The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n
- Milton's Satan, Paradise Lost
The plot of the film holds together admirably, even if we may not notice it at the time. The directors don't have the time to take us through their maze step by step, they simply hurl us into it headfirst, and leave us to put things together as we go through. The movie starts off at full tilt, and gives us no time to get orientated; it is already exploding our sense of "what is real" before we have even established the vaguest idea of such, to the point that, for the first half hour or more, we can't be sure if we are watching dream or reality, or something else altogether. This is a perfectly effective disorientation device, since it is the way that Thomas Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves) himself feels, as his existence suddenly goes beyond the bizarre-into the appalling. But at the same time, this is perhaps the movie's biggest weakness. The fact that we are never given time to settle into Thomas's false reality before we get to see it torn apart, and exposed as the computer simulation fantasy that it is, denies us the full brunt (both the horror and the pleasure) of his initiation. The Matrix might have been more than just a great sci-fi movie, it might have been an authentic masterpiece, if it had eased off a little on the action and given us an extra twenty minutes (at least) to establish the character, his dream world, and the slow, steady encroachment into the dream of a hidden, higher reality, one that will eventually break through and drag him literally screaming back to the Other Side. Despite the intricacy and ingenuity of the plot, the film lacks subtlety, it lacks characters, and as a result it lacks any real psychological depth. Its depths-which are truly giddying-are all subtextual, they aren't textual depths, because there are no shades or nuances to the characters or to their actions, all of which are inevitably overwhelmed by the sheer scope and breadth of the story. As a result, despite being head and shoulders above every other movie of its kind, The Matrix suffers from the same deficiencies: the vacuity and banal surfaces that characterize the '90s blockbuster. Since this may well have been necessary to ensure the movie was a success, however-and The Matrix simply had to be a success or it wouldn't have been made at all-this may not really be a valid criticism so much as a major regret. The miracle is that the movie was made at all; but still, I can't help but imagine a Matrix three hours long, with a muted, toned '70s feel to it and a real actor at its center, the measured pace and attention to scientific detail of Alien, the human depths of Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and perhaps a little more of the anarchic spirit of Brazil. It might have been a Godfather for the '90s: a sci-fi classic for people who don't like sci-fi movies. As it is, it's strictly for cyberpunks and Gnostics.
The story is briefly as follows: Thomas Anderson is a pallid and lifeless employee for a computer firm ("Metacortex") who also has a "secret" life as a hacker who sells illegal software like it was a psychedelic substance. What he is involved in we can only guess at, since the film hasn't the time to tell us. Somehow, along the way, he has been brought into contact with a man named Morpheus, a notorious "terrorist" whom he has never actually met but has been seeking for some time. Thomas (the doubter) is given hints and clues first of all by the mysterious Trinity, who sends him messages on his computer that predict coming events. Shortly thereafter, Thomas is hurled bodily into "the game," and there left to run, hide, make the leap or plummet to his death. His engagement in this game begins when he is at work and receives a call from Morpheus, warning him that "they" are after him. Sure enough, the sinister men in black (government agents) are at that precise moment being directed to his desk. Following intricate instructions from Morpheus (who appears to be able to see the entire layout of Thomas's world like he is looking at a map, or like a god from on high), Thomas sneaks past the agents into an empty office. There he is told to make an improbable leap to safety. He fails to make the leap, does not even try in fact, and allows himself to be captured by the government agents instead. He is taken into custody and there offered a deal: cooperate in the tracking of Morpheus, in return for a clean slate. When he refuses the deal, his world without warning warps into a Surrealist nightmare, as the agent whose name is Smith literally wipes Thomas's mouth off, leaving him speechless and writhing in horror. The other agents hold him down as a metallic but definitely living parasite-like cyber-organism is inserted into his body, through the naval. At this point, Thomas wakes up, as though from a dream. Little respite is allowed him, however, as he is promptly picked up by Morpheus's team (also dressed in black), held down in the back of the limo, and subjected to another bizarre procedure, as the parasite implant is removed. Thomas yells out in horror: "That thing is real?!" He may well ask. By now we have no more clue than he does. As it turns out, it isn't real, but then nothing else in his life is, either.
When Thomas finally meets Morpheus, he finds
a regal and highly stylish black man (Laurence Fishburne) with soft, seductive
tones to match his name. In what is perhaps the most unforgettable part of the
movie, Morpheus explains everything to Thomas over the next twenty minutes or
so. This is a genuinely deranging, blood-curling sequence, and may well be the
giddy peak of sci-fi cinema to date. First of all, following his opening speech,
he offers Thomas a choice: blue pill or red pill. Take the former, he will wake
up again and all this will be just a dream. Take the red, however, and he goes
through the looking glass and finds out "how deep the rabbit hole goes." Of course,
he takes the red. His decision is already built into Morpheus's offer, because,
if it's only a dream, why not take the red; and if it's not, then why take the
blue?! But what Thomas undergoes as a result of the red pill is like every psychedelic
seeker's worst trip. As the betrayer Cypher puts it: why-oh-why did I take that
damn pill??!! Thomas is torn from not-so-blissful oblivion, and there given the
hideous,, literally mind-shattering Truth: that he is a slave to an order of inorganic
beings that until this moment, he did not even know existed. Morpheus explains
that the year is not really 1999, that it is in fact closer to one century later,
and that civilization has in the meantime already been destroyed. That, as a result
of the discovery of Artificial Intelligence (AI), somewhere around the start of
the twenty-first century, there was a stand-off between man and machine-between
the creation and the creator (exactly as in The Terminator)-and the machine
won. AI discovered a means not merely to destroy civilization and inherit the
Earth (a limited prospect at best), but to develop for itself cybernetic, semi-organic
bodies, using human beings as its primary energy source. (The machines were solar-powered,
but the human-engineered holocaust blocked out the sun.) To this end, human beings
were enslaved en masse. They were put into a deep sleep, and a collective dream
was engendered to keep them tractable and docile, like babies in their cribs,
while their vital life force was sucked from them. Humans are bred and raised
directly into these incubators, and fed intravenously with the liquefied remains
of the dead. This is pure occultism, and goes way beyond even the best sci-fi
cinema, into the murky realms and veiled nightmares of Lovecraft, Heinlein, Kenneth
Grant, Carlos Castaneda, et al, with their accounts of "the labyrinth of the penumbra,"
the inorganic entities that have enslaved humanity and turned it into a food source.
Of course modern UFO lore of "the grays" adapts and develops the same atavistic
beliefs, complete with technological additions such as "implants" and clones,
etc. All of which puts The Matrix at the very front-line of modern myth-making;
or is that psycho-history?
The collective dream that is engendered to keep humanity docile is life on Earth, circa 1999, and this is "the Matrix." Within the Matrix, however, there exist certain possibilities for escape, and this is where Morpheus and his crew (the "crew that never rests") come in. They are the "awakened" ones-Illuminati, if you will-who have made it out of the computer-simulated fantasy grid and liberated their bodies from the energy farms in "the real world" (it's hard to taken even this world as real, since we have spent far more time in the other worlds, and since it also happens to be the most bizarre and surreal world of them all). As a result of liberating their bodies, these Illuminati able to enter the Matrix-the dream world-at will, and function therein with superhuman potential. For example, any knowledge, information or training required can simply be downloaded, on the spot, directly into their consciousness by computer. On top of this, they have a contact line to their associates up in the real world, like gods or guardian angels, who can monitor and direct the agents' operations within the Matrix, providing them with a god-like omniscience. Despite such apparently superhuman capacities to navigate the Matrix, however, the "resistance"(3) fighters are at a profound disadvantage when it comes to facing off the sinister men in black, who are "in fact" (!) concentrated AI projections-energy fields, if you will-sent by the Matrix into the Matrix to maintain a hold over its reality-program. To this end, these agents hunt down and eradicate all potential "dissidents," those Illuminati counter-agents hell-bent on disrupting the Matrix's spell, and on breaking down reality as we know it.
While Morpheus's crew can leap improbable distances, sustain an inhuman amount of damage, take out SWAT teams single-handed, and so forth, they are not actually (officially) superhuman. They can bend, and even break, some of the rules of the Matrix, but not all of them. They cannot simply override its tyranny and assume their godlike status as holograms within a hologram, because only "the One" can do this. At present they are all still restricted by the confines of their minds, still working to eradicate the old program imposed upon them by AI. Hence Morpheus's training of Thomas-now Neo, the One, or Eon-is centered around "freeing his mind," on making him realize that he is not in fact restricted by the laws of the body at all, but only by his belief in such. As a rather hokey but touching child-buddha cum Geller-esque spoon-bender explains to Neo: "Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead . . . only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself." This is pure Zen, and goes beyond Yoda and his Force, into quantum physics.
The AI "agents," though still subject to the laws of the Matrix, are not restricted by the same beliefs that dog the humans. They are able to shape-shift, and perform other miraculous feats, yet even these are within certain apparent limits. Obviously, the Matrix must sustain, keep constant, its reality-mirage, otherwise the sleepers will start to awaken. So these agents must move subtly, within restraints, and at least appear to be human. Although the Matrix can change anything it wants within the game, it still has to deal with the living, individual consciousnesses that it has enslaved there. Hence it is limited by its own devices: if it wants to maintain its hold it cannot perform too many overly impossible stunts, because this will only serve in the long run to empower the rebel fighters, by freeing their minds from the "tyranny of continuity" (Time), upon which the whole program depends. None of this is explained in the movie, but it seems fair to deduce that the Matrix is limited, despite being the creator of reality; and also that there is presumably some reason for this limitation. The above is the only one that seems to hold up.
Neo-as the One-is expected to turn the tide in favor of the human uprising, the "awakening," by shifting the balance, by making the leap, both literally and metaphorically, from game player to game master, from ordinary man to shaman, and to demi-god. And this of course he accomplishes. What's so satisfying about the movie is that in the end-despite the its reliance on violence and destruction-it is the power of the imagination that wins the day. Once Neo reaches a certain realization he is able to simply stop the bullets with his mind-since they don't exist in the first place-and to project himself into the (holographic) body of the Enemy (so fulfilling its own secret will to become real), and explode it from within. Inside the Hollywood action fantasy, there is a far stranger bird, just waiting to break out. It doesn't quite make it with this movie, but the potential is there for the sequels, should they come, and should they prove half worthy of this early promise (a possibility I am forced to doubt, obviously). But in this and other moments, The Matrix achieves perfect symmetry, and offers something akin to shamanic ecstasy. It's not just a movie; it's an experience.
are manifest to man, but the light in them remains concealed in the image
of the light of the Father. He will become manifest, but his image will
remain concealed by the light.
Gospel of Thomas, Nag Hammadi Library
Keanu Reeves, as Thomas/Neo, is an attractive enough personality, but he's
also a disappointingly bland center for such an intense drama to revolve around.
He plays the archetypal reluctant hero, yesterday's man, a burnt out shell
with barely the energy to smile. As such, he makes the ideal candidate for
world savior-mythologically speaking-because there is nothing remotely heroic
about him. The film is about his own spiritual rebirth-his coming to consciousness-and
this is its main strength, what gives it its resonance, beyond all the tricks
and twists and the karate kicks. It is also its failing, however, because
Neo, as played by Reeves, is never really real to us, either as a zombie or
as a superman.
Neo, the messiah, is "the One" by virtue of some unspecified capacity of the mind. It may be a genetic thing, but if so the film doesn't dally with it, keeps it vague but specifically mental. Neo is a natural born sorcerer, one might say. He has the ability to suspend disbelief, along with those twin bugaboos, fear and doubt, and hurl himself into the unknown, trusting his wings to sprout in time to carry him across the Abyss, and into the fourth dimension. The film makes dramatic use of an actual, physical leap-Neo tries to jump from one building to the next-to represent the proverbial leap of faith. This is Blake's liberation of perception into the Imagination, and it is perfectly a propos here. Like the Force of Star Wars it comes straight out of the works of Carlos Castaneda, and is tailor-made for fantasy. Of course, Neo fails to make the leap; his "faith" deserts him (like Peter walking water) and he plummets, just as (we are told) everyone does the first time. It is inconceivable for Neo not to be confronted with mortal doubts and paralyzing fears at the mere idea of being the man who is going to save the world. When he visits the Oracle (Gloria Foster), in probably the film's best single scene (a little Surrealist gem unto itself), she starts off, like a good seer, by playing with his mind and confounding all his expectations. She tells him categorically that he is not the One, adding (at Neo's own insistence) that Morpheus will never accept this, however, and will probably die defending his belief in Neo. Hence, the reluctant hero is presented with his challenge. He is given the imaginary option of backing out of an untenable situation, but presented with such circumstances that he cannot possibly, in all conscience, do so; he simply has to fight for Morpheus and for what he believes in, even though he now believes it to be false himself. This recalls Don Juan Matus's tricking of Castaneda, in the first of the books, to ensure that he keep up the apprenticeship.
Don Juan led Castaneda to believe that his, Don Juan's, life was in danger and that only Castaneda could help him; at the same time, he let Castaneda off the hook by giving him the option to abandon his apprenticeship (the path of the shaman) and to return to his old world (take the blue pill). Castaneda, in the tale, has a brief period of doubt before realizing that he simply cannot sit back and let a man like Don Juan die, no matter how useless he may feel himself to be to save him. Hence he is liberated of self-doubt and is set free to act, in full consciousness of his inadequacy, with abandon. Neo is effectively "set up" in the same fashion by the Oracle. Since she appears to see time laid out before her like a map, however, she presumably knows that Morpheus won't die, and that Neo is the one, but that both facts-both possibilities-depend upon Neo's believing the opposite (just as his breaking the vase depended on her telling him not to worry about it). In order to become "the One"-to be worthy of his calling-he must first be freed of the intolerable burden that this calling entails, making it worse than useless to him, until he himself knows it to be true. Hence he has to prove it, not to anyone else but to himself. As Don Juan teaches Castaneda, at the very start of their association: only knowledge that is actively seized can be claimed as power.
This is the most rousing, existential fodder imaginable for an action melodrama, and it gives The Matrix the kind of emotional power that one generally only gets from works of art. In which case, that's what it is; as such, it may well be the cheekiest, most audacious, and most exhilarating work of art since Citizen Kane.
Of course Neo must die to be reborn. As the film's sole moment of real human interaction has it, the world is saved by a kiss. Neo gets caught within the Matrix and has to fight for his life, but is overcome by enemy agents and shot at point blank range. For a moment he seems to forget the lie that he is in a body, that all this is real, and he shrugs off the bullet. But the onslaught continues and he is overwhelmed, succumbs to doubt, and dies. Meanwhile, in the real world, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) comes to the rescue., Firmly persuaded at last (that he is the One) by her own feelings for him (the Oracle told her that she would fall in love some day and that it would be with the One), she whispers in his ear, "You must be the one, because I love you." The truth, represented here in perhaps the most simple and stirring poetic image there is-the lovers' kiss-resurrects Neo to his new life. It sets him free. He is raised up, reborn. The agents (them thar pesky demons) resume their attack, but Neo simply shrugs and shakes his head, with perhaps the faintest of smiles. His gesture speaks volumes: preterhuman confidence, the confidence of a hologram inside the holographic universe, one who is everything-the spoon, the bullets, the universe-because he is nothing at all. Hence his death is not symbolic, or figurative, it is literal. Shamanically, he crosses the rainbow bridge to the upperworld and there his body is replaced by the spirits; he returns, with a perfect image in place of the flesh. Like Jesus and his twin.
By the end of the movie-which is indeed but the beginning of the story-Neo has attained his true "Bodhisattva" status as an enlightened soul amongst the damned, a Psychopomp navigating Hades, a magical healer with a dead world on his hands (or shoulders). He is "the One," not in the sense of the only, but rather as the first: the first to realize his true nature and so become adept, a reality-molder, a Toltec dreamer. He has arrived at the totality of himself, he is whole (holographic); the fact that his moment of death-rebirth also entails union with his soul mate or anima (Trinity, no less) makes perfect alchemical sense. The divine androgyne emerges. To this extent at least, Keanu Reeves is well-cast, having a naturally androgynous quality, such as also presumably what got him the part of Bertolucci's Little Buddha. Following his resurrection Neo stops the bullets and dives inside the demon (Smith) and so explodes it from within. This is the moment in which he is fully recognized as the One (i.e., the One-ness of male and female, mind and body, simulated and actual, left- and right-brain, reason and imagination), and the pop-culture realization of the opus magnus, par excellence. It is every bit the soaring climax that the film has promised us from the start.
The Matrix is myth without the psychodrama, however; it lacks any theological depth, beyond its smattering of Zen and Sorcery, and it fails to create any arresting religious imagery or iconography to match its apocalyptic resolution. In place of such imagery, it falls back on standard Hollywood Revenge Fantasy fare: black clothes, cool sunglasses, heavy artillery, impossible violence. The way in which it transcends this potentially crippling limitation, however, is integral to the appeal of the movie as a whole. Since the characters are interacting largely in a computer-simulated reality, the violence can be impossible without stretching our patience or belief; the circumstances require it to be off-the-wall (the only time it really oversteps its bounds is when Neo shoots up a room of agents in which Morpheus is also captive, without getting a scratch on Mopheus in the process). The absurdity of the violence here moves freely into the surreal, where it belongs. And since the surrealness of it is leading inevitably on to its own obsolescence-where true power is, force is no longer necessary-there is, for perhaps the first time ever, a purpose, a point, an object, to all the excess. The Matrix is a reality map for potential artists and dreamers and would-be shamans to mull over for hours. The possibility that everything in it is exactly and precisely true-if metaphorically stated- and that the film itself is a breakthrough work in the propaganda-illumination program of the hidden rebel forces of "the future" (i.e., the real world), is a possibility that should not be left as a throwaway line at the end of a movie book about violence. It is a possibility that invites our most serious consideration, if only for the sheer hell of it.
Morpheus is not wrong when he assures Neo that "reality"-if understood as what is apprehended by the senses-as smell, sight, etc-is but electrical impulses in the brain, and that as such it may indeed be simulated by artificial means. Science and technology has certainly established this, if they have not actually proved it to us, as yet. Perhaps we are holding back, out of a lurking fear that, should we realize what is possible, we may also realize that it is equally inevitable-that it has in fact already happened. We will perceive the matrix of our mind as the death trap it has become. At which point we will have but one of two options: the blue pill, or the red one.
Talking Heads, "Nothing But Flowers"
The primary trouble with The Matrix is that it is back-to-back action from start to finish. There is hardly a single scene that doesn't serve to advance or expostulate its plot or to set up some character, and as a result the movie has a choppy, forced feel to it, like endless Kung Fu kicks. It lacks perhaps the most elusive pleasure of all works of art: the superfluous moment, details, random felicities. At the same time, as a result of this lack, none of the realities seem quite real to us, because we are never given the time to get accustomed to them, to inhabit them. The film never sets its scenes, it simply hurls headfirst into them. This weakness is most especially regrettable with the real world sequences, which never take the time to give us an idea of this post-apocalyptic world and what it looks like (beyond the images of the endless "fields" in which the inorganic entities are leeching the humans, the single most chilling and inspired image in the movie). We are left with little more than the inside of Morpheus's hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, in which the rebels operate, with no sense of its movements (in relation to Zion for example, which is located near the center of the Earth) or of just why this rebel force is so limited in number, whether there are other groups working to the same end, etc etc. Since they are merely human vehicles for the themes and the plot of the movie none of the characters is allowed to develop. The rather shabby acting throughout hardly compensates for this weakness, either (the major exceptions are Fishburne, Foster as the Oracle, and Hugo Weaving as the demon-agent Smith). This is the level at which the film is weakest, and ironically enough it's the human level.
The Matrix is more than simply a movie, however, and this is why I have been so unabashed in praising it, above and beyond its actual qualities as a work of art. Such qualities, though prodigious enough, are also (I freely admit) quite debatable. It is as a social phenomenon, on a par with and also intimately related to "The X-Files," that The Matrix deserves attention and respect, beyond any other movie in recent memory. Coming as it did on the very eve of the Aeon (it was released on the last Easter weekend of the millennium), it effectively sums up a whole body of fears, beliefs, fantasies, hopes, and paranoias that is gaining an ever firmer hold upon the collective imagination (at least that of the Western world). It ties together a vast array of millennial strands into a slick, phenomenally entertaining package, and seems designed to spark off its own cult following, somewhere along the lines of a Star Wars for grown-ups.
The Matrix is simply the latest in a timeless series of myth-making in which humanity is shown to be ensconced in a truly diabolic situation, the nature of which entails our complete ignorance of the fact. Since the most essential factor here is ignorance, by the same token, the first and most difficult, most crucial, step is simply becoming aware of the true nature of our predicament. Considering all this, The Matrix is serving the oldest and most respectable, most revered, cause of art: that of enlightening the populace, by means both profound and ridiculous, to the Truth. Perhaps one in a thousand of those who see the movie will recognize or even notice its Gnostic tenets; but regardless of this, everyone who sees the film has effectively been exposed to them. Of course by the logic of the kids in The Faculty, it might equally be argued that The Matrix is serving the precise opposite function, that by rendering the truth as sci-fi it is stripping it of its credibility. This argument only holds up however if the work in question is actually ridiculous, in itself. In the case of The Matrix, the work is simply too inspired and effective (and affecting) to be anything but a work of revelation.
Where exactly the immensely talented Wachowski brothers came up with the ingredients to their sorcerers' brew of a movie I cannot say, without looking further into it; obviously they have done their share of research. The Matrix has an internal drive and logic beyond the mechanics of its paranoia-based plot, and its mythical base compares to (and finally outdoes) the very best of science fiction cinema, from Metropolis to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Alien and The Terminator, all movies that have sprung-with varying degrees of integrity and poetry-from the collective unconscious of humanity. Since sci-fi by definition involves our future as much as our present, since it attempts to project the collective imagination forward, and so perceive better what is happening now (by seeing where it is leading), great sci-fi is intrinsically more revealing-more progressive-than the other genres. (Possible exceptions are horror and fantasy, which are equally obliged to plunder the unconscious.) The Matrix is the most fully realized and impassioned projection of our collective fears and aspirations in a sci-fi movie since Fritz Lang's Metropolis; and since it has been timed, with alarming precision, to come at the very end of the present millennium, it has not merely earned but actively seized its place in cinema history. It's a veritable bookend for an age.
Time is always
Morpheus, The Matrix
At the start of The Matrix, Neo is one of the living dead, a sleepwalker
lost in the maze of his own mundane daze; yet he has stirrings, feelings,
yearnings, that tell him two things above all: that he is somehow special,
different from everyone else; and that something is somehow not quite right
about the world he is living in. Hence when he is contacted by Morpheus through
the computer-telephone channels of the Matrix (representing the unconscious
mind), and is told to follow the signs, he cannot help but respond. This is
(shamanically speaking) the "descent of the Spirit" (Morpheus's dream dust),
heralded in the movie by a knocking, traditionally enough in sorcery circles.
He is told, like Alice, to follow the white rabbit; the rabbit signifying
fear, among other things. At this stage, driven above all by curiosity, the
primary nature of the experience that awaits our neophyte (once he has taken
the first active step on the shamanic path, and so entered the maze which
the Spirit has assembled for him)-will be fear. Sure enough, Thomas's next
meeting is with Trinity, the Holy Spirit woman who whispers in his ear (the
tempting words of Eve) that she knows what he has been yearning for-knowledge,
equating at least partially (biblically) with sex. So of course he is hooked,
and allows himself to be drawn-steps willingly-into the snare of Morpheus,
lord of dreams: the shaman.
It's perhaps inevitable that the role of Morpheus was given to a black actor; this is a Hollywood action movie, after all, and a Native American in the role would be just too pat, too Oliver-Stoney. A black man was the obvious next choice. A Mayan would have been nice, I suppose, but since there are no Mayan actors in Hollywood, we can be grateful at least to have gotten Laurence Fishburne (it might have been Will Smith). Fishburne makes Morpheus a hypnotic presence form the start. Since he is living beyond the apocalypse, Morpheus is beyond cool, also. He is so sedate he is like stone, like a Pyramid, emanating power, exactly as the shaman should. He sways Thomas by the sheer force of his personality and presence. He doesn't mince about with his potential apprentice, but gives it to him straight. He lets him feel that he is choosing, but he makes sure there is only one choice that he can make. Since he knows that Thomas is the One, he knows that his spirit is the strongest thing about him. Hence he only has to arouse it, and the rest will follow. And he forces Thomas to confront his fear from the very first moment, when he leads him to the precipice in the office building. Morpheus doubtless knows that he will not be able to make the jump, so he is apparently simply presenting it to him as the task that awaits him. The first enemy of the man of knowledge, according to Don Juan, is fear. But Morpheus (like Don Juan) ensures that his apprentice not be overwhelmed by this fear, but actually uses it to spur him on. Since Thomas's curiosity is so formidable, he is compelled to confront his fear, in order to find its source; and this he does, directly. Since Thomas has already seen too much strangeness to ever take anything for granted again, he simply has to find out what is going on. And so he takes the red pill, and is hurled without ado into the Zone, the astral dimension, the netherworld, the unconscious, call it what you will. He comes to bodily consciousness after a lifetime of stupor, and finds himself in Hell. He is quickly rescued by his shaman-guide, however (the inorganics taking him for dead), and there, in his newly heightened state of awareness, he is told the score.
His life is a dream. He has been enslaved by an alien intelligence that has abducted his body and sapped his will and drained his life force and turned him into a food source, a living battery cell. He has been fed, in turn, with nothing but lies for his whole life, to the point where the truth no longer exists for him. This is not academic, much less metaphorical. It is the literal, hideous truth, and Morpheus can prove it to him. He shows him another reality still, one that is wholly under Morpheus's conscious control, his very own dream world, in which he is God. Hence Thomas-now Neo, at least in spirit-despite the almost intolerable strain upon his reason and his courage, is forced to accept the truth and, by doing so, to confront and to change it. He is shown the unfathomable unknown-of his own Id-and he is told that only by going there, and doing battle with the monsters therein, can he ever hope to survive it. There is no longer anywhere for him to back off to: he has already swallowed the pill; he has chosen life. (Another character in the film-a poorly drawn but key player, Cypher-actually does attempt such an escape, to return to his death-slumber and forget he ever left it; he is the movie's Judas, and he very nearly destroys the whole Neo-movement in the process.) Once he commits to his shaman-guide, the initiate is hurled into the kind of existence that only a warrior can survive, hence he is trained in martial arts, learning by osmosis, as it were, the shaman passing his knowledge directly and bodily on to the apprentice, and only then showing him how to claim his knowledge as power. Neo is of course a prize student-he is after all "the One"-and pretty soon he is giving Morpheus a run for his money.
At which point, he is sent back into action, for real-life training, sent into the world (the Matrix) to find his power. The shaman's teachings have ensured however that the apprentice return to the world with something new: the awareness that the world is only a simulation, a point of view, and that, what's more and to a large extent, it is not even his own. His task is to change this, but he can only begin to do so by first being perfectly detached from it-by learning how to "unbelieve," to realize that the world is a dream, subject to his own conscious will. It is at this point that the second enemy of the man of knowledge-clarity- arises. Neo is so convinced of his point of view, his interpretation of reality, that it enslaves him (which is exactly what the Matrix is designed for, obviously). To overcome this he must free his mind, defeat his reason, or clarity, and simultaneously free his "body" as well, by realizing that he is simply a mode of perception, a feeling. Hence he is liberated to become pure power: a shaman, "or skywalker."(6)
Neo's task is to realize that he is in the world, but not of it. This realization cannot come about without first confronting his doubts however, and this is where the Oracle comes in. Before meeting her, Neo pauses in the waiting room for a brief magical lesson from the Yoda-like child and her spoon. This spoon-bending incident aptly prepares him for the mind-bending which the Oracle will do for him, momentarily. She confounds his expectations and lets him off the hook before the big whammy comes. She gets him in the appropriate mood for his full initiation as warrior-shaman: he is abandoned (he is not the One, so it doesn't matter what he does anymore), but controlled (he can't stand by and see Mopheus die); and by saving Morpheus (and Trinity into the bargain), Neo claims his power, and the apprentice becomes the master. Neo is now ready for the real thing.
The beauty of The Matrix is that it is the story of a spiritual journey, and yet it makes the melodrama an integral part this journey. The horror, adventure, and even the violence of the movie are so effective because they work at both their own level-as the necessary, sensational ingredients of sci-fi-and at a more mythical level, as part of Neo's personal rite of passage. Everything that happens to him is part of his initiation, the means for him to "free his mind." Hence, for the first time ever, all the chaos has a meaning: it is literally apocalyptic. And that's the beauty of The Matrix, because it really does practice what it preaches. It is not only about a shamanic journey, veiled in dramatic form and done up in best Hollywood fashion, but, at the same time, it is this journey itself, in miniature. It's like a plastic maze, into which the viewer's perception may wander and lurk and crawl and soar, at will, to its own despair or delight, as it may. It is a means to confront the unconscious, in fun; and if taken (or done, for The Matrix is the first true work of participitative cinema, of "virtual reality") in the right spirit, it is a potential balm for the weary and sickening soul of the cinemagoer. Maybe even it is a blessing. It brings the sort of exhilaration, anticipation, and joy (to this viewer at least) that may be more associated with childhood than anything. Or dreams. To see The Matrix and believe can make you feel like every day is Christmas. Watching it frees the mind.
not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. The world
will not receive truth in any other way. There is a rebirth and an image
of rebirth. It is necessary to be born again through the image. Which one?
Resurrection. The image must rise again through the image.
The Gospel of Philip, Nag Hammadi Library
Where the Wachowskis could go from here is the most intriguing question of
them all. They have stated that two more Matrix movies are on the way, but
whether they will be prequels or sequels, or both, remains to be seen (the
ideal thing would be one of each, since The Matrix shows us neither
the ending nor the beginning of the story). There is potential here that verily
boggles the mind. After all, as a holographic demi-god-just one in a growing
number, or coming race-there is literally no limit to what Neo is capable
of, in time. The objective would seem to be not simply ending the tyranny
of the old program, but also the insertion of a new program into the old,
to thereby make the transition possible; otherwise most humans (as the film
points out) are simply not strong enough to make the leap, from blissful oblivion
to hellish reality, without losing their minds in the process (the line between
"freeing" and "losing" here is a fine one indeed). Since Neo and his fellow
Illuminates are destined not merely to navigate and overthrow the Matrix,
but actually to reshape it-to reassemble its components into something more
viable, something more open, something that leads to freedom-their work is
no longer simply that of terrorism. It is something infinitely more demanding,
and whether the Wachowskis-inspired as they are-are capable of envisioning
such a process of world initiation, only time will tell. It seems doubtful,
unless they can successfully ignore the pressure, from the studios and the
audience, and simply follow their own inspiration all the way, take as many
risks next time around as they did this time, thereby coming up with something
every bit as unexpected.
The next logical frontier in The Matrix series would seem to be Time. The one question that is never raised in the movie relates to this, namely: how is it that the simulation, of life on Earth circa 1999, is able to continue indefinitely? How can the AI incorporate changes that never took place, since the end of the world brought an stop to all that? Or, if not, how can it keep the human consciousness from noticing that time has effectively stood still? That it is always 1999, that the millennium never comes? Because the tyranny of the program relates directly to this-not that it is unreal (by the film's own definitions there is ample room for ambiguity about that), but that it is used up, that there is no longer anywhere for it to go. Hence the need for a new program, since within the old one there is no longer the possibility of growth, of change. All novelty has been exhausted, leaving only endless repetition, rearrangement of the same elements over and over into tired and familiar patterns. This "end of novelty" has been posited, in relation to the information explosion of the present century, by the shaman-writer Terence McKenna, who imagines a point in time at which all (rational) knowledge will have been amassed, gathered, assimilated, and the program as it were completed. This he refers to as "the eschaton," or otherwise (to you and me): the end of the world (or word).(7)
A brief summary of McKenna's ideas on the subject of artificial intelligence can be garnered from an expansive interview with Art Bell:
I think what we're growing towards is . . . an artificial intelligence of some sort [that] will emerge out of the human technological coral reef and be as different from us as we are from termites. . . . The internet is the natural place for the AI, the artificial intelligence to be born and . . . it learns 50,000 times faster than a human being, and the internet, all parts of it, are interconnected to each other . . . a stealth strategy would probably be a very wise strategy for an artificial intelligence that's studying its human parents. It's also true that more than most people realize, huge segments of today's world are already under computer control. . . . Perhaps it's already taken over. . . . We really can't predict what it will do. It would be nice to suppose that, like a compassionate and loving god, it would smooth the wrinkles out of our lives and restore everything to some kind of Edenic perfection.
The idea of the eschaton ties up, in ways obscure and bewildering, with William
Burroughs's "Word Virus," Jean Baudrillard's "simulacra," and to the novels
of Philip K. Dick, Greg Egan, and so on, and so forth. Essentially, so these
authors suggest, our reality has become (or is due to become) a repetition
of previous experience, a recycling of old data, and as such is no more than
an image, a hologram, a projection of a reality that is . . . elsewhere. It's
at this point, then, that time effectively comes to a standstill. Consciousness
is forced to make the leap, into the next stage (whatever that may be), in
order not to collapse in on itself. This is why the logical evolvement of
the Illuminati in The Matrix would seem to be from mortal (albeit extraordinary)
freedom fighters into . . . something else: interdimensional travelers, non-human
units of awareness, projections of another reality, perhaps, a divine Matrix,
hence capable of moving through time as easily as they once moved through
space. Of course, this idea is nothing new; it is the sine qua non of understanding
the nature (and possible reality) of so-called fourth-dimensional beings,
call them angels or demons or extraterrestrials or future human beings traveling
back through time to pay us a visit. Obviously, this is way beyond the scope
of this book, here at its closure as we are. But in terms of the Matrix
scenario, it's not such a great leap.
Since the Matrix reality is being continuously downloaded into the collective consciousness of humanity as it slumbers-and since Neo and his crew are able to operate both inside and outside this reality (to act through it but also upon it)-it is not hard to envision them developing the capacity to freeze the information flow temporarily (just as Morpheus does in one of his simulated enactments), at will, and even perhaps to reverse it or to move it forward, more or less as one pauses or fast-forwards on a video recorder. This would give them the truly godlike power to alter and rearrange things within the collective human consciousness, within the Matrix, and so redirect it steadily and creatively towards a desired outcome. Since this outcome is not merely the overthrowing of the tyranny of the AI but also the awakening of mankind, it would require not so much the ruthlessness of the terrorist, but the subtlety of the artist, the magik of the sorcerer, the power of the shaman.
A question that is even more demanding (and intriguing) here arises: if the Matrix is found to be "just" a simulation-a dream-and subject to conscious alteration, what, then, of "actual" reality? Morpheus teaches Neo how to function-with superhuman potential-within a simulated training ground, so that he may then move into the Matrix proper with the knowledge he has gained, and function therein; this even though he cannot help but continue to perceive it as true reality. So if the end and final object of all this is to free his mind and so prove that reality is a purely subjective affair-a participative science, if you will (as quantum physics assures us)-then surely this same awareness-this same power-must also apply to "reality" itself? Namely, to the post-apocalyptic world where AI reigns. Surely it is a logical, irresistible conclusion that this too is but another simulation, albeit of a very different order? Put another way: after discovering, beyond all room for doubt, that what he once thought to be concrete, empirical reality is really a mutable, plastic projection of reality-with no fixed laws beyond the laws (the limitations) of the mind-how is it possible for Neo-having realized this truth to end all truths-to ever take anything as "solid" again? Obviously, it is not. One cannot free the mind in part, one must free it utterly, or not at all. Hence the Matrix itself is no more than a training ground-exactly as are Morpheus's simulations for Neo, only the next level up-for initiation into the magical universe, as programmed by "God," if we must give it a name. And here's where the Wachowskis could get really weird with The Matrix.
As Terence McKenna proselytizes
I have been thinking about the idea that extraterrestrials, and this penetration of the popular mind by images of extraterrestrials, is something that we may not get a hold on until we accept the possibility that aliens only can exist as information, and therefore the internet is the natural landing zone for these alien minds. . . . No matter what the alien is, we interpret it through human experience, and god knows our human experience is tweaked enough at the end of the twentieth century. . . . When you pile up all this stuff and realize that major discoveries are being made in all these fields simultaneously, you begin to see the morphogenetic momentum for this "thing" that wants to be born out of the human species at this point as almost unstoppable and inevitable. We're all just witnesses to this unfolding. . . . A multi-sensored dynamic organism that lives on information.
McKenna believes that the day in which time travel is discovered to be physically
possible-the day on which mankind as a whole becomes aware of this fact (and
it appears to be close)-will effectively be the end of time as we know it.
He posits a kind of doorway opening up in space-time through which the future
will coming pouring into the present. If time travel becomes possible, he
argue, logically then our future selves will thereby become known to us. But
in order not to abolish our illusion of chronology altogether (the rule of
Cronos, or Saturn, or Time)-in order to allow us the full benefit of instruction
and preparation which this time stream is providing us with-obviously our
future selves must be discreet. Like the AI agents of The Matrix they may
walk among us but cannot make themselves known to us, for the simple reason
that to do so would effectively collapse the program, would-in the vernacular-blow
our minds. It follows, however, that the moment in which time travel becomes
possible for the average individual, and in which yesterday's man gets a glimpse
of tomorrow's god, these godlike beings-who are both our devils and our angels,
our creators and our descendents-may at last walk freely among us. Hence (according
to McKenna), the moment in which time travel is discovered there will occur
a massive and truly apocalyptic influx-a tidal wave if you will-of alien energy,
or unprocessed data, of wholly novel units of information; or, to put it more
bluntly, of superhuman beings. The gods arrived today. Of course, one could
also "reduce" this eschatological scenario to less apocalyptic terms by saying
that all it really entails is the raising of the floodgates between the left
and right sides of the brain. An apocalypse by any other name . . . .
If the Wachowskis are even half aware of the magnitude of their premise-of their vision-they will be forced to confront and assimilate this "fact": that beyond all the technological, virtual wonders and intrigue and mystery, there is hiding an actual land of magic and of miracle, an organic phenomenon of truly overwhelming proportions, by which both the ghost and the machine (the seed and the womb) may be seen to be no more than the means by which gods are born.
Where is the glory of Nature in The Matrix? I don't believe I saw a single tree throughout the movie. Where is Paradise?(8) The film offers only a variety of purgatories (where the soul is purged and made ready), and a single Inferno. There is no mention of where we can actually go from here. No one asks; no one dares. The film seems to present a huis clos, a no way out situation, save for the single fact that it is above all concerned with the nature of illusion, how to use it, and how to overcome it. As such, The Matrix never really gets down to "reality" at all. That is still to come, and it may be that the human mind, such as it is (and the Matrix is no more nor less than this), cannot know reality directly at all, but only perceives an endless array of interpretations, of simulations. These illusions are not the territory, but in time we may see that they are most certainly maps, by which we may someday arrive there, on terra firma at last, where we may discard all maps and illusions, once and for all. And, on that day, we may find that the truth was ours from the start, but that we just couldn't grok it. Both the Serpent of Eden and Jesus Christ whistled the same tune, albeit for different reasons: "Ye shall be as gods."(9) Apparently, Paradise is not for everyone. *
1. The "Demiurge" is perhaps the central tenet of Gnosticism, as found in the Nag Hammadi Library (the sealed codex discovered in the Middle East in 1947). The Gnostics taught that Jehovah-accepted by the Jews, and by Christianity after them, as the creator of mankind, its one true God-was in fact a pretender, a false god, whose real name was Samael, "the god of the blind," or the Demiurge. Samael was begotten by the goddess Sophia (wisdom) but quickly rebelled and assumed his false throne as world-creator and "god" (rather like Lucifer), crying "I am that I am, there are no Gods besides me," etc, etc. Despite Sophia's insistence that he was lying, that he was but a blind god leading the blind, mankind accepted the lie and allowed themselves to become enslaved to it. As The Gospel of Truth puts it: "Ignorance of the Father brought about anguish and terror; and the anguish grew solid like a fog, so that no one was able to see. For this reason error became powerful; it worked on its own matter foolishly, not having known the truth. It set about with a creation, preparing with power and beauty the substitute for truth." The Hypostasis of the Archons describes a veil that exists "between the world above and the realms below; and the shadow came into being beneath the veil; and that shadow became matter; and that shadow was projected apart." Thus began a program of mind control-or soul enslavement-maintained by Samael and his "Archons" (rulers) which involved keeping mankind distracted by material problems and concerns, imprisoned by its own fear of death, of mortality, and ignorant of its true, divine nature. Hence the soul became "entangled in the darkness of matter," confined to bodily identification, and condemned to endless, repeated reincarnation, without possibility of parole, of graduation to godhood. (Rene Descartes seems to entertain a similar prospect when he writes: "I shall suppose, therefore, that there is not a true God, who is the sovereign source of truth, but some evil demon, no less cunning and deceiving than powerful, who has used all his artifice to deceive me. I will suppose that the heavens, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things that we see, are only illusions and deceptions which he uses to take me in." Descartes's Meditations, quoted by Doug Mann and Heidi Hochenedel, in "Evil Demons, Saviors, and Simulacra in The Matrix. In Letter from Peter to Philip, Samael is called "the Arrogant One" who steals a part of the creation. "And he placed powers over it and authorities. And he enclosed it in the aeons which are dead . . . But he . . . became proud on account of the praise of the powers. He became an envier and he wanted to make an image in the place of an image and a form in the place of a form. And he commissioned the powers within his authority to mold mortal bodies. And they came to be from a misrepresentation, from the semblance which had emerged. . . Now you will fight against them in this way, for the archons are fighting against the inner man. And you are to fight against them in this way: Come together and teach in the world the salvation with a promise." Combine all this with modern UFO lore, which posits an evil (Draconian) alien race implanting human beings since the beginning of time with tiny mind control devices (the "Gods of Eden" and their livestock), for the exact same purpose: of ensuring eternal forgetfulness, endless sleep, so that the souls are denied the possibility of evolving, remain enslaved to the alien beings (the Archons), who (at least in some versions) use the souls as an energy source. Combine all this, and you have The Matrix. More or less.
2. In certain Gnostic texts, Jesus is said to have a twin brother whose name is Judas: Judas Thomas, or "Judas the twin." Without making too many creative leaps it is possible to draw the conclusion from these texts that it was not in fact Jesus who died on the cross, but Judas, his betrayer and twin, "the one who came into being in his likeness," as The Apocalypse of Peter has it. (Nag Hammadi Library. The full quote is: "The savior said to me, "He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshy part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness . . . he whom they crucified is the first born, and the home of demons, and the stony vessel in which they dwell . . . But he who stands near him is the living Savior, whom they seized and released . . . Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind.") In which case, the myth begins to take on rather more complex ramifications (the betrayer was sacrificed and so redeemed; the point of the crucifixion being a blood offering [DNA?], it follows that, as Jesus's twin, Judas's blood was a perfectly acceptable "substitute"). Thomas in The Matrix, then, is not the doubter, he is the double, the one who must be sacrificed, just as is Abel by Cain. Neo, his perfect twin, is the "resurrected," the image that ascends, the Christ half of the equation. It's interesting to note, in regard to this, certain Christian interpretations of the movie that see Neo as "the AntiChrist." The fact that Keanu Reeves recently played the son of Satan (Al Pacino) in Devil's Advocate cannot be too quickly dismissed as a mere coincidence. Of course, pyscho-history does not allow for coincidences.
3. The most disappointing thing about The Matrix is its reliance on the familiar terms of action movies, presenting violence and "resistance" as the only means to overcome tyranny.
4. The name is especially curious considering the Gnostic tenets of the movie: Judaism and Gnosticism are diametrically opposed, philosophically speaking, and mortally at odds, historically speaking.
5. As Morpheus puts it, "They are still part of the system, and that makes them our enemy. . . . Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. [They] are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it." Since the AI agents are capable of entering into-of "possessing"-any human still hooked up to the machine, and of thereby converting them into mindless automatons that do its bidding, programmed killers, no less, any human not actively recruited by the Illuminati is a potential threat to it.
6. Shaman means "skywalker," which is where George Lucas got the name for his hero. Doubtless The Matrix, above all if the trilogy ever comes off as planned, is the movie that Star Wars never quite succeeds in being.
7. McKenna could even have been foreseeing The Matrix when he says: "I think cultures are kinds of virtual realities where whole populations of people become imprisoned inside a structure which is linguistic and value-based." Later he remarks: "Now, if we're gonna become a planetary being, we can't have the luxury of an unconscious mind, that's something that goes along with the monkey-stage of human culture. And so comes then the prosthesis of technology, that all our memories and all our sciences and our projective planning abilities can be downloaded into a technological artifact which is almost our child or our friend or our companion in the historical adventure." Made to order Matrix, anyone? (All quotes can be found in the Art Bell/Terence McKenna interview at http://artbell.com/guests3.html [link now broken. -ed] of 1998)
8. In one of the scripts more interesting quirks, agent Smith explains to Morpheus that the "first Matrix was a perfect human world," that AI originally created a surrogate reality of earthly bliss, a return to Eden, but that humanity rejected it out of hand, that "no one would accept the program"! Hence, they unconsciously chose purgatory instead.
9. "Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." The Serpent of Genesis, 3:5. In John 10: 34, Christ says the same, with only slight variation: "Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are as Gods?"