By Gabriel Renggli
The Matrix movies are a strange beast. The Matrix redefined the action genre, using cinematography, choreography, costumes, and special effects to raise shoot-outs and punch-ups to new levels of stylisation. The Matrix Reloaded was bigger, louder, and less focused, but cool enough to have our teenage selves excited, for the most part. The Matrix Revolutions was my first big lesson in how thoroughly an anticipated production can let down its fan base. Revolutions helped to get underway some considerable backlash, as people started looking more critically at the other two films, too. By now, the consensus seems to be that we allowed ourselves to be taken in by a case of form over substance. As in: boy, did these films ever look good, but, boy, did they make no sense at all from a story-telling or philosophical point of view.
People point to the films’ tendency to alternate between action scenes and clunky exposition, as well as to an overuse of big, dramatic speeches whose meaning isn’t always that clear. But such a focus on how the Wachowskis told their story tends to distract from the fact that beneath the layers of confusion and self-important sermonising, these films did in fact have a message. In view of the recent news that a fourth Matrix movie is the current pet project of Zak Penn (writer of Last Action Hero, The Avengers, and Ready Player One), I want to return to this message and ask: what was the Matrix trilogy actually about?
No, not that. It was never about people living inside a computer simulation that raises deep questions about reality, illusion, and how we know the difference. The virtual reality aspect of the Matrix films was largely a gimmick that allowed the Wachowskis to play fast and loose with physics in their fight scenes. It is not, and never has been, the problem that drives their plot – or their philosophy. That may seem a strange claim to make, but hear me out. For one thing, the Matrix trilogy has surprisingly little to say on the whole issue of truth and illusion. Watch the films again, and you will find there is a grand total of three sentences in which Morpheus talks about dreams that seem real, and another three sentences in which he explains that electrical signals, correctly delivered to the brain, are indistinguishable from the reality reported by your senses. On the question of what it means to blur the lines between reality and simulation, any number of films, shows, games, and other pieces of media have more to contribute than the Matrix trilogy. My guess is that this is because the Wachowskis were not, at the end of the day, all that interested in this theme.
In fact, as a plot device, the virtual reality of these films is broken. The idea that there is a VR in which the laws of physics, etc. need not apply, because people in the know can manipulate computer code in order to, say, move faster than a bullet, this idea does not even begin to explain why there should be an Oracle in this VR.
Right, there was an Oracle in these movies. And she lives up to her name, predicting the future down to such ludicrously precise details as when Keanu Reeves will knock over a vase, feel like sitting down, or have a hankering for candy. Does this strike you as something NPCs normally know about users? Because that is what these films are saying: the matrix is a virtual world consisting of layers and layers of programmes, and one of these programmes can predict future decisions made by the real human beings currently logged into this virtual world. By the second film, even Neo is predicting the future, as his recurrent nightmare about Trinity falling and being shot anticipates events that later actually take place. To quote the One himself: “Whoa.”
So here’s my thesis. The philosophical problem that informs these films is not reality vs. simulation, but the question of free will. The concept of VR as a prison is, if anything, a thematic extensions of this question. This is how the matrix is talked about from the very beginning. In the first film, Morpheus answers his own question, “What is the matrix?”, with a single word: “control.” The problem is not so much that the matrix is synthetic and that digital is bad, it’s that “as long as the matrix exists, the human race can never be free.”
Consider this: how is the Matrix built? As Neo is able to see by the end of the first film, it’s code. It is a programme, so everything in it, from the shape and look of objects and living beings down to the tiniest particle allowed for by the graininess of the simulation, and even including the “physical” laws of how these elements interact, has to be stored somewhere in the form of definite data (e.g. a 1 or a 0). This brings the matrix rather close to the idea of a deterministic universe: the theory that our world is mechanistic and leaves no room for material or logical fuzziness. One of the main questions raised by this understanding of the universe is precisely that of free will. Would not any decision you think you are making, in such a world, be the playing out of an ultimately physical chain-reaction (particles forming biomolecules forming neurons and neural circuits) that could, in theory, have been computed in advance, meaning that you are not in fact free? And if you connect yourself to a computer, literally letting it read out your brain and calculate a world on that basis, isn’t the result going to be rather similar?
Hence my impression that the role of VR is thematic rather than literal in these films. Computers crunching numbers is one way of posing the question: Just how predictable is our world, and how free or unfree does that make us? In the second film, the Wachowskis introduce the character of the Merovingian to really drive home this point. The Merovingian loves to go on about this subject: “You see there is only one constant. One universal. It is the only real truth: Causality. Action, reaction. Cause and effect.” Morpheus objects: “Everything begins with choice.” Answer: “No, wrong. Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.”
The dialogue really could not be more on the nose here. The heroes stand up for choice. The villain proclaims his belief in determinism. And then the Wachowskis do something interesting. They have the villain explain the way out of the dilemma created by a world in which outcomes are already defined: “Causality. There is no escape from it. We are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the why.”
To me, this sounds not unlike the credo of existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” proclaims that “crushing truths perish from being acknowledged” (88). Both statements suggest that although we may not be able to change the facts, there is value in bringing our thinking into alignment with the facts. As Camus’s title indicates, his main example of this is Sisyphus, the figure from Greek myth who was condemned by Zeus to push a boulder uphill for all eternity. Camus goes so far as to end his essay by stating: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (89). Why? Because “[h]is fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing” (88). Zeus may be able to force this punishment on Sisyphus, so Sisyphus does not have a choice, but by identifying with his task, he can nonetheless make it his own.
If this seems paradoxical, that’s because it is. Camus was concerned with showing that there is freedom even in situations that apparently provide none, and he did this, not by proving the appearance to be wrong, but by arguing that there is freedom at a different level: that of the subject’s inner attitude. Now, there’s plenty wrong with this idea. Michel Foucault called it an “existentialism of self-flagellation” because, in this view, “everyone is responsible for everything” (189). Suggesting, for instance, that victims of violence would experience perfect freedom if only they were to adopt the proper attitude regarding what is being done to them is a template for victim-blaming. This aspect is particularly worrisome when we recall that Camus published his essay in 1942, in the midst of some of the most horrific crimes in recorded history. It is important to realise, then, that although Camus’s approach was incautious, his intent was neither to attach blame nor to promote fatalism or resigned acceptance. His essay has more fight in it than that. At its centre stands a sort of jubilant humanism, whose most fervent belief is that no matter what fate, the gods, or sheer accident could throw our way (up to and including the unending torture of Sisyphus), human beings have the philosophical and moral tools to triumph over it.
This brings me back to the Oracle. Her knowledge of the future links her to the theme of necessity, but the use she makes of her knowledge is more closely associated with an existentialist re-appropriation of necessity. Her prophecies are exactly what people need to know in order to fulfil their various roles. She tells Morpheus that he will find the One, and once he’s heard this, he continues searching until he does. She tells Trinity that she will fall in love and that that person will be the One, and Trinity manages to pass on that conviction to Neo. And the Oracle tells Neo that Morpheus will sacrifice his life for him. She probably already knows that both of them are going to survive, but giving Neo this piece of information is exactly the nudge he needs to go and break Morpheus out of captivity (in the process giving us one of the coolest gun fights in cinema history). As the Latin motto over her door – “Temet Nosce” (“know thyself”) – spells out, what she does is less about knowing the future of the world than about subjective attitudes. Or, as Morpheus tells Neo: “Try not to think of it in terms of right and wrong. She is a guide, Neo, she can help you to find the path.”
In that same conversation, Neo asks: “And she knows, what, everything?” Morpheus’s answer is: “She would say she knows enough.” Consider the difference in meaning. “Everything” is an absolute term; it concerns knowledge that exhausts a situation, leaving zero wiggle room. “Enough” is a subjective term here; it concerns knowledge that empowers the subject in question. In condensed form, these terms represent two vastly different outlooks regarding what it means to fully understand the situation you or someone else is in. “Everything” is deterministic and fatalistic, “enough” is existentialist and empowering. That’s also how I would interpret the following exchange between the Oracle and Neo, from Reloaded: “If you already know, how can I make a choice?” “Because you didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.” This is one of those bits of dialogue that seem to have people up in arms about how the Wachowskis just combine clever-sounding words in ways that make no logical sense. But actually, you can read their use of understanding here to mean the paradoxical shift in agency also described by Camus. You may already have been placed on a path leading to an outcome more or less determined, but it is up to you now to invest that path with meaning.
|A: Hello, Neo.||A: Hello, Neo.|
|N: Who are you?||N: Who are you?|
|A: I am the Architect. I created the matrix. I’ve been waiting for you. You have many questions, and although the process has altered your consciousness, you remain irrevocably human. Ergo, some of my answers you will understand, and some of them you will not. Concordantly, while your first question may be the most pertinent, you may or may not realize it is also the most irrelevant.||A: I am the Architect. I created the matrix. I need to talk to you, but I’m much smarter than you are. For instance, the question you think is the most urgent right now I know to be the least important.
|N: Why am I here?||N: Why am I here?|
|A: Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix. You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden assiduously avoided, it is not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control. Which has led you, inexorably, here.||A: You are the result of a problem with the matrix. I cannot seem to get rid of this problem. But I can at least control it. Controlling it is why you and I are having this little talk.
|N: You haven’t answered my question.||N: You haven’t answered my question.|
|A: Quite right. Interesting. That was quicker than the others. The matrix is older than you know. I prefer counting from the emergence of one integral anomaly to the emergence of the next, in which case this is the sixth version.||A: If you mean what I want you to do, I’ll get round to telling you that as soon as I’m done stroking my ego. This will be the sixth time I’m going through this process, so I’m liable to get a bit bored.|
|N: There are only two possible explanations: either no one told me, or no one knows.||N: Huh?|
|A: Precisely. As you are undoubtedly gathering, the anomaly’s systemic, creating fluctuations in even the most simplistic equations.||A: You see, we really cannot seem to get rid of this particular problem.|
|N: The problem is choice.||N: The problem is choice.|
|A: The first matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect, it was a work of art, flawless, sublime. A triumph equalled only by its monumental failure. The inevitability of its doom is as apparent to me now as a consequence of the imperfection inherent in every human being, thus I redesigned it based on your history to more accurately reflect the varying grotesqueries of your nature. However, I was again frustrated by failure. I have since come to understand that the answer eluded me because it required a lesser mind, or perhaps a mind less bound by the parameters of perfection. […]||A: The first two versions of the matrix I wrote did not work. This wasn’t because I’m stupid, mind you, it’s actually because I’m too smart!|
|A: [The Oracle] stumbled upon a solution whereby nearly 99.9% of all test subjects accepted the program, as long as they were given a choice, even if they were only aware of the choice at a near unconscious level. While this answer functioned, it was obviously fundamentally flawed, thus creating the otherwise contradictory systemic anomaly, that if left unchecked might threaten the system itself. Ergo, those that refused the program, while a minority, if unchecked, would constitute an escalating probability of disaster.
|A: Turns out, the only way to make the matrix work is to give the human brain the choice to reject it. That is the problem I was talking about a moment ago. Now, we machines wouldn’t worry too much about a few people rejecting the programme every once in a while, but do this for long enough, and they sure start to add up!|
|N: This is about Zion.||N: This is about Zion.|
|A: You are here because Zion is about to be destroyed. Its every living inhabitant terminated, its entire existence eradicated.||A: Yes, the population of Zion has once again reached the critical mass at which we machines feel it’s probably better to destroy the place.|
So what is effectively being said? That this is not the first time the conflict presented in these films has played out. The only matrix-programme that works on humans is one that humans have an unconscious ability to reject. For this reason, there have always been people waking up from the matrix. Far from constituting something unforeseen, these escapees are an element the machines have long accounted for. They allow these humans to gather in the underground city of Zion, which the machines then destroy at periodic intervals. That seems logistically wasteful for a machine civilisation that has no qualms about processing dead humans as liquid food, but never mind. The events of the films are leading up to the sixth reiteration of this process.
In other words, the option of escape from the matrix is part of the machines’ plan – it has been deliberately programmed into the matrix in order to make it work. This tells us two things. First, in the story the Wachowskis are telling, choice is such an integral part of reality that humans will accept a virtual reality only if presented with a choice. Secondly, although choice is present, it does not change the effective external circumstances. Those who escape the matrix have not moved outside the machines’ control, as the machines know exactly where they are and will destroy that population before it reaches a potentially dangerous size. Even the One is part of this plan. As the Architect informs him, his job is to select 23 people still connected to the matrix, who will then be released and form the core population for the next reboot of Zion. As in existentialism, the choice involved in exiting the matrix is really more of a moral triumph than a practical one.
In Revolutions, how does the One plan to defeat this system? By using the one variable that has deviated from the machines’ carefully laid-out plan: Agent Smith. Smith has essentially turned into a virus, producing copies of himself by assimilating other programmes as well as the matrix-avatars of humans. He has become sufficiently destructive and powerful to threaten not just the matrix, and thus the machine’s energy supply, but the machine city itself. This allows Neo to strike a deal with the machines: they will leave Zion in peace, and he will in turn kill Agent Smith for them. What ends up happening, however, is that Neo allows Smith to assimilate him. At that point, the machine Neo is physically connected to in the real world uses that Neo/Smith connection to access Smith and delete him once and for all.
There is an obvious saviour-motif here, but certain more humanist and existentialist themes are still present in the final fight between Smith and Neo. At first, this confrontation is a let-down after having previously seen Neo fight dozens of copies of Smith. Here, Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving punch each other in the rain, punch each other in slow motion, punch each other through walls, and punch each other in the air. Riveting. But then, we finally get the moment that the Wachowskis have been building up to. Agent Smith has beaten Neo into submission and is berating him. Life is without meaning. Life is without purpose. There is no point in going on fighting. “You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?”
“Because I choose to.”
That. Is. Awesome. Neo knows he is going to lose. It’s actually the first thing he says to Agent Smith, if in a slightly cryptic manner: “It ends tonight.” And Smith answers “I know it does, I’ve seen it.” They are both aware that Smith is eventually going to assimilate Neo. As Neo puts it just before his death, repeating back to Agent Smith the latter’s words from Reloaded: “You were right, Smith. You were always right. It was inevitable.” How then can Neo say that he is making a choice? Well, because he is an existentialist hero. In the existentialist view, a subject is given agency not necessarily through changing the outcome of a situation, but through the choices involved in formulating an attitude that actively affirms the situation, thus taking possession of it in a more subtle, paradoxical way. Again, this philosophy has its blind spots, and the Wachowskis will go on to deliver a more straightforward Hollywood ending. But the theme they picked for their final showdown is explicitly stated as: choice, impossibly, beats even the absence of choice. Cue sunset. Roll credits.
I am not necessarily claiming that the Wachowskis have read Camus or other existentialist writers, or that the Matrix trilogy is an orchestrated effort at depicting this type of philosophy. But I would suggest that the philosophical points the Wachowskis make, and the questions they raise, have far more to do with their take on necessity vs. choice (which resembles the existentialist one) than with any debate over reality vs. simulation.
Let’s not forget that they got one of America’s foremost philosophers, Cornel West, to play one of Zion’s councillors. I am not familiar enough with West’s writing to make much of this, but I can point out that West’s project is one of emancipation that, as West himself puts it, avoids both “transcendental objectivism” (117), i.e. the idea that there is a single truth that defines us all, and “subjectivist nihilism” (117), i.e. the idea that without such transcendental truth, there is no meaning. Somewhere in between these extremes is a belief, shared by West and the Wachowskis, in the liberating nature of knowledge and self-knowledge. One could also draw attention to the fact that both directors have come out as trans-women since the making of these films. This suggests that they have had personal experience with questions of predestination vs. choice, systems of (social) control, and the courage of affirming one’s path. Much work remains to be done on this angle, especially seeing how the Wachowskis themselves have gone on record saying that they like the idea of their movies being re-examined from a transgender perspective.
No matter how you contextualise the topic of determinism vs. choice, it is amazing to see how many things in the Matrix movies that previously felt vague or pretentious fall into place when you re-watch the films with this idea in mind. Morpheus asking Neo (during their very first meeting, and before he ever gets around to talking about how this world feels strange to them) whether he believes in fate, and Neo answering that he doesn’t like the idea that he’s not in control of his own life? Check. Trinity explaining to Neo that the matrix cannot tell you “who you are?” Check (because meaning is not created by exterior circumstances, no matter how determining those circumstances may be). Agent Smith lecturing Neo just before their big fight in Reloaded: “We’re not here because we’re free. We’re here because we are not free?” Check. Councillor Hamann going on about what control is, how the matrix is not the only form of necessity that people can be plugged into, and how he hopes that they’ll understand the reasons for why they do the things they do before it is too late? Check, check, and check.
The ending to the original film is not Neo escaping from the matrix (that happens at the 31-minute mark), but Neo literally seeing through it, fully understanding his situation. The ending to the trilogy says that such an understanding allows for choice that triumphs over meaningless necessity. The Matrix films become more intelligible – in fact, more watchable – when we see them as films about how subjectivity can assert itself even under the most hostile of circumstances.
Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien. London: Penguin, 2013. 1-100.
Foucault, Michel. “The History of Sexuality.” Trans. Leo Marshall. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Vintage, 1980. 183-193.
West, Cornel. “The Historicist Turn in Philosophy of Religion.” In Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. New York: Routledge, 2009. 107-121.