Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne in the Wachowski brothers Matrix trilogy
Review by Mark Saunders
The Matrix - A synopsis
A computer hacker called Thomas Anderson, who goes by the alias Neo, is contacted by a 'terrorist' called Morpheus. Morpheus offers to tell him the truth about his existence if he trusts him. Neo accepts, and is freed by Morpheus from what he believes to be the real world, but is actually a virtual world based on the late twentieth century, known as 'the Matrix'.
In the real world all human beings are enslaved by machines, who use them as a source of power, keeping them docile by immersing them in the Matrix. Morpheus and his 'terrorist' group are people who have been freed from the Matrix and now fight against the machines, inserting themselves back into the Matrix, where they can act in apparently supernatural ways because they have realized it is an illusion.
Morpheus, acting on the words of the Oracle, has been searching for 'the One', the Messiah figure who freed the first human beings, established the free city of Zion, and is prophesied to return to bring freedom to all and a final victory. Morpheus believes Neo is the One - something that Neo himself doubts.
When Morpheus is betrayed and captured, Neo rescues him, discovering in the process that he is the One. Having rescued Morpheus, Neo is killed by Agents, the machine's operatives within the Matrix.
Trinity, one of Morpheus' crew who has fallen in love with Neo, refuses to believe that he is dead, because she was told by the Oracle that she would fall in love with the One, and kisses him, bringing him back to life. The movie ends with Neo challenging the Machines, and promising that he will bring salvation, before ascending to the heavens.
The Animatrix - A synopsis
The animatrix is a series of nine short animated films, largely by Japanese Anime directors, set in the world of the Matrix. They explore some of the themes of the films, and occasionally expand the plot lines. 'Final flight of the Osiris' is essentially a prequel to Reloaded, establishing the fact that the Machines are beginning a massive assault on Zion. 'Kid's Story' introduces the character of the Kid from Reloaded and Revolutions, establishing why he feels Neo saved him. 'The Second Renaissance' parts 1 & 2 outline the history of the war between humanity and machines that led to the construction of the Matrix. Essentially it suggests that the suspicion and hatred of humanity ( who needed the machines but could not control them) led to an apocalyptic conflict that ultimately they lost. The overarching theme (echoed in Reloaded and Revolutions) is that humanity and machines have a symbiotic relationship, and that hell on earth comes when one partner or the other in the relationship attempts to exert total control over the other. Initially humanity tries to do this to the machines, but ultimately it is the machines who control humanity.
The other films establish little new in the way of plot development or themes. 'World Record' is perhaps worth a mention, however, as a meditation on human freedom.
The Matrix Reloaded - A synopsis
The Machines begin a final assault on Zion, and the leaders of humanity are divided about how to secure their defense. Morpheus, who has huge popular support, believes that Neo will save them, and that the Oracle will tell them how. Commander Lock, his superior and sometime rival, believes that they cannot simply follow blind faith and must take the attack seriously.
Neo, who has come to terms with being the One, is now regarded in a semi-divine way by sections of the population. He has been troubled with bad dreams about the death of Trinity, who is now his partner, and he fears that these dreams are prophetic. He meets with the Oracle, and discovers that she is a program, a being created by the machines. She tells him that he must free the Keymaker, another program, being held captive by an ancient and powerful program known as the Merovingian.
Neo, Morpheus and Trinity manage to free the Keymaker, who tells them about a door that only the One can open. They manage to get Neo to the door, but to do so, Trinity puts herself at risk, acting just as Neo's dream had foretold. Just as Neo enters the door, Trinity begins to fall to her death.
Beyond the door, Neo meets the Architect, the program who built the Matrix. The Architect tells him that he has been duped, that the Matrix is cyclical, and has already been built and then destroyed several times. Zion is doomed to fall, and he has been here before in many previous incarnations. The role of the One is simply to assist the Machines in rebuilding a new Matrix.
The Architect tells Neo that he has a choice: he can fulfill his task, in which case just as his predecessors have, he will be seen as the savior of humanity, the founder of a new Zion in a new Matrix - or he can defy them, in which case Zion will be destroyed. Neo, unlike his predecessors, chooses to defy the Machines. He leaves just in time to save Trinity, using his powers to bring her back to life. On their return to the real world, however, they are swiftly overwhelmed by Machines. Neo finds that inexplicably he is able to use his powers in the real world to save them, but then falls unconscious.
The Matrix Revolutions - A Synopsis
As was revealed at the end of Reloaded, Neo now finds that the powers of the One are greater than simply the ability to manipulate the Matrix - he can control things in the real world too. In discovering this he falls unconscious, inadvertently separating his mind from his body and imprisoning himself in a strange limbo world controlled by a program called the Train Man. Morpheus and Trinity are forced to descend into a nightclub called "Hell" to bargain with the program called the Merovingian (in his alternate guise as the husband of Persephone that is, the ruler of Hades) for Neo's soul. Before his return to the real world, Neo goes to see the Oracle once more. She tells him that the Architect was not telling him the whole truth, that his powers are indeed greater than simply manipulating the Matrix, and that they come from "the source". She tells him that he has a destiny to fulfill that is far greater than the Architect could imagine. He is the one who can bring an end to the war between machines and humans. She also tells him that he has an opponent: the program that was Agent Smith, but which has now become free since Neo destroyed him at the end of the first movie. Smith has become increasingly powerful, able to possess other programs, turning them into beings apparently identical to himself. Smith is Neo's opposite, and one of the two of them must prevail. The Matrix will come to an end within 24 hours if Smith wins.
On his return to the real world, Neo determines that he must bring an end to the war by traveling to the Machine City. The others think this is crazy, and even Morpheus has his doubts. However, Niobe lets him and Trinity take her ship, the Logos, while the rest of them go back to try and save Zion. Zion is engaged in a hopeless last-ditch struggle to fight back an endless wave of sentinels, and Morpheus and Niobe reach them just in time to save them. However, they win only a temporary respite and humanity withdraws to 'The Temple' to make their last stand against the machines.
Neo and Trinity reach the Machine City, defeating a human possessed by Smith (who blinds Neo), and the Machine City's own defense systems (mortally wounding Trinity). Neo, who seems to be able to "see" his surroundings even though blinded, walks into the heart of the city where he is confronted by what seems to be the voice of the machines. He declares that he has come with a simple offer - he will defeat Smith, who has become too powerful for the machines to control, in exchange for peace. Neo's bargain is agreed to, and the attack on Zion is halted. Morpheus realizes that Neo is fighting for humanity.
In the Matrix, Smith has gained almost absolute power, literally remaking it in his own likeness - the entire Matrix is populated by Smiths. In possessing the Oracle, Smith has also gained her vision, and tells Neo that he has already seen that Neo will be killed. They fight, and it becomes obvious that Smith has become at least as powerful as Neo. Finally, Smith realizes that the time he foresaw has come, and repeats the Oracle's words to Neo: "Everything that has a beginning has an end". Neo realizes that in order to defeat Smith he will have to die. He allows Smith to possess him, dying in the real world. Yet as soon as Smith has absorbed Neo into himself he discovers that he cannot contain him. All the Smiths begin to explode, burst apart by a light they cannot contain within themselves. The Matrix remakes itself, and all those possessed by Smith are restored. In Zion, the Sentinels leave, and people realize that the war is over - that Neo has brought them peace.
The film ends with the Architect and the Oracle discussing what has happened. The Oracle admits that she took quite a risk, but that it was worth it. The Architect questions whether the peace will last. The Oracle states quite firmly that Neo will come again.
The Matrix and the Bible
The Matrix films have been tremendously successful (in spite of the poor reviews of the second film), because of the audacity of their vision, and the cool mixture of kung fu and philosophy. These films explore questions about freedom, perception, destiny, and choice: Do we really know the truth of our situation? How do we know what is real? Are we really free? Would we know if we were?
Followers of Christ are also interested in these questions, and the films borrow obviously from the Bible in certain areas. Many of the names (Trinity, Logos, Nebuchadnezzar, Zion, even Thomas Anderson) are obviously from Biblical sources. The Messiah motif that runs throughout the first film has an obvious Biblical resonance, with Neo rising from the dead after having been told he is loved by a woman called Trinity, and ascending at the end of the film.
However, ultimately, this is mere window-dressing. Although it may make the concept of Messiah easier to communicate in a post-Christian culture, the films do not really draw on the deep themes of the Bible's message. Neo's death and resurrection have little resonance of Christ's about them, and his ascension owes more to Superman than to Jesus. There are as many references to Buddhist teachings as to Biblical teachings, while the expansion of the understanding of the One in 'Reloaded' (making it clear that the One is periodically reincarnated) pushes it even further away from a Biblical Messiah analogy. The only area in which the films are obviously drawing on quite deep Christian themes is in the portrayal of Neo's saving death at the end of Revolutions. This deserves more extended comment (see 'The Matrix and Redemption' below).
There is also the question of violence: Neo is a 'Messiah' who embraces violence wholeheartedly. The films emphasize and glamorize the violence involved. The concept of Agents (which mean that anyone could potentially be an enemy) justifies wholesale slaughter. The occasional shots showing dead Agents reverting to the people they had possessed emphasize that it is always real people dying. For followers of Christ, the films are more interesting in raising the sorts of questions that a materialistic secular culture does not often stop to ask.
'The world they have pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth' - The Matrix and Reality
The central concept of the Matrix is that the world you think you live in is not the real one. We are controlled and influenced by forces we do not easily see. Everyone is so firmly locked into a 'false consciousness' (to use the Marxist term) that they no longer sense the real world.
This basic idea, and the questions it raises, is interesting from the viewpoint of a follower of Jesus Christ. Followers of Christ believe that the real world is more than simply physical, that there is a spiritual dimension to life that is not perceived by our five senses. In a sense, as C. S. Lewis puts it, we live in the shadowlands, and the real world is beyond. It is only when that real world breaks into this one that we see the truth, and realize that God is there, and that we must become new people if we are to live in the light of the spiritual reality of God's holy presence.
The original Matrix film provides a striking illustration of this. Indeed the whole first half of the film could be seen as a meditation on the idea of 'conversion' - realizing that the world is not what we thought it was, and that we must act in a way that might even seem nonsensical to someone who has not seen what we have.
The audience's perceptions change with Neo's, so that by the end of the first film we are willing to accept that walking into a building and shooting everyone in sight is the right way to act, because we no longer view the 'real world' in the same way. Of course there is a danger in this sort of perception, that we devalue the physical world, and see only the spiritual as having value. Interestingly, the Matrix films, by inverting the two worlds (the apparent world is only in the mind, and the real world is physical), have evaded this problem, and in fact show physicality in a very positive way.
It is not only the false perception that keeps people from seeing the truth however. In the Matrix films, as in the message of the Bible, there are powerful forces that work to blind us to the truth. Part of the process of conversion, of seeing things differently, is freeing ourselves as much as we can from these forces, and striving to free others. For the follower of Christ, these forces of sin are not simply external pressures, but come from within us. Freeing yourself is an ongoing process, not to be completed in this life. Like Cipher in the first film, it is tempting to allow ourselves to accept the things we know are wrong, just because it is so much easier.
As followers of Christ, then, we should be heartened to find a film that has people coming out of the cinema saying 'How do I know if this world I perceive is the real world?'
'There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path - The Matrix and Freedom
Another theme that emerges strongly is the idea of freedom, choice, and control.
Morpheus tells Neo early on that the Matrix is control. It is designed to reduce a human being to an object. The point is made again more subtly in 'Reloaded', where the Merovingian demonstrates his ability to control a woman in his restaurant, where the key point is that she has acted instinctively, not choosing or asking why. At that point she is controlled by someone else.
Neo's journey of discovery, becoming the One, is a process of exercising more and more freedom over the controls that the Matrix places on his actions. Initially this simply means moving faster, or jumping further, but eventually it means stopping bullets and flying. At the end of the first film it appears that Neo has complete freedom of action - he can even evade the attempts of the system to trace him. But this is deceptive. 'Reloaded' shows how Neo cannot exercise this freedom. He is controlled by fate (or perhaps by yet more machinations of the system). The film is framed by Neo's prophetic dream - the dream he fears because he may not be able to stop it happening. The Oracle tells Neo that he has already made his choices, he just has to understand them. The Architect tells Neo that he has simply been a pawn of the system all along.
On the other hand, 'Reloaded' undermines blind faith: Morpheus believes the prophecy guarantees that humanity will triumph, and trusts the Oracle. Neo discovers that the Oracle is part of the system, and that the prophecy is just a mechanism to create a new Matrix. The key dramatic moment of the film is where Neo has to choose between the triumph of the Machines in a new Matrix (if he co-operates with the Machines), and the destruction of humanity (if he does not).
Neo chooses apparent death, choosing hope over collaboration. In doing so, he seems to have found freedom once more. He saves Trinity, and sidesteps the prophecy. But it is freedom at the cost of faith. He no longer believes in the Oracle, the prophecy, or that he is destined to save humanity.
Freedom is one of the highest values of our society. To have a film that prompts people to ask 'Am I really free?' is very healthy. Followers of Christ believe that there are many forces that control us, both from outside and within ourselves, restricting our freedom. However, we also believe that true freedom is not found by simply acting however you want to. That complete freedom that Neo seemed to enjoy at the end of the first film, is an illusion, because we have responsibilities to those whom we care about (and sometimes those we do not). True freedom is not found by giving in to instinct, but by living responsibly. This is not easy, but requires discernment, because right and wrong are not always easy to tell apart. The person living responsibly cannot afford to act instinctively, but must think through their actions in a world where the truth is not always clear. 'Reloaded' is set in such a world, having moved away from the black and white of the first film to a more complex situation where it is not easy to tell what the truth is, and who is in the right. Not all humans are good, and not all programs are working to oppress humanity. The powerful manipulate the truth to serve their own ends. (The end of 'Reloaded' suggests that the Architect was not being entirely honest with Neo in his presentation of the truth). In presenting situations in which discernment is difficult, and in which the big choices must sometimes be made guided only by the key values of hope and love, because the truth is unclear, 'Reloaded' presents a picture of the world that followers of Christ can and should recognize.
Perhaps the most explicitly Christian theme to emerge from the Matrix Trilogy is that of redemption.
'Revolutions' is essentially a film all about salvation, and it is very interested in how salvation occurs. Throughout the film we are confronted by people under threat by forces so powerful they cannot hope to defeat them. Most obviously this is shown in the attack on Zion, where Commander Lock struggles to mount a defense against an attack he knows must ultimately overwhelm them. However, there are smaller-scale examples throughout the film. The child program is an innocent, who faces termination in the utilitarian machine world because she has no function worthy of existence. She escapes from there to the Matrix, where the Oracle gives her shelter but cannot protect her from Smith. The Oracle herself is seen to be vulnerable, in marked contrast to her portrayal in the previous two films. Neo is initially imprisoned by forces he cannot defeat in his own strength. And behind all of these we are presented with the specter of the possible extinction of humanity, both in the Matrix (where we are increasingly encouraged to see the sentient programs as human, when they mimic humanity so faithfully that they are motivated by love) and the real world.
Faced with this threat, people attempt to bring salvation. Some attempt to do so by courage, skill, and force of arms. This is presented in an appropriately heroic light within the film (though interestingly some of the real heroes of the battle are the outsiders: the "kid" who volunteers to fight even though he is too young, and the two women who single-handedly bring down the drilling machine). But others attempt to do so by self-sacrifice, non-resistance, and faith. The Oracle does not resist Smith, and allows herself to be possessed, simply having faith in Neo that Smith will be overcome. Trinity, in saving Neo at the start of the film, displays a mixture of both, threatening the Merovingian with a gun to get her way, but being self-sacrificially prepared to die herself in order to save Neo. Neo seems to move from one method to the other in his fight with Smith. At first he attempts to overcome him by force, but then, when he hears the Oracle's voice, realizing that Smith has not been able to completely eradicate her, he attempts to bring salvation by the Oracle's means: self-sacrifice, non-resistance, and faith. He allows Smith to possess him, having faith that Smith cannot ultimately triumph.
Salvation is, of course, a key Christian theme. The salvation that Neo brings is undoubtedly one of the most stunning presentations on film of a Christian view of what salvation actually means. For Christians, the underlying threat is evil and sin, which keep God and humanity apart. Salvation means the establishment of peace between God and humanity by the decisive defeat of evil and sin by Christ, who is both man and God. In the Matrix films, we are initially presented with the threat of the extermination of humanity by the machines. However, as the trilogy progresses, we are encouraged to see that humanity and the machines need each other, and that the real threat is the desire to control others, which is personified in Smith (this is seen especially clearly in the portrayal of the beginning of the war in 'The Second Renaissance'). Salvation for the Matrix then, requires the establishment of peace between machines and humanity by the decisive defeat of evil and the forces of control by Neo, who in some ways appears to be both human and a program. This establishes a profoundly Christian understanding of salvation.
This Christian influence becomes even clearer whenwe consider the means by which victory is gained. Neo defeats Smith through substitutionary form of atonement: he takes the evil and its consequences (death) into himself in place of humanity, essentially absorbing all the evil and neutralizing it by his own death. In doing this he breaks the hold that evil has over the whole world. This brings a restoration of all things: the programs possessed by Smith are freed, the nightmare world he had created is banished, and the Architect promises the Oracle that all those who wish to be freed will be. This is one of the classic ways in which Christians have understood how Jesus' death on the cross saves us. The Christian resonance of this is driven home by Neo's dying in a cruciform pose, and the whole sequence visually and symbolically is profoundly Christian.
It would be wonderful if we could simply leave it there, and assume that in Revolutions the Matrix films have revealed themselves to be basically Christian in their world view. However, this is unfortunately not the case. Although the Christian themes become very prominent in Revolutions, they are not the only ones there. In essence what is presented is a Gnostic world view, that contains strong Christian elements but ultimately wraps them in a pagan package. The trilogy ends with a conversation between the Oracle and the Architect that reinforces their status as the joint "creators" of the Matrix. They are presented as two opposed but equal divine principles, standing for freedom and order respectively. The Oracle described Smith as emerging as an opposite to Neo because the system requires balance. The conflict between Smith and Neo was in some senses a conflict between the two philosophies or deities represented by the Oracle and the Architect. This is an essentially dualistic understanding of the nature of the universe, in which good and evil, freedom and control, are equal and opposite (and both necessary in some sense).
As well as this underlying dualism, there is a strong suggestion that, despite the tag line 'everything that has a beginning has an end' (which suggests a linear view of time), the Matrix is cyclical. The Architect had already confronted Neo with the fact that there had been previous Matrixes and previous Ones. The Merovingian had met previous incarnations of Neo, and had retainers from earlier versions of the Matrix. The end of Revolutions has the Architect doubting whether the war is really over forever, and the Oracle confidently asserting that they will see Neo again. Although this could be read as a Christian reference to some sort of a "second coming" or even to a "resurrection" of some sort, in the context of these other references it is more natural to read it as an assertion that time is cyclical. The renewed Matrix is not a redeemed Matrix in a Christian sense - where Creation, Fall, and Redemption form a linear sequence. Rather it is a recreated Matrix in a cycle of endless Creation, Fall, and Recreation. The war will begin again because time is cyclical. Neo will be reincarnated because he is part of the endless cycle. These elements undercut the significance of the Christian themes in the films. Neo's victory is a victory of chaos/freedom over control/order, not ultimately a victory of good over evil, as Christians understand good and evil, because in a dualist universe "good" and "evil" are simply competing philosophies or forces, not "the way things were always meant to be" and a corruption of that ideal. And the victory that Neo wins is not decisive, ultimately it will simply become statistically meaningless, because it has not broken the cycle, the salvation it brings is not lasting.
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'The Matrix Trilogy' - this review by Mark Saunders has been updated in light of the release of 'Matrix Revolutions'.
'The Matrix Reloaded' review.
'The Matrix' - our original review of the first film in the trilogy.
The official Matrix site
is the Matrix?
Part of the official Warner Brothers Matrix web site, this is a collection of articles on the philosophical implications of The Matrix.
Dark Horizons' review of The Matrix Revolutions
Welcome to the Machines, by Ross Anthony
HollywoodJesus.com's "The Matrix Revolutions" page - commentary from a Christian viewpoint
The Matrix and God-talk in America (part 1) by Terry Mattingley
after The Matrix (part 2) by Terry Mattingley
So, What is The Matrix? Rethinking Reality
Cultural commentator Roberto Rivera sums up the religiously syncretist components of the the blockbuster film, The Matrix. He makes a strong case for the essential role biblical Christianity plays in a story like this, namely one that "works" in terms of inspiration and a worthy storyline. That is reality.
Launching from the first film of The Matrix trilogy and its use of gnostic themes, Closson goes on to explicate the essentials of Gnosticism as a historical religion and more recent seedbed for New Age and liberal "Christian" thinking.
Put These Fingerprints On My Imagination?" Engaging the Matrix
David Dark ties the human experience of looking beyond the world system to freedom with the popular film, The Matrix. A very experiential journey that explains The Matrix like Jesus explicating a parable, borrowing from Dark's close-up interaction with high-schoolers seeking answers to the big questions of life.