send us messages from outside the matrix, can they maybe do it with less marketing next time? I feel like I've already seen the matrix reloaded because of all of the media space this meme has inhabited. oh, wait, they're just triyng to get the message through better...yeah, that's the ticket.
posted by bobtorres at 5:52 PM on April 20, 2003

I'm sure that if in reality, robot masters wanted to harness the potential energy of the human body, they would find it much more efficient to burn them rather than keep them in stasis.
posted by Hackworth at 6:02 PM on April 20, 2003

So the lucky people who are unplugged get to live a wonderful life scuttling around in caves in constant fear for their lives, eating unlimited servings of yummy slop, and dreaming of a day when they can live free on the blackened and radioactive wasteland they turned the surface into?

How about you just leave me plugged in m'kay?
posted by y6y6y6 at 6:05 PM on April 20, 2003

Matrix, shmatrix... that is one fugly site.
posted by thatweirdguy2 at 6:08 PM on April 20, 2003






posted by _sirmissalot_ at 6:09 PM on April 20, 2003

Some good, relevant links also in this old post of mine.
posted by vacapinta at 6:18 PM on April 20, 2003

Take the blue pill.
posted by hama7 at 6:31 PM on April 20, 2003

I'm so with hama7. When I was in junior high and my life sucked, I would have taken the red pill, but right now my life is just fine, and the idea of eating that slop for the rest of my life is by itself enough to convince me to take the blue pill. Though, it would be kinda neat to be able to download kung-fu skills into my brain instantaneously. Right now I'd settle for downloading knowledge of Administrative Law into my brain instantaneously, though.
posted by kate_fairfax at 6:38 PM on April 20, 2003

Hey - what if X-Men was really true, too?! COOL!

Sorry to break the traditional MeFi mold, but I'm so clueless and uninterested in the whole Matrix thingie. Saw the first one, was moderately interested for about 1/2 hour, then became completely & totally bored. I just don't get it. I suppose Star Trek is the limit of my SF street-cred.
posted by davidmsc at 6:38 PM on April 20, 2003


I went there looking for actual reasons, and instead found a bunch of crap. I only read the first couple, but this one's hilarious:

"Two actors were abruptly cut from the sequel cast before production ended, both female minorities. Coincidence?

Aaliyah and Gloria Foster were unceremonially dropped after shooting some scenes for the sequel. What's wrong, guys? They didn't test well with the predominantly white Matrix audiences?

Neither actress could be reached for comment. "

Have they tried a ouija board?
posted by ODiV at 6:41 PM on April 20, 2003

ODiv, I'm also fond of that site's unique review of The Two Towers and 50 reasons why LOTR sucks.
posted by Bletch at 6:52 PM on April 20, 2003

Bletch - that list is hilarious.

The author seems to be under the impression that the film is real - e.g. complaining about innocent security guards being shot for no reason and being unable to grasp the concept that the actor is just pretending to be dead.

Also this quote is just comedy gold

I had attended a showing of The Matrix in May of 1999 with a lady friend, because we are both big Morgan Freeman fans. An hour into the film, as I observed what dreck we were wading in, I walked up and stood before the screen and tried to explain to the audience that this vomitus was below their dignity.

I was greeted by some of the most vulgar insults imaginable, until some began throwing objects and one man even knocked my pipe from my hand. Do you wish to be associated with a group of such character?

After the above incident, I was the one asked to leave.

If anyone was wondering what happens after the end of 'Confederacy of Dunces' this is it - Ignatius goes on to be a film reviewer at pointlesswasteoftime
posted by backOfYourMind at 7:19 PM on April 20, 2003

I'm sure that if in reality, robot masters wanted to harness the potential energy of the human body, they would find it much more efficient to burn them rather than keep them in stasis.

No, no.. you see, the chemistry that tells you keeping bodies in stasis is inefficient is in fact a creation of the robots, who do this to throw you off the trail.
posted by Hildago at 7:20 PM on April 20, 2003

Is a joke site or are they really that deluded?
posted by nyxxxx at 7:31 PM on April 20, 2003

The fact that people talking about the "philosophy of the Matrix" are saying robots are involved further strengthens my belief that it's a bunch of horse crap.

I, too, was impressed by this movie. I thought it was a sort of updated Catcher in the Rye. On later reflection, I now believe that everyone is just reading into this movie because they see cyberpunk elements in it. Every interview I've ever read, every "symbolic" element I have ever seen exposed, has pointed in the opposite direction of what I thought was smart in this movie.

If you think The Matrix is philosophical you either 1) read too many comic books or 2) read too many books like The Games People Play or Civilization and Its Discontents and make the ridiculous assumption that people who read comic books also read real books.

If you want more of The Matrix, don't watch the sequels. Watch Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex or read some new cyberpunk novels.

Also, that Ignatius Reilly story is hillarious.
posted by son_of_minya at 7:35 PM on April 20, 2003

If you think The Matrix is philosophical you either 1) read too many comic books or 2) read too many books like The Games People Play or Civilization and Its Discontents and make the ridiculous assumption that people who read comic books also read real books.

There are like, 12 things wrong with this paragraph. I'll just assume you're doing deadpan.
posted by Hildago at 7:43 PM on April 20, 2003

don't hate on the matrix.

I did appreciate it; anyhow what was very interesting for me was that it was the only movie where I thought the hero was gonna die, and the bad guys to win.

And Neo DID die. ^^
posted by firestorm at 7:45 PM on April 20, 2003

well... if this world is supposed to be simulated, I suppose anything is possible in the "real world" seeing as all we have experienced is a simulated world with computer like logic and laws... Who knows, perhaps in the "real world" the human body does create enough energy to power all the machines whatever the fucks...

and perhaps the fact that they chose to preserve humanity instead of destrying them, perhaps they really ARE following asimov's laws of robotics...

We scorched the sky, the robots knew the only way we would be able to remain "alive" was to be put into the matrix.

Remember, the first matrix was a paradise... but out minds supposidly couldn't take it... I know I wouldn't willingly provide a paradice to my enemy.

Who knows... perhaps the "real world" that neo and mopheus live in is really just another simulation... because their minds won't accept the world that the matrix provides, only something even worse...

any program powerfull enough to simulate an entire world would be able to see that certain minds might not take it and shift them into another program.

and no... I quit smoking that shit years ago...

posted by LoopSouth at 7:49 PM on April 20, 2003


What 12 things? That's like one thing wrong for every four words. I'll just assume you're doing deadpan.

I was ranting and using words loosely, but I'm also dead serious. What 12 things are wrong? I don't even see one thing.

If you're a comic book fan, and I offended you, I apologize. It was either that or "you play too many video games," but in a pinch I chose to ridicule comic book fans instead.
posted by son_of_minya at 7:52 PM on April 20, 2003

No thanks. I'll just watch this again instead. Thanks for trying.
posted by wobh at 8:38 PM on April 20, 2003

Quick question... How many people actually read that article, but completely missed the typo? One would think this crowd would catch that sort of thing.

(Typo: If Horsley hasn’t read Schopenhauer then he’s certainly red several people who have read Schopenhauer.)

Now awaiting a response to my email to find out how well the critics take criticism...
posted by Samizdata at 8:55 PM on April 20, 2003

Eh, I'm a philosophy major with an interest in religion, and I liked the Matrix for being a slick action movie, but I have to admit, the semi-philosophical nonsense that goes on in relation to that movie drives me nuts at times. You'd think they were handing out the Enneads with free B.A. (Hons.) stapled to the back as promotional materials sometimes.

/philosophy snob
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 9:36 PM on April 20, 2003

Say you were psychotic and you began to believe Hollywood movies are true. Hopefully, you'd end up with a website, like all the other crazy-ass people.

Why can't these people be obsessed with Bound?
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:45 PM on April 20, 2003

Minya, if you don't think there's anything philosophical about The Matrix, well, I don't know what to say...for one, take a look at what book Neo hides his minidiscs/drugs in near the beginning of the film. For another, do a Google search on Gnosticism. I think the idea of a sci-fi kung-fu movie written with an awareness of relevant philosophy is pretty cool. Sure, it might be a mishmash of a lot of different ideas all of which end up being transitions between impossible action stunts, but it's still more than your average Hollywood blockbuster has to offer.
posted by jbrjake at 9:47 PM on April 20, 2003

What 12 things? That's like one thing wrong for every four words. I'll just assume you're doing deadpan.

Well, I was being a little hyperbolic. :)

Mainly I was talking about how you say:

1. That it is a mistake to say that The Matrix is philosophical, when what you probably meant was that it's a mistake to say it contains any salient philosophical arguments or something along those lines. Anything that aspires to philosophy is, after all, philosophical, whether it is any good or not.

2. That reading comic books somehow decreases your threshold for recognizing philosophy. Dunno how that would work.

3. That people who read comic books don't read real books, which is of course a bit snobbish in addition to being patently absurd. But you said it without me being able to tell it was sarcastic, so I assumed it was just a deadpan sarcasm, rather than that you really meant it.

You don't really, do you? (And I am dragging us off topic)
posted by Hildago at 9:59 PM on April 20, 2003

There's always a line of people waiting to crap on something interesting, thoughtful, and creative. My sympathies to those who can't just sit back and enjoy it.

The Matrix is real and it surrounds us. Simply, it's the observation that we confuse our perceptions with reality. It happens on MetaFilter all the time.
posted by troybob at 10:02 PM on April 20, 2003

"Get a life, people. It's just a TV show." - William Shatner, in one of my favorite episodes of SNL.
posted by bradth27 at 10:10 PM on April 20, 2003


To sum up: Yes.

On point 1, I would say that I lean a little further towards dismissing it entirely. In learning more about the filmmakers and the movie, I've found that the "philosophical" points they were trying to make were not anything at all close to the points I read into the movie without their intention. I would go as far as to say that "what if the world is really controlled by robots" is not aspiring towards philosophy, but is just bad fantasy.

For it be real philosophy, it would have to relate that fantasy to the real world and life as we know it. The few bits of the movie that did attempt to do this were, IMHO, little more than plot devices.

For examples of the "real" symbolism and "philosophy" the Wachowski brothers put into it, see the truckload of religious references and parallels to Star Wars. My point is that anything really salient came from pre-existing cyberpunk and anime, like an after taste.

Especially now that the audience is aware of these genres, they are going to have to do a lot more original thinking for it to resonate. I'm thinking the sequels will be much more like Assassins or their crappy Plastic Man script than they'll be like the absurdly overblown perception of The Matrix that so many people seem to have.

On 2, of course not. There are a lot of really good comic books. There is a stereotype, though. Just think of the crowd studios have pandered to when making any superhero movie, and those are the people I'm talking about. Whether they actually exist or not is up for debate, but I was ranting about the stereotypical comic book fan who thinks black leather jackets are really cool and "I know kung fu" is a philosophical statement.

Perfect example of a thoughtful and thought-provoking comic book would be League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And what do the Hollywood morons do? They dress everyone in black leather, because comic book fans obviously think black leather is awesome.

On 3, I actually thought that's what you were doing. Like you were going to nitpick about the specific definition of "philosophy" or bitch about the books I mentioned. "12 things wrong with this" was just a little vague, and I am a little touchy.
posted by son_of_minya at 10:29 PM on April 20, 2003

Anything that aspires to philosophy is, after all, philosophical, whether it is any good or not.

I don't know about that. For example, is anything that aspires to science therefore scientific? The standards for what is good science and what is good philosophy are about equally difficult to satisfy, and equally opaque prior to their satisfaction. Perhaps it would be wisest to call the Matrix "thought-provoking fantasy" and leave it at that.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:27 PM on April 20, 2003

Erm, the Matrix *is* an action flick, not a fricken' doctoral thesis, guys. And if you really think it's that bad of an action flick, try comparing it to eXistenZ, which came out around the same time, tackles a similar theme, and is (in my humble opinion) a gigantic, smelly pile of suck.

bletch: I read--and mentally prepared to refute--like 25 of those reasons before I realised that list was satire. I especially like how they call them out for being racist for dropping Aaliyah and what's-er-name (hello? Morgan Freeman? Laurence Fishburne?), then call them terrorist sympathisers because some of the cast are of Arabic descent.
posted by arto at 1:03 AM on April 21, 2003

MetaFilter: a virtual reality composed by oppressive machine-intelligences?
posted by LeLiLo at 1:44 AM on April 21, 2003

arto: I disagree with you about eXistenZ. Mutant reptiles and amphibians provide previously unimagined taste sensations, and a VHS copy of eXistenZ is one of my few possessions. The ending was a little weak, but not nearly as lame as when Neo took to the air like Superman.

The Matrix was really good, too. As much as I may criticize it; I loved it when it came out, and I still think it's a great action movie. It's just one of those movies that people get fanatical over, and it gets irritating. It's like Atlas Shrugged to some people.

Did find this essay called "FROM CINESPACE TO CYBERSPACE: Zionists and Agents, Realists and Gamers in The Matrix and eXistenZ" thanks to your comment. Somebody else mentioned this here, but I actually hadn't noticed the title on Neo's book before. I definitely have some room for hope, that maybe the Wachowski brothers can come up with some good stuff.
posted by son_of_minya at 2:04 AM on April 21, 2003

man, if Ludwig Wittgenstein were alive today, he'd be shooting cyberpunk kung-fu movies, too

(not to mention he'd be hanging out at Sky Bar with Keanu)
posted by matteo at 3:40 AM on April 21, 2003

Digital physics is a real theory. The mistake would be to expect anything better beyond the simulation.
posted by cachilders at 3:43 AM on April 21, 2003

Several times in the sequel Neo is seen flying at almost supersonic speeds. NASA experiments prove that such a velocity would tear a man's genitals off.

Who in the hell volunteered for that experiment?!?
posted by SenshiNeko at 3:49 AM on April 21, 2003

Um, time for me to make myobligatory reference to Stanislav Lem's classic book The Futurological Congress. Except his version is, I think, philosophically and politically more interesting.

What if Saving Private Ryan was real, guys?
posted by Grangousier at 4:07 AM on April 21, 2003

NASA experiments prove that such a velocity would tear a man's genitals off.

Perhaps some sort of underwear would be in order?

posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:28 AM on April 21, 2003

You are a hard-working single mother, making ends meet by doing time as a secretary in an office building during the day, a drug-store clerk in the evenings. You are on the office phone with the babysitter one quiet Wednesday afternoon, telling her how to calm little Dakota down, to get her to stop crying her eyes out asking why Mommy is never home, telling her that you'll be there soon, honey.

A split-second later your head is severed by a shattered helicopter rotor blade, the skull bouncing off a nearby wall, leaving a spray of arterial blood on a motivational poster. Your eyes bulge wide, your brain inside remaining alive just long enough to recognize the horror of your fate. Aviation fuel splashes in through the shattered windows and ignites, incinerating mothers, husbands, fathers, best friends.

And somewhere, a theater full of young, chubby males cheers because Trinity made it out before the crash.

Someone, apparently, did think of the babies. Now I'll never be able to enojy that movie again. Thanks!
posted by gottabefunky at 6:59 AM on April 21, 2003

Time Out of Joint is back in print, and others (A Maze of Death, Ubik,The Divine Invasion) have never gone out. Much more interesting meditations on the theme of a simulated world than The Matrix, in my opinion.

posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:25 AM on April 21, 2003

gimonca's links hit it right on the head--more than anything else, perhaps, The Matrix is a pretty extensive (and explicit) play on gnostic concepts. Like The X-Files and a lot of PK Dick's work, it's based on the idea of a surrounding, deeper reality that's denied to most of us, and only accessible through the arcane teachings of the enlightened. Reaching enlightenment/ salvation/ transcendence almost always requires sacrifice and a journey through the valley of death, and usually brings rewards that seem supernatural when they're translated back into our own prosaic reality-space.

There are a lot of obsessively detailed analyses of this relationship, especially regarding The Matrix, online...I was kind of surprised not to see the "g"-word make an appearance much earlier. There are enough specific details--like "Adams Street" and "Ander/son ('Son of man'), not to mention "the One" and "Zion"--to make it clear that the Wachowski brothers are very aware of the gnostic underpinnings.
posted by LairBob at 8:35 AM on April 21, 2003

Meanwhile, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away...

BEN: The Matrix is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together. Learn about the Matrix, Luke...

BEN: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Matrix flowing through him.

LUKE: You mean it controls your actions?

BEN: Partially. But it also obeys your commands.
posted by Perigee at 8:53 AM on April 21, 2003

Is art for art's sake (without getting into what defines 'art'), or is there a purpose to art, to invoke thinking or understanding?

Is that thinking or understanding necessarily dependant upon the creator of that art, or can someone read into what is presented to them to gain their own meaning? (can someone read Shakespeare and see parallels to baseball, for example, even though baseball didn't exist and obviously wasn't the meaning Shakespeare wished to convey?)

Someone can watch a movie, like the Matrix, and simply see a fluff action film - which of course, would be correct. However, should this discount or prevent philosophical relationships or parallels to real life?

Something meant to inspire or deliver a particular message can, in fact, be used to present a completely different, valid message, since the meaning is derived by the consumer. At that point, the argument is rather moot, since people will pereive things differently, and those with a shared perception will gather and re-enforce their joint perception over those of others.

Personally, I think the concepts and philosophical implications of the Matrix can be many, and can inspire much discussion along lines of religion, general society, increasing technological advancement, and so forth. But then, I also just watch it for the fun of the movie.
posted by rich at 10:11 AM on April 21, 2003


Sorry to break the traditional MeFi mold, but I'm so clueless and uninterested in the whole Matrix thingie. Saw the first one, was moderately interested for about 1/2 hour, then became completely & totally bored.

My thoughts exactly, because it was such a tired and obvious movie and Keanu couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag if his life depended on it. "The Matrix" is one of those steaming pile of shit movies that the digirati insist is genius.

Too bad that it sucks ass.

I'll take Existenz over The Matrix anyday, because it wasn't entirely a style over substance turdpile.
posted by mark13 at 11:38 AM on April 21, 2003

Another reference, for good measure. This one maybe 1700 years old.
posted by gimonca at 12:49 PM on April 21, 2003

Well, let's leave aside any debates over the intrinsic esthetic quality of the movie. I just think it's almost impossible to have any substantial discussion of the (purported) philosophical underpinnings of The Matrix without bringing up gnosticism.

Personally, I've found gnosticism to be a fascinating topic of investigation since I was pretty young...the basic idea of a deeper, more powerful reality hidden behind our own has an especially strong attraction in early adolescence. (Think A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter and any number of other YA classics.)

Once one starts to look at gnosticism in a historical context, it becomes clear that it's a trend in human thought that--although it predates Christianity in many ways--managed to find an especially strong foothold in the religious arguments that took place in that church's first several centuries, and had an immeasurable influence on its current form (see Pagel). As the core component (arguably) of many later religious organizations like the Masons and the Knights Templar, it has had an enormous, if hidden, subtle effect on today's societies and culture.

Even if you want to assert a lot of pretty credible arguments down that The Matrix isn't the best movie ever made, I always find it interesting when an element of popular culture is so conscious of its historical context. Granted, I'm automatically going to find a movie more interesting when it intersects with one of my pet intellectual interests, but I do think this particular movie did a decent job of lending itself intellectual heft by paying attention to the details.
posted by LairBob at 2:06 PM on April 21, 2003

The piece seems like a bad "Philosophy of Science Fiction 302" (undergrad level) paper to me.

Nonetheless, we are all slaves....

But the identity of the 'masters' is far less ourselves? ...Slaves to our DNA? 'external' agencies? ...A DNA based hyperintelligence? [ Could it be Gaia? No - probably a bit more complex than that. ].............

I recall [ correctly, I hope ] that Wade Davis -under the influece of something a bit heavier than Salvia- said that he perceived trans-dimensional, malign reptilian intelligences: his Jivaro Shaman mentor informed him - "Oh, them. They're always saying that. You have to get past them, because they are only the masters of the outer darkness."

LairBob - Think of Plato's "Cave" also.
posted by troutfishing at 9:13 PM on April 21, 2003

I don't know about that. For example, is anything that aspires to science therefore scientific?

Any activity with a set of rules that aspires to be baseball isn't necessarily baseball. However, any activity with a set of rules that aspires to being a game is a game, simply because that process itself is the definition of what it aspires to be.

Similarly, what I was saying is that since The Matrix at least broaches questions about existence and offers an answer to them, it would be considered philosophical by ordinary definitions. It doesn't really investigate the question methodically and satisfyingly, but we call Atlas Shrugged, The Stranger, Candide, or White Noise (I can't think of really good examples, ok, but they've gotta be out there) philosophical, and they don't do that either.

For the record, I didn't like The Matrix very much. I certainly don't think it contributes in any relevant way to the sphere of philosophy, but I think it's clear they were at least trying to ask questions similar to Hilary Putnam's (I think it was) "Brain in a Jar" problem, or maybe Descartes' Evil Demon hypothesis.
posted by Hildago at 9:47 PM on April 21, 2003

By far the best exploration of that I've ever read of the philosophical themes the Matrix attempts to explore is Greg Egan's Permutation City, which won the (IIRC) 1994 Nebula Award. Amazon has a page for it, of course, but the Book Description there is taken from the back cover of the american edition and is completely wrong; the page (in english) is better. That said, there are plenty of good comments on the .com page that sum things up nicely (in my view) :
This is perhaps the finest work of Computer Science based Science Fiction ever written. The most stunning thing here is that Greg Egan actually knows what he's talking about, and isn't afraid to stick to it, in exactly the way that so many "cyber" writers... don't. He actually understands recursion and virtualization, not just throwing words out to sound cool. He doesn't retreat into literary silliness or ridiculous anthropomorphic characterization in a feeble attempt to be some sort of artsy novelist. [Which is not to say that it's artless -- there's plenty of room for poingnant meditiations and mind-blowing philosophical leaps; they're just justified by the logical framework of the story (and, arguably, of reality), which makes them much more powerful.] He keeps it believable, and extremely good.

posted by Tlogmer at 1:12 AM on April 22, 2003

Oh, and I, too, can recommend I particularly like their George Lucas interview.
posted by Tlogmer at 1:17 AM on April 22, 2003

Oops, sorry -- last post, I promise. Just thought I'd mention that I wrote a story of my own examining similar themes.
posted by Tlogmer at 1:20 AM on April 22, 2003

Almost recent movie with blatant Gnostic underpinnings: Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Reaches all the way back to Plato's cave to pull together a story that--on an emotional level, at least--seems much more authentic to me.
posted by LairBob at 8:34 AM on April 22, 2003

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