The Torch


The Torch (Danish: Faklen.dk) is a Danish web-magazine devoted to cultural trends and social comment in a humanist worldview. Edited by Rune Engelbreth Larsen and Carsten Agger.


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Matrix and the Metaphysical Film Revolution


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Rune Engelbreth Larsen | THE TORCH

Matrix and the Metaphysical Film Revolution


MATRIX AND THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS

Agent Smith:"Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting for something? For more that your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself …"

The Matrix trilogy is put together as a series of complex jigsaw puzzles in the form of numerous references and symbols which interact with and overlap each other, and which for this reason can be interpreted in many different ways.

Therefore, by way of introduction it would seem appropriate to make some comments concerning the Wachowski brothers who not only created the story but also directed the films, and who naturally wished to tell a meaningful story. Though the question is which story - for the brothers themselves have kept a very low profile, and neither is there anything to glean from their previous productions that would shed light on the issue.

Their careers in the movie business started with the manuscript for Assasins (1995), directed by Richard Donner and with Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas in the leading roles. The final film however, was so much at variance with the original manuscript that they attempted in vain to have their names removed from the credits.

Even so, Assasins was the launching pad to their film careers, and their luck improved when they both wrote and directed the critically acclaimed and considerably more interesting Bound (1996), staring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.

Previous productions aside, the Wachowski brothers were far from being big names in the movie business when it came to raising the capital for the filmatisation of The Matrix, the manuscript for which had already been penned before the shooting of Bound.

On the whole, they are extremely reluctant to discuss the project and have very carefully delegated the promotional interviews to among others, the film's producer Joel Silver as well as some of the actors. In the contract for Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, it is expressly stipulated that they are not required to make themselves available for interviews, which effectively obscures their own rendition of the trilogy.

Although, in a rare interview in the New York Times, April 5, 1999, they do explain that the manuscript for The Matrix is the result of a synthesis of widely differing fields of interest which find their expression in the effort to make "mythology relevant in a modern context". They named the Odyssey as their favourite book, which they perused anew in connection with the production of The Matrix.

In 1999, they also answered a number of fan questions on the internet, but the session confined itself to small talk concerning technical details, various sources of inspiration, favourite scenes and the like, and added nothing of note to the speculation surrounding the interpretation of The Matrix.

They commented briefly on the relationship between The Matrix and Bound: "Both films examine the idea of an individual searching for their true self while attempting to escape the box that we often make of our lives." They also make it clear that the bulk of the religious symbolism in The Matrix is deliberate, and that the characters' names are meticulously chosen and have multiple meanings. They emphasize Alice in Wonderland as a major source of inspiration, and the idea of "worlds within worlds" as a central theme. They mention Gnosticism's relevance, and express their fascination at the convergence between certain aspects of natural scientific theories and religious understanding - though without going into detail.

In other words - not much. They do however, point out that it is more important how individuals themselves interpret the film(s).

The underlying structure of the Matrix trilogy as well as its allusions and symbolism allow for individual interpretation, though very little is arbitrarily arranged making it more difficult to dismiss certain ideas and messages than others.

The Matrix-films pose the great questions: What is reality? What does it signify? Freedom? Love? Truth? What does it all mean?

At first glance, it might seem like a random hodgepodge of everything from philosophical brainteasers and literary allusions to mystical references and historical religious parallels. Though it is worth noting that a certain amount of poetic license can be an essential ingredient in any work of fiction, and one should not seize on every superficial inconsistency - especially in cases where these inconsistencies bring added depth to the story.

With this in mind, on closer inspection one can discern distinct method in the madness and at the very least, a large proportion of what at first glance appears to be nothing more than banal inconsistencies, is seemingly calculated to introduce a new meaning.

That this "meaning" might turn out to be less conventional and more paradoxical than expected is another matter, which we will return to later.

MAN AND THE MACHINE

Morpheus: "What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad."

On the surface, Matrix I-III is a science fiction epic that takes place in a future where conscious machines constitute a threat to man. Man against machine is a classic theme which recurs in various forms, either dominant or subordinate, in many science-fiction films, with or without literary reference, e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Westworld (1973), Dark Star (1974), Demon Seed (1977), Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979), Blade Runner (1980) and Terminator I-III (1984, 1991, 2003).

The Matrix trilogy incorporates many of the elements found in these films, but stages them in its own unique universe.

Machines have subdued their creators in a global war that has transformed the earth into a smouldering wasteland and enshrouded the sun behind a thick layer of black cloud. Human beings are artificially cultivated in giant production facilities where they are foredoomed to spend their entire existence in a state of suspended animation, reduced to serving as a type of "battery"; a living energy source for the machine civilisation. However, to prevent people's brains from degenerating completely, they are plugged into a computer-generated world which is more or less an exact replica of a modern western society in the year 1999 - This pseudo world is the Matrix.

As Morpheus explains in the ruins of "the real world": "You've been living in a dream world, Neo."

Yet, at an early stage after the great war between man and machine one exceptional individual with extraordinary abilities managed to act upon and reshape the Matrix from the inside "as he saw fit". This heroic, semi-mythological figure liberates others from their coma and reintroduces hope to humanity. After his death, the mystical woman The Oracle, predicts his return, and that this 'Second Coming' will precipitate the demise of the Matrix.

Those that are liberated from the Matrix form themselves into an effective, though hard-pressed resistance movement, which seeks sanctuary in the subterranean city Zion. From here, they hack their way into and out of the Matrix in an attempt to undermine the computer-generated illusion, and to liberate humanity from its enslaved pseudo-existence in a wholly regimented and insidiously controlled society. "What is the Matrix? Control," emphasizes Morpheus: "A prison that you cannot see, cannot touch, cannot taste, a prison of the mind."

Behind its main narrative structure, the story conveys a reinterpretation of and gives new relevance to disturbing elements of the twentieth century's great dystopias by George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Aldous Huxley: the fight against a stage-managed and tightly controlled (pseudo) reality, the absurd mindlessness and the apathetic, technological "paradise", respectively.

The parallels to 1984 are developed in detail.

"We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull," encapsulates the strategy of the rulers in 1984. In The Matrix, matter is reduced to "electrical signals interpreted by your brain," or as Morpheus explains: "The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window. Or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work. When you go to Church. When you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."

Despite the effectiveness of the propaganda machine in 1984, Winston feels instinctively that something is wrong: "... the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different." Neo experiences something similar, explicated here by Morpheus: "You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad."

In 1984, the torturer and executioner O'Brien, says to Winston: "You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston. You are a stain that must be wiped out." In The Matrix Trilogy, the agents refer to Neo as "the anomaly", about whom The Architect expands: "You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate …"

In 1984, "room 101" is the dreaded torture chamber where rebellious individuals by gruesome methods are brought to believe in the realness of the false reality. Neo lives in number "101", while, as Thomas Anderson, he is not yet aware of being trapped in a virtual reality.

In 1984, Winston is supposedly the last surviving person: "Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors," says O'Brien on behalf of The Party. In The Matrix, it is Morpheus' torturer Agent Smith, who likewise asserts: "Evolution, Morpheus, evolution. Like the dinosaurs. You've had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus, the future is our time."

The Party's mechanism of oppression in 1984 consists of forcing the individual into a strictly regimented "truth" and "reality", which they have absolute control over, where two plus two makes five, when convenient for the system, where "war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength"

As O'Brien explains to Winston: "You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party."

If we replace "The Party" with "The Machine", the mechanism of oppression is identical to that of Matrix I-III, in which this "control of reality" is developed to its ultimate extreme. People are not merely "indoctrinated", their brains are directly "foddered" with electrical stimuli, creating a virtual reality which for the same reason is perceived as being as empirically real as the original reality it has replaced.

However, the rebels in the two stories react differently thereto. In 1984, they insist on objectivity; Winston for example, attempts to resist torture by asserting that two plus two makes four.

Neo and Morpheus on the other hand, proceed in a different direction. One cannot contest the fact that they rebel against the rulers' virtual reality, but the films support rather than undermines the view that, in a certain sense, reality is the result of human brain activity - the possible implications of which we will return to in chapter 4.

The parallels to Orwell's horror scenario are as unavoidable as they are significant. The Matrix Trilogy utilizes the 1984-like framework for the staging of a political confrontation against the ruling elite's consummate regimentation, monopoly on truth and "control of reality". These are essential points - which we shall also be returning to - but The Matrix Trilogy is more than that.

No sooner has one delved deeper into the story before an impressive array of underlying paradoxes become apparent, and "man against machine", more than simply a synonym for "man against might", or power, unfolds itself into a cornucopia of potential interpretations.

This opens the door, not least to a wider horizon of seemingly metaphysical character, and as we have already observed, it is not least this direction the Wachowski brothers expressed special interest in, in their efforts to make "mythology relevant in a modern context".

This implies that the journey of self-realization is not simply of mythical character for the films' principal persona Neo, but that something similar must leastwise apply to the uncovering of essential aspects in the unfolding of the films' theme. Ostensibly, it would seem that the trilogy has written itself into certain paradoxical tendencies in the spirit of the times. Namely, the seemingly indestructible remnants of the legacy left us from religions and myths, the spectres of which are re-emerging with incremental tenacity and permeating temporal political problems in our day's ever-so secularized Western society.

THE METHAPHYSICAL FILM REVOLUTION

Trinity: "It's the question, Neo. It's the question that drives us. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did."
Neo: "What is the Matrix?"


Despite this apparent secularization, religious trends in widely differing forms are gaining popularity. It is seen for example, on the one hand, in the form of the "alternative" market for creeds and beliefs which encompasses everything from the crystal balls of fortune tellers and the pseudoscience of astrologers, to spectacular demonstrations of the power of the supernatural - and on the other hand, also in the artistic world, with social realism being challenged by magical realism in all its forms.

Reminiscences of thousands of years of myths and beliefs are re-emerging in the recent, and more often than not, distorted figures of film and literature as ambiguous metaphors and symbols, or as concrete phenomena from a magical fable world. Not least in the film and literary world's ever more roomy fantasy genre, which encompasses everything from restrained fantastical magic as family entertainment, to unrestrained brutality for splatter film enthusiasts.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are typically symptomatic of a large part of the tendency's global character within the world of film and literature, but it also manifests itself in a substratum of fantasy in other media. Through the power of television, we can witness tele evangelists exorcise demons from possessed souls, and seemingly cure stricken individuals from incurable afflictions and conditions

Demons and angles, magic and witchcraft flourish unequivocally in popular TV serials such as the X-files, Buffy, Angel, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Charmed, not to mention the oceans of computer games, comic strips, animated cartoons and role-play scenarios.

Myths and legends have always made good film material, and positively even more so in line with the incremental advancement in special effects. It is now possible to filmatise mystical sequences and historical religious phenomena, from gods and demons to trolls and ghosts etc. with ever increasing "realism" - adopted either wholly or partially from mythology. The capacity of "religiousness" to sneak in by the back door so to speak, has plainly found ideal conditions in the darkened atmosphere of the movie theatre, for there is seemingly no limit to the ability of modern-day special effect virtuosos in (re-)creating miraculous myths or magical folk tales in magnificent cinematic believability.

The revolutionary development within the field of computer animation has undoubtedly contributed to the making of a wealth of blockbuster films which are greatly indebted, intentionally or otherwise, to the history of religions and mythology. This includes everything from horror and science fiction films to classic ghost stories and family entertainment, of which the Matrix trilogy, Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars series and Harry Potter filmatisations are among the most popular and profitable, though certainly not the only ones.

It applies also to films such as, for example, Pi (1998), Stigmata (1999), What Lies Beneath (2000), The Mothman Prophecies (2001), The Others (2002) and Signs (2002).

There are of course wide variations in the quality and style of these examples, but one characteristic they all share, is that without the phenomenology and history of religions as well as the ability of creative minds to exploit (and sometimes distort) elements hereof, not many sequences of the aforementioned productions would remain, or at the very least, they would have looked a lot different.

Of course, what is new, is not that mainstream cinema is concerning itself with historical religious phenomena (the Life of Jesus and other biblical stories have been filmatised countless times, most recently in Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion of the Christ, 2004), but the fact that new syntheses have become international cinematic sensations, in particular, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Matrix I-III, which depart from established religious doctrines, and which have attained almost cult-like status in the West.

For example, "harry potter" came in second behind "britney spears" in Google's listing of the most popular internet search terms among 55 billion searches on Google worldwide in 2003, while "matrix" came in at no. 3 and "lord of the rings" at no. 8.

This extreme popularity is mostly due to literature, for example, Star Wars and Matrix I-III, owe a great deal to Frank Herbert's multi-volume science fiction epic Dune, although to different aspects. Herbert's main character, the messianic Paul Atreides, likewise re-actualises numerous mythological and historical religious points, inspired not least by Islam. The first volume was the subject of an unsuccessful filmatisation by David Lynch in 1984, while the TV series Dune (2000) and The Children of Dune (2003), are based on Frank Herbert's story in its entirety and follow the novels more closely.

In the midst of ultra-secularised western society, where Islam is unwelcome, where Judaism ekes out a marginal existence in unobtrusive communities (with the exception of Israel) and Christian churches face ever decreasing attendances, millions of dollars are shovelled in by the portrayal of gods and prophets, either directly or indirectly, in films, literature and computer games etc. in which faith-laden narratives thrust ordinary people into extraordinary situations, and extraordinary outsiders become heroes against all odds and logic. While churches often are empty, millions of young people flock to cinemas and shops to procure the latest discourse from the Lord of the Rings saga and the most up-to-the-minute scripture from The Oracle in the Matrix or the Jedi Order in the Star Wars trilogy. Children are named after the heroes in Lord of the Rings, and adults and children dress up as figures from Tolkien to play out larger-than-life roll-play scenarios in forests etc.

That moviegoers are attracted more by the special effects and action scenes rather than any potential philosophical points or clever religious paradoxes (or crude philosophical and pseudo-religious aspects, if one will) only serves to highlight this tendency. The multi-religious universe of the Matrix films and popular culture in general, does not differentiate itself in this respect from the spectacular accounts upon which most religions are based.

Moreover, many of these films and cult phenomena are studied and analysed with exegetic exactitude by fans on a multitude of websites in numerous official or unofficial fan clubs and discussion fora, which lie entirely outside the reach of for example, churches, synagogues and mosques.

In other words, it seems that in recent years phenomena from mythology and the history of religions have directly or indirectly formed the basis for films with immense global appeal, with the most diehard fans camping for days or even weeks outside ticket outlets before the premiere of their preferred epic, as well as forking out large amounts of money on related merchandise.

The films in question frequently unite in their portrayal of a world influenced by underlying extra- or supernatural dynamics that at times operate with numerous levels of reality or parallel universes, which the leading characters can expose and employ in the fight against miscellaneous injustices. Whether it be Peter Parker who discovers his "calling" as Spiderman, or Mr. Anderson who finds his "true self" as Neo; whether it is Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker who is "initiated" into Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry or the Jedi Mysteries respectively, or whether it is the protracted struggle to destroy The Ring of Power that unites the heroes in Lord of the Rings, it is first and foremost the belief in being able to achieve the impossible, and oftentimes the stubborn avowal of hope and love that empowers the principle personae - and it is always doubt that weakens them.

It is in a basic sense, if not "religion" as such, undoubtedly a form of implicit belief, regardless of whether the spirit or deity becomes the Force or the Source, or something altogether different.

In many respects, the Matrix films are a synthesis of these contemporary tendencies with their prolificacy of themes and ideas ranging in quality from the crude to the sublime. The trilogy is as such far more explicit in its religiousness, as it is loaded with actual historic religious references, and because it revolves essentially around the paradox inherent in the metaphysical world of religions (and mystics) in the form of a deeper and more profound meaning with life as well as the existance of one or more "realities" next to the immediate world. Where our rational and secularised Weltanschauung sees causality and coincidence, the films reveal purpose and circumstance.

The immediate outward appearance of the world can often give rise to uncertainty, a haunting suspicion that the "real" reality is obscured by a fraudulent haze, concealing secrets and profundities which do not readily reveal themselves. As Trinity says to Neo: "It's the question, Neo. It's the question that drives us. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did."

And Neo responds: "What is the Matrix?" What is real, what is unreal, what is true, what is false - what is the purpose of it all?

The unresolved questions, the recurring mistrust of authority, of leaders, of the whole system, leads perhaps to banal escapism from an ever-more confused and disorienting world - yet perhaps what constitutes escapism in the eyes of the system is in fact the way out of its entanglement in the eyes of the rebels.

In Matrix I-III, "the question" which Trinity alludes to - or "the splinter in the mind", as Morpheus puts it - is broad in its formulation. But mostly it is an expression of a patently indestructible religious impulse for a deeper meaning with life, which finds its outlet in the most unexpected places.

Numerous explanations can be given as to the reason why, despite the secularisation of our culture, we see a wave of metaphysical phenomena in global cinematic production with mass appeal and a cult-like cultivation of lines and cinematic details - though whatever the explanation, it is occurring.

Nowhere is it so clear as in the Wachowski brothers' production, and few of the details are left to chance when we paradoxically move from the virtual universe of the Matrix and Zion's subterranean reality, to the grim, futuristic urbanisation of the machine world - and when Neo is trapped "between" the worlds in a mysterious subway station with the characteristic name Mobil Avenue ("Mobil" is an anagram for "Limbo").

Though their ingenuity extends a lot further. Personal names, room numbers, license plates, street names, signs and book titles, even earrings, cigarette packets and a lot more besides, are often contrived as subtile signs and indicators.

A book title refers for example, to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's Simulacres et simulation, references allude to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and others to Frank Baums The Wizard of Oz. One of the rebels is named Mifune after the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who appears in a number of Akira Kurosawa's masterpieces, and additionally, the cult TV series The Prisoner raises its head both directly and indirectly. A number of aspects are inspired by William Gibson's Neuromancer. In fact, the whole idea of the construction (and naming) of a computer-simulated reality, the Matrix, which one can move around in, originates here. Also Zion, which in Neuromancer is a Rastafarian space colony reminiscent of Istanbul's patchwork of dwelling houses, is an obvious inspiration for the subterranean rebel citadel Zion.

Furthermore, the American professor Cornel West is given a minor role in Matrix Revolutions as a tribute from the Wachowski brothers for his anti-racist cultural criticism. A section of the films' subtext, the confrontation between man and machine, is partially styled upon the historical problems between whites and blacks in the USA, especially in "The Second Renaissance I-II" from Animatrix, and it is hardly a coincidence that the majority of inhabitants in Zion in Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions are of afro-American ethnicity.

Though the mythological symbolism is by far the most noticeable and almost inexhaustible: A pair of earrings carries the symbol for Yin and Yang; licence plates refer to texts from The Book of Daniel, The Book of Isaiah and the Fifth Book of Moses, and technical inscriptions refer to the Gospel of Mark. A long list of names is taken from mythology and the history of religions, for example: Trinity, Morpheus (Greek god of dreams), Sati (Hindu goddess), Nebuchadnezzar (New Babylonian king c. 605-562 BC), Horus (Egyptian god) as well as numerous others.

Overall, the frames of reference are so comprehensive that the trilogy must be considered as an ambitious attempt to represent a synthesis of references and symbols in a veritable characterisation of the cosmos in all its diversity.

However, it is not so much the details as the overall run of the story and the philosophical dialogues that endow the stream of connotative symbols and details with a coherent structure in the Matrix trilogy, even though they serve as guidelines.

As we have seen, the films alternate between several frames of reference, but it is from within mythology and the history of religions' metaphysical frame of reference that the principal parallels are to be found, and it is by this path that the trilogy's general message is to be unraveled.

By Rune Engelbreth Larsen (translated by Anthony Kiely)
April 2006


This essay was originally published in Danish as the first chapter in the book, Matrix and the Gospel of Disobedience (Matrix og ulydighedens evangelium, 2004). In the four succeeding chapters, an analysis of the trilogy's subject matter illustrates how finely the mythological cards are shuffled, and how historical religious parallels are established - and then rearranged.