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Finn`s Wake : Finn`s Matrix
© Mark Finn
June 03, 2003

Getting me to see “The Matrix” the first time was like pulling teeth. I mean, really, the commercials looked cool, but I was (and always will be) leery of fanboy gushing. And everyone who saw the movie would start to gush, until I stopped them with my admission that I had not seen it. Then they would assume the pop-eyed incomprehension that only geeks can facially pull off (from years of watching cartoons) and they would say to me, “YOU haven’t seen THE MATRIX? GAAAWD!”

In the end, I went just to shut everyone up. And of course, I came back a changed man. I mean, here was a movie that was bristling with action and testosterone, atomic-powered kung fu and an embarrassing amount of violence and explosions. But in the dialogue, there was a religious/social/philosophical mishmash of myth, allegory, Jungian archetypes, Eastern Spirituality, and a healthy dollop of religion.

The tag line for the first movie was “What is the Matrix?” Watching the film, it was pretty obvious what the Matrix was; they told us, showed us, even beat it into us throughout the movie. It is what they said it is. Right?

Well, yes and no. I’m sure everyone has heard about how the Matrix is an allegory for Marxism, or Buddhism, or Gnosticism, or whatever. Everyone has a different opinion about the movie. The Wachowski brothers copped to the Buddhism, the Anime, and the Cyberpunk, which each bring their own philosophies to bear in the movie. Add to that the obvious allegories that all lapsed Christians can spot, and throw on a dash of high school English teacher symbolism and there’s your recipe for the thinking man’s action movie. Neo is “The One,” which is evocative of a Christ-figure (and thanks to Dune, Ender’s Game, and a slew of other books and movies, we’re no strangers to that. I hear there’s even a Christ-figure in the Bible.) and certainly indicative of the Kung Fu origins of the film. Trinity, whose name mirrors the different roles she plays in the movie, contacts Neo. When we first see her, she’s all warrior woman. Later, she becomes the healer and helper to the crew. Finally, she, uh, interfaces with Neo and revives him with a kiss (shades of the Bros. Grimm fairy tales) and confesses her love for him. Is she the three phases of womanhood, like the Norns of Norse mythology? Morpheus is the teacher, which means he’s the master and will eventually have to be beaten by Neo in order for Neo to fulfill his destiny . . . none of which Neo believes in. To spice up the mix, there’s the Oracle, who is both a liar and a truth teller when it suits her. What is unarticulated about the Oracle in the first movie becomes fact in the second movie: the prophecy is another form of control. However, this comes from the architect, and he in turn attempts to impose control on Neo. So, who can you trust? Neo ultimately trusts, well, his belief in himself, which is a belief in something else. . . .

Fascinating stuff. I’ve had conversations about this that run for hours since I saw the second movie. I’ve rewatched the first movie twice. Cathy and I disagreed about our interpretation of the movies. I can’t get that damned Rush song about “Free Will” out of my head. It’s been, well, how long has it been since the last one came out? Four years? Four years since I’ve been able to think about a movie with that much beautiful kung fu in it for so long after having seen it.

I think the reason why these two movies are so successful is because the concepts used in the movie to explain the nature of the computer program (and, by extension, the plot) are the same basic terms that one finds in the whole of spirituality, religion, and philosophy. The language that Morpheus uses to explain the nature of the Matrix to Neo in the first film is the terminology that you hear in all theological discussions: control, free will, destiny. Every hacker name, every little quirk, like the déjà vu scene, all has meaning and then it has a sub-meaning in the world of academic scrutiny. This is where the discussion really starts.

When you start using those general terms, and talk about changing viewpoints within a framework of reality, it’s easy to see that The Matrix can fit any number of philosophies and agendas with little to no effort. It’s a rant against modern society, sure, but people want to know in what way it’s a rant against society. This is where everyone’s college thesis gets dragged out, dusted off, and plugged into the Matrix to see how it all looks. Most of the time, it works.

The other big mytho-pseudo religious movie, Star Wars, does lip service to the language of spirituality, but goes no further than that. “It is your destiny,” Vader tells Luke in climax of “The Empire Strikes Back.” No, it isn’t. We know it isn’t. Vader is just trying to get his way. In that sense, I suppose, he is using a higher concept to bring about control, but it’s a cheat. What destiny? We’ve never heard of this destiny before. At the beginning of the movie, Vader says, “He will join us, or die.” Nice. That’s not destiny, that’s a threat. How fundamentalist can you get? And Lucas did a terrible job of trying to put that stuff in the two prequels, too.

Thankfully, most of the fans are staying out of the upper level of metaphysical discussions, preferring instead to buy leather trench coats, wraparound sunglasses, and black hair dye. I don’t want video game dorks trying to tell me that each character’s signature move in the fight scenes are indicative of the Wachowski Brothers' favorite martial arts movies. It’s bad enough that the best analogy for what Neo can do in the Matrix is akin to being able to access cheat codes in a video game.

I love the amount of discussion the films have generated. It’s a high water mark for pop cultures studies, and yet another step in bringing some respectability to this strange and tarnished little ghetto we call science fiction. I love the mishmash elements of cyberpunk, comic book action, and deep-thinking Eastern philosophy. Every time I see the scene where the crew are all jacked in, wearing ratty wool clothes and looking like sharecroppers, and then they appear in the Matrix, dressed like rock stars, I titter and think to myself, “They’re just hackers! It’s just a persona!”

And for the record, the second film, The Matrix Reloaded, was exactly what I wanted. Bigger, more impressive action and more of the lightly heavy philosophy and speculation. The two talks in the movie are important, and almost hard to follow. You have to really pay attention. I like that a lot. To all of the second film’s detractors, don’t tell me there wasn’t any plot. The plot is the same as in the first movie. They just didn’t explain it to you because you are supposed to have seen the first one. All of the plot complications come at the end of the movie, though, so that’s a point I’ll grant you. But there wasn’t much of a plot in Empire Strikes Back, either. Luke becomes a shao-lin monk, Han and Leia kiss, and everyone is screwed by the end of the movie. I’d say that The Matrix Reloaded furthers the thought process a lot more effectively than that.

When the third movie comes out, maybe I’ll tell you what I think the Matrix really is.

Mark Finn is the author of Gods New and Used and Year of the Hare, available from your local bookstore or from www.bookpeople.com.

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