Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Matrix

I saw the first movie, The Matrix, in 1999 and I remember to have seen it with a group of friends who, at the exit of the theatre, was quite divided: some loved it; others hated it. I was part of the ones who loved it. Having to wait almost four years for the second movie, The Matrix Reloaded, meant that my life changed and I stopped going to the movies so often and therefore I missed it in the big screen and saw it, if I remember well, at the end of 2004 in a DVD version. The last movie, The Matrix Revolutions, saw it now for the first time ever.

As it happens very often with trilogies, I think that the first movie is the best. In this case, it’s not so much about the story, or the performances or the special effects: I think it is basically because of the surprise. The Matrix introduced something new and therefore the impact was much bigger than in any of the sequels. But, all in all, the complete version of the trilogy remains a quite good story, with amazing special effects and a wonderful soundtrack. It’s undeniable that The Matrix trilogy is one of the most visually stunning exercises in the history of the movies, and that’s a good enough reason to keep it the list of must-see. But, actually, the reason I liked the movie so much when I saw it eight years ago, and I liked it even more when I saw the whole trilogy now, is because of its philosophical, almost religious elements.

Mr Anderson/Neo is an obvious reference to the Messiah’s Christian myth: Anderson (literally, the son of andros, the Greek word for man) becomes Neo (which means “new”, but is also an anagram of one, The One). And as if this wasn’t obvious enough, the first time we meet Mr Anderson, his client says: “You’re my Saviour, man! My own personal Jesus Christ!” At the end of the first movie, Neo resurrects and at the end of the trilogy he gives his life to save mankind. It doesn’t get any more obvious than that.

But, of course, there are also some references to other religious myths. For instance, the two levels of reality – the apparent world and The Matrix – are a clear reference to the Two Truths in Buddhism: the relative truth, in which everything is perception, and the ultimate truth, which is the way things really are. Breaking through relative true to direct contact with ultimate true is one of most basic Buddhist spiritual aims, referred to as enlightenment, or awakening. This explains the message in Mr Anderson’s computer screen: “Wake up, Neo!” which leads us to the fact that the person responsible for Mr Anderson’s awakening is called Morpheus, a clear reference to the Greek god of dreams.

But it’s not only about religion; it’s a lot more about philosophy. I think that the clearest reference is to Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation”, published in 1981. Simulacra and Simulation is known for discussions of images and signs, and how they relate to our contemporary society, wherein we have replaced reality and meaning with symbols and signs; what we know as reality actually is a simulation of reality. The simulacra to which Baudrillard refers are the signs of culture and communications media that create the reality we perceive: a world saturated with imagery, infused with communications media, sound, and commercial advertising. These simulacra of the real surpass the real world and thus become hyper-real, a world that is more-real-than-real; presupposing and preceding the real. In this world apathy and melancholy permeate human perception and begin eroding Nietzsche's feeling of resentment.

A specific analogy that Baudrillard uses is a fable derived from the work of Jorge Luis Borges. In it, a great Empire created a map that was so detailed it was as large as the Empire itself. The actual map grew and decayed as the Empire itself conquered or lost territory. When the Empire crumbled, all that was left was the map. In Baudrillard's rendition, it is the map that we are living in, the simulation of reality, and it is reality that is crumbling away from disuse.

The Matrix makes many connections to Simulacra and Simulation: Neo is seen with a copy of Simulacra and Simulation at the beginning of the story, as he uses the hollowed book as a hiding place for cash and his important computer files. Also, when Morpheus is explaining what the Matrix is to Neo, he uses the phrase “Welcome to the desert of the real”, a direct reference to Baudrillard's work.

But if this is perhaps going too far, we can go back to the basics and remember the phrase in the kitchen of the Oracle: “Know Thyself”, the inscription which was above the entrance of the Delphi’s Temple Oracle.

One could go on and on, and mention, for instance, the clear references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but I guess you already got the point: The Matrix is much more than the simple story of a reluctant Christ-like protagonist set against a baroque, MTV backdrop. And that’s why you should see it over and over again.


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