So, What is The Matrix? Rethinking Reality

Roberto Rivera

Roberto Rivera is a Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship and writes regularly for their Breakpoint commentaries and for Like Neo in the popular film The Matrix, he's sure there's more to life than we see, but he also knows it's not a computer that's running the show.

 - (Note: This review is not an endorsement of the R-rated movie, The Matrix, but rather a look at the underlying philosophical themes. Viewers beware: the film is ultimately, a dark, violent and philosophically postmodern one.)
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself—Well ... How did I get here?

 - Talking Heads "Once In A Lifetime"

Ever felt like David Byrne in that Talking Heads song? I have. It feels like life isn’t real. You pinch yourself to make sure you’re really awake, and even when you feel your own pain, you’re still not convinced. Well, Thomas Anderson, a software programmer for one of the leading software companies in the country, feels that way, too. But unlike the rest of us, he’s about to get some answers. You see, one day his computer decides to strike up a conversation with him. And where that conversation leads ... well, let’s just say it’s an amazing ride. That ride is why people are lining up outside theaters in record numbers to catch the new Warner Bros. Film The Matrix.

It wasn’t only audiences who were taken with the film. Time magazine’s Richard Corliss called the film "clever" and described its "hipness" as a "rare and welcome commodity in mass-market moviemaking." Even critics who didn’t like the movie — the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bob Graham, for example — used words like "exhilarating" and "breathtaking" to describe the craft behind the movie.

Part of the appeal lies in the film’s unique combination of special effects and martial-arts action. Cast members reportedly trained for six months with a Hong Kong Kung Fu master, and it shows. The fight sequences are nearly as good as the best "chop-socky" flicks starring Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat or even Jet Li. Throw in some amazing special effects and I was left as articulate as Anderson (Keanu Reeves) himself: "Whoa!"

But you need more than action to create a cultural phenomenon. For that you need a story that grabs the audience. And this film has one. By stealing, umm ... borrowing, from sources as diverse as the Bible, Zen Buddhism, Lewis Carroll and even other Warner Bros. movies, the Wachowski brothers tell us a story that keeps you thinking long after you’ve left the theater. The plot is hard to describe without spoiling it for people who haven’t seen it yet, but The Matrix is about Anderson’s hacker alter ego, Neo. Shortly after his computer reaches out to him, Neo meets a mysterious woman named Trinity who’s not only beautiful, but has this fluid relationship with the laws of physics. Neo isn’t sure what’s going on, either with her or with his own life, but he’s convinced that a notorious rebel with the name Morpheus can help him figure things out.

He’s right. And before you can say "Lewis Carroll," Morpheus comes looking for him. Eventually, Neo follows a white rabbit of sorts down one very peculiar rabbit hole and meets the elusive sage. (The film is loaded with overt references to Through The Looking Glass. Under Morpheus’ (Laurence Fishburne) tutelage, Neo learns the truth: Reality isn’t what it’s cut out to be. In fact, it isn’t even real. It’s a computer generated illusion to keep people from rebelling against the machines that really run the show. This plot detail comes straight from another Warner Bros. film: Alex Proyas’ underrated masterpiece Dark City. In both films, the stuff of which human consciousness is made, our perceptions and our memories, isn’t to be trusted. They’ve been manipulated in order to control us.

If the Wachowskis had stopped here, they still would have had a heckuva story. But would people have lined up around the block to see this flick? I doubt it. For that, you need to enter the realm of myth, and for that you need religion. In their efforts to get religion, the Wachowskis borrowed from two incompatible religious traditions: Buddhism — in particular Zen Buddhism — and Christianity.

You can see Zen’s fingerprints everywhere, including the way Morpheus talks to Neo. Instead of answering Neo’s questions in a straightforward manner, he insists on koans such as, "I can only show you the door, you must walk through," and "when the time comes, you won’t need to dodge the bullet." Or my favorite, "[the Oracle] didn’t lie, she told you exactly what you needed to hear."

And then there’s the way the concept of "reality" is treated in the film. Reality is, shall we say, elastic. In fact, it’s downright illusory. Neo’s power comes from the realization that things aren’t what they seem to be and that the rules governing "reality" can be bent and even broken at times.

This idea of reality as rubber band comes straight out of Buddhism, which teaches that salvation comes through the insight that human experience, including suffering, is illusory. In fact, suffering is the product of our attachments to these illusions, including the illusory idea of freedom.

The problem is that this worldview doesn’t make for much of a story — at least one that western audiences would pay to see. If you believe that suffering is illusory, or the product of our attachment to the idea of being free, there’s very little incentive to do anything heroic, starting with helping yourself. To rise above the passivity and fatalism we often associate with Eastern mysticism, the Wachowskis had to borrow from Christianity. So, Neo isn’t just any hacker. His coming has been foretold by a character named The Oracle. Morpheus and company believe that Neo is "the one," who has the power to defeat the machines and set humanity free. It doesn’t stop there. The Wachowskis seem to hold the Bible upside down and shake it into the script. Morpheus and the rest of the human resistance reside in a place called Zion. Eventually, even resurrection makes an appearance.

The Wachowskis are very tight-lipped, so it’s hard to know how intentional all this was. But, it wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t aware of just how much their film owes Christianity. That’s because, in fin d’siecle America, few people are aware of just how indebted we are to the worldview Christianity provides us.

Just how indebted we are was outlined in a recent Newsweek cover story called "2000 Years Of Jesus." Among other things, Christianity changed the way we tell stories, especially the ones that express our hopes for a better future. It starts with the Christian understanding of God. Prior to Christianity, pagan Gods weren’t the kind of folks you’d like to base your hopes on. They were either capricious and cruel, or they were incapable of feeling anything. Oh, yeah, you might say a prayer here and there, but it was more like a form of insurance. You appeased them. You didn’t think that they cared.

But Christianity changed that. It told the world about a God, the God of Israel, who not only cared about our suffering, but did something about it. Twice, He stepped into history and set his people free — first at the Exodus from Egypt and then, for all time, at the death and resurrection of His own Son. And on both occasions, He made it clear that He was keeping a promise that he had made. The parallels between the Christian story and Neo couldn’t be clearer. It’s Christianity, and its understanding of God that makes a cinematic savior like Neo — one whose coming was foretold — possible. In fact, without Christianity, stories like The Matrix would be impossible.

Of course, The Matrix doesn’t make this connection. Even with all the biblical allusions, God is conspicuous by His absence. So, who’s calling the shots? Who is manipulating events on behalf of humanity? It’s that old sci-fi standby: Fate, also known as Destiny. In The Matrix, people are always talking about their belief in Fate. It’s Neo’s fate to deliver humanity; it’s another person’s fate to help Neo do it, yada, yada, yada. The problem is that Fate is no better at explaining the characters’ motivations than all the Zen is. If you believe that an impersonal force is driving events, the most likely response is, once again, passivity. What’s more, what happens to human freedom? If all of this is "foreordained," are Neo and company heroes or mere puppets?

These are fair questions because no one in the film acts like a puppet. They make moral choices. They take matters into their own hands, take risks, and make sacrifices, to ensure that good triumphs over evil. I’m sorry folks, but belief in mere fate doesn’t inspire that kind of conduct — only belief in something a little more personal and caring does that.

You might be thinking "lighten up, it’s only a movie!" But, as we approach the new millenium, which after all, is dated from the approximate time of Jesus’ birth, it’s appropriate to consider how much of the modern world was made possible by Christianity — even the movies we watch. The answer is: a lot. As Newsweek put it, " ... much of what we now think of as Western ideas, inventions and values finds its source and inspiration in the religion that worships God in [Jesus’] name." And, it goes way beyond stuff you normally associate with religion, such as philosophy and morals. It includes ideas as diverse as "art and science, the self and society, politics and economics, [and] marriage and family ..."

And, it even includes the stories we tell. Whether on paper or in celluloid, the stories that inspire us, the stories that give us hope, are brought to you courtesy of the biblical God. When you watch a Neo or a Luke Skywalker "setting his face like flint" and doing whatever is necessary to make sure that good triumphs over evil and that people are set free from their oppressors, remember what worldview made that kind of story possible: The one inspired by the first man who "set his face like flint" and did what was necessary to set us all free.

Copyright © 1999 Roberto Rivera. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.