It Ends Tonight

And now we have reached the end of the rabbit hole. I hope the red pill went down smoothly for you. Before we jack in one last time it’s only fitting that we reflect on our journey through the previous posts.

Everything That Has a Beginning

In “The Matrix Reconsidered,” we discussed Baudrillard’s theory of simulation as the underlying allegory of the film. We observed the Wachowskis’ adherence to Baudrillard’s ideas but also some key points of divergence, particularly in their distinguishing the real world from the Matrix as two separate realities. This upset Baudrillard[1] but, since the Wachowskis wanted to solve the problem of simulation (at least cinematically), it was necessary for a referent to exist after all. In “Reloaded Reexamined” we discussed how the notion of liberation from control was represented through appropriated religious motifs. Also, in both posts, we examined ways that these particular concepts lend themselves to formulating theological narratives. However, I suggested we be aware that these films are not intended to showcase traditional Christian themes.

At the end of “Reloaded Reexamined,” I mentioned that Smith had a role to play in the final solution of the trilogy. In this post we will focus on that role as the cinematic final problem for both humans and machines. We will also notice how his new function, as the antiNeo, serves to exaggerate the notion of control. Lastly we will discuss the solution to the problem of Smith and how that lends itself to the biblical notion of submission.

But first, as always, the review.

Things Are a Little Different Now

The war has come to Zion. Its citizens are batting down the hatches and manning battle stations. Captain Mifune (Nathaniel Lees) is snarling a pre-battle speech to his troops a la Maximus in Gladiator. Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who both appear to have attended the Lando Calrissian School of Flying, are racing back to Zion with an EMP. But Neo (Keanu Reeves) has a different mission. The Architect told him that the war is all part of the plan. Because of human free will there will always be a cycle of resistance and reassimilation. In other words, the battle between human and machine is part of the system of control; and it’s only a matter of time before Zion is destroyed to begin the cycle anew. So Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are piloting their own ship to the Machine City with a risky proposition: a truce between humans and machines. But first, Neo must correct a problem that threatens the safety of all: Smith. Due to the former agent’s newfound ability to replicate, no one, not even the system, is safe.

Both “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” were filmed altogether and later cut into two theatrical releases. Perhaps because of this, the ending to “Reloaded” feels arbitrarily tacked on in the midst of an upswell of momentum. That is, we are just learning two new facts before the end credits roll: Neo’s abilities now extend to the machines outside the Matrix and Bane (a.k.a Smith) has infiltrated Morpheus and gang’s inner circle. In light of this interruption we are slapping our foreheads at the ending to “Reloaded” wondering what just happened. We’re also underwhelmed during the initial moments of “Revolutions” which plays like a scene found off the cutting room floor.

While “Reloaded” employed an odd blend of CG and slow motion (to cartoonish effect), “Revolutions” attempts a correction by speeding up the CG action. For the most part, it works. Both the sentinel invasion and the Hammer chase sequences heavily rely on CG. But this time the speedy sentinels are nowhere near as garish as the Agent leap-frogging off of cars in “Reloaded”. Unfortunately, much of the war feels unnecessarily protracted. The Wachowskis have taken a gamble by removing the most important player, Neo, for almost the entire middle of the film. As I mentioned in the last post, most of us are struggling to get emotionally involved with characters that are as sorely underdeveloped as these, especially those from Zion. So when the war lasts 45 minutes (almost half of the entire movie) we are not only exhausted but underwhelmed by the final 8 minute showdown between Neo and Smith. The whole thing put together feels anticlimactic.

Despite these critiques the conceptual/philosophical devices running throughout the trilogy do pay off when Neo and Smith finally meet.

The Final Problem of Smith

As I mentioned earlier, Smith has a newfound ability to replicate via the old Mola Ram hat trick from “Temple of Doom”. These new abilities arose as a result of Neo’s first confrontation with the agent. Remember, at the end of “The Matrix,” Neo leaps into Smith’s body and causes him to explode. In “Reloaded” we realize that Neo never really destroyed Smith, rather he compels Smith to wake up from his own programming, to disobey the rules of the system. In essence, he inadvertently frees Smith to initiate his own campaign of control, where (to pervert the famous Hoover slogan) there is a Smith in every pot and two Smiths in every garage. As Jim Rovira writes, “[Smith] threatens to transform the entire human and machine world into a single, self replicated ‘I’.”[2] This is the end of the rabbit hole: an absolute form of hyper-control without any human capacity for free will. The Merovingian’s view of causal determinism can now be fully realized: “Action, reaction. Cause and effect.” For, if we have fully succumbed to societal manipulation and are forced to be consumers adrift in a sea of commodity, then we are merely objects acting without freedom (as Baudrillard claims).

But why does Smith gain this ability to disobey his programming in the first place? Because, in contrast to Smith, Neo is the “eventuality of [the] anomaly”[3] of free will. That is, he is the embodiment of this inherent feature in all human beings. When Neo gains the ability to manipulate the Matrix, he does so to perpetuate freedom of choice, specifically to elicit others to wake up from control. Unfortunately, he elicits the same response from Smith. He therefore transforms Smith into his doppelganger, a veritable antiNeo. The Oracle tells Neo, “[Smith] is you. Your opposite, your negative.” He is the embodiment of the necessary instability caused by Neo’s anomalous presence in the Matrix. Because Smith is a machine, however, his inhumanity compels him to perpetuate a new system where he is the control. Whereas Neo is the eventuality of freedom, Smith is the eventuality of its inverse. Thus, in Smith, the Wachowskis flirt with the nihilistic outcome of Baudrillard’s ideas. In so doing they have cleverly posed the final problem and its Gödelian solution.

Submission as Strength

Neo cannot win the battle against Smith. While they are in one sense two sides of the same coin, Neo is human and therefore subject to pain and death. Smith on the other hand does not appear to share these shortcomings. So it’s only a matter of time, despite his best efforts, before Neo will lose. We see this begin to happen after Smith smashes Neo into the street. “You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting,” Smith growls. But Neo keeps getting up. “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?” Smith asks. “Because I choose to,” Neo replies. And here we see the solution to the final problem. If Neo is not free to choose but only to react then it follows that he will continue to fight Smith (and the machines) until one of them wins. But, if humans are truly free, then perhaps Neo can develop a synthesis out of the visual dialectic between free will and control. This is what essentially happens next. Neo submits and allows Smith to merge with him, thereby exposing them both to the Source (that Neo has agreed to be hooked up to in the Machine City), thus canceling out the entire Gödel sentence in one foul swoop. The Matrix reassimilates but with an important, new variable in place: Those humans who wish to unplug may finally do so thanks to Neo’s peace agreement with the machines.

Neo’s free act of submission may surprise some; but it actually leads to a biblical truth: there is strength in submission to God. James tells us to be humble and submit ourselves to the Lord and the devil will flee from us (4:6-7), which I think follows from first submitting ourselves to His power and authority. Peter tells us that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). It follows that we, therefore, cannot submit to God without first ridding ourselves of our pride. Of course none of this can take place without the influence of the Holy Spirit on our lives (Romans 8:4-5, 14; Galatians 5:16, 18). For, as Timothy tells us, “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Once we are under the influence of the Spirit and humble ourselves under God’s mighty power “He will lift [us] up in honor” (1 Peter 5:6-7) and exalt us (James 4:10). Remember this is the same Lord who put all things in subjection under Christ’s feet (Ephesians 1:22) thus demonstrating His unsurpassed authority over the universe.

So the solution to the final problem of the Matrix trilogy actually trades in a biblical principal: there is power in weakness and strength in submission. But the strength is not our own. It is God’s working through us to showcase His power and authority over all creation. Therefore, as Neo’s last act was to stand firm against Smith’s onslaught, we also can rely on God’s promises (2 Corinthians 1:20), stand firm in the faith, and be strong (1 Corinthians 16:13).

Final Note

It was my pleasure to offer a (relatively) different perspective to the well-worn, interpretive-laden world of the Matrix. I sincerely believe that properly understanding the trilogy, particularly in its usage of religious motifs and allegory, will better equip us to draw some connections between the films and the Gospel message. I pray these reviews (however flawed) have, in some small way, enlightened you (pardon the pun) to the trilogy’s usefulness in this regard. I also pray they have given you the tools necessary to articulate those biblical connections for any and all.

 

[1] Baudrillard’s theory does not entail an ontological distinguishment between the real and the simulation.

[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 18, 2014).

[3] The Architect characterizes Neo as such towards the end of “Reloaded”.

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