The concept of a "matrix" as an all-encompassing alternate reality is not new, nor did it originate with the 1999 film that is the subject of this essay. In his 1964 text entitled Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan foreshadowed its coming, writing:
|"Literacy remains even now the base and model of all programs of industrial mechanization; but, at the same time, locks the minds and senses of its users in the mechanical and fragmentary matrix that is so necessary to the maintenance of mechanized society."|
William Gibson's Neuromancer, generally acknowledged as the prototypical cyber-punk novel used the term to describe an artificial, alternate reality that he also referred to as "cyberspace":
The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games...a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. (51)
Discussing the final
passage into death, a 1994 translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead says,
"this last is followed by the consciousness taking up its abode in a
whence it is born again as a Birth-Consciousness." (ixix)
The film "The Matrix" (written by Larry and Andy Wachowski) borrows these concepts as its premise, but is far from a shallow exploitation of the idea. It is a testimony to postmodern thought; a monument erected for the sole purpose of deconstructing itself. The dystopia that is the film's setting problematizes the concepts of existence, reality, faith, perception and individual freedom. "The Matrix" is a multi-sensory exploration of the ideas of Jean Baudrillard, a deconstructive re-telling of the Christ-myth, and an attack on the viewer's perception of reality. As Morpheus tells Neo, "The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."
Eight minutes and thirty seconds into "The Matrix", Neo is visited by four people seeking a disk. Neo takes their money and closes the door. He walks across his apartment, picks up a book, and opens it. That book is Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. The book has been hollowed out to be used as a hiding-place. (Applying Baudrillard's definition, this actually transforms it into a book-simulacrum.) The chapter he opens it to is "On Nihlism", in which Baudrillard writes:
If being a nihilist is carrying out, to the unbearable limit of hegemonic systems, this radical trait of derision and violence, this challenge that the system is summoned to answer through its own death, then I am a terrorist and nihilist in theory as the others are with their weapons. Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource left to us. (163)
Morpheus and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar are both terrorists and nihilists, yet their violence could certainly be construed as theoretical, since the only damage they do is to the matrix and its constructs. Thirty-three minutes later, as he shows the real, post-apocalyptic world to Neo (the burned-out ruins of a city make up the horizon) Morpheus quotes Baudrillard, saying "Welcome to the desert of the real." This is a basic tenet of Baurillard's philosophy: the concept of the third order of simualcrum. The first order consists of imitation that has substance, that refers to an original work, like a painting or a manuscript. An example might be a hand-rendered reproduction of a famous painting. This reproduction, or counterfeit, represents the original, which preceded it. The second order of simulacrum is mass production. There is no original work for the items to represent, and the reproductions are all of equal importance. The "desert of the real" refers to the third order of simulacrum. The third order is that of the "hyperreal", and need not bear any resemblance to anything in the real world. If it does seek to imitate reality, it often does too good a job. The third order is constructed from codes and models. According to Baudrillard, postmodern society has rejected the concept of an "original," for something that represents a thing in a more authentic way than itself. Currently, in the third order of simulacrum, simulacra are more real than the original code they imitate, if in fact they imitate any at all, and the third-order simulacra is often the only existing representation. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard wrote:
Today abstraction is
no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is
no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the
generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The
territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless
the map that precedes the territory-the precession of simulacra- that
engenders the territory... It is the real, not the map, whose vestiges persist
here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours.
desert of the real
As Morpheus asks, "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
Baudrillard's observance that, "abstraction is no longer that of... the mirror" is of great importance when exploring the concept of a matrix. In the first chapter of The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes a mirror as "nothing other than visibilty, yet without any gaze able to grasp it, to render it actual". (4) Foucault's mirror is not Baudrillard's mirror. Baudrillard's mirror, like the mirror of "The Matrix", is more like that of Lewis Carroll's in Through the Looking-Glass. When Alice laments her inability to see the entire room that exists on the other side of the mirror she says:
"I can see all of it when I get upon a chair -- all but the bit just behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit! I want so much to know whether they've a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you' know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too -- but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire." (16-17)
Alice is in sympathy
with the position of Baudrillard. From his philosophical point of view,
and that of "The Matrix", the mirror is no longer a reversed
echo of reality but one that exists independently, and through that very
existence, renders the original reality unreal. Baudrillard writes that,
"Duplication suffices to render both (the real and the
copy) artificial". (9) and later states that, "Truth is no longer the
reflexive truth of the mirror." (29) The simulation that was once the
mirror's image has become a simulacrum, based not on the reality it reflects,
but on pure fantasy that appears to be more real. This is what Baudrillard
calls "hypereality". As a postmodern statement, "The
Matrix" needs to twist the binaries of the representation and the real
enough to deconstruct itself, and one of the ways it does this is by using
Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation as a guide. In fact, the April 8, 1996 draft of "The
Matrix" screenplay overtly refers to Baudrillard. In it, during the
same scene referred to earlier, (as he shows Neo the ruins of civilization, i.e.
reality) Morpheus says to Neo, "You have been living inside Baudrillard's
vision, inside the map, not the territory. This is Chicago as it is today."
"The Matrix" collapses within itself by rendering the opposing poles
of reality and the simulacrum indistinguishable, and therefore
The future is here, and while it has not turned out to be the technological dystopia envisioned by many writers of post-apocalyptic fiction, it may be a far more terrifying reality than we presume it to be. We live in a time where combining the terms "virtual" and "reality" is commonplace. The boundaries between reality and perception have experienced an unprecedented slippage, resulting in a shift of privileging that often places perception on an equal footing with reality. In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard wrote that "Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible". (19) If this is true, we must accept that the inverse statement is valid as well; that reality is no longer possible, because illusion is not. Discussing the subject of virtual reality in an interview with Claude Thibaut, Baudrillard said,
|What happens when everything has been realized in modernity, when everything is virtually given? The question is crucial: where does one go from there? That is the problem: from the moment the subject is perfectly realized, it automatically becomes the object, and there is panic." (1)|
This Baudrillardean concept is explored in a pivotal scene of the film. As Neo waits with the other "potentials" (shorthand for potential saviors) to see the Oracle, he meets a boy who is sitting on the floor, holding a spoon. The boy stares at the spoon, and it bends, then bends back. He hands the spoon to Neo and says:
Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
In a chapter of Simulacra and Simulation entitled "Simulacra and Science Fiction", Baudrillard writes:
|The imaginary was the alibi of the real in a world dominated by the reality principle. Today, it is the real that has become the alibi of the model, in a world controlled by the principle of simulation. And paradoxically, it is the real that has become our true utopia- but a utopia that is no longer in the realm of the possible, that can only be dreamt as one would dream of a lost object. (122-123)|
Neo, Morpheus and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar struggle with their Baudrillardean existence. They are at their core both nihlists and freedom-fighters, yet they struggle to release the rest of the human race from a reality far more pleasant than the one they would be introduced to. Even Morpheus, the father-figure, has difficulty with the issue of perception, saying to Neo, "What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about your senses , what you feel, taste, smell or see, then all your talking about are electrical signals interpreted by the brain." This is another example of the text deconstructing itself, for if Morpheus is right, there is no way for him to ever be sure that his reality is real. As Cypher says to Trinity, "You see the truth, the real truth is that the war is over. It's been over for a long time. And guess what? We lost! Did you hear that? We lost the war!" To further illustrate the point, examine this piece of dialogue:
Trinity: The Matrix isn't real.
Cypher: Oh, I
disagree Trinity. I think the Matrix could be more real than this world. I mean,
all I do is pull a plug here. But there you watch a man die. (He grabs hold of
the cable in Apoc's neck, twists it and yanks it out.) You tell me which is more
real. (Apoc seems to go blind for an instant, a scream caught in his throat, his
hands reaching for nothing, and then falls dead. Switch screams.) Welcome to the
real world, right?
In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard explores postmodern nihilism at length. In the first chapter he examines what he calls the "simulacra of divinity." He writes that "divinity that animates nature can never be represented" (p. 4), referring to the concept of a God being somehow represented in human-created icons, and eliciting feelings of awe and inspiration. But what happens when God's supposed power and majesty are only felt through these icons? According to Baudrillard, it creates a problematization of the very existence of God, and the simulacra of divinity becomes the only representational image of God's existence.
Baudrillard claims that when these icons become simulacra, acting as a replacement for "the pure and intelligible Idea of God" (p. 4), the icons become the God in the collective consciousness of Man. This forms a nihilistic view of religion, and gives rise to the thought that "deep down God never existed, that only the simulacra existed, even that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum" (p. 4).
"The Matrix", which was released on the last Easter weekend of the 20th century, is an Postmodern re-telling of the Christ-myth, and true to Baudrillard's theory, the savior of the matrix is a simulacra of the third order. The only direct reference made to the "original" Christ that Neo represents, is when one of the nameless disk-buyers says to him, "Hallelujah. You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ." This dialogue crumbles under the weight of its own hyperbolisticity. It is obvious to the reader of this text that the three Christian references , placed closely together are meant to deconstruct each other. The casual manner in which they are uttered implies that there is no such thing as faith here, no hope for a savior.
The Wachowski brothers cling as closely to the Christ-myth as they do to Baudrillard's theories of reality, but while they pay homage to Baudrillard, there is a subtle twisting of the tale of christ. Many signs are prominently displayed to lead the casual viewer down a too-obvious path; that of believing this to be a story of hope. The names alone are obvious allusions to Christianity.
The protagonist is Neo, an anagram that when scrambled is One, as in The One, which Neo is called several times in the film. Neo can also mean "new". Morpheus is the Greek god of dreams, and the linguistic root for the words "morphine", which provides a release from pain, and the computer graphics technology of "morphing", which appears to be a smooth transformation between differing images. The character has the ability to move back and forth between the real world and that of the matrix and represents both the Father of the trinity, and John the Baptist, guiding Neo into the real world. Nebuchadnezzar was a biblical Babylonian king who searched for meaning in his dreams. Trinity is the Holy Spirit, completing the triad with Neo and Morpheus. She can also be read as Mary Magdalene, interacting with and falling in love with the Christ.Cypher is the representation of Judas. Like Judas, Cypher agrees to turn traitor over a meal. Like Judas, who shares a drink with Christ at the last supper, Cypher and Neo share a cup while Cypher expresses his doubts about the rebellion with the line, "Why oh why didn't I take the blue pill?"
There are many other allusions to Christianity in the film, from the name of the hidden city (Zion) to the ascension of Neo at the end of the film, but rather than create a list that further proves the existence of the Christ-myth in "The Matrix", I would like to examine the ways in which that myth collapses on itself.
Before Neo becomes Neo, he is Thomas Anderson, computer hacker. As a hacker, he is able to exercise some control over the simulacrum, and yet he does so without knowing what it is he's doing. When he is released from the matrix, he sees the world as a dark and broken place. If Christ saw the world as a place that was beyond redemption, he could not have traveled the land, preaching and performing miracles... those actions would have been useless. Throughout most of the film, Neo is the student rather than the teacher, being instructed in the ways of the matrix. Christ was a teacher, telling parables that instructed his followers in the ways of Christianity. None of these are the most important way "The Matrix" deconstructs itself as a messiah story.
One of the most important
concepts of Christianity is the need for "faith", as it refers to a
belief in the One True God. Neo is, in the end, saved by faith, but not
faith in a higher power. The faith that provides Neo with a great enough
control over the matrix to emerge victorious is a faith in himself. In the
original screenplay, as Neo seems to be dead, Trinity pounds on him and sobs,
"God dammit, Neo! Don't
give it up!". This blasphemous outburst suggests that there is no
higher power; that Neo must raise himself from the dead, a direct contradiction
to one of the most important aspects of the myth of Christ. In the final,
edited version of the film, Trinity does not take the lord's name in vain, but
rather resurrects him with a kiss. Still, this is a vital corruption of
the Christ-myth, wherein he is raised not by some divine intervention, but by a
pleasure of the flesh. The message of the bible is one of placing ones
self into the hands of a supreme being, of carrying out his work on earth - in
the physical world. The message of "The Matrix" is that of an
opposing binary: One must believe in one's self to triumph over the forces that
Finally, there is the most important hierarchy of all; that of good versus evil. In Christianity this opposition is always made clear. In "The Matrix", this binary, like that of reality versus perception, experiences a constant slippage. It is never explained why Morpheus considers reality "good" and the matrix "bad". Perhaps the argument could be made that the question is one of freedom versus slavery, but the slaves have, or think they have a considerably more comfortable life than do the freedom fighters in "The Matrix". Cypher, as he is about to betray Morpheus and the others to regain his assimilation into the matrix, says "Free? You call this free? All I do is what he (Morpheus) tells me to do. If I gotta choose between that and the matrix, I choose the matrix." A slave who chooses to be enslaved is not a slave at all, and the attribute of evil is assigned arbitrarily to the matrix, when in fact it may be the lesser of two evils. As Cypher says, "I think the Matrix could be more real than this world." He is clearly a rational, thinking person who would rather live in the simulacrum than the real, if in fact the real is real. Baudrillard makes the case that the simulations and simulacrum of our world have become the drug of choice for the masses. He suggests that television filters the impact of genuine events, writing that the, "same process of forgetting, of liquidation, of extermination, same annihilation of memories and of history, same inverse, implosive radiation, same absorption without an echo, same black hole as Auschwitz." (49) Is what happens when the simalucrum is realized... that mankind will forget its history. The human batteries living in the matrix are never subjected to the "evils" of mankind. They do not go hungry. There is no violence, or at least there does not have to be. They think they have free will, just as we inhabitants of 21st century America think we have free will. We do not. Taxes are referenced several times in the movie as a hint to this effect. People who withdraw from our technologically-based society do not affect change. They simply vanish from our radar screens. They cease to exist. The matrix, like most things in life, is not necessarily evil... it simply is. (or is it?)