Review of "The Matrix"

By Jeremy Swanson
January 01, 2000

The Plot
With Star Wars currently garnering nationwide attention, it is relevant and useful to analyze the message it is presenting as well as the philosophical foundations that drive the message and make it appealing to the masses. However, there is another movie that has been out for a number of months that, I believe, is a more succinct and honest representation of a major undercurrent that has been driving American culture for the whole of the twentieth century. I am referring to The Matrix, a science fiction movie that has found widespread appeal. This widespread appeal is, ironically, derived from a philosophical and epistemological foundation of which even the critics somehow remain ignorant. Of the many reviews I have read, none address the most pressing issues flowing from this movie.

The basic, superficial story that so many established critics love to regurgitate is this: A young man (played by Keanu Reeves), who is leading a rather mundane and incomplete life as an honest worker for a computer software company during the day and as a law-breaking computer hacker during the night (known as "Neo"), discovers that the late twentieth-century world he and everyone else believes is "real" is actually a computer-generated "reality" known as "the matrix." The matrix was created by machines which, at the turn of the of the twenty-first century, became sentient via artificial intelligence technology and waged war against mankind. Man fought back, even blackening the atmosphere in order to deprive the machines of their solar power. The machines developed a new energy source, however — humans. In bizarre and disturbing imagery, we are shown how humans are replicated, "harvested" by giant robots, and "plugged" into the matrix where they think they are living normal, twentieth-century lives, but, in fact, are prisoners in goopy containment pods in the twenty-second century, generating electricity for the machines with their body heat. The matrix presents a reality so convincing that it keeps the billions of human prisoners sedate, self-satisfied, and ignorant of their true, sickening plight. Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) is one of the leaders of the final colony of free people whose goal is to topple the matrix. Morpheus and his group of freedom fighters extract Neo from his goopy pod, nurse him back to health, and profess faith in him as "the One" who will free all of humanity from their nightmarishly real servitude to the machines.

Easy-Going Nihilism
The beauty and ugliness of this movie is tied to its honesty to an intellectual first principle. There is a flirtation with Buddhism (Morpheus tells Neo that he must "open the door, I can only guide you, "an integral tenet of attaining "satori," or enlightenment in Zen Buddhism) and certain elements of Christianity (it is easy to see Neo as a Messianic figure). However, the "truth" (there are several lines in this movie when Neo asks directly, "What truth?") is presented early in the movie, even before Neo escapes the bonds of his virtual reality imprisonment. When Neo retrieves some illegal software for sale to a local lowlife, his hiding place is a book in which there is a chapter entitled "On Nihilism." Here we are given the "truth," in nihilism, that so many have accepted in our modern culture: There is no God, there is only a scary, harsh, unbearable reality from which people run and subsequently construct false ideas of "the Good" or God (Nietzsche called Christianity "Platonism for the people") in order to make life bearable. Americans are not as a rule hard-core nihilists, but rather "easy-going nihilists," which means that they implicitly, and not explicitly, accept the "fact" that "God is dead." Instead of willing the destruction of everything (including oneself), as truly consistent nihilists do, Americans lose themselves in decadent materialism and excess. Because there is nothing transcendent, they bury themselves in the mundane and meaningless activities of pure libertarian capitalism. The only thing holding them back from the extreme end of nihilism is the borrowed capital of the Christian heritage in this country. Sometimes that borrowed capital is not enough, as evidenced in the recent rash of violence in schools nationwide.

The Matrix, while an utterly nihilistic movie, is not a movie endorsing the most extreme end of nihilism. Rather, it borrows heavily from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who also, it seems, could not live with pure "nothingness," but had to posit something in its place, i.e., the "ubermensch" or "superman" (more literally "overman"). Neo is the ubermensch, "the One" who will bring about the next stage of human evolution (in the most base interpretation of Nietzsche) or transcend the boundaries of known mankind. Nietzsche (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) tells of the "lastman," a lowly, base, non-excellent, self-satisfied, herd animalistic hominid. Nietzsche could see such a creature developing in all industrialized nations in the political form of radically egalitarian, leveled democracy. Such a creature is concerned only with immediate, physical gratification. He adheres to the "if it feels good, do it" philosophy of life. His existence is comprised of a meaningless job and a couch potato or playboy lifestyle, as a true "cog in the machine." In The Matrix, the billions of humans with their minds in the matrix and their bodies in the goopy pods are the ultimate lastmen. Nietzsche's prophet Zarathustra despised such a creature, a quality that kept him from being the ubermensch, "for the ubermensch affirms all things, even the lastman." Notably, Nietzsche's ubermensch also affirms all contradictions. These qualities are easily seen in Neo. At the end of The Matrix, Neo attains true ubermenschian qualities, he can change the matrix, the virtual reality construct that the machines use to control the masses of vegetative humanity, and is immune to any of the attacks of the vicious self-defense software of the matrix (to re-enter the matrix after being freed, one must literally plug his brain into a computer, the only danger being that if you die in the matrix you die in "real life," for, as Morpheus says, "the body cannot live without the mind"). Instead of freeing the billions of prisoners, and thereby killing them, Neo affirms their existence, and preserves the matrix. Such a preservation requires a contradiction of sorts in the affirmation of two "real" worlds.

Creative Nihilists
The Matrix is full of amazing parallels and direct quotations from Nietzsche and other postmodern and phenomenological philosophers, not to mention a myriad of Biblical and mythological references (Morpheus is the Greek god of dreams; all of the remaining free people who are not prisoners in the matrix reside in Zion, the last human city). This is not a superficial movie. One can find significance in the names of the characters and even in the company at which Neo worked at the beginning of the film. The Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed this film, are obviously well-educated, and are very aware of the underlying nihilistic themes in our present culture. They are to be commended for explicitly stating what has been implicitly and ignorantly accepted for so long. They are obviously aware of the older Judeo-Christian tradition, but are apparently having too much fun being "creative nihilists" (if there is such a thing) with their cool, slow-motion filming, martial arts sequences, and freaky special effects.

The Matrix is a movie that shows the true influence of nihilistic German philosophy on American culture, an influence of which most Americans are terribly ignorant. More fundamentally, The Matrix shows the inability of man to fully accept the nothingness and despair that accompanies the complete absence of God. In America, this is seen in a shallow, easygoing relativism based on implicit atheism. We have rejected our Creator, but are unwilling and unable to live with the horrific consequences.

Topics: Media / Arts, Philosophy, Culture

Jeremy Swanson

Jeremy Swanson holds a B.A. in political science from Hillsdale College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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