Summary: The Matrix was a pathbreaking film, marking the start of a new era in Hollywood. Few reviews do it justice, usually ignoring the philosophy underlying the story. So we turn to a philosopher, Kelley Ross, for an explanation. The Matrix is one of the rare films where we learn much by digging behind the gunfire, CGI, and acting. Spoilers!
Review of “The Matrix”:
There Is No Spoon
Written & directed by “The Wachowski Brothers” (now Lilly & Lan).
Staring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne,
and Carrie-Anne Moss.
Released in 1999.
By Kelley L. Ross, posted at Friesian.
Re-posted with his generous permission.
The central philosophical interest of The Matrix lies in its exploitation of the classic fear of René Descartes: what if all of life is actually just a dream? Armchair philosophical speculation is turned into terrifying reality in this movie. But there is more. If the “Cartesian fear” applies to one level of reality, why not to the one that is, we think, subsequently revealed to be genuinely and ultimately “real”? Beyond Descartes is still Platonism and Buddhism, echoes of which we find in this movie.
The Matrix is classic science fiction, one of the box office giants of 1999, a powerful movie and a disturbing one in many ways. Besides the mind-bending revelations about reality, the level of violence is significant, and might appear gratuitous to some, especially when the “lobby” shootout may now remind viewers of the horrific Columbine High shootings. But the violence is surreal and relatively sanitized. There is nothing like the gore of the true high school massacre movie, Carrie (1976); nor are we quite at the level of the climactic shootout in The Crow (1994), but The Matrix is definitely in that aesthetic category — and was intended to be, with the most slow motion falling shell casings since Rambo (1985) [my note].
Most of the action, however, is not shooting at all but sophisticated martial arts, for which the actors themselves trained intensively with professionals from Chinese martial arts movies. This is becoming a trend, as George Lucas also wished to dispense with stuntmen and have the actors do the fighting themselves in The Phantom Menace (my note). While The Matrix is of greatest philosophical interest for other reasons, it cannot be denied that it is very definitely both a science fiction and a martial arts/action movie and that much of its emotional and aesthetic punch comes from the violence. The explosive beginning of the film, with “Trinity,” played by Carrie-Anne Moss, running up walls, taking out five armed policemen with her hands and feet (in no more than twenty seconds), and leaping between buildings like Superman (or Superwoman), sets the stunning physical tone for the whole. That she also appears to vanish into thin air deepens the initial mystery about what is going on.
Keanu [Hawaiian, ke=”the,” anu=”cool”] Reeves, as “Thomas Anderson” or the computer hacker “Neo,” the Messianic “One,” although laden with Christian imagery, and actually called “Jesus Christ” by one character, here gets to play the Buddha again — as he did in Little Buddha (1994). The Buddha is the one who “woke up,” as Reeves literally does, discovering that he has been a comatose prisoner, kept in a vat, his entire life, with the world he thought he was living in, where he had a boring computer programming job, fed to him as a virtual reality computer simulation through a probe directly into this brain.
He is rescued from this by a person the authorities regard as an international terrorist, “Morpheus,” played by Laurence Fishburne. Unplugged and flushed from his vat, Neo is taken up by Morpheus and his associates into a ship that travels through caves deep beneath the surface of a scorched and mostly lifeless earth — now ruled by computer intelligences who grow human beings merely to function as sources of power, keeping them docile with the virtual reality world, the “Matrix,” that is fed into their brains.
Wait a minute… “Caves”? To anyone familiar with Plato, this sounds suspicious. The theory in Plato’s The Republic (see my analysis) divides reality into four levels with the device of the Divided Line and the imagery of the Allegory of the Cave: We are all like prisoners tied up on the floor of a Cave. But usually we don’t even see the Cave itself — all we can see are shadows on the wall. Thus, Neo is such a bound prisoner, looking at the shadows of the Matrix. If Plato’s prisoner is released, however, he can get up and look around. He sees the cave, sees a fire burning in the back, and so now can know that the reality he formerly esteemed is produced by the fire throwing shadows from puppets that are paraded in front of it. Plato doesn’t say who has been parading these puppets. Neo learns that it is the sentient computers. He sees how, because of this, he has been manipulated rather like a puppet himself. At first it is hard to believe, and the depth of the revelation makes him physically ill, but he cannot deny it.
Another aspect of The Matrix with Platonic overtones is the frequent appearance of reflected images. We often see Neo reflected in the sunglasses of Morpheus, or in various metallic surfaces. A common theme in Plato is how we mostly deal with images in life. The shadows on the wall of the Cave are images of the puppets, which themselves are images of the Forms. Plato is famously unhappy with art, which creates images, not of the Forms themselves, but of the other things that are already images. Art based on the Cave’s shadows is no less than three steps removed from reality. The world in the Matrix is itself a reflected, shadow reality, dismally, biliously (all the colors have a green tinge) reproducing the “real world.”
Now, The Matrix contains no overt references to Plato, but it does suggest the question that is raised by following the Platonic analogy. The Cave, after all, was not ultimate reality for Plato. The freed prisoner leaves the Cave and discovers the genuine reality outside, the World of Forms, capped by the Form of the Good. Is it possible that the “real world” to which Neo awakes is itself a virtual reality computer simulation also? This would be an interesting twist for The Matrix II, but there is no hint of it here. Instead, by other clues The Matrix leads us to wonder whether, even if the “real world” is the real world, the real world might not actually be so “real” after all.
Morpheus teaches Neo that, once one is aware that the Matrix is a computer simulation, one can begin to manipulate it. Morpheus, Trinity, and others in the “Resistance” have developed this ability, which is why Trinity could dodge bullets, run up walls, and jump impossible distances — her vanishing into thin air, of course, was simply the result of her virtual self being removed from the Matrix. What Morpheus is really looking for, however, is someone, “The One,” who can manipulate the Matrix at will to produce any result, i.e. make bullets stop in mid air or defeat the “Agents,” who are invincible “sentient programs” whose job is to kill people like Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo (who cannot survive even a “virtual” death) and destroy the Resistance. The climax of the movie, of course, is when Neo develops this ability, is revealed as The One, defeats the Agents, and can begin the liberation of humanity.
On the way to that ending, however, plenty happens. After his initial training, Neo is taken to the “Oracle,” an old lady (played by Gloria Foster) who seems to be able to see the future. While waiting to see her, however, we have an important scene. Neo is left in a room with a group of children, who appear to be adepts doing impossible things. One is also reading a book in Chinese. One young boy, who is dressed and groomed rather like Mahâtmâ Gandhi, is calmly sitting, in a Lotus position, making spoons bend through telekenesis.
The extraordinary thing about the world of The Matrix is that we have no difficulty understanding how this is possible. Paranormal abilities are no longer miraculous when we know that they are just computer simulations. But Neo, living in this world, of course, has a little more difficulty grasping exactly how to do it. So the boy explains with perhaps the most important line of the movie, “There is no spoon.” Now, that is not exactly something that Plato would say. It might be Bishop Berkeley, but there is nothing in The Matrix to suggest a mere empiricist scepticism. What perhaps more weighty tradition would enable us to make such a statement about the “real” world?
That would be Buddhism. The spoon is “empty.” It has “no self nature,” no essence or enduring reality. It exists only relative to everything else (“relative existence” and “dependent origination”). This is what the boy says: Neo can make the spoon bend by bending himself.
While there do not seem to be overt references to Buddhism in The Matrix, it is hard not to think of it because of (1) the martial arts context, (2) the book in Chinese, (3) the code we see of the Matrix itself is not numerical but vaguely, or actually, like Chinese characters or the Japanese kana syllabary, (4) the fact that Neo “woke up” — what Buddha means, (5) the fact that Keanu Reeves actually did play the Buddha once, (6) the Gandhi or Buddha-like child, and (7) characteristically paradoxical statements that could be made on the basis of Buddhist doctrine, like “There is no spoon.” The importance of this statement is reinforced when Neo deliberately repeats it, as he and Trinity proceed in their task of freeing Morpheus after his capture by the Agents.
But this opens up a prospect: Could everything that Neo learns about the Matrix actually be true of our very own “real” world? This is no less than what Buddhism teaches. The Buddha is supposed to have acquired supernatural powers, just like Neo’s, when he achieved Enlightenment. The movie, therefore, need not be just a science fiction story about human slavery to sentient machines, but an allegory of human slavery to Sam.sâra, the illusory world of birth, death, and suffering. Plato would not say “There is no spoon.” The prisoner leaving the Cave could see the Spoon Itself, the eternal and unchanging Form of the Spoon. Only a Buddhist could say about all of reality what the boy says about the spoon: We leave the Cave to discover that behind the spoon there is Emptiness.
This would all be intriguing enough, but there is more. The Oracle represents an element in the movie that has nothing to do with Buddhism. She is not an adept at martial arts but instead draws Neo’s attention to a Latin motto on the wall of her kitchen, “Know Thyself” (Temet Nosce). Of course, “Know Thyself” was not originally in Latin, but in Greek (Gnôthi Seauton). It was one of the Delphic Precepts, along with “Nothing In Excess” (Mêden Agan), or the mottos of the Oracle at Delphi, where a priestess, the Pythia, was possessed by Apollo and foretold the future. The Oracle is thus a function, not of Buddhism, but of Classical Western religion (the elevator up to the Oracle’s apartment seems to have the Greek letter Ômega written on the wall, complete with circumflex accent and iota subscript). What our Oracle does, as we see, is to tell Neo what he “needed to hear,” as Morpheus puts it. Neo makes decisions, based on what she has said, that enable him to rescue Morpheus and then to achieve the abilities of The One.
Why don’t the machines have an Oracle? Why, for that matter, don’t the Agents have the same abilities as The One? It is, after all, their computer. So why can’t they manipulate the Matrix just any way that they like? The implication here, and a very un-Buddhist implication at that, is that there is more to human beings than to the “sentient programs” and the Artificial Intelligence world. The Oracle tells Neo, “You have a good soul.” But there is no soul, no self in Buddhism (the doctrine of anâtman or anatta), for this would be an essence or a self nature. When we see the code of the Matrix in one scene, indeed, what looks just like the Chinese character for “self” is very conspicuous. “Know Thyself” is a somewhat paradoxical instruction in Buddhism. If Neo has any kind of soul, and the machines do not, this explains the unique human abilities, and it puts us in a religious universe with rather more than what Buddhism tries to account for. And none of this is readily explained by the virtual reality nature of the Matrix.
Much more overt in The Matrix than the Platonic or even Buddhist overtones are the Christian ones. Neo actually is addressed early in the movie as “my own personal Jesus Christ.” It turns out that his ordinary life name is Thomas Anderson — Thomas the Doubting Apostle. The Oracle tells him that he is not The One, but then says in “your next life, maybe.” Well, Neo dies (flatline and all) and then is Resurrected. We have already been given to understand that there is reincarnation, since Morpheus is looking for someone who has actually lived before; but Neo is now reborn, without doubts, still in the same body, as The One. “Neo,” indeed, is from Greek neos, “young” or “new.”
But besides Neo we have Trinity, named after the entire Christian Godhead. It is she who effects the Resurrection of Neo. As far as she knows, he is really dead, like all the others we have seen killed in the Matrix and die in the real world. But she loves him, and now simply believes, with the help of the Oracle, that he cannot be dead. We have seen Trinity as a very reserved, perhaps sceptical person. But we have already had glimpses and clues about her real feeings and beliefs. Now, with a kiss of pure faith, she breaths life, like the Holy Spirit, back into Neo. He is reborn. Trinity thus becomes the Mother of God — like the Virgin Mary. Now, Mary was not a member of the original Trinity, but C.G. Jung thought she should be counted as the fourth in the Godhead. Trinity, indeed, seems to combine the Holy Spirit with Mary. We already have, indeed, a Father, namely Morpheus, who has not only been acting like a father but is then called that explicitly by Tank (Marcus Chong). So we end up with a Trinity indeed: Father (Morpheus), Son (Neo), and Holy Spirit/Mother (Trinity).
What are we to make of this? Is The Matrix a Christian movie? That seems unlikely. Keanu Reeves is not playing the real Jesus Christ. What it is, to be sure, is a powerful aesthetic synthesis of Greek, Buddhist, and Christian elements which clearly takes them all seriously. It is, indeed, unusual to take Christianity seriously without accepting all of it, or to reject the premise of the divinity of Jesus without reducing it to a secular and moralistic allegory in which everyone is the Son (or Child) of God.
The comparison with Buddhism, again, may be instructive. In principal, especially in the later stages of the history of Buddhism, anyone can become a Buddha, but most have not, and will not for a very long time yet. The achievement of the Buddha was rare and stupendous. He was not just a philosopher, but the “Blessed One,” the Tathâgata or the “Thus Come” One, whose relics were objects of veneration. Even as the Mahâyâna began to see everyone as perhaps already Buddhas, we also get the idea that there is an eternal cosmic Buddha, Mahâvairocana, of whom we are all a part.
A Christian equivalent to this would be a Christ who is relatively, but not entirely, unique. Not the one and only Son of God, but a rare thing, a Savior, who has a special and powerful spiritual function. A similar notion actually occurs in the Baha’i Faith, where periodic “Manifestations” (including Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Muhammad) mediate between God and humanity, with a Christianizing sense that these are God-like to us while still human to God; or in Hinduism, where the supreme Godhead of Vishnu periodically takes on Incarnations (Avatars), like Rama, Krishna, and even the Buddha to aid humanity.
The Matrix suggests a religion, like Buddhism, in which ultimate reality is bracketed or incomprehensible, but where there is also a divine and miraculous quality to human life that can produce Christ-like Saviors of extraordinary achievement and power. As in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, when many religions developed offering the promise of salvation and immortality, we are in a period of this same kind of religious exploration, with themes from all of world religion to draw on and cross-fertilize. In an indirect artistic and unconscious way, The Matrix suggests some of the kind of thing that people may be looking for.
The science of The Matrix
While notably powerful for its action and its religious/philosophical themes, The Matrix suffers a bit in the science department. The fundamental idea in the movie that human beings end up being used as batteries by the sentient machines, which explains Switch (Belinda McClory) calling Neo a “coppertop” — Morpheus later displays the familiar “coppertop” Duracell battery to Neo (a practice called “product placement”) — will not stand a moment’s examination. Human bodies are not batteries, they are fires. Very slow fires, to be sure, but ones that must be constantly stoked, with what we call “food.”
The food we get, animal or plant, ultimately contains energy usually derived from the sun. Morpheus’ explanation that the machines “liquify the dead” and feed this to the living implies a kind of perpetual motion machine. There are only two known sources of energy for living things on earth: (1) the sun and (2) geothermal venting. The only other source of energy intrinsic to the earth is (3) nuclear. Beyond that we are in (4) fossil fuels, which simply store (like batteries, actually) old solar (or perhaps geothermal) energy. If the machines fed humans oil and liquified coal, this would make more sense, but it would also be very inefficient: the oil and coal would be better burned directly for energy.
This fundamental flaw in the scientific basis of The Matrix is serious, but it still makes for a good story. As with many good stories, we just must suspend our disbelief. It does make a good premise for the situation of humans used for industrial purposes but kept in a state where they think they are living ordinary lives.
There are other loose ends in the physics and technology of The Matrix. We never do learn why members of the Resistance need a “hard line,” rather than just a cell phone, to “get out” of the Matrix, when it seems like both ultimately just consist of the same binary numbers as anything else in a computer program. Also, at the beginning of the movie, it is not obvious why Trinity needs to be in the Matrix at all to be monitoring Neo. That can be done from the ship, where the code of the Matrix, which can be read by those familiar with it, is on constant display. That code itself poses a problem. A computer program simultaneously processing the perceptions of billions of people could only very selectively be displayed on three small computer screens, but everyone acts like they’re seeing the whole thing.
Another problem is how it is that solar energy has been cut off. Morpheus simply says that we were able to “scorch the sky,” which doesn’t really explain anything. What we see in the sky are just clouds, but clouds imply rain, which is something that doesn’t seem to fall anymore on the desert of the earth. A nuclear winter would come the closest to what the story requires, but that would call for a rather featureless and dark sky, more like smog than like thunderstorms. But that would not be very dramatic cinematographically. It also wouldn’t last as long as the timeframe of the story. So some liberties have been taken.
While Morpheus tells Neo that his muscles have atrophied and that his eyes hurt because he has never used them before, the real life case would be far more dramatic and permanent. Eyes and muscles would all have atrophied to the point where they would have been ruined and useless. Of course, it is the muscles that generate the heat and electricity that supposedly power the powerplant, so we might speculate that the muscles are artificially stimulated with the connections that we see to maintain their function. But then they might not have atrophied at all, contrary to what Morpheus says. The eyes, however, are clearly unstimulated, and this would have rendered Neo permanently blind, not just sensitive.
Another scene displays a grave misunderstanding of the mechanism of evolution. Agent Smith is interrogating the captured Morpheus and tells him that humans are not really mammals. “Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops an equilibrium with the surrounding environment,” he says, while humans consume all the resources wherever they are and then move on. This makes them a virus.
But there is no creature in nature that “instinctively develops an equilibrium with the surrounding environment.” A population of any living thing expands until, indeed, it overburdens its food sources, its environment, and then the population dies back. This is the insight that Darwin got from Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). The least hardy and adapted of the population will die first, which gave Darwin the mechanism of “natural selection.” Agent Smith has been reading, not biology texts, but environmentalist tracts.
Since humans have occupied most of the earth for thousands of years, and Western civilization has reexpanded to transform the human culture of most of it in the last five hundred years, the idea that humans somehow “move on” doesn’t seem to refer to any actual events. The image presented rests on a fantasy that an area of land is stripped of anything useful (like a strip mine), which means it must then simply be abandoned. This is something that really almost never occurs. Even a strip mine can be recovered for some productive use. Since nature can devastate land more thoroughly than any human activity, as in catastrophic volcanic eruptions, or asteroid impacts, it would be extraordinary if removing some trace minerals from a location permanently ruined it.
In general, the idea of exhausting “natural resources” is bogus. This was demonstrated by Julian Simon, who bet environmentalist and doomster Paul Ehrlich that after ten years a basket of commodities, of Ehrlich’s own choosing, would cost less. Ehrlich took the bet and lost. Since Ehrlich had previously predicted that starvation would be widespread in the 1980’s, it is hard to see how anyone would take him seriously any more. However, when Bjørn Lomborg reexamined and defended Simon’s thesis in The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, the enviromentalist and sympathetic scientific establishment threw a fit, personally attacking Lomborg with various spurious, irrelevant, and ad hominem arguments. But Lomborg, and Simon, were right.
As with a lot of science fiction movies, we cannot push the science too hard without finding problems; but The Matrix does present a fairly coherent picture that is suitable for its story.
About the author
Dr. Kelley Ross retired in 2009 after 22 years as an instructor at the Department of Philosophy of Los Angeles Valley College. See his LinkedIn profile. He joined the Libertarian Party in 1992 and has run several times for the California State Assembly and Congress.
Heis the editor of The Proceedings of the Friesian School website, which has a wide range of fascinating material about philosophy, literature, film, and art.
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- A Fast and Furious Affair: My Strange Affection for This Very Strange Franchise.
Trailer for The Matrix