The Matrix Mysticism
While the stated reason for the early release and accelerated post-production process of The Matrix was to beat the marketing hype that surrounded The Phantom Menace, it is not without coincidence that The Matrix was released on the last Easter weekend of the dying twentieth century. It is a parable of the original Judeo-Christian worldview of entrapment in a world gone wrong, with no hope of survival or salvation short of something miraculous. The Matrix is a new testament for a new millennium, a religious parable of the second coming of mankind’s messiah in an age that needs salvation as desperately as any ever has.
Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer by day who spends his nights in the alternative reality of the Internet, where he goes by the name Neo, spending his time among hackers and phreaks who have come to rely on his expertise. Symbolically, Reeves’ character plays that of both new convert and Christ in the film and is on the receiving end of some of the world’s most ancient wisdom wrapped in some of the best modern technological analogies. "You are a slave" and "We are born into bondage" are the two sentences Morpheus speaks to Neo that reveal the biblical analogy to the Judeo-Christian understanding of slavery to sin. Like the biblical understanding, our technoslavery is a bondage of mankind’s own making, a product of our own free will, as evidenced by Agent Smith’s revelation that this is the second Matrix. The first Matrix, Smith says, was perfect, but we humans decided we wanted to define ourselves through our misery, and so we couldn’t accept it. This is the technological version of the Garden of Eden story from Genesis. There we see that the very first use of technology was clothing, so it is significant that Neo is reborn completely naked.
Within that framework, The Matrix is also the story of the chosen one’s doubts, slow realizations, and final discovery that it is he, and not anyone else, who is the savior. Anderson must first be convinced that the realm he inhabits as Neo has provided him a glimpse of the true reality, while his everyday existence as Thomas Anderson is actually the false consciousness, the world of the Matrix in which he senses, but cannot prove, that something is terribly wrong. This thought tortures him like a "splinter in the mind."
Neo is contacted first by Trinity, a slightly androgynous female counterpart to his slightly androgynous masculinity. It is she who leads Neo to Morpheus. Trinity is an obvious allusion to the biblical concept of a triune God consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because of the long-standing patriarchal metaphor for God, it is quite humorous when Neo says to Trinity, "I always thought you were a guy." Also of note is the fact that the word "trinity" never actually appears in the Bible. It is during Neo’s second conversation with Morpheus, just after he wakes up from being interrogated, that Morpheus reveals his role as John the Baptist by saying, "You may have been looking for me for a few years, but I’ve been looking for you for my whole life." However, Morpheus also plays the role of God the Father to Neo and the rest of the small band of rebels. He spends a significant part of the film teaching Neo the nature of "reality" as opposed to the world of the Matrix. When Morpheus is captured by the agents, as his body lies there helpless, Trinity says, "No, he’s much more important than that. He’s like a father to us."
To join Morpheus and Trinity in experiencing the depth of this true reality, Neo must be born again. As he is jacked in to the initiation sequence, Cypher tells him, "Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye." Reeves’ character is literally born again into the new world in a visually explicit birth from a biotechnical womb that spits him out like a newborn infant: hairless, innocent, covered in muck, and eyes wide open in awe. He sees that he alone, of all the millions of entombed and enwombed humans plugged in as batteries to the Matrix’s mainframe, has been allowed to break free of his shell. The wombs are slightly opaque, allowing the inhabitants to at least glimpse a portion of the reality to which they are enslaved. The implication is that everyone can be freed, following the example set by the savior. (There is also a nice 2001 star child visual reference during this sequence.)
Just prior to his rebirth, Neo turns aside and sees a fragmented mirror, which becomes whole as he looks into it. He is about to make the journey into the self, or psyche, and the metaphor of a shattered universal mirror is one that Huxley and others have also used. He reaches out and touches the mirror, which then becomes whole, which nicely references I Corinthians 13:12, "For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face." The mirror then liquifies and swallows Neo, confirming for us that this is essentially an inward journey he is making. Upon being reborn, Neo asks Morpheus why his eyes hurt: "Because you’ve never used them," comes the reply. Or, as William Blake puts it, "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to us as it is, infinite." In one of the first scenes, we see Neo sell a software program to a character named Troy for two grand, to which Troy replies, "You’re my savior, man, my own personal Jesus Christ." Troy’s reference in this conversation to mescaline is a reference to Huxley’s mescaline experiment book The Doors of Perception. Huxley’s title is drawn from the William Blake quote and was also subsequently the source for the name of Jim Morrison’s rock group, The Doors.
In Greek mythology, Morpheus was the god of dreams, and his name is the linguistic root for words like "morphine" (a drug that induces sleep and freedom from pain) and "morphing" (using computer technology to seamlessly transform from one reality to another). This resonates with the ability of Fishburne’s character to morph back and forth between the dream world (the "real" world) and the waking world (the Matrix). Morpheus asks, "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?" The stage is now set for the film to equate the dream world with the digital world, the world of pure consciousness that exists in infinity. It is an equation that works, because life on the screen is a disembodied life, a virtual existence where the rules of society and the laws of physics don’t necessarily apply, which is why online relationships are so intoxicating and addictive. It’s also one reason why they fail so completely when the people actually meet. Like a movie version of a book, the real version of an online person’s self cannot help but disappoint, simply because the codes and conventions of space and time are so constrictive of the power of imagination.
As Morpheus tells it, the One has been prophesied, like Jesus of Nazareth, from time immemorial. The revealer of ultimate truth is the Oracle, played as a soul-food mama (cf. Meet Joe Black) with more of a sense of humor than seriousness, who nevertheless gives Neo the key insight into the nature of fate vs. free will that is critical to the film’s final twist. That the Oracle is a woman is also a key ingredient in the film’s theology. The brothers Tank and Dozer have their biblical precedents in the apostles James and John, who were also brothers and called the "sons of thunder," which makes sense since both a tank and a bulldozer are modern technological "thunder" makers. But The Matrix is not simply a Christian allegory; it is a complex parable that pulls strongly from Judaism and other traditions. In their initial discussion about the One, both Morpheus and Neo are in cramped quarters wearing what is clearly the garb of concentration camp victims: rough-textured wool and blue-striped bed linens. But because Jewish history has not yet given us a political Messiah, and perhaps because Jesus was himself Jewish, the Wachowski brothers seem to be comfortable relying on Jesus’ story as a precedent for their own. When asked if E.T. wasn’t a retelling of the Christ story, Steven Spielberg said he "resented" the comparison because he was Jewish. So too might the Wachowski brothers have inadvertently relied on the only well-known ressurection messiah story lying around.
And yet critics are saying the film is equally influenced by Zen Buddhism or eastern mysticism. Many of the lines, and certainly the martial arts sequences, are certainly all aspects of an eastern influence. But people often make the mistake of assuming that Judaism and Christianity are somehow exclusively "western" religions. Both are situated geographically and historically in Israel, which is on the Asian continent. The holy city of these two religions is Jerusalem, which sits in the navel of the world, as the meeting point of east and west. In other words, Judaism and Christianity are religions that share and have been influenced by both east and west, and have influenced both eastern and western philosophies since time immemorial. Thus, if you think you’re seeing a lot of Alan Watts’ The Supreme Identity in the film, you probably are. But Watts isn’t seeing something new by saying that east and west can be reconciled, he’s simply pointing out what was there all along.
The Judas character, named Cypher, is sympathetically played by New Jersey tough guy Joe Pantoliano. Like Judas before him at the last supper, Cypher accepts his fate as traitor over a meal. Like Judas, who shares a drink with Christ at the last supper, Cypher and Neo share a cup while Cypher expresses his doubts about the whole crusade with the line, "Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?" We see Neo part ways with Cypher by not finishing the drink, but instead handing the remainder over to Cypher. We know Cypher is up to no good when he breaks the convention of social hygiene by finishing Neo’s drink for him after Neo leaves. Cypher also wears a reptile skin coat, which alludes to the biblical figure of Satan as serpent. It is Cypher’s doubts about Morpheus’ certainty that Neo is the One (note the nice anagram of Neo = One) that causes Cypher to betray the cause, because he’s not certain he’s fighting on the right side, or at least not on the winning side. There is a nice mealtime scene, reminiscent both of 2001 and Aliens, in which Mouse waxes philosophic about the nature, essence, and ultimate reality of food, which serves to confirm the drudgery of everyday life for this ragtag team of revolutionaries. The food scene, and the discussion of the woman in the red dress, confirm the loneliness and difficulty of life on the Nebuchadnezzar. Like the faithful of any religion, our apostles are tempted by the Matrix’s illusions and are often led into daydreaming or fantasizing that ignorance really can be bliss. This confirms the Christian idea that the believer really is an alien in this world and is only a visitor, a transient resident, an alien on a temporary visa. As the anti-Christian filmmaker Luis Bunuel accurately puts it, "Properly speaking, there really is no place for the Christian in this world." Neo’s new life is living proof of this maxim.
It is immensely significant that Cypher’s deal-making meal with the agents centers around steak. First, meat is the metaphor that cyberspace inhabitants use to describe the real world: meatspace is the term they use to describe the non-virtual world, a metaphor that clearly shows their preference for the virtual realm. Cypher says that even though he knows the steak isn’t real, it sure seems like it. The stupidity and superficiality of choosing blissful ignorance is revealed when Cypher says that when he is reintegrated into the Matrix he wants to be rich and, "somebody important, like an actor." It’s a line you could almost pass over if it wasn’t so clearly earmarked as the speech of the fool justifying his foolishness. But meat is also the metaphor that media theorist Marshall McLuhan uses to describe the tricky distinction between a medium’s content and its form. As he puts it, "The ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat that the burglar throws to distract the watchdog of the mind." This line illuminates the fact that many people watching The Matrix are seeing only the "content" of the kung-fu scenes and the electronica soundtrack while missing the serious sermon going on all around them. But it also heightens the point that the story is making about the Matrix itself, which is designed, like Huxley’s "brave new world," to oppress you not through totalitarian force, but through totalitarian pleasure. As Agent Smith says, "Isn’t it perfect? Billions of people, just living out their lives, oblivious." "Steak" is also the password revealed for the website at the film’s closing credits, though there are nine passwords total to reveal hidden messages on the website.
Because it’s a Hollywood picture, Jesus has to have a girlfriend, (as he did in The Last Temptation of Christ), who is fantastically played by the little-known Carrie-Anne Moss. Her character, Trinity, is a mix of Mary Magdalene and the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by her earthly-and-yet celestial relationship with the One. She follows him everywhere, and the Oracle has told her she would fall in love with him, and so it is she who represents eternal, infinite, unbounded love by giving Neo the kiss of Princess Charming at the end with the line, "You can’t be dead, because I love you." This line may have had you fighting the gag reflex, but the point is that love is stronger than death, that God is manifested by a triune love relationship, and this was simply the best way to show the miraculous Christ-likeness of Neo. The power of her love to bring him back from the dead is also foreshadowed by her statement that she is the "commanding officer" on the ship, indicating her authority over him. Love is stronger than death, but the film could have shown this in a better way, even if only by developing their emotional relationship by an extra five lines each. Then again, if the Wachowskis are planning two sequels, it would make sense to have them kiss with about as much passion as Leia kisses Luke in Empire Strikes Back. This way we won’t be shocked in three years to discover that they were actually brother and sister, or part of the same heavenly family, all along. But the important thing to remember is that Neo really is dead before this, having been riddled with bullets by the three agents. After receiving the kiss, he is resurrected in the Hollywood equivalent of three days, which is about three seconds.
Upon rising from the dead, Neo experiences the cosmic revelation of his identity, similar and yet dissimilar to Superman. Superman has an Achilles heel in the form of kryptonite and is also powerless to save his father from dying—despite all his other strengths. Neo’s realization, however, is that he has no weaknesses, no fatal flaws, that he is in fact an infinite being. Having had the doors of perception fully cleansed, Neo can now "see" things as they truly are—which is in binary code. He looks down the hallway and sees the three agents as a series of flowing digits, meaning that he alone is now able to bridge the gap between analog and digital realm, able to control the digital rather than be controlled by it. Like the previous messiah that Morpheus alluded to, he is now able to remake the Matrix as he sees fit. He is a bullet-proof Christ, not dying for our sins and coming back, but dying for his unwillingness to believe in his own power, who comes back to life through the power of someone else’s belief, and who then asks us to join him in the fight against the Matrix. Like Jesus, he is the intermediary between our "bound" selves and our free selves. His is the example we are called on to follow in order to remake the Matrix with him.
A sympathetic understanding of Agent Smith is to assume that his hatred of humanity was programmed by the A.I. of the Matrix. This would indicate that the Matrix has learned what humankind failed to learn, which is how to manage A.I. technology successfully. But Agent Smith’s "revelation" speech is flawed: man is obviously a mammal. The fact is that no animal moves instinctively toward an equilibrium with its environment. Every animal is forced there by the competition of other lifeforms. Mankind is unique insofar as it has, alone among species, been able to vanquish its competition. Agent Smith may have been more accurate when he referred to man as a cancer. Just as cancer cells are human, so also human beings are mammals. And Agent Smith, the film makes clear, also wants to escape the Matrix. He has been infected by the "virus" of humanity and is desperate to know the Zion access codes, not so much to destroy the revolutionaries as to free himself.
At the film’s conclusion, the invitation is clear. The film stops where it starts, with us staring at a blinking cursor on the computer screen in Room 303. Neo is making a call to us, sitting out there in the audience, to join him in fighting the Matrix’s bondage. Like the final scene in Superman, Neo flies up and out of the screen as if to help us break free of our bondage, to suggest that he really is real, to suggest that we really can be free. One interpretation is that Neo is flying into us the way he flew into Agent Smith, to liberate us by destroying our preconceptions. In order to understand our preconceptions, our bondage, our slavery, all we need to know is one thing.