The Matrix

Directed and written by Andy and Larry Wachowski

With Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano.

By Bill Stamets

Christ is one prototype for comic book superheroes: he transcends earthly laws and fights evil powers. His first episode may have ended badly, with that bloody business on the cross, but the Second Coming promises a blockbuster sequel. And in The Matrix Andy and Larry Wachowski–a Chicago duo who graduated from writing Marvel comic books to making movies inflected with comic graphics–cast Keanu Reeves as a Christlike hero whose Net moniker is Neo. He is “the One,” prophesied to return to earth as the savior of humanity, which is enslaved by the Matrix, an all-encompassing virtual-reality program overseen by omnipotent computers. Neo performs miracles and smites devils by rewriting code: here Christ is the ur-hacker.

Larry Wachowski told American Cinematographer that the main goal in The Matrix was to make “an intellectual action movie.” Yet critics have been quick to point out the film’s borrowings from other sci-fi movies, dismissing its Christian touches as so much pseudophilosophical pastiche. More impressive than the Wachowskis’ knowing sci-fi allusions, however, are their coherently interlaced themes of Christian theology and the deconstruction of cyber-dystopias. What’s most amazing about this $60 million secular escapist fantasy–driven by 12,000-frames-per-second special effects–is its evangelizing for Christ, Marx, and cultural philosopher Jean Baudrillard to a computer-literate teen demographic.

The Wall Street Journal called The Matrix “semi-impenetrable”–and, surprisingly, so did Joe Pantoliano, who plays Cypher in the movie. On a talk show he said the film was “inexplicable,” even though he’d read the screenplay 20 times. But he could rattle off a list of biblical links. “I’m Judas Iscariot,” he said. He described Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus as analogous to John the Baptist, and Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity to Mary Magdalene.

Reeves plays Thomas A. Anderson, a mild-mannered cubicle drone at a computer corporation in an anonymous, contemporary-looking city: phone-book covers and subway signs cryptically identify the locale as “City,” although the Wachowskis have sprinkled into the script references to such familiar places as Wells and Lake, Franklin and Erie, and the Adams Street bridge. After work, Anderson logs onto the Net as Neo, looking for mystic terrorist Morpheus, who as it turns out is looking for the One. Morpheus teaches Neo a mind-blowing truth about the world–it’s false–and helps him shoulder his duty as a savior. Members of Morpheus’s crew twice refer to Neo’s feats as miracles. And Zion is the name of a subterranean city near the earth’s core where humanity awaits the Second Coming of the One, who proves to be Neo. At the end he (or is that He?) steps from a City phone booth and zooms skyward like Superman. Sequels beckon.

No actual Bible appears in The Matrix, but Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation does: with its epigram from Ecclesiastes, the book is a sort of Rosetta stone or Rosebud for the brothers Wachowski. Turning up in one shot, the French philosopher’s book on postmodern theology, terrorism, and hyperreality is open to the chapter “On Nihilism,” where Neo stashes his black-market computer programs in a hollowed-out compartment.

Marxist imagery of false consciousness and institutional opiates also abounds, though the pedagogy of the oppressed has been updated for the computer-literate. What Neo never realizes until making contact with Morpheus is that reality as he knows it is a massive, almost seamless simulation. (The sign outside on the skyscraper where Neo works reads “METACORTEX,” but the sign inside reads “METR CORTECH.”) A few angst-ridden souls like Neo sense that the world is awry, but the vast majority don’t have a clue. Our minds live in the Matrix while our bodies lie immobilized in translucent pod-beds, stacked like the curved stories of Marina Towers, where we dream our lives, eyes shut in a collective hallucination. Computers believe that they’ve evolved beyond us, but they need us as batteries to run on: we’re each good for 120 volts, generated by synapses in our central nervous systems, and for 25,000 BTUs of heat.

Only a handful of intrepid Matrix hackers–aboard the hovercraft USS Nebuchadnezzar, commanded by Morpheus–are whole body and soul and know that the rest of us are imprisoned by illusion, hardwired through portals implanted in our skulls. The Judas Cypher, a rebel who’s burned out after nine years on the Nebuchadnezzar eating rations of snotlike goop and fighting the power, decides that ignorance is bliss. All he wants is resurrection–to be plugged back into the Matrix with the identity of an actor and the opportunity to taste red meat, even if it’s chimerical.

Neo escapes his everyman’s slavery after Morpheus recruits him and, off-line, kidnaps Neo’s body from the computer overlords. In his newfound state, Neo tests the laws of physics, which he now realizes are only as hard as the software they’re written on. The first step to freedom fighting is leaping between tall buildings in a single bound.

To simulate a world that’s itself a simulation, elastic and erasable, the Wachowskis employ state-of-the-art special effects that visualize reality as virtuality. (As Baudrillard said in “The Evil Demon of Images,” a 1984 lecture, “Cinema increasingly approaches, with ever increasing perfection, absolute reality.”) The filmmakers toy with time most of all, in spectacularly lyrical fights in superslow motion. Elegant camera compositions consistently ratchet these action sequences into a level of artistry beyond mere kickbox acrobatics. Even spent ammo gets a gilded treatment: the camera points straight up into a cascade of glistening silver and gold shell casings raining down from a helicopter gunship.

These scenes are both gorgeous and disturbing. No one and nothing is really destroyed in these operatic annihilations, since The Matrix frames most of its action within the Matrix. Baudrillard addressed the consequences of warfare via video screen in his 1991 pamphlet The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, and he claims in Simulacra and Simulation that “theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource left us.” One virtuoso shoot-out features Neo and Trinity in a paroxysm of self-righteous, adolescent, above-the-law amorality. Arming themselves at a surreal virtual Kmart stocked with endless racks of shiny black weapons, they stroll through the lobby of the enemy, tossing aside brand-new guns after firing a few rounds and reaching for their never-ending backups. As torrents of bullets fly, the corporate decor is reduced to rubble: the profligacy of arms and the collateral damage offer a dramatic showcase of excess.

The Matrix does a good job of repackaging Baudrillard’s critique of hyperreality, as well as riffing on Christ, Marx, Lewis Carroll, and L. Frank Baum. Just as George Lucas repopularized mythologist Joseph Campbell in Star Wars, the Wachowskis in The Matrix glamorize deconstructionism as a radical weapon for decoding signs and unplugging the masses from their virtual-reality opiates. The Matrix offers more than a thrill ride, illuminating the Wachowskis’ belief “in the importance of mythology and the way it informs culture.” They also flatter their youthful fans by encouraging them to identify with Reeves’s neo-Christ. “We never free a mind once it reaches a certain age,” explains Morpheus. “Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.