The Matrix Redux (cont'd)
farmelantj at juno.com
Sat May 24 06:34:42 MDT 2003
On 24 May 2003 06:17:06 -0400 Jon Flanders <Jon_Flanders at compuserve.com>
> I must say that I was hard pressed to find anything "progressive" in
> this movie. Fundamentally it is the same plot employed in many
> flicks these days, ie that the machines are taking over. As in the
> Terminator series. As in recent Star Wars films.
That would seem to be consistent with Ed Rothstein's
take on the film in the NY Times who interprets it
in terms of the nihilism of Baudrillard.
Philosophers Draw on the Film 'Matrix'
May 24, 2003
Hundreds of millions of dollars ago, in a galaxy far, far
away, a hacker named Neo reached into his bookcase and
pulled out a leatherbound volume with the title "Simulacra
and Simulation" - a collection of essays by the French
postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard. But when Neo
opened it to the chapter "On Nihilism," it turned out to be
just a simulacrum of a book, hollowed out to hold computer
It resembled, then, the rest of the real world in the 1999
film "The Matrix" - the first of a
trilogy directed and written by Larry and Andy Wachowski.
That world, with its office buildings and restaurants and
teeming populace, was, like its book, a hollowed-out
illusion, a virtual universe filled with computer code, a
simulacrum of ordinary life, which Neo, a master hacker, is
gradually taught to see for what it is: the Matrix.
Neo is inducted into the horrifying truth: that human
beings are unknowingly being force-fed this virtual fantasy
while their bodies are held captive in gelatinous pods by
bug-eyed machines. And as Neo learns to perceive how hidden
code shapes the apparently real world surrounding him, so
too did fans begin to examine the coded allusions lying
within the film itself. Mr. Baudrillard was only the
beginning. When asked how many hidden messages there were
in "The Matrix," the Wachowski Brothers once teased, "More
than you'll ever know."
Now that its sequel, "Matrix Reloaded," is out, the
interpretive industry is also gearing up. After the first
film, Christian allegorists leaped at the bait the authors
left: characters named Neo and Trinity, allusions to Jesus
and resurrection, a city named Zion. The Buddhist character
of Neo's "awakening" to reality's veil of illusion was
discussed. And academic interest grew because the film
self-consciously tapped current fascination with pop
culture and critical theory. Recent anthologies have
included " `The Matrix' and Philosophy," edited by William
Irwin (Open Court), "Taking the Red Pill," edited by Glenn
Yeffeth (Benbella Books), and "Exploring the Matrix,"
edited by Karen Haber (St. Martin's Press). Even the Warner
Brothers "Matrix" Web site contains a growing collection of
papers by academic philosophers:
Descartes, of course, is a recurring presence in these
anthologies, since, like Neo, he attempted to discover what
man can be certain about, even if, as he put it, a
"malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has
employed all his energies in order to deceive me." Plato is
invoked as well, particularly his allegory of the cave, in
which prisoners are convinced that shadows on the cave's
walls are the sole reality until they are freed by
philosophical inquiry and led upward into the sunlight.
The problem is that in the movie, the cave is the reality -
the rebels hide out from demonic machines in the sewers of
this post-apocalyptic world - while those who dwell in the
illusions of the Matrix bask in sunlight. One character,
Cypher, explicitly prefers the world of the programmed
Matrix, with its sensual pleasures, compared with the
reality of darkness, warfare and struggle. So some
philosophical essays ask, is there a reason the choice of
the real world is more ethical?
But there is another twist to the Wachowskis' fable. The
Matrix is not arbitrary; it is the world of contemporary
America. It is our world. And the rebels, in discovering
its illusory quality, the film suggests, are discovering
the truth about our world: that it deserves to be
overturned. "The Matrix" is a political allegory.
This is why Mr. Baudrillard's book "Simulacra and
Simulation" is so closely associated with the film (some
cast members were asked to read the book, which Morpheus,
the rebel leader, also quotes). In these essays, mostly
written in the 1970's, Mr. Baudrillard suggests that
because of technology and the rise of modern capitalism,
everything has become a simulacrum; as in the Matrix,
nothing real remains. Disneyland is one of his examples: an
imaginary world that invokes something "real," though that
"real" world is just as imaginary. In fact, Mr. Baudrillard
argues, Los Angeles and California are as fantastical as
There is a distaste for contemporary American culture in
many of Mr. Baudrillard's analyses, and a distaste too for
American power and its images. This is also shared by the
rebels of "The Matrix," who reflect a kind of hacker
ideology, seeking to "free" information from its "system"
of control, to overturn the Matrix and its tyranny of
But this has a disturbing side. In the essay "On Nihilism"
Mr. Baudrillard announces that in the face of "hegemonic"
power, there is but one response: terrorism. He writes, "I
am a terrorist and nihilist in theory as others are with
their weapons." Similarly, in "The Matrix," Morpheus tells
Neo he must regard all inhabitants of that virtual world as
enemies that may be killed; anyway, most people are "not
ready" for the truth. Morpheus is even wanted by the
Matrix's ruthless agents for "acts of terrorism." While we
are meant to cheer him on, neither Mr. Baudrillard nor the
Wachowskis nor the philosophical essayists explore the
ethical limits of these all-too-familiar convictions.
Now, though, in "Matrix Reloaded," something else takes
place. At the risk of spoiling some plot twists, it is
worth pointing out that, despite the film's flaws and
misjudgments, it seems intent on questioning many ideas
from the first film.
Some things stay the same. Neo and the rebels must head off
a full-scale attempt by the machines to destroy the
underground city, Zion, so the basic revolutionary posture
remains intact. In some ways the film becomes even more
extreme in its objections to American life (at one point,
as a character speaks of the "grotesqueries" of human
nature, background images of Hitler and George W. Bush
But other things change. What exactly is Neo supposed to
do? In the first film Morpheus hailed Neo as the One, the
Savior of the real world. This belief in the real may be
one reason Mr. Baudrillard has never found identification
with "The Matrix" congenial, suggesting it has "stemmed
mostly from misunderstandings" of his own work. But in the
sequel he seems a nearer presence. Boundaries and premises
break down. Morpheus's prophetic claims begin to seem
strident. Neo can't even trust what he is told by the
Oracle, a woman who foresees the future but who may also be
manipulating Neo with her prophecies.
In fact we eventually learn through cryptic pronouncements
of the Architect of the Matrix - its software writer, its
God - that Neo is actually living in the sixth version of
the Matrix. In each, a savior figure has arisen. And in
each earlier case, the savior has not been able to free
humanity at all. Instead, the result has been a large-scale
loss of life, until the Matrix begins again, with an
apparent upgrade - a new web of earthly illusions -
allowing no recollections of the disastrous past. By the
end, Neo has reason to wonder whether any revolutions
accomplish what they claim, whether he is free to make a
choice at all and whether even the real world is what it
So the third movie, scheduled for November release, faces
its own choice. It could end up moving even closer to the
nihilism of Mr. Baudrillard and its ultimately sordid
message. But faced with what Mr. Baudrillard has called
"the desert of the real," it could also find some other
path, as yet undreamed of in its philosophy, that may bring
hackers, humans and machines together.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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