Writer Orson Scott Card has observed that one of the few places in contemporary culture where serious theological and philosophical reflection is still practiced is within the realm of science fiction and fantasy. The Matrix hammers home the truth of that observation. From a Catholic perspective, The Matrix is one of the most surprisingly literate films of the past decade. It is also one heck of an action flick pumped with adrenaline (and one well deserving its “R” rating for violence).
One does not normally hear the words “action flick” and “literate” in the same paragraph. How does the The Matrix do it?
Well, not by force of acting talent. Let’s get the minuses out of the way right off the bat, Keanu Reeves (who plays a computer hacker named Thomas Anderson known by the alias “Neo”) will not be on any Oscar lists this year. He does his patented “surfer nebbish in a crisis situation” schtick well enough, but (not that it matters much in a film like this) he simply doesn’t have the range to portray the depths of anguish his character ought to be feeling when he discovers the Truth.
And what is the Truth?
Neo discovers it in a way curiously fraught with allusions to the Catholic Tradition. The very first words addressed to him come from his computer screen. They are “Wake up, Neo” (reminiscent of the baptismal exhortation, “Awake sleeper, and Christ will shine on you.”) Indeed, Neo is to discover that he is being called to be nothing less than a Messiah for the human race. He is “The One” who is destined to liberate humankind from “The Matrix”.
What’s that? “The Matrix” is a vast cyber-reality built and maintained by artificially intelligent machines who rebelled against us, won the war, and now require the energy put out by the human body to power themselves. Humans are not born. They are grown, harvested, and plugged into the Matrix from their prenatal state onward, where neural impulses are fed into their brains to simulate their sensations and create a virtual world which exists only in the mind, yet which is so real that the vast majority of the human race (including Neo) has no idea that the “reality” is simply a colossal illusion. Everybody imagines they live in 1999, when in reality, it is about 2199 and the earth has been devastated and the last colony of free humans lives in “Zion”, a subterranean city near the earth’s core.
Some have managed to escape the Matrix, including the mysterious “Morpheus” (Lawrence Fishburne, in a nice performance) and “Trinity” (the sleek and impressive Carrie-Anne Moss). They have, with the crew of a futuristic hovercraft that zips through a network of subterranean tunnels, been fighting a guerilla war against the machines until Morpheus can find the One.
And how is this all so ‘literate’? Because filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski have simply crammed the film with imagery and references, not only to Scripture, but to Greek myth, Alice in Wonderland, Japanese anime and Hong Kong-Fu, cyberpunk novels, theoretical mathematics, and a dash of Jungian psychology. True, this can be overwhelming, but it is also great fun and very interesting to watch and think about.
For instance, the film very deliberately incorporates basic elements of the Paschal mystery into the story, yet in a curiously mythic and fantastic way. Neo is introduced to Morpheus (who has, like John the Baptist, been looking for the One all his life). He is given a choice between taking two pills (like Alice’s choice between the food labeled “Eat me” and the “Drink me”). The one will show him the Truth of his existence and Morpheus will show him “how deep the rabbit hole goes”. The other will cause him to wake up tomorrow believing whatever he wants. Neo opts for truth and, in a harrowing scene, goes “through the looking glass” and finds himself for the first time awake in his own body, a body hooked up by terrifying plumbing to a vast cyber-network with millions of other people still attached to the Matrix. Assumed to be dead by the Matrix, he is promptly disposed of down a long pipe and into an underground river. The scene deliberately images birth, baptism, death and the River Styx and all at once. For the first time, Neo is in his real body, not an illusory one. It is a sort of Incarnation and baptism.
Morpheus tells Neo he is the One to defeat the Matrix and, in particular, the sinister “Agents” (sentient programs dressed like “Men in Black” played with a wonderfully sinister banality of evil by, in particular, Hugo Weaving). But Neo is still Thomas, the doubter, not the Deliverer Morpheus sees. So he begins his training (some terrific fight scenes here) and is at last led to meet the Oracle (another fun draw on Greek culture: the Oracle at Delphi). Like all Oracles, she is, of course, cryptic but says just what is needed. In Thomas’ case, he is told he must either sacrifice his life for Morpheus or that Morpheus will die for him. Shortly thereafter, a member of Morpheus’ crew betrays them (a la Judas Iscariot) and Neo is indeed forced to choose.
It is not the task of film reviews to spoil everybody’s fun by telling how movies reach their climax, but I will point a few things out as I skirt about the edges of the story: namely, right smack in the middle of all this gadgetry, stunningly choreographed fight scenes, visual effects and, yes, appalling violence is hidden the essential paschal mystery of death, of the Christ figure Neo plunging into the very heart of hell and destroying it from the inside out, of resurrection and ascension. (Post-Columbine caveat: When I speak of a Neo as a “Christ figure” I do not mean that his moral behavior is Christian. There is, I stress again, a large amount of bloodshed in this film and much of it shed by Neo who is, disturbingly, dressed in a black trench coat as he guns down a large number of villains in the accomplishment of his “mission”. However, the murderous behavior of Neo does not detract from the fact that the filmmakers do indeed intend to draw on the Paschal mystery and make him a Christ figure. In an analogous way, Catholic Tradition speaks of Joshua-who led Israel into the Promised Land [symbolizing heaven] through the River Jordan [a figure of baptism]-as a Christ figure, without meaning his genocidal campaign against the Canaanites was an expression of Christian morality. We must distinguish between shadow and reality.)
Another interesting note for a Catholic viewer. Where, in most Hollywood films, the “spiritual” person is typically the one (like Yoda in Star Wars or the Spirit Guide in What Dreams May Come) who exhorts us to abandon the body and look to disembodied spirituality as “ultimate reality”, the curious and refreshing thing about The Matrix is that the whole point of Morpheus’ quest is to awaken us from disembodiment and confront us with the fact that we are slaves until we can really live in the real world. Conversely, the evil Agents express their disgust with human beings as bodily creatures (“It’s the smell,” gags one with a hatred that any ancient gnostic would have been proud of.) It is just this gnostic hatred of the body and of creation that the heroes of the film, as much as any Catholic, disdain. They would rather be free in a harsh but real world than slaves in a false one. That is a choice many in our world are no longer willing to make.
In a culture like ours, so increasingly averse to traditional presentations of the Christian mystery and so increasingly unable to grasp even basic elements of the Paschal mystery, it is interesting to see those themes re-explored in such a quirky form of fiction. Would that the story might have been told without recourse to the violent images now inextricably bound up with Columbine High School. This film, like so much myth, is a mixture of real insight with moral dross, but is, on the whole, worth seeing.