Philosophy and The Matrix
April 30, 2003 3:16 PM   Subscribe

Is there no spoon? The Warner Bros Matrix site is home to a series of scholarly essays inspired by the film (last updated 3/20/03). I mean, sure, the film offers some "whoa dude" moments regarding technology, perception, and vinyl pants, but I was surprised to find it an interesting launching point for discussions about freedom, heaven, and Plato's Cave as well. Being a philosophy layman, I can't vouch for their quality with any authority, but if you know the movies inside and out, as I apparently do (god help me) you might find the essays interesting.*
*for the next 15 agonizing days, anyway
posted by scarabic (36 comments total)
Here's a happy Matrix link:

Sean Penn made a comment recently on television that a kind of movie exists that might be entertaining, or escapist, or even "fun when you were a kid," but when you come down to it, he said, "You are less of a human being now than you would have been if you hadn't seen it." I don't mean to be a killjoy, since The Matrix has been one big $160-million national party since it opened, but to enjoy this movie required for me a desensitization to everything I cared about: a willingness not to suspend my disbelief, but to suspend my belief, my conviction that movies can still be something besides amusement-park rides or summons to nihilism. ... The Matrix [is] the least humane, least responsible, least pardonable movie I have ever seen.
posted by blueshammer at 3:45 PM on April 30, 2003

Hey, they've got some interesting stuff. I must say I was skeptical, but that really is an interesting post, scarabic.
posted by unreason at 3:46 PM on April 30, 2003

wasn't there some academic hokum attached to the first one about how the theories in the movie were related to writings by Baudrillard? Seems like they're reading more into the movie than is actually there.
posted by destro at 4:16 PM on April 30, 2003

Please, no more black backgrounds with dense text.
My retinas are burned out!
posted by Domain Master 666 at 5:28 PM on April 30, 2003

My retinas are burned out!

We have pills for that.
posted by WolfDaddy at 6:37 PM on April 30, 2003

destro - Actually, no. If you watch The Matrix Revisited, Keanu Reeves says that when he was approached for the part, he was asked to read Baudrillard's "Simulation and Simulacra" (along with two other books) before he even opened the script.
The Wachowski brothers do a good job of hiding it by avoiding public appearances and interviews and such, but they are brilliant and they wrote this movie with a highly philosophical background.

I've been amazed at just how deep The Matrix is, and each viewing seems to provide a little more understanding. Almost everything in that movie is highly intentional, from the names of the characters (check out some of the mythological references and such), to the many neo/messiah correlations, to the fact that a driving scene inside the matrix was filmed with archaic technology to intentionally give the views from the windows an artificial feel.

With trailer's packed full of visual effects and fight scenes, I only hope the sequel will maintain the level of intelligent material presented in the first movie. But I have faith in the Wachowskis.
posted by Wingy at 6:56 PM on April 30, 2003

Ah, this brings back memories of my philosophy classes. For the lay philosophers in us, I like this site because it is written in so even I can understand the points, whereas most philosophical readings don't make full sense to me and I always miss a few key points. Great link, Scarabic, and it will get my full attention when finals are over.
posted by jmd82 at 7:09 PM on April 30, 2003

Whups, that's Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation" not the other way around.
posted by Wingy at 7:14 PM on April 30, 2003

Whups, that's Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation" not the other way around.

You get a pass this time around. Don't let it happen again.
posted by yerfatma at 7:25 PM on April 30, 2003

You also might want to check out Zizek's Welcome to the Desert of the Real; Matrix fans will of course recognize the reference. And there's an article about Zizek himself in this week's New Yorker (unfortunately not available on line) entitled The Marx Brother: Is Slavoj Zizek an Academic or a Comedian? I can say, from having attended my share of English conferences in the last few years, that The Matrix retains a huge popularity amongst English/cultural studies folk, particularly amongst grad students.
posted by jokeefe at 7:26 PM on April 30, 2003

The "real world". Bah. Who the hell has the right to say they aren't in another Matrix? Hi everyone, I'm Morpheus and I enjoy not taking ideas to their full extension! Let's get on with the fight scenes!

Uh oh, I just made an argument using terms from the actual movie.
posted by caustic at 7:35 PM on April 30, 2003

I won't go as far as Sean Penn, but the matrix seemed to me (admittedly, after only one viewing) totally uninteresting from any sort of "philosophical" angle. The ideas are all old, they've been presented in other movies and explored in depth in other forums. And the religious subtext stuff is all pretty freakin' obvious, eh? He dies and comes back to life. I wonder if he's a Jesus figure?
posted by slipperywhenwet at 7:40 PM on April 30, 2003

Does it mean that I'm simple if I enjoyed it and thought it was keen? Is that bad?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:00 PM on April 30, 2003

There's actually not a lot of philosophy in The Matrix, other than the central premise: what if Baudrillard's post-modernist vision were literally true? The rest is mostly symbolism (Neo as messiah, etc.), not philosophy. A lot of what seems like philosophy is either just logical extensions of the premise, or plain old-fashion mysticism.

The ideas are all old, they've been presented in other movies and explored in depth in other forums.

Name a good movie that doesn't use old ideas, or ideas that haven't been presented in other movies. The best stories are always human stories, and there are only so many different human stories to tell. That was true for Shakespeare, or Plato, or the caveman who drew pictures on the walls of Lascaux.
posted by RylandDotNet at 8:06 PM on April 30, 2003

Oh, and I forgot to mention: I loved The Matrix, I thought it was a kick-ass movie. Definitely in my all-time favorites list.
posted by RylandDotNet at 8:08 PM on April 30, 2003

Watch A Chinese Ghost Story instead. When you are done that, watch Akira. (And when you're done that, watch On the Waterfront.)
posted by wobh at 8:35 PM on April 30, 2003

To go too in depth into a movie might not be a good idea. I think it would ruin the fun and enjoyment of it because you analyze too much. Sure its fun to realize a few philosophical and religious implications but I dont know about delving into such a deep trench about such matters.

But thats just my subjective opinion.
posted by spidre at 8:35 PM on April 30, 2003

also watch X-files for the human battery analogy.
posted by destro at 9:15 PM on April 30, 2003

Except from a college paper I wrote when the movie first came out (sorry for the long post!):

Upon first viewing, however, it seems unlikely that The Matrix could be considered a poster child for postmodernism. A high-budget Hollywood sci-fi kung fu movie, it's the sort of text in which most viewers would not expect to find much of intellectual importance. Further analysis, however, reveals a surprising amount of depth to the story.

The Matrix is about a hero attempting to conquer an evil villain: the postmodern condition. The concepts of postmodernism (and the story's reaction to it) are not obviously revealed in the style or technique of the film's creators, which seems deceptively modern on the surface, but instead come out primarily as personifications or manifestations within the storyline itself. This analysis, then, will focus not only on the film as a postmodern text but also on the film as being self-consciously about postmodernism -- specifically, the idea of postmodern "reality" being a mere simulation.
The most obvious tip-off to this premise is the scene in which Neo pulls out a book that turns out to be Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. Opening to the chapter "On Nihilism," we find that the book has been hollowed out and is used as a hiding place. It is with this clue that the authors invite a postmodern interpretation.

The story-under-the-story is approached through three metaphors that are neatly woven together within the film. The first is the "cyberpunk" metaphor, in which those people fighting against the Matrix are characterized as computer hackers. This makes sense in context, as the movie itself is about breaking through computer-generated barriers (i.e., modernity-generated metanarratives). Many elements of the film evoke hacker nostalgia: The idea of computer-generated reality, for example, is visually conveyed by the color green, which is a throwback to the days when most computer monitors displayed green characters on a black background. This can be seen not only in the "encoded" views of the Matrix, in which numbers and Japanese characters flow across the screen in green on black, but also in a more subtle form: The color green is conspicuously ubiquitous in all scenes taking place within the Matrix (in clothing, on buildings, etc.), a foreshadowing of Neo's final vision of the Matrix entirely as green code. Green, then, is a metaphor for the "hackable" world of computers (i.e, modernity / Matrix).

The second metaphor, that of Neo as Messiah, is used as the vehicle by which the postmodern condition is to be overcome in this story. There are numerous parallels between Neo and Christ: virgin birth (in a dehumanizing pod), disciples (the crew of "hackers" assisting Neo), John the Baptist (Morpheus, who prepares the way for one who will come after him), brothers among the disciples (Tank and Dozer), Judas (Cypher), foretelling of death and resurrection (by the oracle), resurrection (after being shot), and ascension (flying into the sky at the very end). In addition, many instances of dialogue in the film have a double meaning in which Neo is being described as a messiah figure. In the first few minutes of the movie, for example, one character says to him, "You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ."

Trinity plays a strange role in this metaphor: As namesake of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christianity, it is noteworthy that she plays a supporting role to Neo's messiah, and even more noteworthy that she would be a woman:

Neo: "Jesus..."
Trinity: "What?"
Neo: "I just were a guy"

Perhaps the Trinity character is meant as an indication that the movie is not about Christianity itself (which would be an understandable initial reaction). Trinity is shown prominently in the beginning of the movie, but as soon as Neo enters she is given a supporting role. Perhaps this is a hint that the movie is not about religious metanarratives, and yet that they should not be entirely shunned. There is, after all, a branch of Judaism called Gnosticism, which believed in a savior that would come and rescue mankind from the illusory world in which they were trapped. There are many parallels between Gnostic beliefs and the views presented in this film; Perhaps Trinity is our reminder not to ignore religion entirely.

The third metaphor is that of sleeping, and more specifically dreaming. The phrase "wake up" is used repeatedly throughout the film, and the exit music is a song called "Wake Up" by Rage Against the Machine (whose name also has interesting postmodern connotations, though this is probably just coincidence). Morpheus is named after the Greek god of dreams, and his ship (the Nebuchanezzar) is named after an Old Testament king who went mad when he was unable to interpret an enigmatic dream he had. In addition, towards the end of the film, Trinity awakens Neo with a kiss, an intertextual reference to Sleeping Beauty. Being caught up in the postmodern condition, then, is portrayed metaphorically in this movie as sleeping and dreaming. The protagonists of this story are trying to awaken the human race, which is trapped in this dream world in which they are "batteries" for their electronic oppressors; Which is to say, they are asleep in that they don't realize that their lives are defined by their participation with modern society, for which they provide energy in the form of money, attention, labor, etc. (Baudrillard, 1994).

These metaphors are used as the framework upon which this story about postmodernism is built: Hacking computers represents "hacking" modernity, and Neo the hacker is the messiah that will deliver us from the "dream" of reality created by the Matrix (modernity).

The movie opens with Trinity and Cypher talking over the telephone about Neo, whom they have been observing. The phone line is being traced by an unknown party. Though we don't understand this until later in the movie, Trinity is located in the "Matrix," a vast, computer-generated simulation. The tracing of her location is perhaps a metaphor for attempting to determine where she belongs in this simulation of reality. As someone who comes and goes without regard for accepted norms, the Agents (guardians of the status quo) want to figure her out, to "locate" her, and ultimately to eliminate her. She eventually escapes them by leaving the simulation and returning to the "Real World," but not without difficulty and even pain.

The idea that leaving the simulation is difficult is present throughout the movie: When Morpheus first speaks with Neo, he says "I don't know if you're ready to see what I want to show you," and later on says, "There is a rule that we do not free a mind once it reaches a certain age.... They have trouble letting go. Their minds turn against them."; The entire subplot involving Cypher's attempts to leave the Real World and return to the Matrix also reinforce this idea that "ignorance is bliss." This is the temptation from which the messiah Neo is attempting to deliver us. The name "Neo" is an anagram of "one," while the word "cypher" is derived from Arabic and means "zero." These two characters represent the opposites of binary computer language, positive and negative, good and evil. We are encouraged to support Neo, the hero, in his quest to free people from the temptations of modernity, while Cypher is portrayed as Judas, the evil villain trying to preserve a modernist mindset.

This points out one of the many ways in which the The Matrix seems surprisingly not postmodern. As was pointed out earlier, postmodernism is opposed to binarisms such as good and evil. The story, however, buys heavily into that particular metanarrative, providing us with villains and heroes as clearly defined as those we might find anywhere else in Hollywood. There is no middle ground: As Morpheus states, "If you're not one of us, you're one of them." The parallels with Christianity also support a strong metanarrative of Western culture; The tales many audience members learned in Sunday school are being reenacted and reinforced in this film. The story within the movie, then, seems to mock the movie itself, as this is a quintessential example of a Hollywood film. It is low art, feeding the metanarratives of the sleeping masses; and yet hidden in this chop-socky sci-fi flick is a story that tells us that we must all "wake up." It is impossible to tell whether this is high art disguising itself as standard Hollywood fare, or low art with a mock-intellectual storyline; This ambiguity, however, indicates that it might be more postmodern than it seems on the surface.

The metanarratives found in this film could very well be a sign of intertextuality, pastiche, and nostalgia, rather than a simple compliance with Western ideals. The parallels with Christianity are not theological but mythological, ghosts of the Sunday school stories that melted together with the science fiction stories, the kung-fu movies, and the rising status of computers in society that captivated so many young American minds. Perhaps we are seeing the childhood visions of the Wachowski brothers being thrown together into this self-mocking storyline.

The street names and other location references within the Matrix are all taken from the Chicago neighborhood in which the Wachowskis grew up. They are acknowledging that their own childhood took place in the Matrix, in the dream created by modernity. In one part of the movie, Neo points out a restaurant where he used to eat; This was based on one of the Wachowskis' favorite restaurants, which had (as Neo put it) "great noodles" (Tang, 1999). In this film, then, we are not merely watching the auteurs preach about the postmodern condition; Instead, we are seeing their own journey out of the Matrix (which they would naturally try to validate by presenting it in the movie as the ultimate goal of humanity), sugarcoated in metaphors so that most people don't realize what they're swallowing, and presented as a high-budget Hollywood film that looks, on the surface, like just another trivial sci-fi popcorn movie. A clever disguise for a strong psychological and philosophical statement.
posted by oissubke at 9:51 PM on April 30, 2003

By the way, years later, I know how much pompous rubbish that was -- I just thought it might be an interesting addition to the discussion. :-)
posted by oissubke at 9:58 PM on April 30, 2003

Oissubke - I'm extremely impressed. I mean, like any good academic paper, parts of it were complete bullshit.. but on the whole that was one of the best summaries of many of the themes and ideas found throughout the film that I've read yet. If I wore a hat, it would be off to you at the moment.
It will be very interesting to see how those themes and ideas will be maintained, reconsidered, and altered or reinforced in the sequels.
posted by Wingy at 10:48 PM on April 30, 2003

The protagonists of this story are trying to awaken the human race, which is trapped in this dream world in which they are "batteries" for their electronic oppressors; Which is to say, they are asleep in that they don't realize that their lives are defined by their participation with modern society, for which they provide energy in the form of money, attention, labor, etc. (Baudrillard, 1994).

Woah. So like, the Matrix is like a metaphor... like we're all batteries for the man.

Seriously, Oissubke that was far from pompous rubbish, that was a clear and understandable summary of some of the major themes of the Matrix. (this and this is pompous rubbish).

Oh, caustic and the Plato essay touch on the problem of "how do they know when they're out of the matrix?" It was my impression from the movie that the characters could just tell that they were out in the same way one can generally tell when they are awake or asleep. And I hope they stay away from the "are we still in the simulation" plot area as it's been done (eXistenZ, the second Moriarty Star Trek episode) and resolving the humans vs. AI would be more interesting. But that is another issue, if you're in a simulation you can never be sure when you've recursed out of all of them.

One of the fascinating parts of the Animatrix is that it shows the AI being abused and mistreated, great stuff.
posted by bobo123 at 11:04 PM on April 30, 2003

wobh: I watched akira, and I tried to like it, I really did, but ended up thinking it was pretty lame. Mayhap I need some basic information on the history of anime, or something. I really am open to learning about it though... Perhaps I'm missing something, what did you see in it?

I think the Matrix is cool b/c it is kung-fu sci-fi that is aware of the philosophical themes intrudes upon. It is not a philosophical movie, but it is aware of the underlying philosophical themes, which allows philosophy types to enjoy themselves as much as the people there just for the action.

If they can pull it off for the second I'll be ecstatic. I'm especially eager to see if they deal with the inherent problems AI presents (if it is "true" ai does this mean that humans are no longer the only conscious existents?) but I'm slightly worried that it'll be more about the action.
posted by cohappy at 3:42 AM on May 1, 2003

I thoroughly enjoyed Oissubke's post. I found the subtexts and the myriad Christian, gnostic Christian and Buddhist clues in the movie fascinating, and it's the only recent movie I've seen more than once, and in my case several times.

Another thing Oissubke brought up was the sci-fi schlock violence factor, which I found jarring and inconsistent with the other themes, although entertaining.

We are led to believe that when a simulated character dies in the matrix, it's human body dies in "real" battery pod, so it's unneccessary to point out the real world implications and events which are similar to the dramatic helicopter crash scene in the film, where actual mass casualties are disregarded as simulation.

The fact that the matrix urban scenes were shot in Sydney, Australia, with brief appearances by Australian aborigines (the oracle's apartment building lobby) adds another layer of implicit gnostic mysticism and inconsistency in that the oracle herself and her students exist within the matrix as simulations, yet are aware of a spiritual force apart from the matrix.

Ah well, it's just a movie.
posted by hama7 at 4:10 AM on May 1, 2003

Whilst I admire everyone who has written so much about the film, and persevered to analyse it to such depths, I still can't help but refuse to take seriously a film in which the supposedly sooper-clever artificial intelligences which have created and maintain such a complex, high maintenance, artificial environment, in order to stupefy their otherwise obstreperous source of electrical power, have never even heard of lobotomies. Never mind algae ...
posted by walrus at 4:10 AM on May 1, 2003

I'm with the Tusk'd One. Good movie, but implausible, in that my understanding is that humans make fairly shitty chemical batteries (not very efficient use of fuel, I would think). Nope, a future ruled by machine intelligence would probably look more like Terminator than Matrix. There's just no practical reason to keep a bunch of hairless apes around, sucking down valuable resources and causing problems.

And I, for one, welcome our digital overlo-

BLAM! Thud.
posted by UncleFes at 7:00 AM on May 1, 2003

In comic form, Akira came out around the same time as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. I haven't read the comic But as far as I've been able to tell the movie is abridged but faithful. All three are complex, violent, dytopian, apocalyptic epics. But, either in spite or because of their scope, they root themselves in the emotional lives of their characters.

The movie Akira probably makes less sense than The Matrix (the comic might help here, might hurt too, I don't know). Akira is probably vulnerable to the same criticism that Nick Davis levels against The Matrix (in the Happy Matrix Link above, which I idly agree with). In the case of Akira, I don't mind, because it has deeper investment in it's whole cast of characters and it's imagry and direction are much better, more interesting, less predictable, a little more poetic. The last two contradict each other but there you have it—I think Akira is a better unity of it's disparate elements. Like The Matrix, Akira is also a power fantasy for disaffected youth. Unlike The Matrix, Akira (accurately I think) extrapolates the nightmarish consequences of the same fantasy when carried out.

Tetsuo has the same persecution complex I think a lot of teenagers experience growing up. I know I felt that way. Unfortunately, it makes him blind to Kanada's actual loyalty and friendship. I feel sympathy for Tetsuo because I've experienced the similiar things. I even envy him for the power that he aquires and empathize with the desire to violently destroy the things that hurt me. But I also see the monster it makes him, blindly lashing out at everything. Nowadays, when I think of Tetsuo's monsterous transformation in the end sequence, I also think of the Columbine tragedy.

I don't recall the ending real well probably because it was pretty ambiguous (up there with 2001). I think Akira heals and forgives Tetsuo, at least that's how I remember interpreting it. I guess I'll just will have to watch it again. Darn! :-)
posted by wobh at 8:21 AM on May 1, 2003

Tetsuo Shima is thrown through a wall and crawls from the rubble unscathed, looks at hands wonderously, 'What's happening to me? I must be dreaming...Bitchin! I feel like I could take on the whole world today'.

Akira was pretty advanced, and is the standard by which I judge manga films. I certainly have watched it more times than the Matrix, despite having both on tape. To be fair, I've had Akira alot longer than The Matrix.
Now that I think about it there are many parallels in the films.
posted by asok at 9:21 AM on May 1, 2003

oissubke, I thoroughly enjoyed that. I don't think it was rubbish or pompous - you pulled together a lot of loose thoughts that were floating around in my mind. I especially liked the the ambiguity spotlighted at the end - that "it is impossible to tell whether this is high art disguising itself as standard Hollywood fare, or low art with a mock-intellectual storyline." A far better, more thought-provoking movie than I had expected from Hollywood. And kick-ass action to boot. I mean, that lobby scene...! And hama7, I'd missed the Aborigines in the lobby, but that makes me think of the Aboriginal Dreamtime motif. Intentional, I wonder?

I have watched The Matrix more times than I care to recount and loved it every time. Cannot wait for the sequels. Did anyone else catch the discrepancy w/how Cypher was able to plug himself into the Matrix for the steak-eating sell-out scene? Ahh, only 2 more weeks.
posted by widdershins at 10:03 AM on May 1, 2003

I have such a hard-on for this movie that I find it almost impossible to make rational commentary.

Although I thought the battery thing worked better if you thought computing power, as opposed to electrical power. Would also explain how our heroes, once enlightened, can directly manipulate the matrix, as it's running on their own personal wet-ware.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 11:00 AM on May 1, 2003

Wow, great replies wobh and asok, although I think I might see why Akira didn't mean as much for me. I watched it a few months ago, and I remember thinking that the animation was surprisingly excellent considering its age. However, I just wasn't digging the characters. I totally agree that its a disaffected youth story, I guess I just watched it a few years too late.

However, I don't really agree that the Matrix is a disaffected youth story, although granted several elements are there. As I said earlier, I really see it as a simple kung-fu sci-fi, only one written by someone with the awareness of the philosophical themes it intrudes upon.

More so, I'm not sure I understand the criticism that its not philosophical enough... If you're looking to mainstream hollywood kung-fu sci-fi movies for meaty philosophy, your probably looking in the wrong place....
posted by cohappy at 11:19 AM on May 1, 2003

Would also explain how our heroes, once enlightened, can directly manipulate the matrix, as it's running on their own personal wet-ware.

Well, it could have been like this, but it's pretty clear that they are using special hardware to hack into the Matrix once they've been unplugged. I frankly would have liked the film much better if the heroes had simply, using the power of their minds, figured out what they were living in and how to manipulate it, without ever having been unplugged.
posted by kindall at 2:11 PM on May 1, 2003

And here I was thinking the film was just your basic Frankfurt School Marxism. Humans are alienated from their labour power, exploited for their productive capacities (the battery metaphor), while blanketed with a false consciousness (the matrix) which prevents them from recognising their true class interests and rising righteously against their capitalist-machine oppressors. Hollywood Reds, indeed.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:28 PM on May 1, 2003

Slate's take on the Matrix.
posted by Vidiot at 11:45 PM on May 1, 2003

Well, it could have been like this, but it's pretty clear that they are using special hardware to hack into the Matrix once they've been unplugged.

Nah, doesn't explain spoon boy, and the other kids in the oracles apartment.

fap fap fap
posted by inpHilltr8r at 10:05 AM on May 2, 2003

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