jars the viewer from its opening frames: it defies expectations
with a purpose. The good guys and the bad guys all wear black and
leave the first-time viewer wondering who is who. The cops are working
with the black suits who are chasing the girl in black leather who
is killing cops, so one suspects that the suits are the good guys.
But one's expectations are reversed.
The viewer of The Matrix therefore
undergoes the same disorientation experienced by Alice when she
entered Wonderland or the Looking Glass. Neo, too, enters Wonderland
as did Alice by following the White Rabbit and making a choice
in what she eats; Neo enters the Looking Glass when, after taking
the red pill, he touches the mirror that envelopes him. That the
movie itself represents an entry into a dream world for the viewer
is suggested by the first visual item presented: a computer cursor.
The computer cursor which the camera follows into the workings
of cyber-space leads one to an artificial world from which one
exits only at the end of the movie when the cursor reappears in
the left hand corner of the screen, just as the movie began.
The duality of worlds - real and
artificial - is echoed in the primary choice posed to the movie's
hero throughout: do you know who you are? Are you Thomas Anderson
(son of Andrew = "son of man") who lives in the dream
world, or are you Neo (the "new" man; cf. Eph 2:15;
Col 3:9-10) who will wake up to reality? "Wake up, Neo"
are words with double meaning, the first words that arouse him
from his slumber when we first meet him, in contrast to the Agents
who insist that he is Mr. Anderson. The name Thomas ("Twin")
underscores the schizophrenia that he must resolve (cf. James
1:8), a dilemma posed frankly by the 3 interrogating agents when
Neo is first picked up ("one of these identities has a future,
the other does not"). Neo finally insists to the mocking
Agent in the subway station ("Goodbye, Mr. Anderson")
that he is no longer a Thomas with a split identity: "My
name is Neo!" At that point he has followed the advice of
the oracle, "Know thyself."
Every member of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar
must make a similar choice in names. They all have new names,
comparable to the biblical tradition where a new orientation often
brings a new name (e.g., Simon becomes Peter, Abram becomes Abraham,
Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul). We only learn the old
name of one other crew-member, Cipher, when he betrays Neo, for
the Agent refers to him as Mr. Reagan, a designation Cipher tragically
accepts. It is the name bestowed upon him by the machines and
the Matrix, and it represents his acquiescence to their reality.
Those who prefer reality to the dream world choose single-word
computer code names: Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Dozer, Switch, Tank,
The most eloquent and concise summary
of the choice open to humanity is found in Morpheus' 4-minute
peroration on the dark world into which all humans are born as
blind slaves, deliberately manipulated by greater powers who are
in control. This speech echoes the Apostle Paul, affirming as
it does the reality of invisible "demonic" intelligences
opposed to the welfare of humanity ("we wrestle not against
flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of wickedness
in high places, against principalities, against powers...."
Eph 6:12). Morpheus insists that it is only a few whose eyes can
be opened and who can successfully be literally born again ("many
are called but few are chosen"). Nevertheless, the tiny crew
of the Nebuchadnezzar, along with other ships from Zion, continue
against hellish opposition their crusade of bringing the good
news to other humans.
The movie is saturated with images
of dreamers. Not only is Neo sleeping when we first see him, but
names like Alice, Dorothy, and Nebuchadnezzar dot the landscape.
All these are individuals who sleep, dream, and reawaken. Nebuchadnezzar
seeks to discern the truth of his nightmarish dream populated
by monsters when he awakes from a dream of the future that will
overtake Nebuchadnezzar's present. There, as with the cases of
Dorothy and Alice, one discovers a curious reversal where the
real world of each corresponds to the dream world of the Matrix,
and vice versa. For example, Cipher brands the dream world of
the Matrix as Dorothy's real world ("Say goodbye to
Kansas"), and Dorothy's dream
world corresponds to the real world apart from the Matrix (Neo
refers to Tank as "Mr. Wizard" in his ability to get
him home). Again, by taking the red pill and learning the truth,
"you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit
The choice between the two realities
takes center stage: does one have free choice or does fate doom
the individual to a specific destiny? This age-old conundrum is
resolved: "yes"! Rebellious Neo is early on insistent
that he does not believe in fate, and even the oracle later mocks
him about his disregard of all that "fate crap." He
wants to be his own man, an individual who controls his own destiny.
But fate is everywhere in this movie, most irresistibly in the
oracle and the prophecies which persistently are vindicated: the
future is determined.
But that does not mean that there
is no free choice. No sooner has Neo been chewed out by his boss
Mr. Reinhart ("pure heart," a flatteringly deceptive
name for one immersed in the Matrix who knows no better) for insubordination
than Morpheus on the phone informs him, "I can guide you,
but you must do exactly as I tell you." Quite out of character
for a rebel, Neo obeys explicitly every command of this revelation,
this disembodied voice of a person he has never met, this veritable
voice from Sinai. Only at the end of his rope does he give up
when he is afraid of heights, but the point is clear: Neo can
choose, and his choice affects him and others. The rebel Neo submits
to his mentor/revelator Morpheus, a complete about-face from the
insubordinate Thomas Anderson. It is this acknowledgment of both
choice and fate that gives Neo his strength against the matrix:
he knows its rules and he knows the unexpected is the matrix's
weakness (they will later be baffled that he is trying to rescue
another, quite out of character for a virus!).
The significance of choice reappears
when the Oracle sadly informs Neo, "You are not the one."
The Oracle is not wrong about this. As long as Neo chooses not
to behave as the one, he is not the one. But he will be the one.
And the Oracle knows this, as she poses the future dilemma to
Neo regarding the choice he will have to make between his own
life or Morpheus' (she makes it clear that either Morpheus or
Neo will die). This is a classic demonstration of the validity
of both free will and destiny.
Neo learns by the end of the movie
not to disdain fate. After all, he is the one foretold. But he
will never relinquish free choice. The one galvanizing statement
that rallies his strength before an oncoming subway train is an
Agent's derisive "a dieu": "Do you hear that, Mr.
Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability. That is the sound
of your death. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson." The use of his dream-world
name along with the stripping of his free choice ("inevitability")
snaps him back to reality. And it is the balance of both fate
and free will that Neo poses to the Matrix in the movie's final
line: "I am not here to tell you how it will end but I am
telling you how it will begin. What happens next is your choice."
Not all choices are equally valid.
The producers delight in pulling down deceptive alternatives.
The notion that there is no point to life but that a cosmic death
awaits us all is soundly dispatched within the first few moments
of the movie: Neo hides his computer contraband in a book (Simulacra
and Simulation - images and reality again!) where he has
removed the pages from a chapter entitled, "Nihilism."
This theory decrees its own doom: since nihilism sees futility
everywhere, it is equally futile to argue for nihilism. Since
there is nothing to say on its behalf, empty space - cut out pages
- appears where there should be argument. If nihilism is true,
so what? The book was originally published in French by the post-modern
philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, as Simulacres et Simulation
(1981) and has been translated into English under the title that
appears in the movie. The author does say in the chapter entitled
"Nihilism," "Je suis nihiliste" (I am a nihilist),
a claim which the movie undercuts by excising that part of the
book! Cipher, the Judas figure, acts the part of a nihilist in
preferring to choose his reality of comfort in the face of cosmic
defeat (this is not an easy choice, fraught with danger as it
Another choice that leads nowhere
is the point of view espoused by Mouse, the designer of the girl
in red. He is obviously one of the more visceral members of the
Nebuchadnezzar's crew when he claims that "to deny our impulses
is to deny the very thing that makes us human." A moment's
reflection exposes the absurdity of this sentiment, vociferously
rejected by all other members of the crew: the impulses of which
he speaks do not define humanity but are rather the impulses which
humans share with animals. It is therefore not surprising that
he is the first member of the crew to die, appropriately after
ogling a fold-out view of the girl in red. She is furthermore
a creature of his imagination, anomalous among a group of people
who are trying to escape the domination of the dreamworld in order
to reassert the real. Indeed, a consistent application of Mouse's
world-view would result in Cipher's choice to enjoy the sensual
world of the Matrix and turn his back on reality. It is no accident
that Cipher's betrayal is presented immediately before Mouse elaborates
his own juvenile commitment to the senses (he is the youngest
The notion that these choices lead
one either toward or away from the truth is a refreshing perspective
in a post-modern culture where truth is unattainable. Morpheus
repeats on more than one occasion, "I can only give you the
truth," and "I promise you the truth, nothing more."
But this is not a return to the overly optimistic Enlightenment
view of truth. As Morpheus insists, there is a difference between
knowing the truth and acting it out, knowing where the door is
and walking through it. There is a sensitive reaffirmation of
the Old Testament notion of wisdom where not all choices are necessarily
right or wrong. Choices may instead be wise or less wise, and
even foolish. Morpheus encourages Neo to think of the Oracle not
in terms of right and wrong but to think of her "as a guide."
In terms of biblical imagery, the Oracle is Dame Wisdom of the
book of Proverbs who gives free advice in contrast to the Strange
Woman (the woman in red!) who leads the unsuspecting to their
The imagery informing the Oracle
comes primarily from the traditions surrounding the Greek Oracle
of Delphi (also a woman), above whose door was written the phrase
"Know thyself" (temet nosce). One would think a smart
woman would know better than to smoke. But she has to smoke because
the Delphic Oracle would burn laurel leaves before pronouncing
her revelations (hence she actually lights her cigarette before
approaching Neo). Why is she cooking? The Delphic Oracle would
also burn barley meal on an altar before speaking.
Her location is problematic. She
can not be in the Matrix because if she were, the Matrix would
exterminate her and all "potentials" at her door (and
note how Morpheus removes his glasses when he enters her apartment,
putting them on when he leaves - see below). But neither is she
outside the Matrix in the real world, because Morpheus and friends
must enter the Matrix to reach her - she cannot be reached by
the Nebuchadnezzar. She is thus in a curious zone, a strange mediating
location that hovers between the two worlds, a truly sacred space
that impinges on both realms but is beyond both. She is high up,
as was the sacred space on the mountain of the Oracle of Delphi.
The Oracle of Delphi was renowned
for her revelations that revealed more about the inquirer. This
is why the phrase, "Know thyself," was so crucial: do
you know yourself well enough to interpret what the Oracle speaks?
When the Oracle informed Croesus, for example, that a great empire
would fall should he fight the Persians, he interpreted the great
empire to be the Persians. He went to battle and lost: the great
empire was his own and he did not know himself. In this sense,
only Neo can take the step to determine if he is the one foretold.
Christians will be overwhelmed with
the biblical imagery. Morpheus, like John the Baptist looking
for the Messiah (Mat 11:3), has spent his entire life looking
for Neo, and when they meet, their words echo John 1:27: "I'm
honored." "No, the honor is all mine." It is Morpheus
who literally makes possible the baptism of Neo as he enters the
waters of death and is rescued to a new life. Morpheus metamorphoses
- in accord with his name - from a John the Baptist to a Father/God
figure (Tank will call him the Father of the group) whom Neo will
obey as a son (Neo had no father or mother until Morpheus gave
him a new life). Neo is early identified as the second member
of the trinity: "You are my savior, my own personal Jesus
Christ." Trinity's name is transparent as she portrays the
role of the life-giving spirit, appropriately feminine (as is
the word "spirit" in Hebrew).
The trinitarian imagery may be exploited
further. There is a special communication that only these three
enjoy with each other. In the midst of a cacophony of competing
sounds, the words, "Wake up Neo," appear on Neo's screen
and silently wake him up! Neo whispers under the roar of a helicopter's
engines, "Get up, Morpheus," and a heavily sedated Morpheus
responds from 50 meters away! Neo whispers, "Trinity,"
to a woman who can not hear him before her helicopter goes out
of sight to crash, but she responds nevertheless in doing exactly
what he anticipates (had she not, he would have been dragged over
the edge by the helicopter). No one in the movie communicates
on such an intimate level. This communication throughout the movie
prepares for its final and most dramatic manifestation when Trinity
calls to Neo after he has been shot by the Agent. His responses
to her calls are therefore not an isolated incident but part of
a larger picture by which the Trinity communicates. Although Trinity's
kiss echoes the fairy-tale ending of the kiss that awakens the
sleeper who seems to be dead (or the dead who seem to be sleeping),
in this movie it becomes part of a much larger context and does
not spring up without careful preparation.
Neo enjoys a "last supper"
as he shares an intimate cup with Cipher who will betray him to
the Agent in the next scene, even as he tempts him to renounce
his task: "So you're going to save the world? What do you
say to something like that? If you meet an agent, you do like
we do: you run." Neo's death, resurrection, and a climactic
ascension in the last frame of the movie are hard to miss. The
substitutionary death of Neo in Morpheus' place recalls Jesus'
words: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down
his life for his friends" (John 15:13).
The depiction of original sin is
stunning. It is refreshing to see a late 20th century medium affirm
that there is something terribly wrong with all humans everywhere
from the moment of their birth. Before Neo experiences a new birth,
he passes under the appropriately named Adams St. Bridge where
two roads are presented to him by Trinity: "You've been down
that road and you know where it leads." The only way out
is to experience a new birth and to have one's eyes open to the
truth. Such an event can come only from the outside, a remarkable
affirmation of the divine initiative in rescuing humanity from
its plight. The sins of the fathers (Adam) are passed on to the
sons, for it was in their pride, in Morpheus' words, that humans
gave birth to artificial intelligence and deliberately destroyed
Christians may be uncomfortable with
the repeated line, "There is no spoon," spoken first
by a young Buddhist prodigy. It is important to recall, however,
that this line is spoken only by Neo in the Matrix where, in fact,
all is not as it seems ("is that air you are breathing?").
This notion is what will eventually make possible his arresting
a multitude of bullets in mid-flight. The line, "There is
no spoon," however, has no validity outside the Matrix in
the real world, and no one ever tries to put it into effect there
("There are no Sentinels?!?!").
This distinction between the world
of the Matrix and the real world is underscored on a number of
symbolic levels. We began by noting the disorienting use of black
on both the good guys and the bad guys. It is important to recall,
however, that this confusion exists only in the Matrix. Apart
from Switch who wears white in accord with her name, humans who
are alive to the real world enter the Matrix in black clothes,
just as they consistently wear dark sunglasses. When they re-enter
the real world, their clothes are by contrast distinctive and
they go without sunglasses (Neo's lack of glasses on his first
excursion seems to reflect his status as a neophyte). Both Trinity
and Neo deliberately remove their sunglasses for the first time
while in the matrix when a startling new development takes place:
for the first time humans have stood up to an agent and survived
even while putting the agent out of commission. The donning and
doffing of sunglasses by the Agents is also a meaningful event.
The movie abounds in double entendres
from the opening lines by central characters ("We're going
to kill him," spoken prophetically but ignorantly by Cipher)
to apparent throw-away lines by peripheral figures ("You
need to get unplugged," exactly what Neo does need and will
undergo). Even the squeaky window washers allude to a coming clearing
of Neo's vision, who must transparently be the "One,"
an anagram of his name, Neo. And because no first-time viewer
comprehends why Switch accosts Neo as "Copper-top,"
it is evident that the movie requires and rewards multiple viewings.
Copyright © 2000 by Sam Meier