What does the Matrix mean? Unfortunately, nobody can be told what the Matrix means. You have to see it for yourself…
…is what I would say if I were Morpheus. But, you know, I’m not so yeah. Anyway, as you probably already know, The Matrix is a movie trilogy that was easily one of the greatest sci-fi movies in the late 90s. What you may not know is that the Matrix is also a multimedia franchise spanning two video games and various novelizations plus graphic novels, all created to provide background information that could not be explained in the main storyline. It is worth knowing that The Matrix trilogy was well ahead of its time in regard to this aspect, with The Matrix easily pulling off a blockbuster release by only giving scant background information.
The Matrix was also known as one of the most-copied after movies next to Star Wars, showing many of the current action movie tropes that are now normal fare. Slow-motion bullet time, in particular, showed in many an action movie after TM’s release, considering the fact that it was TM that invented it in the first place. This is not to say that TM didn’t borrow anything from then-current action movie culture—the many kung-fu scenes were inspired from Hong Kong Wuxia movies. Also, its cyberpunk aesthetic was inspired by many movies before it, most especially the anime Ghost in a Shell.
In brief, TM had quite the cultural impact in regard to influencing mainstream media. We now see many hackers on television dealing with torrential rains of computer code on their laptops, many others entering digital cyberspaces that are indistinguishable from the real world, and others looking really hot in leather and shades. Its position in history as this is quite deserved indeed.
But behind the shades, the guns, the computers, the robots and the leather, has anybody tried looking into the philosophical aspects of these films? Of course. The Wachowski brothers themselves had hired philosophers to do commentary on all three of their movies for the release of The Matrix Trilogy on DVD. But not to downplay the efforts of those who came before me, I will attempt to give TM my own interpretation. You see, these elements inside TM, especially the fact that humans can enter digital worlds that are not different at all from the real world, all revolve not only on our natural preference for escapism but also our retaliation against it and the acceptance of our immediate reality.
We may end up taking broad strokes in this discussion, considering that we still span three movies. So I will discuss the general themes that, while specific to one particular movie, also appear in one way or another within all the works for the sake of brevity.
Let us begin.
The over-preference for Escapism
“…you have to understand (Neo), most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system (Matrix), that they will fight to protect it.”– Morpheus
I remembered TM’s revelation of the real world as being different from the ‘fantasy’ world made by the Matrix as quite shocking. I was a boy back then, and only knew existence as an entity that could only exist in one plane. The notion that there could be another plane—or, more shockingly, multiple planes—actually scared me.
At the same time, though, it fascinated me. If there was a world where all of us could be super-cool freedom fighters in leather and shades, of course that would have been great. That was why I got hooked on video games. The worlds they presented were amazing, and allowed me to escape the real world and it’s seemingly impossible problems. At least in other planes of existence, the problems there seemed coherent, logical, more real. Only when I was older did I realize that I was no different than the people who wanted to stay in the Matrix. I only wanted to escape reality because I saw no point in it. Video games seemed to have more of a point, since at least in those there was a storyline to follow and a goal to achieve. Real life was less linear, more ambiguous. Finding meaning in it was too hard.
In TM, we are repeatedly told that almost everybody in it is actually a human being plugged into the Matrix as a battery, and that the Matrix itself was a prison to keep these batteries in line. The Matrix reflected what the machines said was the highest point of human civilization: the late nineties, with its sprawling metropolises and coffee shops and fine dining. We are shown that most of the humans are perfectly happy living within this place, and they do not take kindly to terrorists telling them that they’re inside a computer program. Why would they believe that in the first place? The Matrix is almost like the real world; it is filled with happiness and sorrow, joy and pain. It might as well be reality itself. It is even mentioned that the human resistance only freed people in their pre- to late-teens, as the Matrix would’ve been too ingrained in the minds of adults. A sudden revelation that their world was not real would have made them go insane.
Let’s observe one of the characters from the first movie: Cypher. We all know that he betrayed Neo and the others in exchange for a promised life inside the Matrix. How could he want to live in the Matrix if it was a fake world and the real one was already in front of him? The answer? The real world was utter crap. Humans lived deep underground in sewers; the surface sprawled with machines. The atmosphere was scorched so there was no sunlight, so nothing organic could live on the ground anymore. Anybody would be depressed. At least inside the Matrix, there were all the creature comforts of the world. Add a memory wipe into the deal, and there was no stopping Cypher from reliving the good life again. We may think that Cypher is a villain (yes, he certainly was), but before that he was a disillusioned man. Having seen all that reality offered him, the Matrix was more comfortable by comparison. More real. He longed for it, and it got so bad that he was willing to kill his comrades for a shot at getting it back.
Even if some humans did believe that there was a reality outside the Matrix, some loved it to the point that they didn’t care which was real. Even Neo himself had trouble accepting this fact. Twenty plus years of life and a comfortable job as a programmer would have to be thrown away to believe in the vague notion that the world was not real. Of course he’d have doubts. TM shows us that humans have a natural preference for escapism, the tendency to pick the path of less resistance. We’d rather pick fantasy worlds rather than our own. Besides, why wouldn’t we? For some, the world is a harsh place that never gave us the opportunity to let us do what we want to do. TM also talks about that as well, as I would discuss next.
The holds of reality on one’s dreams
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: [leans in closer to Neo] That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison, for your mind.
When I was still playing video games, I didn’t like the world because it kept me from doing what I ‘ought to be doing’: something cool, something interesting, something that would make me feel alive. Video games offered me that escape, somewhat. It let me stalk streets of abandoned towns, dodge bullets in mid-air, pull off incredible feats of daring, but it was what it was: a video game (but more on that later). Reality, on the other hand, had limitations: my family was poor, and we didn’t have that much money. We couldn’t afford to go to museums or art galleries or even malls. We could only spend time at home. Between home and the computer shop, there were no other places for me. Not even a library (the only ones in Noveleta were the small ones inside schools). The rules of reality were too limiting, and there was nothing I could do about it. Even now, when I am capable of making my own money, I find myself oftentimes crushed by numerous bills with barely enough to spend on the occasional bar-hop and resulting hangover. I know that it could’ve been worse, but it still feels limiting no matter what I do.
Let us look at the Matrix. Like I said earlier, it is a prison where humans are kept in line with an illusory world. This illusory world does not only keep them happy and comfortable, it also keeps them away from what the machines do not want the humans to know: the truth about the Matrix, freedom, expression, awesome kung-fu powers. In the Matrix, they don’t want the humans running amuck in their perfect simulation because they have all the reason to do so: more humans finding out the truth means more batteries gone, therefore destroying the machines’ power source and resulting in their deaths as well. The force behind this limitation is real inside the Matrix. It is a tangible force, and we see the resistance fighting hard against it.
But in real life, people are born poor and die poor not just because of bad decisions, but by lack of opportunities. People are limited by social status, the people surrounding them and their own bad luck and misfortunes. I hope there is no Matrix that does this on purpose, but even if there is not, TM shows us a message: reality is often brutal towards people, especially those with dreams. There is an inherent thing in the universe that keeps people from getting what they want, but we cannot see it. We don’t know whether or not it actually exists. We can’t wear leather trench coats and fight it. We are only capable of self-improvement whose results are vague at best. This can be overcome, of course. The only problem is that it is hard. It doesn’t look right. At least in the Matrix the limiting force has a form. In reality, there isn’t. That’s why it is easier for most to just escape reality—why fight a losing battle against an enemy that exists and does not exist at the same time? Better to make oneself feel better by escaping it and fulfilling dreams in video games instead.
But the thing is, reality is there no matter what one did. Sure one can escape reality, but in the end it is you that loses: most people are doing okay with reality and have already won at life. It is only you who gets left behind, left out in the cold. You’re the only one who loses, and nobody will care.
I learned that the hard way. It wasn’t TM that taught me this, but the trilogy had something to say about it as well.
Making peace with reality
Mr. Smith (talking about the struggle for life): Why, Mr. Anderson!? Why!? Why do you persist!?
Neo: Because I choose to.
The main reason why I fell out of love with video games was because of the fact that even video games were limited. Video games were sequences of programs created by developers to show a working game. While the story is still going, the game is still worthwhile. But after the main story, when all of the badly-written plot twists and epic graphics had been done away with, the video game starts showing its limits: in one game, you can’t fly. In another, you can fly but there’s a limit as to how far you can fly. There are games where you can’t do much, and there are games where you can do everything, but in the end they are what they are: video games. They have done nothing to improve your life. After your play session, you’re still who you are: problematic, depressed, without any knowledge to deal with the real world at all. If I had spent my time dealing with life instead, even if I had continued losing, at least I had a sliver of knowledge to use in dealing with it. With video games, not only did I continue losing, but I was left with nothing whatsoever. This was what I got for denying life.
In TM, one of Neo’s central conflicts is the fact that he couldn’t accept himself as being the One. He spent most of the movies in trying to reach an epiphany that would help him achieve this, and he finally got it in The Matrix Revolutions. He knew how valuable his life was, and refused to run away back to the Matrix. In the end, he accepted his life as the One and immediately evidenced how he had done so: Agent Smith had become a threat not only to humans but to the Matrix and the Machines by extension. People would usually think that Neo would simply do away with Smith and then get rid of the Machines afterwards. Just like any decent action movie where the hero deals great vengeance upon the villain. But what does Neo do? He negotiates with the Machines. He chooses to accept them as something that humans needed, and with that he brokered peace with the Machines and ended the Human-Machine war that had lasted for thousands of years. Neo knew that fighting the Machines would only result in more senseless loss of life. Only after accepting reality did he make any sort of change in the world.
Real life gives us many hardships, sometimes on a daily basis. We see these problems and we let them get us down. What we don’t realize though is the fact that it could be worse. We could be facing setbacks and cry because they are hard to deal with, such as failure in class or the lack of money. But we could be facing something worse: somebody you love could’ve died, somebody could have killed you. We should be thankful for the problems we face in reality, for they’re what force us to improve as people. One should know the value of life and not let reality get you down. Because it could always be worse. Smith could have won, the Machines could have still destroyed Zion regardless of the peace deal. Things could always be worse.
In the end, TM is all about accepting reality and recognizing the value of life.