Review by Sam Meier
The Matrix 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 two visual items presented: a computer cursor and the date February 29, 1998. There is no February 29, 1998 (February only had 28 days in 1998), and 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, Mouse, Apoc.
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 hole goes."
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 (Simulacrum 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? 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 is).
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, anamolous 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 crew member).
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 doom.
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" (te ipsum 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. This is endorsed by her location on the 13th floor, a numinous floor that should not exist. 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 the world.
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 alude to a coming clearing of Neo's vision. 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.