Preface

In “The Matrix Reconsidered,” we discussed the underlying allegory of “The Matrix”; that is, it is a sociological commentary on the control of the masses via imagery. We also noticed the religious motifs purposely sprinkled throughout the film. I initially postponed analysis on those elements while claiming that the Wachowskis appropriated them in order to tell a different story. In this post, I’d like to explain how I came to that conclusion. I would also like to strain out the issues of free will and determinism discussed in the film and investigate what Christianity has to say about them.

But first, the story.

The Review

It’s unclear exactly how much time has elapsed between Neo’s Christlike ascension into the sky at the end of “The Matrix” and the beginning of “The Matrix Reloaded” but things are quickly spiraling. The machines are digging and will reach Zion in 36 hours. The Nebuchadnezzar is desperately trying to contact the Oracle (Gloria Foster) who has disappeared. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is clashing with Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), a surly pragmatist unsympathetic to his belief in prophecy. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is suffering from recurring nightmares of Trinity falling to her death. Despite his new status as Matrix demigod, he still struggles to understand the telos or ultimate end to his powers. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is the bedrock of strength for Neo (as well as resident, martial arts master). But even she can tell that something is wrong when he looks at her. Of particular note is the new anomaly, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who no longer follows his programming and can replicate after performing the old Mola Ram hat trick from “Temple of Doom”.

Filmed four years after the first installment, “Reloaded” is a welcome return to the familiar green-complexioned world of the Matrix with its 1940s era architecture[1] and iconic black leather fashion. Along with improvements to bullet time are new computer generated (CG) effects for more complex fight choreography. This means entirely simulated action sequences are now spliced between live shooting allowing the Wachowskis to (sometimes) pull off a number of amazing stunts. Much respect goes out to them for constructing action choreography with due attention to more realistic group fighting. That is, when Neo faces off against a group of Agents, particularly in the Burly Brawl sequence, he doesn’t vanquish each one at a time. He must deal with a virtual (pardon the pun) dogpile of enemies all at once.

The Wachowskis would have been better off had they not insisted on CG and slow motion at the same time. The combination of the two reveals a rather cartoonish veneer. Probably the best and worst examples of these are during the highway sequence where Morpheus, Trinity, and the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) are being chased by Agents. When an Agent leap frogs in slow motion on top of cars the CG utterly fails for the aforementioned reason. But when Trinity and the Keymaker must dodge CG traffic on a motorcycle it succeeds since the traffic is not onscreen long enough to be scrutinized. While the more over-the-top, CG sequences are fun, the best action is still the wire stunts which look almost balletic in slow motion (see Neo vs. the Merovingian’s henchmen at the grand staircase).

For those fans of the first film that didn’t care much for the sequels I’d like to offer a possible diagnosis. The Wachowskis made a decision to focus on the conceptual features of the plot while almost totally ignoring character development. That is, we hardly know anything about Thomas Anderson’s life or background before he begins his hero’s journey. Helpful facts about Morpheus and Trinity, like their real names or who they were before the story, are never offered either. Then “Reloaded” abruptly introduces new characters and an entire city that we’ve never seen before. So, perhaps the sequels feel cumbersome because the necessary scenes (in-between the action) propelling us toward each plot point are not supported by well-developed characters. Consequently, we watch events unfold in the lives of people that we were never emotionally invested in. While I personally enjoy the conceptual/philosophical devices carrying the trilogy, I’m sympathetic to those who consider the sequels a disappointment.

Religious imagery

As I mentioned previously, the Wachowskis have appropriated religious imagery to tell a different story. Remember, last week we discussed Baudrillard’s theory of simulation (or third order of simulacra) as a bad copy that can no longer represent its original. I utilized the Kardashian reality show as an example of this concept. That is, when we watch the show we only see a skewed or incomplete version of the real Kardashians. And, since the show is so skewed, Baudrillard would say that it cannot represent the real family; the show can only represent the show. Once this disconnect is introduced between the image and the original then an image’s meaning can change. In other words, as Jim Rovira writes, “The post-postmodern period has seen the destruction of appearances and meaning turned upside down.”[2]

This characterization of reality is depressing to say the least. For, if Baudrillard is correct, we are helpless victims of sociological manipulation incapable of escaping the simulation of images. In Simulacra and Simulation he describes images as “no longer resembl[ing] anything, except the empty figure of resemblance, the empty form of representation.”[3] It follows that, since images are empty (according to Baudrillard), they can be filled with new representation. This is what I think the Wachowskis have done with religious motifs.[4] They have appropriated religious images to represent an escape out of the realm of manipulation. Knowledge is the key to this transcendence; that is, knowledge leads to enlightenment which leads to one’s own ability to manipulate the simulation (like the impossible jump over rooftops) which leads to an escape from the simulation altogether.

Remember, Neo (one character’s “own personal Jesus Christ”) dies and resurrects with the new ability to see behind the Matrix, as it were, to the code of the simulation. Once he achieves a deeper knowledge of his self (the Oracle’s sign above the kitchen reads “Know Thyself” in Latin), he is able to manipulate the simulation such that he can stop bullets. Even his ascension into the sky at the end of the first film is reminiscent of Jesus’ ascension in front of the crowd of witnesses in Acts 1:9. But these are only some examples of Christian references being re-represented to further the idea of escaping sociological control. Also present in the trilogy are references to eastern religion. Consider the axiom given to Neo by the baldheaded, monk-child in the Oracle’s apartment: “There is no spoon.” The Hindu conception of maya has been re-represented to mean “There is no referent to the simulation.” Or consider the common usage of mirrors (and reflective lenses) in the films. After Neo swallows the red pill the mirror attaches itself to him and engulfs his entire body. The Buddhist conception of a mirror reflecting enlightenment is re-represented to signify, again, liberation from the chains of control.

As I mentioned in the previous post, utilizing the movie to further our particular theological message should not be considered out of bounds. But we must be aware that, when we do so, we use the movie in spite of its intended allegory not because of it.

Control

The mechanisms of control run deeper than previously imagined in the original film. Neo not only realizes that the Oracle is a program from the machine world but his own enlightenment and rebellion is part of an anomaly foreseen by the Architect (Helmut Bakaitus). This leads to some critical questions like: Is everything (including the rebellion) controlled by the Matrix? Are the Oracle’s prophecies really meant to aid Neo and gang or are they meant to ensure greater control? On a more fundamental level, Neo wonders whether he can trust the Oracle at all. While we discover the answers to these particular questions in “Revolutions” the philosophies espoused by the Oracle and Merovingian are helpful in discussing the biblical view of free will, foreknowledge, and determinism.

The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) represents causal determinism. “You see, there is only one constant,” he smugly declares, “one universal. It is the only real truth. Causality. Action, reaction. Cause and effect.” Remember, he is asserting this in the context of sociological control. That is, under his view (a guise of Baudrillard’s) people react to simulation as objects being manipulated; not as free agents. Morpheus challenges the Merovingian’s assertion saying, “Everything begins with choice.” But the Merovingian denies that choice exists: “Wrong. Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.”

As was mentioned in last week’s post, the Bible rejects Baudrillard’s worldview. Here, we can see that the Bible also rejects the Merovingian’s as well; not only as it specifically pertains to sociological manipulation but to people in general. The Bible treats individuals (and nations) as moral agents culpable for their decisions. In Deuteronomy God repeatedly gives Israel the choice to obey or reject Him: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord… you shall live… But if your heart turns away… you shall perish… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (30:15-19). If it were the case that causal determinism was true, then it seems we would not be morally responsible for our actions nor would it make sense for God to challenge us to make good decisions in the first place. Granted, this presupposes that people are agents that cause events and not the other way around; but this is what makes the best sense out of our personal experience as well as intuitive sense of justice. So I think the Merovingian would be hard-pressed to find many people that agree with him.

Interestingly, the Oracle appears to be espousing a biblical view of free will and destiny. She tells Neo, “It’s really up to you. Just have to make up your own damn mind to either accept what I’m going to tell you or reject it.” So she affirms the choices that individuals make while, at the same time, knowing what they will choose to do beforehand. We find something similar in the biblical characterization of God. For example, on the one hand God foreknows who will be saved (Romans 8:29; 11:2; Ephesians 1:11) while on the other salvation is a result of an individual’s faith (John 3:16, 18; Romans 3:21-22; 4:5). For many wrestling with the biblical record, it might appear that God’s foreknowledge of our actions somehow determines what we will choose to do. Even Neo asks the Oracle, “If you already know [whether I’ll accept your offer of candy], how can I make the choice?” But his question appears to be predicated on a mistake equating foreknowledge with determinism. Just because the Oracle knows that Neo will accept her offer of candy it doesn’t mean that she will force him to accept it. All it means is she knows beforehand what he will do. Likewise, just because God knows what people will do in the future doesn’t mean He’s necessarily responsible for their decisions.

“Reloaded” lends itself to affirming both God’s omniscience and the moral culpability of individual decision-making. Faced with these two truths, all of us must come to grips with the world that God has created; one where we ultimately choose to accept or reject Him and one where He already knows what we have decided. I would ask those that reject the biblical message based on a perceived conflict between these concepts to go deeper and investigate the robust, biblical responses formulated by Christians (see Calvinism, Molinism, and/or Arminianism).

In Part 3: “‘Revolutions’ Resolved” we will conclude this journey with a look at Agent Smith as the culmination of the use of religious imagery, as well as the final solution to the story.

 

[1] The rooftop that Trinity runs across in the opening scenes of “The Matrix” is the same set used in filming “Dark City”.

[2] Jim Rovira, “Subverting the Mechanisms of Control: Baudrillard, The Matrix Trilogy, and the Future of Religion,” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 2, no. 2 (July 2005), http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_2/rovira.htm#_edn1 (accessed June 10, 2014).

[3] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press: 1994), 45.

[4] Jim Rovira’s take on the Matrix greatly influenced my thought process on this issue.

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  2. You are possibly accidentally alluding the Archetect to God, in which case, you could almost say that God has no free will, but is predetermined to solve a problem. You could further argue that God purposely sets us up with illusion to manipulate us. I see this movie as a more general philosophical debate between programmed institutions and the individuals caught in the conundrum of being aware of that existing. I’d like to advance this with the latest theories on holographic universe and our playing out simulations without realizing what we really are. Anyway, good read, love the Matrix movies. =)

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