I’ve been meaning to write something about this movie for ages so exploring the mythology of Uranus gave me the perfect excuse. The Matrix is a science fiction cyberpunk dystopia that was written and directed by the Wachowskis way back in 1999. Despite being over 20 years old, it may be more relevant now than ever before.
For this post, I’m going to concentrate on the first film in the franchise and ignore the sequels: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, because they descended into convoluted philosophising and life’s too short for that shit. The first movie has a simple clarity and works on its own, although the sequels do change its meaning.
The Matrix is bursting with literary and film references, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Japanese animation, comic books, and William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy which includes Neuromancer.
The Wachowskis were also influenced by Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard. Neo keeps his contraband hacking stuff in a hollowed out copy and opens it at the chapter called ‘On Nihilism’ – a big clue to the real nature of the movie. When Morpheus says…
“Welcome to the desert of the real.”
…he’s quoting from the book. However, Baudrillard hated the film and said the Wachowskis misrepresented his ideas and took them too literally. In Simulacra and Simulation he argues that in our postmodern world, reality is replaced by imitations and we can’t tell the difference between them. But this isn’t the case in The Matrix because the real world is separate from the simulation. To be fair, the sequels rectify this problem, which might be why they’re so confusing for audiences to watch.
There are many ways to interpret The Matrix (and its sequels), and you can probably read whatever you want into the film. It can be a useful jumping off point for philosophical ponderings and some of the most important questions you can ask:
- What is reality?
- What is the nature of consciousness?
- What is a human being?
- What is freedom?
- Do I have free will?
I don’t have any answers to these questions and it’s arguable the film doesn’t either. The Matrix may not be as deep as it thinks it is. So with that said, let’s plug in and explore the simulation.
Here’s the obligatory !!**SPOILER ALERT**!! If you haven’t seen this film (where’ve you been?! You must be new!) go see it before I spoil it for you – and I will be spoiling it…
The Matrix tells the story of Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer who lives a double life as a hacker called Neo. He feels like an outsider and is searching for Morpheus, a man who knows the truth about the Matrix. Neo knows there’s something wrong with reality, but he’s not sure what it is. Morpheus promises to show him the truth if he takes a red pill.
Neo is unplugged from the Matrix and discovers the world has been destroyed in a war between humans and intelligent machines. The machines won and built the Matrix, a simulated reality used to distract the humans who are plugged into it while their bodies are used as an energy source for the machines. Morpheus believes Neo is the One who is prophesised to end the war.
Neo learns to free his mind and joins the fight against the machines, especially the Agents. But he doesn’t believe he’s the One. However, when another prophecy comes true, Neo makes a choice that reveals he is the One after all. He’s able to control the Matrix and stop bullets and finally defeat the Agents.
The Matrix can be interpreted as a general metaphor for awakening, whether spiritual or political, or both. Its ideas have become incorporated into the language we use to describe our experience, especially in conspiratorial circles with all the talk of rabbit holes and taking the red pill.
The film starts deep inside the Matrix, although we don’t know that yet. Neo is asleep, literally and symbolically as a spiritual novice. The Massive Attack song Dissolved Girl plays in the background with the lyric:
“It feels like I’ve been here before. You’re not my saviour but I still don’t go. It feels like something that I’ve done before. I could fake it but I’d still want more.”
There’s so much packed into those few lines: the fake nature of the Matrix and the idea of a saviour, as well as a reference to déjà vu. But it could also indicate reincarnation, especially if we look at where Neo lives.
His apartment is number 101, which could be a reference to the infamous room in 1984 where Winston Smith is tortured to break his mind and make him conform to the system. Or it could be binary code for 6 because in the sequels we find out that Neo is the sixth version of the One – Keanu Reeves is just the latest iteration, or incarnation. He’s been here before.
Neo is searching for the truth but he doesn’t really understand what he’s looking for. He has to make a choice between illusion and truth – stay plugged in or be unplugged. But that important detail isn’t revealed by Morpheus in this great scene:
Neo chooses the red pill – he wants the truth – but he has no conception of what that means or what the Matrix is. He’s been plugged into the system from birth and can’t imagine what the truth Morpheus offers represents – he has no frame of reference.
This is similar to the process of enlightenment or awakening. You simply can’t imagine what it’s like to be enlightened because it’s so far beyond your normal way of being. As Shinzen Young says, there’s no informed consent and it’s like being permanently removed from your comfort zone.
Neo is already uncomfortable enough so he chooses the truth, whatever that might be. It’s a leap of faith and the result is unknowable. Morpheus could be tricking him, leading him up the garden path (or down the rabbit hole). The ordeal he goes through to wake up is like an initiation. He takes a pill and then things get weird and trippy – a reference to psychedelics.
Neo wakes up in the pod where he was grown, alongside millions of others, like some kind of enormous tree of life, or perhaps tree of anti-life. The pods are fake wombs in the Matrix – matrix means womb in Latin. When the machine notices one of its batteries has woken up, Neo is unplugged and flushed out of the pod.
This represents a rebirth, the Christian idea of being reborn and having your eyes opened to the truth. Later, Neo is confused because his eyes hurt and Morpheus explains that he’s never used them before. In Christian terms, he’s never seen the light – he was blind before and now he can see.
Neo’s body also has to undergo a bit of reconstruction work because his muscles have never been used either. This begs the question: if you were grown in a pod would you come out looking like Keanu Reeves? Or would you be a shrivelled creature with withered limbs and bones that crumble to dust at the slightest pressure?
I guess if you live your whole life in a pod you don’t need strong bones. But Neo hobbling around on crutches wouldn’t have worked for the plot…😜
Neo has been taken out of the Matrix but he’s not really awake yet. He still doesn’t know who he is – i.e. the One. Waking up is a gradual process where you have to unlearn everything you previously took to be reality. This is a process of disillusionment – learning to see through the illusion – and that brings us to Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Plato described a group of people trapped inside a cave watching shadows on the wall that they take for reality. The shadows are cast by a fire (or false light) that’s hidden behind them. They can’t turn their heads because they’re held in place by chains. But if you escaped, you would discover the real world outside the cave and the true light of reality.
In a similar way, the Matrix is a shadow of the real world, an illusion created by digital code. When Neo escapes the Matrix he leaves the cave and discovers the real world. But this is where the symbolism breaks down because the world he finds is bleak and depressing, a ruined world – the desert of the real – so it doesn’t really work in spiritual terms.
In Plato’s allegory, the real world is the world of Forms, or Spirit – nous, logos – the mind of God or Divine Intellect. In this context, Neo doesn’t even make it out of the cave (although he might in the sequels).
Unlike the movie, in reality there aren’t two separate worlds: one illusory and one real. The world is one Reality and the illusion is that you’re separate from it. When you wake up from the dream of separation, the world you discover is more real and alive than the illusory world you left behind. The real is not a desert – the illusion is.
Having said that, the process of awakening and extracting yourself from your conditioning usually takes a long time. This can be scary because it involves the death of your old self and a leap into the unknown. At times it can feel like you’re dying or leaving behind everything you know and heading off into the desert.
So perhaps for a while, the spiritual path may resemble a desert or wilderness until you get the hang of being awake and learn to be a master of two worlds (that are really one world). Once you’re fully awake – a Buddha! – then the joyful nature of reality comes to the fore.
That’s the mystical perspective, but the film takes a more gnostic approach. There’s lots of different gnostic versions of reality, but in general they believed the world was a bad copy of the real divine world, an illusion created by the Demiurge. The Demiurge was created by accident and is sometimes called Yaldabaoth, or Samael, which means god of the blind.
Human souls are trapped in this fallen world but they contain a spark of their original divine source – the God beyond the Demiurge. Your job is to achieve knowledge (gnosis) and return to your true origin in God. But the Demiurge and his servants, the Archons, work to keep you trapped and stop you from waking up.
In The Matrix the Agents represent the Archons, servants of the blind god – perhaps that’s why they all wear dark glasses. Agent Smith has a particular beef with humans and sees them as a virus:
“Human beings are a disease. A cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.”
He explains to Morpheus that the first version of the Matrix was designed to be a perfect world without suffering, perhaps representing the Garden of Eden. But humans wouldn’t accept the program so it was redesigned to give them the freedom to choose – perhaps an allusion to Eve’s choice to eat the apple and disobey God.
Smith goes on a fantastic rant about how much he hates the Matrix – “it’s the smell, if there is such a thing.” He wants to get out as much as the humans do, and appears to be malfunctioning. He even takes off his ear-piece so he can’t communicate with the other Agents or hear what’s going on.
But where would he go if he could leave? He’s a program within the Matrix, an illusion – for him there’s nothing else except dissolution, unless his self-awareness represents the divine spark – but again, we’re straying into the sequels.
The point of Plato’s cave allegory is to recognise that reality isn’t what you think it is. You can’t be sure that you’re not being deceived by your senses and taking shadows for reality. This is also known as the Brain in a Jar hypothesis which reduces reality to whatever is going on in your head.
According to this idea, the brain creates your reality using input from your senses so there’s no way to verify that you’re not a brain floating in a jar. The brain is also known to fill in perceptual gaps and frankly make stuff up. It filters out a huge amount of information, which is necessary if you want to live without being overwhelmed.
The truth is: You have no idea what reality is because you’re living inside a hall of mirrors. Our consciousness works on a loop where the output feeds back into the input, creating self-awareness. It’s easy to get trapped inside this loop and it can lead to solipsism and an infinite regress. It means you can’t get outside of yourself to look at yourself and verify that you exist in objective reality.
But that doesn’t prove reality is created in your head or that objective reality doesn’t exist. It’s just an artefact of the way our consciousness works and why it’s necessary for us to go through a process of awakening.
Descartes also pondered this problem which he called the Argument from the Evil Demon – basically, a demon could be making you see things and you wouldn’t know any better. As Cypher says:
“I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realise? Ignorance is bliss.”
As long as you’re plugged into the Matrix you take what you see to be real because that’s how it’s presented. Cypher wants to be plugged back in because the illusory steak tastes better than the amino acid gloop he’s been eating since he was unplugged. He also doesn’t like getting bossed about by Morpheus and wants to return to the illusion of freedom he had before.
You could say that Cypher is a solipsist. He wants to hide from reality within the subjectivity of his own head. This reflects the difficulty of awakening and the fact that people don’t really want to wake up. They’re too comfortable in the illusion so it’s easier to stay asleep.
In Buddhism, this is the realm of samsara, an illusory world of suffering and rebirth driven by attachment and delusion. When you awaken from samsara you discover nirvana – not heaven or another reality, but this world seen directly without attachment. In other words, you see that you’re not separate from reality – you become One.
Neo is an anagram of One, and this shows he’s already the One and just has to wake up to the truth of it. In a similar way, you’re already Buddha. You don’t become Buddha when you awaken, you just wake up to what you already are. But knowing you’re Buddha on an intellectual level isn’t the same as being Buddha. As Morpheus says:
“There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
When Neo visits the Oracle, she tells him what he needs to hear – that he’s not the One. The truth of who you are isn’t something you can be told. You either know yourself or you don’t. Neo has to do the work to understand himself and the world so he can liberate himself. Only then can he see who he really is.
Awakening is paradoxical. To know yourself you have to wake up to the emptiness of the self, or non-self. This doesn’t mean you don’t exist, just that your perception of separation is an illusion. Your self isn’t as solid and fixed as you think it is – and neither is anything else.
While waiting for the Oracle, Neo meets a child who can bend spoons. The child explains that trying to bend the spoon is impossible. Instead, you have to realise the truth that:
“There is no spoon. Then you will see that it is not the spoon that bends. It is only yourself.”
This is incorrect and misleading. It appears to be saying the same thing as a Zen story about two monks arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. One says it’s the wind that moves, and the other says it’s the flag. But a Zen master tells them they’re both wrong:
“It’s not the flag or the wind that moves. It’s the mind that moves.”
So it’s not yourself that bends, or the spoon – it’s the mind. In Buddhism, mind doesn’t mean ‘your’ little mind, but the Big Mind of Buddha nature, and that’s what bends.
The ‘no spoon’ idea is a reference to the concept of emptiness or shunyata. As the Buddha might say: the spoon is empty of the spoon. That doesn’t mean “there is no spoon” or that it doesn’t exist. It means the spoon only exists in relationship to everything else – it doesn’t inherently exist in and of itself in isolation separate from the rest of reality. Just like you.
Although you can read a lot of spiritual meaning into The Matrix, it works best as a metaphor for the man-made system that we’re all born into. The Matrix can be seen as the socio-political-economic control grid of consensus reality that keeps us running around the rat maze of so-called civilisation.
In the film, humans are treated like machines, plugged into a pod and used for energy. In real life, you’re plugged into the system via the economy so your value (energy) can be extracted via labour and attention, and so on. The system keeps you locked into a fake reality by controlling your perception through the manipulation of information. As Morpheus tells Neo:
“It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. … 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. … As long as the Matrix exists the human race will never be free.”
The surface message of the film seems to be about liberation and being yourself and fighting against the system. But the underlying feeling is the opposite. It’s ultra-violent and nihilistic – basically gun porn – count the bullets! Films often deliver mixed messages in this way: telling you one thing and showing you another.
Neo escapes the Matrix and becomes the One, but in the real world, he’s just a man – he’s not the One. He’s only the One in the Matrix where his powers have some effect. His skills aren’t real – they’re as illusory as the Matrix. His freedom only exists within the system – it’s a false awakening, another level of illusion.
You could say that he becomes a master within the Matrix so he can break others out, like a bodhisattva forgoing his own liberation to save others. The final voice-over suggests this idea:
“I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”
A world like this would be a world without order or structure. It would be chaos and there would be no life. This is an example of pure Uranus without balance, or ballast, from Saturn, and no wisdom from Jupiter. The Promethean individual striving for freedom from limits.
But this isn’t what freedom or awakening is about. Awakening is about becoming free from yourself, not free to do whatever you want. That kind of freedom is the self-indulgence of the hedonist who isn’t really free at all, but a slave to their desires and instincts.
Neo’s bid for freedom represents a narcissistic fantasy of will to power but it’s not in relation to anything meaningful so it rings hollow. It comes across as a petulant adolescent exercise in shaking your fist against the system.
In the end, The Matrix is as empty as the spoon.
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” – Goethe
Images: film stills