Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Matrix -- nature of reality

With gas prices rising faster than a Cape Canaveral space shuttle launch, it is clear we have a desperate need for an alternative energy source. In The Matrix this alternative energy source has already been found. Unfortunately it is the human body; and it acts as a fuel cell for the machines that have taken over. In huge fuel farms, people live their lives naked and unconscious, oblivious in pods connected to the system via tubes and pipes. They are the equivalent of Duracell batteries.

The Matrix is one of my favorite movies and I can watch it again and again, still feeling a thrill each time. Drawing deeply from earlier movies, such as Blade Runner, for mood and atmosphere, and using desaturated cinematography to paint a picture with greens, greys and blacks, it is a vision of the future that is dark and dank. When it came out it broke new ground with a level of special effects, stop-time photography, and a gritty urban style that felt novel. Dark shades and black leather, The Matrix did as much for fashion as it did for sci fi. Libraries are filled with books written about this movie; still, it is a memorable trip (it gives a new meaning to "bug in the code") and a film worth reviewing.

Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, a software geek by day and a hacker named Neo by night. And he is on a quest. When he mysteriously meets Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss), she cuts to his heart: "You're looking for him. I know because I was once looking for the same thing. And when he found me, he told me I wasn't really looking for him, I was looking for an answer. It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did." To which Neo replies, "What is the Matrix?" This is his quest.

In many ways, Neo's question is humanity's question, our question. This is the question we spend our lives answering: what is the meaning of life? Life cries out for purpose. Else all is meaningless, a few trips round the sun and we're gone. Biblically, we are shown that human life has purpose: to glorify God and ultimately to enjoy Him forever (1 Cor 10:31; Rom. 15:6). Apart from this we must embrace existentialism or nihilism.

The Matrix is filled with religious themes and questions. It appears to be strongly biblical, but these are more references than clear pointers. Indeed, The Animatrix, the animated short-story collection providing the backstory that fills in many of the missing details, makes it clear that the underlying religion is a curious synthesis of humanism and eastern mysticism.

Neo goes with Trinity to meet Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in a dark abandoned hotel (shades of the abandoned theater where Deckard meets Batty in Blade Runner?). Here Morpheus tells him that all is not what it seems. "The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us." The visible world is merely a software construct created by the machines to keep humanity sedated. "It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth." The real world is beyond. But it cannot be described it must be experienced.

At the climax of this classic scene seen so many times, Morpheus offers Neo the ultimate choice -- the red pill or the blue pill. The blue pill takes you back to "normality," to humdrum existence, to the world of the "physical" senses. The red pill opens your eyes to the truth. "All I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more," Morpheus says. This choice is crucial to the plot development. The similar choice to accept Jesus or not is crucial to the development of our own personal plotlines. Unlike Morpheus, however, Jesus offers more than truth. Truth is certainly included in the package. But Jesus says to us, holding out the red and blue pills, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me" (John 14:6). He offers to us life, true life.

When Neo takes the red pill, he sets in motion the inevitable path to confrontation. He is freed from the fuel farm and picked up by Morpheus. He wakes to find himself in a physical world that is dull and gray, compared to the mental world of the colorful Matrix. He now has to learn what this all means. Morpheus believes Neo is the one prophecied by the Oracle who would bring the humans, now living deep underground in Zion (the promised land) the last remaining city, victory over the machines.

After Neo gets trained, learns multiple martial arts, and has met the Oracle, being told by her that he is not the One, there is a fateful trip into the Matrix where the group is betrayed by one of their own, Cypher. Like Judas betraying Jesus for money, Cypher has betrayed Morpheus, Neo and Trinity for a return to a "better" life, even if that one is in cyberspace. In the ensuing action sequence, Morpheus uses himself as a decoy to allow Neo and Trinity to escape. In so doing, he is captured.

Back in the real world, Neo and Trinity decide to seek a rescue, and kit themselves head-to-tie with enough firepower to take down Fort Knox. Returning to the Matrix, there is the classic "rescue from the military building" scene. This stands as one of the finest action set-pieces in recent film-making. With spent cartridges seen dropping to the ground in slow-motion, and wall-walking machine-gun firing heroes, this is sheer macho action. Of course, Morpheus is rescued. But this itself leads to the terrific rooftop gunfight scene that introduced the world to "bullet-time" where we see the bullets fly slowly by as Neo and the agent weave and dodge the bullets. Spectacular!

As the climax approaches, Neo must face off with the evil software agent Mr Smith (Hugo Weaving). No human has ever fought an agent and lived. But no one before has been Neo, no one has been the One. He faces Smith and both draw weapons, like old-time cowboys, but neither is killed. After shooting their full magazines, they resort to hand-fighting, and it is fast and furious. When Neo kills Smith it is over. Or is it? Agents can take over any human, since they are in the construct, and so Smith simply takes over another host and is "raised from the dead." At this Neo runs.

But he cannot run forever, and he finally runs out of space and time. Smith shoots him. Not once, but multiple times at point blank range. He is dead. Then in a pointed reference to Sleeping Beauty, Trinity, who loves Neo, kisses his dead lips in the real world, and unbelievably he comes back from the dead in both worlds. He is the One! He is truly resurrected, raised from the dead. In this new life, his new body in the Matrix has new powers, much like Jesus' resurrected body could walk through walls (John 20:26). He can now stop bullets dead. And with one diving leap, he enters Agent Smith's body and from the inside changes him, destroys him. He has finally won, but it took his death and resurrection to make this happen.

If Neo is a pointed reference to Christ, raised from the dead, Trinity may be a reference to the Holy Spirit who breathes new life into the dead (Gen 2:7, Job 33:4). Morpheus appears to be more of John the Baptist than God the Father, since he is the one who pointed the way to the savior. He was looking his whole life for Neo.

The Matrix is so full of ethical issues that only two or three key themes can be addressed here. One key theme is slavery. In his initial encounter with Neo, Morpheus says, "You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind." Paul says essentially the same thing in Romans 6:16-23. All humans since Adam have been born into slavery, a slavery to sin, due to Adam's original choice to sin. But we don't know it, because it's not readily apparent. This is a prison that confines without bars, a prison you cannot touch, taste or see, but a prison nonetheless.

A second key theme is the corollary of slavery -- freedom. Humans want to be free. Free to control their own destinies. Free to explore and enjoy. Morpheus says "You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind." Jesus says "Come, follow me. Have faith and do not doubt" (Matt. 4:19; Matt. 21:21). Though we may be filled with some level of unbelief, we must trust Jesus our Savior and cry out "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

These two previous themes are important, but the overarching theme is that of reality. What is the nature of reality? "What is 'real'? How do you define 'real'?" In The Matrix the world that most people live in is a dream, a false facade created by the machines. The real world is a parallel existence found by only a few. Likewise, we live in a physical world governed by physical laws. We can experience this world with our senses. But the bible makes it clear that there is a spiritual existence that is parallel to the physical (Eph. 6:12). We cannot see this spirit world, but it is there regardless. And there is a connection between the two, just as there is in The Matrix. By following Jesus, we are given new life and a reborn spirit.

Interestingly dreams play an important part in both worlds. Morpheus says, "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?" Dreams can be as vivid and realistic as real life, sometimes more so. So much so that it can be hard to know which is which. That was true in the movie, and it is true today. Indeed, God used and may still use dreams as a means to communicate with people. In Matthew 1-2, Joseph is warned several times in dreams of impending danger to Jesus, as too are the Magi.

So, how do we know what is real and what is a dream? That is a key philosophical question raised by The Matrix. The directors suggest we can be led to the truth by someone who knows. But we have to walk by faith, freeing our mind. The Bible says we must be led to the truth by Someone who knows, by Jesus. And he says we must walk by faith . . . faith in the one who is the truth, the way and the life!

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. This was a landmark movie for me and others as a member of Gen-X. I distinctly remember seeing it in the theater my senior year of college and was absolutely thrilled by the action, depth and feel.

    I definitely agree that there are dozens of Biblical references, but that's where it ends for me. The movie seems to be more eastern in its philosophy than Christian, but has a western appearance. I think it's ultimately post-modern, where east meets west, realities seem to blur and one can have multiple identities. (Who knew when this movie was made that the internet would make it possible for people to create their own identities in virtual on-line worlds?)

    Also, Neo (the One) was certainly more violent (and sexual in the later movies) than Jesus, so the parallels only go so far for me.

    LOVE the thoughtful reviews - keep them coming!