Theology On Film – The Matrix
In 1999, the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, both wrote and directed what would eventually become one of the widely regarded, greatest films of all time. That film was “The Matrix”.
In “The Matrix”, we are presented to the character of Thomas A Anderson, played, with his usual stunned facial expression, by Keanu Reaves. During his day, Anderson is an everyday guy who works in an office in a suit and tie. During the nighttime however, Thomas is a computer wiz by the name of Neo, who spends a lot of his time researching a character known only as “Morpheus” (Laurence Fishburne in a suitably mysterious performance). Eventually Neo is told to “follow the white rabbit” to the truth behind something known as “The Matrix”. This blatant tribute to the great works of Lewis Carroll is not the only tribute in this film, but it is one of the first.
Eventually after following the white rabbit, the rabbit being a tattoo on a ladies arm, Neo ends up firstly at a nightclub, then being arrested by “Agents” at his office, and finally meeting the great Morpheus. Morpheus sits in a sombre mood and tells Neo that he can take one of two pills, “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999) This is another obvious link to Lewis Carroll & is used well.
At this point, it becomes increasingly obvious that this film is both cleverly written and even cleverer in it’s design and feels. Increasingly dark, the film has an almost film-noir type feel to it, with a shot of a man stood in the rain under a street lamp being the only missing element. This dark feeling continues throughout the film, past Neo’s realisation of what the Matrix is, through betrayal, loss and eventually through to the conclusion in which Neo realises he is the mythological ideal known as “The One”.
The Matrix, as Neo is shown, is in fact everything we see and hear. It is this world in which we occupy, and it is artificial. After a war of man versus machine, similar in concept to Judgement Day in the “Terminator” movies, the machines imprisoned men in huge fields and used us, in essence, as batteries. As Morpheus himself puts it, “Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999) To keep the human minds active, whilst the machines used our body warmth as energy, the machines create “The Matrix”. A computer created world set in the 1990’s, in which we carry out our lives, unaware of the truth. This world is realistic, it has hurt, it has pain, it has agony. Later in the film, Morpheus is captured and whilst being spoken to by an Agent, the imaginatively titled “Agent Smith”, we learn that originally the computers created a perfect world, but vast numbers of people reject it, Smith’s theory being that ultimately “as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999) This non-perfect, more realistic world, is the outcome of that discovery.
With the vast majority of the film mentioned, it is worth mentioning the religious context to a lot of this movie. The Wachowski brothers never really stated whether there was intended religious relevance or not to “The Matrix”, although what seems apparent is that whether intended or not, the brothers took this on board and made almost a joke of this link in the final of the three movies to eventually have been made. In the final film, Neo is laid down flat in the shape of a cross and is carried off into a city of light after sacrificing himself to others. If this is not meant as a stab at the religious observations regarding the first film, then it must be asked what the brothers were thinking as the second and third films are, to put it simply, horrendous.
Switching back to the first film, just how much religious reference is there? Well straight away there is the Christian link towards the Father, the Son & the Holy Ghost, with Morpheus as a father figure, Neo as the Son, and Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss performing the simple role as the love interest) as the reference to the Holy Trinity. Other than this, there are also biblical references, like the Human City of Zion, Morpheus’s ship being called the “Nebucaneza” and others. The religious point really worth focusing on however, is the idea of Neo as “The One”.
In this film, Neo is basically told that he will be the person to save humanity and bring them into the light. During the film, at one point he actually dies, before being resurrected with supernatural abilities. It is these two points that ultimately link him towards being a sort of Jesus/Buddha hybrid. Both Jesus and Buddha were leaders of men who taught us all truths and educated people to reach a form of enlightenment. Whilst Buddha taught mankind to reject materialism and attempt to reach Nirvana through purity of mind and soul, Jesus taught mankind through stories and claimed that through living a good life, we would be rewarded with an afterlife in Heaven. Neo was similar in respect to Buddha with his methods. The reason behind this is that when approaching enlightenment and absolutely immaterial being, Buddha stopped and took a step back to attempt to aid others in their quest. Neo by comparison, reached his immaterial enlightenment, this being the real world, and took a step back into the Matrix in an attempt to free others. This almost divine leader approach is one of the key cornerstones of most religions, and Neo fills the role perfectly.
Finally, the religious link in this film, which is personally the most intriguing, is the idea of the Judas type character called Cypher. When Neo arrives in “The Real World”, he is introduced to a long cast of characters who have mostly also been freed from the Matrix. One of these characters is Cypher, played to perfection by Joe Pantoliano. Cypher has over the years grown increasingly tired of this immaterial world full of limited clothing, food which is described as tasting either as runny eggs or snot, and a life of difficulty. Add to these and the fact that for many years Cypher felt he was in love with Trinity, and you begin to understand partly why he is upset. Up until his revelation as a traitor in which he brilliantly remarks about Morpheus “If you’d told us the truth, we would’ve told you to shove that red pill right up your ass!” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999). Cypher is angry with Morpheus and this immaterial world, and betrays the “heroes” with the claim that he’d rather live in the Matrix and eat steak because ultimately “Ignorance is bliss!” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999) This betrayal for a better, if artificial, life is similar to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, when Judas pretending to be Jesus’ friend, sacrifices him to the Romans for money. The only problem with this analogy is that whilst betrayal is never good, there is a certain degree of understanding with regard to Cypher’s condition. Confronted with a choice between evangelical suffering and devilish comfort, should someone really be criticised for the comfort, especially when they would remain no memory of it. Perhaps ultimately, unlike the Judas figure who sold his friend for relatively little money and a life of hatred and abuse from others, perhaps Cypher is a man whom we should relate to, but ultimately pity.
To conclude, “The Matrix” was never designed to win awards for plot or acting, but for it’s religious referencing, it deserves some small praise. Ultimately though, should it not be considered for what it is? An action film for the future.
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