My Unsolicited Dissertation on The Matrix, Part 2

8 10 2010

The Matrix Reloaded: Choice

“Which brings us at last to the moment of truth wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed and the anomaly revealed as both beginning and end. There are two doors.” –The Architect

Ah, The Architect. Was there ever a character in the history of cinema with such a gift for reducing mountains of expository logophilia to a Lady and the Tiger parable? No, there wasn’t. Let’s hope there won’t be another one. I had to watch the movie three or four times before I could make sense of The Architect’s speech. His abrupt segue to the two doors is an almost laughable return to easily understood, action movie logic. But I get it. The One is ultimately an expression of free will. How else can he fulfill his function but by making a choice?

Reloaded begins, like the first film, with Trinity. Last time she rose up in the air and gave us the iconic Matrix pose before kicking some dude in the head. This time she drops a motorcycle on a security station and proceeds to bludgeon the guards with her helmet. The Matrix succeeded largely because of it’s originality, both in concept and execution. A sequel, by definition, cannot hope to get by on originality. Most sequels are happy to basically replay the events of the first film. A handful–the really good sequels–take advantage of the established history by building on it and amplifying it. See The Godfather Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, and yes, I’m sayin’ it, The Matrix Reloaded. The action is bigger and badder, the philosophy is more philosophical, and we get a deeper look into both the Real World and the world of the Matrix.

Belief remains a major theme, and a word that echoes loudly throughout the early scenes. But belief is not enough. Morpheus’ faith does not sway everyone, most notably Commander Lock. Neo can fly inside the Matrix, but no one else can. The crew of the Nebuchadnezzar fight agents better than anyone, but they have failed to unravel the Matrix, and whether they can protect Zion from a massive machine attack is far from certain.

Neo and his friends are struggling to become human. The machines have reduced the human race to electric livestock, and the resistance seeks to free humanity and restore their souls. The lessons of belief are the birth pangs of an unplugged human, learning all over again what it means to think, feel, and live. But belief only gets you in the door. To truly become a human being, you must grapple with choice. What choices will you make? Why do you make them? Are your motivations legitimate? What effect do your choices have on the outside world? Understanding choice is the second step in the journey to humanity. A human must embrace free will, wrestle with decisions, delve into possibilities and consider consequences. To do otherwise is to act according to program, to be a machine.

As it turns out, the machines are running a higher level long con on the humans. The Architect reveals to Neo that The One is a deliberate addition to the Matrix. The One gives humanity the illusion of free will, which prevents them from rejecting the Matrix. To maintain the illusion, the Matrix must undergo cycles of destruction and recreation, in which The One plays a pivotal role. It seems that everything the resistance has done has been according the the machine’s plan. Is free will dead after all?

I don’t think so. The Matrix is a highly sophisticated behavioral maze, designed to regulate human activity to the level of Newtonian mechanics. For the most part it works, not by extinguishing choice, but by channeling it. That could be the secret of the Oracle’s power; the reason she knows what choices everyone will make ahead of time is simply that she can see the overall program. In addition, she knows how to plant notions in people that will change their behavior. One could argue that the Oracle is just another control mechanism, but with a different agenda. I think she is giving up control. She wants to sabotage the program by injecting a little quantum unpredictability. The first time Neo meets her, she gives him false information (he’s not the One) and a heavy emotional burden (the immanent death of Morpheus). She can predict the various probabilities of Neo’s reaction, but she can’t know for certain what he’ll do. If she had that level of control, it wouldn’t have taken six iterations of The One to end the war.

Life is impulsive and whimsical. The Matrix is a powerful control mechanism, but life simply will not submit to pure regimentation. Small, inconsequential eddies of incompatibility occur all the time in the Matrix. The Oracle does her best to amplify and direct the humans’ innate drive for self-determination. She gives the resistance a nudge in the right direction, but she knows in the end their choices are their own.

The second time Neo visits the Oracle, she lets him in on everything. She is a machine. She doesn’t know what choices Neo will make, only the ones he’s already made. Neo has learned the lesson of belief, and now he has to gain understanding of his own choices. Only then can he act with intention, free of outside control.

The Oracle points out that everything in the Matrix–pidgeons, wind, trash–is governed by programs. This suggests a reason why bullets are ineffective against Neo. A bullet needs only the simplest of programs: go forward in a straight line really fast, go through things if you can. The One can easily hack such a program. On the other hand, a fist or a blade driven by a willful AI cannot simply be stopped dead.

We also learn from the Oracle that not every program follows its instructions. This tidbit comes across without any fanfare, but it is her most earth-shattering piece of information. If programs can rise above their programming, they must have their own form of free will. If so, they must have the same inalienable right to exist that humans have. Programs and humans face the same struggle; trying to master their own destiny, trying to break free of outside falsehoods and inner weaknesses that make them slaves.

Faced with the two doors, Neo chooses the door leading to Trinity, in defiance of the Architect’s prediction. He saves her, but the machine army is still headed for Zion. He tells the others what he has learned. Morpheus’ faith is shattered. Then things get really weird.

Agent Smith implants himself in a human being, erasing the line between human and machine consciousness. And, with a gesture, Neo drops a squad of attacking squiddies in the Real World, the same way he stops bullets in the Matrix. This suggests one of two things. One, the so-called Real World is another simulation, Inception style. The second, and far more bizarre possibility, is that The One (and by extension, all humans) has the capacity to rise so far above his programming that he can affect the material universe through sheer force of will.

Various people, with various reasoning, have suggested that we create out own reality, to various degrees. I won’t try to justify or debunk them here. But if you take visualization and the conscious universe together with an incomplete understanding of quantum physics, its easy to arrive at the idea that a human being can do absolutely anything if only he/she truly believes it’s possible. This is precisely what happens in The Matrix. And while it makes sense for imagination to have real power in an imaginary, simulated world, it’s much more of a leap to say that any one of us can stop war machines with our minds. But it’s consistent with the films. The underlying implication of The Matrix is that, real world or simulation, the thing that holds us back is our own doubt. Free your mind, and you free yourself.

Both suggested explanations for Neo’s psychic squiddie smackdown are problematic. A Matrix-within-the-Matrix would mean an unresolvable narrative hall of mirrors, and the human quantum wave collapser leads to some awful, new agey territory. Fortunately, we learn in The Matrix Revolutions that neither of my imagined explanations are correct. The One simply has the ability to hack machines from the Real World as well as the Matrix–similar to Agent Smith’s new found ability to assimilate a human being. In the third film we will see the divergent paths of human and machine fully converge.

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