Sunday, March 31, 2019

20 Years Ago Today: The Matrix (1999)


"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"

- Morpheus, in The Matrix (1999)


When I first saw The Matrix in April of 1999, it was a Star Wars moment for me. 

In other words, it was a moment in which everything I believed I knew and understood about the parameters of movie-making and visual storytelling changed completely.  Watching this film for the first time is like having a mind-altering experience, and even though we are more than a decade away from the movie's release, a re-watch of The Matrix today still arouses those electric feelings of  a fresh, unfettered mind-state; of the doors of perception swung wide open.

Like Star Wars back in 1977, the Wachowski Bros.' The Matrix represented a quantum leap forward in terms of special effects presentation.  In particular, the film makes extensive and imaginative use of "bullet time," a digitally-enhanced simulation of variable speed that can be deployed to escort the viewer literally inside a slowed moment of time to observe details from nearly-infinite angles. 

In bullet time, the audience can watch projectiles approach a target in super slow-motion.  In bullet time, space and time become untethered, and audiences rocket around characters, seeing their movements -- and actions -- from more than one perspective.  The technique involves the breakdown of space and time in the frame; the slicing of reality into smaller snapshots.  "Bullet time" uses CGI as a guide, but it is based around the conceit of still cameras surrounding an object and filming dozens of perspectives simultaneously. 

When coupled with The Matrix's extraordinary wire-work and fight scene choreography, bullet time proved an absolute revelation.  In the immediate aftermath of the film, this special effect technique was utilized so much as to become a bad joke, but in the context of The Matrix itself, it still works beautifully.  After all, the movie concerns the very idea of re-shaping reality to our liking through the power of the mind, and bullet time ably reflects that conceit since it too reshapes conventional film grammar, and plays with longstanding cinematic notions of what is real, unreal, possible and impossible.

Beyond special effects breakthroughs, The Matrix also very much captured the Zeitgeist of the Y2K Age.  I can only describe that Zeitgeist as a permeating hunger and trepidation for a new kind of experience; one that reflected and commented on our ever-more technological-based lives.  The film came out at the end of the nineties: the first decade of the Internet, and the age in which the exterior, existential "Cold War" morphed into Pat Buchanan's interior "culture war" within our own borders.    We had peace and prosperity in America, and yet there was uneasiness roiling beneath the boom times.  There was a feeling that, spiritually, we were lost, and that in the Internet and other technological advances there could be a new opportunity to define ourselves and our place in the world at large.  It seemed as if we stood at the doorway of a new reality (a virtual or cyber reality).

Accordingly, The Matrix deals with the shifting-sands of our technological reality, and does so by asking basic questions about how human beings "see" life itself.  For instance, the film forces audiences to countenance the idea that, as individuals trapped by our physical senses, we can't detect objective reality.  Furthermore, it suggests that, in response, we must focus on an almost Buddhist peace about this fact -- that there is no spoon -- and focus instead on the powers of our own minds.   In that quest, The Matrix suggests, prevailing systems and entrenched orders that are inimical to the human spirit might be overturned, or at least, for the first time, truly "seen" and understood for what they are.  It's a delicate dance: the intertwining of Phenomenology with Buddhism with, finally, to a large degree, Marxist, anti-capitalist sentiment.

Innovative in visualization and revolutionary -- even incendiary -- in theme,  The Matrix remains the thinking man's Hollywood blockbuster, the kind of imaginative foray into science fiction thought that seems to come only once a generation.

"It's the question that brought you here."


In the year 1999, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer hacker, alias Neo, by night and a bored cubicle jockey by day.  His latest obsession is tracking a mysterious figure called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a legendary hacker himself.

But then, one day, Morpheus finds Neo with the help of a beautiful woman, Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss). This duo seems to promise Neo an eye-opening revelation about the very nature of existence itself, but at first a reluctant Neo demures.  Instead, he is captured by an apparent Federal agent, Smith (Hugo Weaving), who wants his help capturing Morpheus and Trinity, both apparently known "terrorists."

Before long, however, Neo follows Morpheus and Trinity down a path of no return.  He learns, in fact, that he has mistaken a computer program called "The Matrix" for the "real world."  Morpheus frees Neo from the Matrix and then reveals to him the true history of the world. 

It is actually the twenty-first century, and some years earlier, man created a brand of artificial intelligence that, feeling endangered by his creator, launched all-out war against him.  A nuclear war followed, and now the Earth's sky is black, shrouded in total nuclear winter.  Requiring energy to survive, the machines now grow and utilize human beings as batteries to propel them. 

At the same time they harness human bodies, however, the machines "fool" their unwitting slaves into believing that normal life goes on as before.  All of the enslaved humans "live" in the Matrix, unaware of the real world, and the war for supremacy going on outside it.

Morpheus awakened Neo because he believes that Neo is "the One," a mythical messiah figure who can free humans from the Matrix and take the war to the machines themselves.  As Neo trains and begins to understand the rules of the Matrix, Morpheus is undone by a traitor on his team, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) and captured by the villainous Smith...really a policeman of the machine world, dedicated to the machines'  sinister agenda.  

If Morpheus breaks under torture, Smith will know the location of the last, real human city, Zion, and the war will be lost.

Teaming with Trinity, Neo plans to return to the Matrix to save Morpheus, even though he has grave doubts that he is actually "The One"...

"Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions."


A dizzying blend of action and philosophy, The Matrix remains one of the most intriguing and cerebral of all modern Hollywood blockbusters. 

At the same time that the film pushes the technological art of film forward  a generation by the pioneering use of  new special effects, it simultaneously harks back to a period in genre history when thematic subtext and intellectual gamesmanship played a critical role in the film making process.  Like the dystopic visions of Planet of the Apes (1968), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974)  and even John Carpenter's Dark Star (1975), The Matrix  utilizes the genre primarily as a vehicle for conveying powerful, challenging ideas about the changing parameters of the human equation.

At a very basic level, The Matrix is about the very structure of our human existence.  Most importantly, it is about how we, as living creatures, perceive what is real and what is not real.  Morpheus puts a fine point on it when he muses "What is "real"? How do you define "real?"  This interrogative is perhaps the most basic question a human being can ask about his or her environment, about his or her life.


In terms of philosophy, we would probably term this idea an example of Phenomenology, after Edmund Hasserl's field of study and research.  In particular, the film obsesses on the idea that consciousness itself is always the consciousness of something or someone.   It is not objective. 

What we see and perceive with our senses therefore represents only one side side or aspect of reality.  Because of this fact, what we claim to "know" is not actually known in an objective sense.  Again, Morpheus describes the crucible of this dilemma in The Matrix: "If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."  
 
In other words, if our senses can be tricked, we can be tricked.

In absence of  the ability to discern concrete, objective reality, it is our intention regarding an object  or person that then creates our sense of reality around said object.  To put it another way, our mind creates an elaborate web of reality around a glass of red wine, or a slice of steak, for example.  We bring to these things our sensory experiences and memories. 

Again, this is our so-called "intention," and it colors our view of the objects in question.  In The Matrix, Cypher considers this problem in detail, when he seeks to be returned to the material world of pleasure inside The Matrix.  He notes, of a restaurant dinner: "You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss."

And so we get down to the nitty-gritty of how The Matrix uses Phenomenology.  The film appears to state that if we cannot detect, for certain, the shape of objective reality, then the one thing we can control is our own internal reality.  We must not seek validation, legitimacy, or destiny outside, we must look for it within.  In other words, knowing the path is not the same as walking the path.  We must walk the path.

If Phenomenology proves the root problem of human existence, The Matrix suggests some tenets of Eastern Thought, especially Buddhism, as the response to that problem.  In viewing reality as it is and not as it appears to be (a concept called Prajna), Buddhism suggests mental discipline as the key to mastery over one's mind.  "Right concentration" -- or Samadhi -- in other words, is the secret to mastering life.  Such mastery takes practice, effort (vyayama) and awareness (smrti), and again, these concepts are important facets in the film's narrative. 

At length, we follow Neo through his training process, as Morpheus teaches him how to control his thoughts, and how to shape reality in the Matrix to his thoughts.  The first step in this training involves the acknowledgment of the fact that our sense of reality is not necessarily objective reality.  "Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?"  He asks.  "Do you think that's air you're breathing now?"


His next point hammers it home: "Don't think you are, know you are," he implores Neo, suggesting that Neo must overcome the construct of "reality" his mind has erected around him.  The movie's most famous line of dialogue involves the awareness of this truth.  You cannot bend a spoon with your mind because there is no spoon.  It is the mind that must do the bending.

Even the Buddhist concept of samsara -- a cycle of suffering and re-birth -- finds voice in The Matrix, since Neo learns he may be the re-incarnation of "The One," the quasi-religious figure who freed the first trapped humans from the Matrix.  Later films in the trilogy focus more heavily on this aspect of the hero's journey; on the idea of life seeming to repeat itself, over and over, throughout time.

So Phenomenology is established as the basis for the film's philosophy, and Buddhism represents the means by which the self can conquer the existential issues surrounding that philosophy.  This intellectual grounding leaves the film to provide a third important component to wax philosophical about: a villain.  And here, in devising a world of "illusion" and blind, unknowing service to a machine culture, The Matrix delves whole-hog into a a kind of quasi-Marxist argument about man's sense of freedom, and place in the world. 

Specifically, according to Martin A. Dunahay and David Rider, in The Matrix and Philosophy (2002, Open Court, Page 217):  "workers under capitalism do not recognize the relationship between their labor and the capital that they produce because they have become "alienated" from the realities of work.  They also do not recognize that they are forced to work, believing that they are operating in a "free" market in which they sell their labor voluntarily.  In fact, Marx argues, they are exploited because they cannot choose how and why they work."

This paradigm very much reflects the slavery diagrammed by The Matrix.  Trapped by his own way of "knowing reality" (Phenomenology), mankind cannot detect that he is being exploited by the A.I. Machines as a source of labor (of free energy, essentially...as a copper top battery).  Men like Thomas Anderson believe they are free -- and boast free will -- but such freedom is an illusion fostered by the oppressive, controlling structure. In this case that structure is not Marx's punching bag of capitalism, but the controlling A.I . interests.

Interestingly, the end result of such slavery is viewed as being much the same by Marx and the makers of The Matrix, as this passage from Karl Marx indicates: "...once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine...set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself, this automaton consists of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages."

What Marx writes of here, in one sense, is the idea that the individual worker is ultimately subsumed into the machine. Not a literal machine, perhaps, but a philosophical construct or structure, again in the service of capitalism.  The Matrix literalizes the hypothesis, however, actually physically transforming unaware humans into "linkages" of the machine: becoming their necessary energy source; a cog in the larger automaton. 

Just as capitalism derives capital from a labor's work; so does the machine world of The Matrix derive capital (energy) from human participation in  the dream world of "the Matrix."    In The Matrix, the humans are not conscious of their true purpose -- they are lulled into a world of luxury and tactile pleasures by their masters -- just as in the capitalist system, the accumulation of goods and material are the thing which "lull" people into continuing to support and  prop up a system that rewards the few at the expense of the many.  This paradigm makes the film, perhaps, the most Marxist-leaning science fiction film since Metropolis in 1927.

I'm not arguing for or against capitalism, by the way.  I'm merely observing how The Matrix is conscious and cognizant of how a system of control (any system of control...) operates, and how easily people can buy into that system if they are rewarded for their participation.  Cypher turns the other cheek -- ignorance is bliss-- rather than confront his enslavement, and that's what the film concerns, largely: enslavement in a system so large and pervasive that is almost impossible to "see" in its entirety.  The structure of the Matrix program reflects this structure in human life.  It provides law enforcement and government (in the form of the Agents) and religion of a sort (in the Oracles), as well as tactile pleasures.  And yet some especially insightful people (like Neo) rightly still see the system as a trap.


This notion comes across most plainly in the early section of the film, as Neo searches desperately for some sort of meaning or answer about life itself.  He works in an ugly, green-hued office environment, in a small, anonymous cubicle, "a cog" in the vast corporate machine, as it were. 

When he is called on the carpet by his wrong-headed boss, the directors of the film cut suddenly to a view outside the window, of a window-washer cleaning the transparent surface.  This shot is a metaphor for Neo's life at this point: he is trapped inside a system in which he feels unimportant.  Meanwhile, just outside, something tries to get in; to affect his consciousness; to draw his attention to something beyond the system which manipulates him.  He's on the verge of seeing it, on the verge of perception, but not yet ready... 

And again, this is an idea that carries real currency in America today.  We don't live to work; but we have to work to live. Many of us devote the majority of our "waking" time -- forty hours a week, at least -- to an agenda which is not our own, but which pays the bills and permits us to put food on our tables and a roof over our heads.  Even when we are not physically at work, we are connected or linked to this "work" matrix through e-mail and cell-phones.  As Morpheus notes in the film, "it is the system that is our enemy."  It's a subversive and fascinating point.

As much as we want to escape beyond the system, it's not possible for the vast majority of us to do, unless we are -- as Cypher dreams of being -- someone "powerful."  So The Matrix is about the yearning to be free of corporate masters; a dream which often leads to a double life, after-hours -- moonlighting, like Thomas Anderson.  We seek to find a way to thrive outside the system, outside the restrictive structures which propagate and continue the system.  But the system is too big, too all-encompassing, to beat. 

And yes, certainly, The Matrix understands the ways in which big systems can squash the individual, or the individual spirit.  "You think you are special?  That somehow the rules don't apply to you?" Those are the words used by Neo's boss to keep him in line.  The idea is that he must choose -- with his livelihood at stake -- to either be a drone or a maverick.  If he picks the former, he dies inside a little bit at a time.  If he chooses the latter, the "system" will make it exponentially-harder for him to succeed.  Again, what The Matrix truly discusses here is fighting entrenched, established interests.  It's about being Preston Tucker fighting the Big Three, for lack of a better example.  Why not just join the system, rather than try to beat it?

If the anti-capitalism angle makes you uncomfortable about the film, just look at The Matrix in more generalized, inspiring terms. As being a wake-up call from middle-class complacency; a call to see the mechanics of the system, question the system, and in some small way, at least, buck the system

And indeed, there's a darkness to this film also, in the suggestion of how to beat the Matrix.  Although Trinity and Neo are certainly "heroes," at some point they come to realize that they must use any means possible to destroy their enemy. 

Inevitably, this involves killing some of the people who are enslaved inside the Matrix.  These are innocent people.  One of the film's most famous and incendiary scenes, involves Neo and Trinity -- adorning trench coats -- entering a heavily guarded, secure building, and opening fire on security guards and police. 


The scene is brilliantly wrought, and yet Neo and Trinity are still "murdering" people, even if their victims are slaves to the Matrix. 

Some critics have described this sequence as an incitement to violence because it turns "people," essentially, into video game avatars.  And it's easier, one supposes, to blow away an avatar than a living human being, right?  The outsiders to the Matrix (the freedom fighters like Neo), are able to look at other human beings as being simply "pawns" of the machine, and somehow less valuable, the argument goes, I guess.  In that sense, some people might view the film according to another philosophy: fascism.  The chosen few decide who amongst the rabble lives and dies, with an Aryan-like "One" leading the purge.

Now, in my opinion, this scene isn't an incitement to violence, necessarily, but some in the media certainly treated it as such.  Remember all the criticism leveled at The Matrix after the Columbine shootings, and how the now discredited myth of the "trench coat mafia" took hold so rapidly in the mainstream media?  In some sense, this attack response by the networks was the system -- the Matrix itself -- responding to that which it deemed unacceptable: a movie advocating that, as rational, intelligent individuals, we must occasionally break out of our systemic purgatories and act subversively.

The film's purview is combat and all-out war, with the survival of the human race on the line, so Trinity and Neo are no more inciting violence than Luke Skywalker was when he destroyed the Death Star, and all the people aboard that vast space station.   We accept such situations in spectacular action films, rightly or wrongly, and The Matrix need not be singled out as a negative example, especially when there are far more objectionable films out there (see: 2008's Wanted).

Another really terrific and intriguing aspect of The Matrix is the fashion in which it utilizes ancient, historical and mythological language to reflect the nature of this "future" battle with the A.I. machines.  Take the name of the last human city, Zion., for example. In Kabbalah, Zion (or T'Zion) is the "spiritual point from which reality emerges."  In the film, Zion is the base for free humans, the location from which people awaken the "slaves" of the system, so there's a strong connection there. 

Similarly, the mythical Morpheus is the "God of Dreams," who could appear in dreams to speak directly to the dreamer.  In The Matrix, Morpheus appears in the "dreamworld" created by the system -- a land of enforced dreams -- and awakens people from their forced slumber.  Even his ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, is connected with the idea of sleeping and dreaming, referring to a king who -- like those awakened from the Matrix -- had a "troubled  mind" and "could not sleep," (Daniel 2:1).

The name Neo, of course, means "new," and in The Matrix, Neo is a new recruit to Morpheus's mission.  Yet "Neo" is also Mr. Anderson's secret identity; a reflection of his desire to find something new outside and beyond the parameters of "the system" that enslaves him.  Trinity represents the number three, part of a triumvirate, but being of the same essence as the other components.  This joins her, explicitly, to Neo and Morpheus, as human freedom fighter and stalwart hero.


Finally, The Matrix does one thing that all great science fiction films must inevitably do.  It not only presents a consistent and driving philosophy for its heroes to pursue (in this case, the way of the Buddhist warrior essentially...), it also achieves the same thing for its main antagonist. 

Here, Smith likens humanity to a virus, in a delicious but ultimately difficult-to-refute manifesto: "It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet."

Given the exploding population of man, and the consequences to our planetary environment of our increasing numbers, Smith seems to have a point, doesn't he?  Also, it's important to note that in the film, it is man who begins the nuclear war when it is clear there is no other way to "beat" the machines.  He has  not only failed to create equilibrium with the surrounding environment, he has followed a literal "scorched Earth" policy regarding it. If he can't run the playground, there will be no playground.  Smith is a great and monstrous villain, and yet he is not simply "evil" for the hell of it.  He has reasons for his belief system, and they makes him a fascinating opponent.

The look of the film is also extraordinary.  From the first frames of The Matrix, which feature imagery of green computer code cascading down a screen, the film forges a sickly, emerald palette for moments involving life inside the computer/Matrix.  It's an inhuman, antiseptic color that makes audiences aware immediately that something is wrong; that something "inhuman" is happening beneath the scenes.   The generic "establishment" look of the agents works in a  very similar fashion.  At first, the agents seem anonymous and indistinguishable in their suits and ties, but soon we begin to understand that look as a kind of uniform," one that generates terror and dread.   

In the final analysis, The Matrix is a rousing action film, one in which the incredible action cannot succeed without the intellect behind that action.  It's a visceral, brilliantly-directed film, but one in which the weighty ideas carry even more power than the blazing action scenes. 

In other words, the film lives up to one of its core conceits: the body cannot live without the mind.  Here, the mental acrobatics carry the day, even over dynamic stunts, mind-altering bullet-time and tons of kung fu, Finally, The Matrix thrills on the landscape of ideas. But you can't just take my word for it.

Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

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