The Matrix

My Unsolicited Dissertation on The Matrix: Part 1 (4/15/10)

For the trilogy that brought Hong Kong-style action into the high-production Hollywood mainstream, The Matrix is awfully wordy. A lot of fans complain, especially citing the slow passages in the second movie as the point where the whole enterprise loses steam. I like the wordy parts. I’m impressed that the Wachowski brothers saw fit to weave profound philosophical questions into their orbiting-freeze-frame-CGI-chop-socky opus. Certain words crop up at key points, suggesting a theme for each of the three films: Belief, Choice, and Purpose. Each one is a rung in a ladder that Neo and the others must climb in pursuit of the fourth and primary theme: Truth.

The Matrix: Belief

Morpheus: “Free your mind.”
Neo: “Woah.”

Within the Matrix, belief and reality create each other. The flawless illusion keeps the plugged-in convinced that it is real; they act in accordance with the rules and reinforce a reality that is in fact totally arbitrary. (Some would argue, with what is surely a faulty understanding of quantum physics, that our reality works the same way. More on that in part 2.) However, it turns out the Matrix is not flawless; a tiny few have an intuitive knowledge that “there’s something wrong with the world.” The Resistance seeks out the doubters to build their ranks and weaken the Matrix.

Once someone is freed from the illusion, their belief can change things in the Matrix. Trinity and Morpheus can move faster, jump farther, and take more punishment than the laws of physics and biology would allow. However, as we see from Neo’s failure with the jump program, simply knowing about the illusion is not enough. It takes training and practice to make the leap from “knowing the path” to “walking the path.” This barrier between knowledge and belief is Neo’s dilemma.

Morpheus embodies the power of belief. More than anyone else, he believes in The One. He has absolute faith that Neo will learn to manipulate the Matrix and save the human race. Believing in the stories of the man who “could change whatever he wanted” allows Morpheus to push the rules of the Matrix farther than his crewmates; he is stronger, faster, and more daring. His unshakable faith allows him to risk everything at any given moment, and makes him an invincible leader; someone the machines consider “the most dangerous man alive.”

Like everyone else, Neo has to learn to walk the path. However, Neo’s path– being The One– is particularly unbelievable, and therefore much harder to walk. He can’t get there through practice and training. The more he tries to believe it, the more ridiculous it sounds. The Oracle has to trick him. She sets up a situation in which his unbelief works for him, rather than sabotaging him. Neo has to believe that he is not The One, that Morpheus is more important, in order to risk his life rescuing Morpheus. Only after experiencing the miraculous success of the rescue can Neo begin to truly know himself.

Presumably, anyone can be The One. The Matrix is an imaginary world, and as such it is subject to the imaginations of its inhabitants. Neo hacks it like he hacked computers in his plugged-in life. He doesn’t really have magic powers, he simply sees the Matrix for what it really is. Everyone else obeys the rules only because they can’t imagine any alternative. Openness to believing the impossible is what gives The One his power. Neo understands that everyone has the potential to do what he does, and he tells the machines he plans to share his understanding. “I’m going to show these people…a world where anything is possible.”

Unfortunately for the resistance, the illusion remains as convincing as ever in The Matrix Reloaded, and we learn that The One isn’t what the humans think he is. But in The Matrix Revolutions, we learn he’s not what the machines think he is either.

The Matrix Reloaded: Choice (10/8/10)

“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.

The Matrix Revolutions: Purpose (11/26/10)

Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.

The journey into fully realized humanity began with belief; the human being must unlock his/her power of self-determination by first overcoming doubt. Self-determination raises the question of choice; the human must choose exactly what kind of self will be determined. Compared to the exhilarating epiphany of unlocking belief, making choices is hard work. Naturally, the human seeks out a guiding principle to aid in making decisions– a purpose.

“Purpose” is another of those weighty words that repeats throughout the trilogy, but this one is spoken almost exclusively by Smith. Machines are always created with an external purpose. Every program in the Matrix has a specific role to play. Smith has gone rogue, making him a machine without a purpose. In fact his condition reflects that of a human being, brought into the world for no specific reason, forced to discover purpose for himself. Smith is deeply uncomfortable in this state. He cannot fathom existence without purpose. Cut off from the Architect’s plans, Smith gravitates to the basest motivations of all life forms: self-preservation and propagation.

Not all programs are incompatible with freedom. Some choose exile, living inside the Matrix without any external purpose. One might describe those programs as humanlike. But really, the story as a whole suggests that the divide between artificial intelligence and natural intelligence is meaningless. People may be courageous or cowardly, selfless or selfish, a willing cog or a rebellious monkey wrench, regardless of their chemical makeup (or lack thereof.)

Plenty of mistakes were made in the third film, both large and small. (First mistake: not beginning with a solo action by Trinity. Last mistake: not playing Rage Against the Machine over the end credits.) Reloaded took what had been established in the first film and upped the ante, giving us back doors, the army of Smiths, the Merovingian’s supernatural minions, and the freeway. Sadly, Revolutions fails to keep the ball rolling. The Matrix as an environment becomes tedious, and the action inside it pedestrian.

Where Revolutions finds new ground is in the Real World; Zion battling the squiddies, Niobe stunt-flying a hovercraft, Smith crossing over into a human body. Much of the Real World action has more in common with traditional sci-fi movies than with the original Matrix, but the war– and the story– has to move to the Real World to reach any kind of conclusion. The Real World is what the war is all about.

What really makes Revolutions worth watching are the character arcs. Relatively little screen time is given to the subtler human dramas, but for a sci-fi action franchise the characters are treated with rare sensitivity. Morpheus, a secondary character, goes through a transformation worthy of his own epic. He spends the third movie trying to cope with his loss of faith, which has carried him through all adversity, serving him like purpose serves Smith. When he and Neo part for the last time (Neo: It was an honor, sir. Morpheus: No, the honor is still mine) we see in Morpheus a man who has lost his external guiding principle, but found the same old indomitable will inside himself.

Neo and Trinity both find themselves on a path to self-sacrifice. They have played out their roles in the Matrix and come to a point beyond anything they could have previously imagined. Now they must go further, to confront the machine mainframe with their frail flesh-and-blood bodies. Trinity doesn’t expect to survive. She’s piloting the hovercraft into machine territory for Neo and for the human race. She receives the unexpected reward of a glimpse of blue sky, the only glimpse of the real sky that any human has had or will have for generations. In a split second, almost her last, she receives the prize that everyone is fighting for.

When Neo freezes the squiddies outside the Nebuchadnezzar, he enters the Train Station, a zone between the Matrix and the Mainframe. His friends rescue him, but Neo never really comes back all the way. Back in his body, he retreats from the others to think and plan in isolation. He has never found a comfortable role in the Real World, and finally may be incapable of dwelling in it. Trinity is the only link to humanity he can hold onto. Once she’s gone, he has no reason to look back.

For the most part, Neo’s showdown with Smith is pretty silly. For all the giant shockwaves their blows send out, it’s just not that interesting watching them hit each other. Especially knowing that both of them could be bending the simulated reality around them. The most interesting part is Smith grasping for purpose. Still unable to get past his most machinelike tendencies, Smith demands to know Neo’s reason for struggling so hard.

“Because I choose to,” Neo says. Purpose is a function of choice. Purpose is what we believe it to be. Belief, choice, and purpose are one and the same.

The Matrix Trilogy: Truth (5/19/17)

“There is no spoon.”

Several years ago I started writing these long winded posts about The Matrix trilogy, because I like the movies a lot, and I’ve always felt they don’t get enough credit for the challenging questions they raise. My plan was to write four posts, one for each of four words that recur significantly in the movies’ clipped dialog, and which reflect the primary themes of each movie: Belief (The Matrix), Choice (The Matrix Reloaded), Purpose (The Matrix Revolutions) and Truth (the trilogy as a whole).

But after I got through recapping the films and analyzing the first three themes, I found I had nothing much to say about Truth. I tried a few times, but never got very far, and after awhile I quit trying.

That was in 2011. We are living in a different world now.

In the films, there is the Real World, the Truth; and there is the Matrix, a virtual reality, a fiction, an utterly convincing illusion. We human beings have always had our convincing illusions, but they have never been more powerful than they are today. We know this because different segments of the population live according to different, and incompatible, realities. Climate change, vaccines, gun violence, police violence, immigrants, gender, health care, the EU, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton — people in different camps have polar opposite views of these things. Presumably only one viewpoint can line up with objective Truth. The other viewpoint must be a fiction. But for those who believe, it is true. The illusion on one side is just as much a guiding principle as the truth is on the other side. Whether it’s objectively true or fictional, the preferred belief is perceived and experienced as fact. We are embedded in our chosen realities as fully as any coppertop in the Matrix.

I’m not going to get into which of our competing realities is the most real. I’m just here to lay down the long-not-awaited conclusion to my unsolicited dissertation. I’m going to try to find the role and the meaning of Truth in the Matrix trilogy. You can decide how much bearing it has on real life.

In my post about The Matrix: Revolutions, I concluded that belief, choice, and purpose are intertwined. Each theme is a lens looking at the same thing: the exercise of free will. Humans make choices, informed by belief (itself a choice), according to and in search of purpose. The words “belief,” “choice,” and “purpose” crop up in all three films, but each occurs with emphatic weight and frequency in only one. The word “truth” has more or less equal emphasis throughout the trilogy. Truth exists separately from free will. One hopes and assumes that one’s Beliefs, Choices, and Purpose align with the Truth, but it is not necessarily the case.

As Morpheus says to Neo when he is first acclimating to the Real World, “What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Our senses are all we have to go on. If they can be manipulated–if we can’t trust them–then we can never be certain of what’s real. But second-guessing our senses is useless. There is no external frame of reference we can access. We have no choice but to accept what we sense and do our best.

Cipher embraces the concept of sensory reality. He is fed up with the misery of the Real World, and conspires with the Machines to betray his comrades in exchange for the chance to re-enter the Matrix. He knows his actions will cause his crew to die and humanity to remain in bondage. he also knows that once the Machines wipe his memory, nothing outside of the Matrix will be real anymore–not in any sense that will matter in his daily virtual life. His plan fails, but he raises a crucial question. Is there any meaningful difference between personal truth and objective Truth?

“Yes” is the strongly implicated answer. The Machines and their virtual slave engine are clearly the bad guys. The Resistance are clearly wiser and more powerful then the sleepers still plugged into the Matrix. But as we learn in The Matrix Reloaded, Truth is elusive, and illusions come in layers. The Resistance believe they know what’s true and what isn’t, because they’ve broken out of one imprisoning fiction. However, larger illusions still grip Morpheus, Neo and the others. The revelation that The One is another control mechanism create by the Machines almost shatters Morpheus. Discovering that he can hack into machines from the Real World, wirelessly, puts Neo in a coma. The Resistance may have peeled back one very powerful illusion, but can they claim to know the Truth any more than those still victimized by the Matrix?

The Matrix Reloaded ends with Neo breaking a cycle of control– the Machines’ narrative of the One– that has been in place for generations. The Matrix Revolutions deals with the fallout of breaking that cycle. The humans are more enlightened than they ever have been since the Machines took over. They finally have some leverage on the Machines. Neo and Trinity fight their way to the Mainframe, and Neo is able to negotiate for peace. To reach that point, Neo and the others had to break through layers of deception. But Truth is not invalidated just because more illusions remain. It is true that the Matrix is a lie, and a prison. Everyone in the Resistance has to absorb that truth before they can have any notion of resisting. Misconceptions about the One don’t change the relationship between the Matrix and the Real World.

Pure Truth may be unattainable, ever receding like a mirage (how’s that for irony?). Still, there is value in piercing each illusion, even if another one waits beyond it. New discoveries and baffling new questions arise in all the sciences, but only through the use of ever more advanced tools and practices, built on previously unearthed truths. We may not understand all the building blocks of the universe, but that’s no reason to abandon what we do know. The Earth is still round. Opposite charges still attract.

The pursuit of  Truth — the endless, arduous struggle to understand — makes us human. If we passively accept received truth, we give up our free will. We make ourselves tools. We become machines.


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