Truth and The Matrix

by Suw on June 4, 2003

When I first saw the Matrix, a mere two weeks or so ago, the first thing I wanted to do was expound about it here on my blog. But I resisted, as I had the sense that I was somehow being premature. And I was right to wait.

There’s so much analysis of the Matrix out there that it at first seemed pointless to add to the list, particularly as my knowledge of obscure philosophical/biblical/Buddhist/whatever references is not quite as comprehensive as would be required in order to make any sort of meaningful commentary on the commentaries.

Two things, however, leap out at me from all that I’ve read.

Firstly, about the interpretation of the film. Everyone’s at it, it seems to be almost a compulsion. Obviously that’s the sign of a really great film – it gets its hooks in your brain, reels you in and then manages to subtly alter your perceptions. But I bet the Wachowski brothers are fair near pissing themselves laughing at some of the analysis that’s been done.

Now, I’ve no inside line on them, maybe they did sit there and purposefully write something with a singular meaning so obscured by oblique references that it defies immediate comprehension. But I reckon not.

It’s second nature for writers to drop references in to whatever they’re creating at the time. I do it all the time for my own amusement, because I’m 100% sure that not everyone is going to get the references, or even realise that they are references. Seemingly random phrases have meaning to me that cannot be fathomed by just anyone. If you knew me really, really well, you would see maybe half of them. You’d have to have climbed inside my head to get the rest.

So take two brothers. They know each other so well it’s almost instinctive. They have the same creative vision. They bounce ideas back and forth, constantly polishing and embellishing. The references that they slip in are part of their own personal meme library. Over a period of years and with refinement they end up with a work that is so chock full of references that they probably don’t even notice them anymore.

Then they release that creation into the wild.

Humans are by nature story tellers. We look for links, for patterns, for meaning. It’s what we do. You take something like the Matrix that has some really obvious references and a raft pretty obscure ones, and suddenly you have something that is just begging to be analysed. People become desperate to find meaning in everything and to knit it all together into one cohesive schema.

Suddenly this creation takes on this life of its own and people find links, meanings and interpretations for things that I bet the Wachowski brothers never even thought of.

Equally I’m sure that there are references in the film that are so personal to the brothers that no one else sees them.

All this results in the Matrix’s fractal nature. The more detail you look for, the more detail you find. You can start off with the idea that this is a rip-roaring film about a bloke with some really, really big guns. Zoom in a little, and you have a film about the nature of reality. Think about it a bit more and it’s a film about religion? The only limits to the number of way that the film can be interpreted are in your own imagination, intelligence, knowledge and frames of reference.

Ultimately, though, you can only say one thing with any certainty about the Matrix, and it happens to also be the core lesson that Neo himself has to learn in order to fulfil his potential as The One. We see him struggle with this concept throughout the film, one way or another. In scene after scene he has to deal with it and sometimes he copes ok, and sometimes he rejects the conclusions that have been forced upon him by his own experiences.

The Matrix is whatever you want it to be.

The Matrix is about whatever you want it to be about.

Is this a cop out? Is this me just bailing because I don’t have the philosophical expertise to discuss the matter properly and in depth?

No, it’s not. The way in which people interpret the Matrix is dependant at least in part (and I think it’s a large part) on their existing belief system. Christians will see Christian symbolism all over the place, but a lot of what they see is highly debatable.

Cypher as Judas is an obvious parallel to draw, even though the act of betrayal itself does not make him Judas – betrayals have been going on for the whole of mankind’s time on this earth and are not exclusive to Christian mythology. However, Cypher as Lucifer because “Cypher sounds like Lucifer” is getting a bit tenuous.

Tank as Lazarus because he’s resurrected from the dead by a miracle is also somewhat tenuous as it’s based on the assumption that Tank dies when shot with the ?high tech rifle?. In the script, Cypher misses with his first shot, but gets Tank ?square into his chest? with the second. In the film, however, the wound Tank suffers is in left of his abdomen and is nowhere near as severe as the wounds we see on Dozer’s dead body.

What Cypher says to Trinity, though, that it would take a miracle to stop him pulling the plug on Neo, primes the audience to believe that Tank’s sudden reappearance is a return from the dead, but from the evidence available one could just as easily say that the second blast knocked him unconscious and he just happened to wake up in time.

There is no way to definitively say that Tank is or is not dead after Cypher’s attack. Cypher never actually checks his pulse so it’s entirely down to interpretation on the part of the viewer as to what has happened. That means that to draw a parallel between Tank and Lazarus is about as meaningful as to say that Tank is actually a Phoenix because he gets fried but rises again.

(And before you say ?oh but the Phoenix is just a symbol of resurrection and therefore to say that Tank is the Phoenix is the same as to say he is Lazarus?, the Phoenix predates all that Jesus hoo-ha by a good 2500 years and has its origins in ancient Egyptian mythology where it was called the Benu Bird. )

I think if I sat down and looked, I would find this priming effect, which is well known in linguistics (if I say ?duck? you’re immediately primed to expect a related word such as ?goose? and your brain recognises ?goose? much faster than if I were to say ?helicopter?), throughout the movie.

I draw a distinction between priming and foreshadowing though, because foreshadowing is not only more often a visual technique used to create tension, but also one that sucks because it’s hard to do well. Priming is much more subtle and a powerful way of making people expect something without realising that they are expecting anything at all. With priming you can lead people to a conclusion without actually stating anything.

So, all this comment and analysis? Interesting, amusing, but ultimately it can’t reveal a final ?truth? because there is none. You see what you want to see. The Matrix has flown the Wachowski coup and grown into something more complex than they could have created on their own exactly because of the repeated analysis it has undergone.

The collective internet mind has created a gestalt from this film as commentaries feed of each other and add more and more content to the Matrix mythology. Not all of that mythology is of value, but it will continue to grow long beyond the release of Revolutions in November. We are going to see a mythology evolve out of the Matrix which will easily be as powerful and as lasting as Star Wars.

What a thing to have been a part of.


Now, the second question that leapt out at me? Hm, I think I might have to leave that for tomorrow.

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