THE MATRIX


OK, I'll lay my cards on the table straight away: The Matrix is my least favourite film of all time. Just so no-one is in any doubt.


The Matrix (1999)

The Wachowski brothers burst onto the directorial scene in 1997 with the sublime Bound, a mature, thoughtful look at lesbian relationships, ingeniously worked into the conventions of the crime thriller. Their 1999 effort, however, was to surpass even that work. The Matrix is a landmark of modern cinema, a work that cannot fail to leave an impression on even the most noncommitted viewer.

Most critics, in appraising The Matrix, make the mistake of concentrating on the film's special effects. Certainly there are some good special effects, and some neat CGI work, not least the leading actor himself. At times, "Keanu" looks so convincing that he almost appears a real person. There are a few tell-tale signs though, like the occasional jerky movement, the constant vacant expression, and the mechanical delivery of lines: but this is very impressive CGI work notwithstanding. There is more to the Matrix than special effects, however.

Philosophically the work is deep: perhaps the most important contribution to philosophy on film in the 20th century. The people of earth live in a false world: a world where the values of Enlightenment have grown stale, where reason and the constructions of society have concealed the realities of being. To break free, to realise the authentic existence of Heidegger's Dasein, Neo must abandon reason and follow nonsense, symbolised by Carroll's White Rabbit. Through nonsense, Neo transcends the false reality, realises life directly, becoming Nietzsche's Ubermensch, leaping buildings and soaring at will. In navigating freely between inner and outer worlds, objective and subjective realities, the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, so long a plague of Western thought, is finally vanquished. The subjective becomes master over all: death in the virtual, subjective world results in death in the real, objective one. Descartes' "I think therefore I am" becomes "I think I am, therefore I am." Has a more profound statement been made in modern cinema?

The appearance of the Oracle is an acknowledgement to the film's debt to Ancient Greek philosophy: indeed 'Know Thyself' could be seen as the central leitmotif of the film. The goal of the aspiring Ubermensch must be first and foremost self-knowledge and self-liberation: indeed the culture of liberation must be the culture of the self, the exaltation of 'The One' above all else. Neo (an ingenious anagram of 'One') is a classic example of one who liberates himself and realises his true fate: he does this by abandoning all 'doubt', that most negative of Enlightenment qualities, and embracing faith in his own self.

Above all, The Matrix asks important questions on the nature of reality. Is the world just as we perceive it, or are we all really imprisoned in womb-like tombs as a power source for a gigantic hypercomputer? In the film, as in real life, the reality is never in doubt. Granted, there are plot holes, but these holes are the holes in our own reality, the pits that cannot be papered over with logic, which allow precious glimpses into our more authentic existence.

This eloquent and profound statement on romantic lebensphilosophie is ingeniously dovetailed with Christian allegory. Throughout the film, Neo is a Christ-like figure, both human and divine, living in real and imagined worlds, who must learn to deal with his destiny. Trinity, itself a name rich with Christian resonance, is both Mary and Mary Magdalene; mother, lover and worshipper. Morpheus (a changed Orpheus, who searches in the Underworld not for his wife but for the messiah) is both John the Baptist and the Archangel Gabriel. Neo is betrayed by one of his apostles who is seduced by the false God of materialism. The agents represent the Roman Empire (i.e. Satan). The God here is the Self, and this is attained through the revelation of ancient gnostic knowledge ("I know Kung-fu") and armed struggle ("I need guns. Lots of guns.").

The Gun is the key to uncovering the Self: through Self-empowerment, one attains Self-knowledge. Therefore the Gun becomes the most important image in the film, more important even than the Mobile Phone (a symbol of communication with one's inner Self). Guns become the messengers of God, the temporal embodiment of The Divine. Each bullet, each spent cartridge, is lovingly, worshipfully photographed. Death from gunshots is beautiful experience, tantamount to contact with the Divine. The Gun enables Neo to do things Christ could never do: whereas Christ could only overturn the tables in the Temple, Neo can destroy the lobby of the security building, and kill all his spiritual adversaries. The film's makers, in common with the NRA, recognise the importance of the Second Amendment in maintaining personal liberty.

The script is taut and profound: rich in metaphor and symbolism, dense in philosophical content. It is refreshing to see such a serious script, and more than that a script that takes itself so seriously. The actors deliver their lines without a trace of irony, as befits a work of such importance. Esoteric literary references abound, and not only do they enhance the philosophical discourse (see above), they also make the audience feel more intelligent. The Matrix is in every sense a film that makes one feel more intelligent when it is over.


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