This week marked the 10th anniversary of the sci-fi sleeper blockbuster, The Matrix. It’s hard to imagine, but there was a period in American culture when no one had heard of the Wachowski Brothers, Hugo Weaving or Propellerheads. Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne re-ignited their careers, playing freedom fighters armed with gravity-defying kung fu and submachine guns, locked in eternal war in a digital prison.
Audiences flocked to theaters for the blistering action, the revolutionary visual effects, the throbbing techno soundtrack and the wirework. But critics picked up The Matrix for another reason entirely – its throwaway references to classical philosophy.
Philosophy professors and hyper-literate college students (OTI’s target demographics) claimed that The Matrix showed clear influences from:
- Plato’s allegory of the cave
- Descartes’ Meditations (the whole “how do I know what I sense is real?” thing)
- Buddhist notions of mindfulness (e.g., “there is no spoon”)
- Calvinist doctrines of determinism vs. free will (“this fate crap”)
The Matrix‘s immense popularity made it a common touchstone for dorm room bull-sessions over the next few years. But what’s even more amazing is that The Matrix actually inspired a few college courses in that time. Courses you could take for credit – at Mississippi State University, at the University of Washington and several others. You could actually get class credit at accredited universities by watching the sophomore effort of the directors of lesbian crime thriller Bound and talking about it.
If the above tone hasn’t made it clear, your correspondent remains skeptical about the actual philosophical content of The Matrix. Sure, there’s some talk about determinism and identity and whether we know The Real is The Real. But Total Recall has all of that as well, and the Ivy League has yet to add Paul Verhoeven to the curriculum. It seems clear, to a mildly critical audience, that the philosophy of The Matrix is a thematic flourish, not a hidden message.
Your correspondent could be wrong, of course. It’s entirely possible that The Matrix is a rigorously constructed, meticulously researched compendium of centuries of philosophical tradition, spanning both Eastern and Western schools of thought, translated into a Campbellian heroic journey. Were that the case, then any additional movies set in the same universe would have an equally rich philosophy.
Hm? What now? You’re saying there were sequels to The Matrix? Well, what gems did these expeditions yield?
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Reloaded has, at best, one philosophical underpinning: the notion of reincarnation. Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers that he is not The One but, at best, The Seventh – a persistent re-iteration in the Matrix’s programming. His role is to oversee the destruction of the human species and then begin their reconstruction, perpetuating the human/machine symbiosis. Neo learns this in a conversation with the Architect, who confronts him with images of his past lives.
The Matrix contains elements of both Plato and Siddhartha, and both of these thinkers believed in reincarnation. So this is a plausible inclusion. However, all this talk of reincarnation comes at the absolute tail end of the film. The preceding 120 minutes offer nothing but a series of water-treading setpieces – a flatly computer-animated brawl, a self-indulgent rant by a French caricature, and a not-bad car chase.
The Matrix Revolutions
The Wachowski Brothers abandoned all pretense at depth when penning the third installment in the trilogy. The Oracle, voice of depth and exposition, gets some vague and meaningless speeches which don’t really drive the plot forward. The humans valiantly fight against the forces of the Machine army – until they don’t, and then everyone’s cool again. And in the end, human fodder and Machine jailer live together in an apparent peace.
For proof that the (supposedly) rich philosophy of The Matrix was abandoned by the time of The Matrix Revolutions, consider the following:
- If The Matrix is about free will vs. determinism, then what does Neo’s decision to be assimilated by the planetful of Agent Smiths mean? Does Neo become “The Source” – the entity which deterministically governs the lives of an entire planet? Or, if Neo destroyed “The Source” and gave everyone free will, then what of the implication (made by the Architect at the end of the movie) that the Oracle engineered the whole thing?
- If The Matrix is about the real vs. the unreal, then what do we make of the ending of the film? Are the humans who were used as batteries to power The Matrix to be left in their ignorant dream? Or were they freed into an apocalyptic world of ashen nightmare? Or did they all die when Agent Smith (who had apparently possessed all of them) disintegrated in that final battle? And if the Machines were the creators of the unreal, then is it a good thing that the human race allied with them in the end, or a bad thing?
The REAL Philosophy of The Matrix
The actual philosophy espoused by The Matrix is that humans don’t know a lot about how the mind and the universe work. Over the last few centuries, we’ve made a lot of crazy guesses. If some of those guesses turned out to be true, and they were put in place by robots, and we got to fight them with machine guns and PVC pants, that’d be awesome.
That’s a great pitch, and we’re all glad the Wachowski Brothers made it happen. But that’s not philosophy, any more than the Jedi Code was a philosophy. It was a philosophical gloss, a sheen of mysticism that transformed what would have been a staid tale of hackers shooting cops into an epic battle of The Underdog against The System. That in itself is remarkable. That’s what good art has always done, from The Iliad through Snow Crash. But art is art, and philosophy is philosophy, and one does not usually advance the other.
With that put to rest, our only question is: what happened to those students who took “Philosophy of The Matrix” courses? Do they still get to keep their credits, even in light of the shoddiness of the sequels? Do they get their diplomas revoked? Do they have to take a summer class on “Star Trek and Man’s Search for Meaning” to catch up?