Taking the Red Pill

by Suw on June 28, 2003

I was quite surprised at the slew of books spawned by The Matrix. I mean, yeah, it’s a great film ?n all, but it’s still only a film. And anyone trying to make it into some great philosophical treatise was bound to fail miserably. I came quite happily to this conclusion without ever having read any of the Matrix-spawned books.

Reading Wendy M Grossman’s review of Taking the Red Pill, ed. Glenn Yeffeth, in the New Scientist just serves to reinforce my decision not to bother buying any of this crap.

(I would link to the New Scientist, but they haven’t got this review on their site. Oh well. Let’s hope they don’t mind me reproducing it here.)

There is something about the earnestness in parts of Taking the Red Pill that made me want to say, “It’s just some movie, you know?” The feeling begins early, when the introduction tells you not to compare it to The Pooh Perplex, the 1970s cult-hit collection of satirical academically styled essays on A. A. Milne’s children’s classic.

The Wachowski brothers? blend of kung fu, video game leaps, special effects, comic books, science fiction, and alienated youth is an eye-catching and fresh retelling of Joseph C. Campbell’s monomyth, but that doesn’t make it a philosophical treatise.

This would probably be clear to anyone who’s seen the sequel, The Matrix: Reloaded, which manages to be both formulaic in its reuse of all those elements and needs the third film in the trilogy, The Matrix: Revolutions to make it interesting. The film is due for release this autumn.

Some of the writers whose essays are included in Taking the Red Pill, however, take it just that way (the essays were written before Reloaded?s release). The Matrix is not philosophy, certainly not new philosophy. The idea that we live in a fake “reality” that is far different from the real thing is an old one, explored by writers from David Lindsay in Voyage to Arcturus all the way back to the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave.

It’s not even new science fiction; its themes have been explored many times before, as James Gunnably demonstrates in his essay on reality paradoxes.

But the ideas in The Matrix are broad enough for anyone to project more or less any pet obsession onto it, as several of the essays in this book make plain. For example, Bill Joy, head of the computer maker Sun, uses the movie as an excuse for a lengthy ramble on the dangers of technology to human values.

Robert J. Sawyer thinks it is all about AI, which would be all right, except that a chunk of his essay also insists that 2001 was really about artificially intelligent monoliths that wanted to meet HAL. Even the infinitely better discussion by Ray Kurzweil of the potential for symbiotic man-machine intelligence will probably be familiar to readers of his The Age of Spiritual Machines.

My favourite is Peter B. Lloyd’s effort to rationalise the apparent inconsistencies in the technical workings of the Matrix itself. But the silliest of them all has got to be Mercer Schuchardt’s contention that this movie is a parable of the original Judaeo-Christian world view and therefore a new testament for a new millennium.

So is it a good present for the Matrix-obsessed geek in your life? I tried Schuchardt’s essay on a small sample of geeks. To say that they were not impressed would be an understatement.

I’ve said before that The Matrix means whatever you want it to mean, and I’m glad to see that finally someone else agrees with me.

I’m reminded of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in which he explains (far more clearly than I am about to) that the reason comics can be so powerful is because the very nature of the illustration means that anyone can see themselves as the comic character.

The stripped back nature of comic book illustration allows the reader to identify more strongly with the characters because the detailed visual clues that tell them whether or not they are looking at a picture of themselves are missing. Compare an illustration with a photo – the number of specifics is dramatically reduced in the illustration so it becomes more of an ?everyman?, and therefore easier to relate to and sympathise with. A picture of Einstein is a picture of Einstein and no one else, whereas a J could be anyone.

(Trust me, Scott McCloud does this so much better in Understanding Comics, really.)

What I think the Wachowski Bros. have done is to create the filmic and philosophical version of this using both highly stylised characters with a strong wardrobe and accessories and a multitude of disparate philosophical references. Seems like a weird match, but bear with me.

The Matrix is the only film that I know of where you could identify almost every individual character from their sunglasses alone. I know MIB had a sunglasses merchandising tip going, but not to the same extent as The Matrix and not in the same way – the MIB’s sunglasses were the same, part of the uniform, not a distinguishing stylistic feature as they are in The Matrix. And X-Men 2 is just cashing in on something started four years ago by The Matrix.

It could be said that in The Matrix sunglasses play a major role in terms of developing character identity, in particular during scenes when Neo and pals are actually inside the Matrix. Their sunglasses, and their clothes, separate them from the other people in the Matrix, their stylishness marks them not only as different but also as superior.

However, there’s another thing going on with the shades. Ages ago there was an advert trying to recruit new young blood into the Army and the premise of this ad was a solider trying to calm a frightened Eastern Bloc woman whom he was trying to help, but in order to communicate properly with her and gain her trust, he has to take off his sunglasses.

Sunglasses do two things – they block you from seeing someone’s eyes and therefore from reading a large part of their expression, thus creating a barrier to trust and communication, but they also wipe out a lot of the key identifying features that make, say, Keanu Keanu. You can’t see his eyes, his clothing is stylised, and he becomes as close to being the comic book ?everyman? as you can get on film.

Thus, not only do the sunglasses make a point within the plot of film, that these escapees from the prison that is the Matrix are different, and not a part of the Matrix (ditto for the Agents), but they also allow the viewer to more easily identify with the lead characters on a subconscious level. They do this in the same way that comic book illustrations do – by removing some of the key features required to identify faces either as someone else or as ourselves.

Anyone could be behind Spider-Man’s mask, and anyone could be behind Neo’s sunglasses. And that anyone could be you*.

The Wachowski Bros. have done exactly the same with the philosophy of The Matrix, and for this they do deserve credit. They’ve taken a load of references from many disparate sources, from the bible to binary code – Neo is (we find out in Reloaded) the sixth The One, and his apartment is no. 101, which is 6 in binary when you remember that binary starts not at 1 but at 0.

Having read quite a few features and discussions about the meaning of The Matrix (and Reloaded) lately, I’ve only become more firmly entrenched in the idea that there is no underlying all-encompassing philosophy behind the film, but that it’s just supposed be a vague framework which can support pretty much any interpretation that you care to hang on it. Look for Judaeo-Christianity and you will find it. Look for Buddhism and you will find it. Look for Daoism, you’ll find that too.

The Wachowski Bros. have created the philosophical equivalent of sunglasses – smoked glass through which you can’t really see, but which allows you to interpret what’s behind it to fit in with your world view, your opinion of what it really ought to all be about.

This is why the Christians feel justified in claiming it as some sort of Really New Testament – because they’re peering through the smoked glass just like everyone else, seeing what they want to see and allowing the facts and references that don’t fit in with their theory to remain conveniently obscured.

And the same goes for everyone else trying to find some all-explaining Theory Of Everything In The Matrix. They can twist the set of references that they spot round to mean whatever the hell they fancy.

And this doesn’t even begin to discuss the fact that people will only see the references with which they are familiar in the first place and that they will project their own presuppositions onto the film without noticing that they’re doing so.

Personally, I wouldn’t be able to spot a biblical reference, for example, because I’m not a Christian and haven’t read the bible since I was last forced to at school. I can, however, quite easily imagine a Daoist explanation behind certain scenes because I am a Daoist. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there really is a Daoist explanation behind any of it, just that I can interpret what I see that way because it fits with my personal philosophies and knowledge.

However you look at it, the Wachowski Bros. aren’t really breaking new philosophical ground, but they are ploughing it up a little bit and in the process bringing philosophy to a whole bunch of people who would otherwise probably never have given much thought to the reality of their existence at all.

Not bad going, for a scifi flick, really.

Please note: this is not the reason I bought Neo sunglasses, and anyone suggesting otherwise will be taken out back and given a good sound drubbing (just as soon as I can figure out what a 'drubbing' actually is).

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