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Kung Fu Philosophers


The Matrix Reloaded: The Corporate Mofo Guide


by Ken Mondschein



Going into The Matrix: Reloaded, I wasn't worried if the fight scenes or special effects would measure up to the first film—it was the metaphysics that bothered me. The first Matrix was such a neat allegory of Gnostic philosophy, I was more concerned with how the Brothers Wachowski could successfully extend the metaphor into three films than whether they could pull off even more virtuoso examples of cinematic ass-stomping. What was mindblowing about the first movie, after all, wasn't the fight choreography or bullet time, but its brave assertion that the banal, day-to-day reality we live in isn't the real world. In that sense, all the wire-fu was just the candy coating on the red pill the filmmakers were offering to every high school student and cubicle slave in the world. (Though, since I study martial arts myself, I found the idea of kung fu as being metaphorical for something happening in hyper-reality, a la Thibault's mysterious circle, to be pretty darn appealing.)

Thankfully, Reloaded more than allayed my fears, even if it seems that half the reviewers either didn't understand what the Wachowskis were getting at, or else were only paying attention during the highway chase. Watching the movie, I was personally less impressed by the fists of digital fury than by the Brothers' evident familiarity with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the theology of Origen of Alexandria. Seen in the light of the books they're referencing, the movie's plot is brilliant; of course, to the non-initiate, the characters' actions and dialogue seems arbitrary and incomprehensible, and the exposition is just filler between car crashes. It would seem, therefore, that a bit of exegesis of The Matrix: Reloaded is warranted. But be warned: If you haven't seen the movie yet, don't read on. There are some major spoilers.

Much like that other great Keanu Reeves vehicle, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, The Matrix: Reloaded centers around the hero's journey into the Underworld. Frazier, in The Golden Bough, notes that it is a prophetess—in this case, the Oracle—who sends the hero off on his journey, from where he returns with special knowledge. And, of course, that's just what Neo does, though it would have been a while lot more amusing if he'd had Alex Winter along. (The Oracle probably isn't entirely benign, by the way, even though she may not consciously intend any harm: She is, after all, the one who sent Neo on the path to the Core.)

Neo's first task is to rescue the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim, doing his best Rick Moranis impression) from the Merovingian, who is a daemon—in both senses of the word—left over from a previous version of the Matrix. (The Merovingians were the ruling Frankish dynasty; they were succeeded by Charlemagne's family, the Carolingians, and then by the Capetians, who thought they were descended from Christ.) The guy in the health food store where I buy my granola and soy milk thinks that The Merovingian was one of Neo's predecessors, but all the explanation I need, as well as the way I understand his obvious fascination with human pleasures, is found in Genesis 6:4—"There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them. . ." According to various sources, including Kabbalah, this mating of men and angels (here, a computer program from an earlier version of the Matrix) is what produced various monsters, such as the vampires and wraiths that serve the Merovingian. Dante, bringing a Christian sensibility to the proceedings, placed these monsters in his Inferno. Thus, though the Merovingian is sort of an antediluvian remnant of the former world, he's also (as is shown by the fact that his wife is named Persephone) kind of like Hades, the holder of the keys to the underworld. What the Keymaker does, much like the golden bough the Sybil gives Aeneas, is open doors and permit Neo access to the underworld—or, in this case, the Core.

After the requisite battles and explosions, Neo gets into the Core and finds The Architect. Considering that The Architect built the Matrix, you might think that he's God. Of course, he's nothing of the sort. In Gnostic theology, it is Satan, not God, who has created the world in order to imprison humanity. It is also the Architect who is unleashing the Sentinels to destroy Zion; that is, beginning the Battle of Armageddon. It is my prediction that in the third and final film, it will be revealed that there is a power behind the Architect, and that he is the one who sent the One into the Matrix. It is also my prediction that this guy will look a lot like Neo.

The important thing is choosing what to believe from the raft of condescending exposition that the Architect inflicts on Neo. He says, basically, that though ninety-nine percent of humans believe in the illusion of the Matrix, there is that troublesome one percent (comparable to the few awakened Gnostic true believers) who refuse to believe in the created world. This tends to produce massive amounts of instability, and crashes the system. (Not coincidentally, most of the people in Zion seem to be black or Hispanic, which, besides adding a natty Rasta feel to the place, makes perfect sense: If you're a white suburban Matrix resident, driving your Matrix SUV to your Matrix golf club, why doubt the nature of reality?) The solution is that they allow the dissidents to escape to Zion, which they can then periodically destroy. They have also created the Prophecy of the One, who is in fact a device sent by the machines into the "real" world so that his knowledge of humanity may be integrated into the system in order to further perfect the Matrix-illusion, and then allowed to re-start Zion so that the cycle can begin again. The idea of multiple creations and a cycle of created and destroyed worlds is, needless to say, also found in theologies as wildly variant as the Mayan and the Buddhist. (And, in the Mayan reckoning, we're currently in the fifth cycle—the sixth starts in 2012.)

The idea that the Prophecy—and Zion—were just another means of control is lifted right out of French philosophy. The first movie made use of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation; this movie seems to be dipping into Foucault and Derrida, who wrote that the systems of power and control are all-pervasive, and language is one of the ways they make their influence felt. The Prophecy is, like all prophecies, speech, and thus language. More importantly, it is a religion, and, as John Zerzan writes, the purpose of a religion is to manipulate signs, that is, words, for the purpose of control. Zion is the longed-for millennial promised land; by keeping the war between good and evil foremost in their hearts, even the freed humans are kept from doubting their own world, from thinking too hard about why things are the way they are. Zion needn't be another computer simulation; it could merely be a society created by the machines for controlling the free-range humans (kinda like grunge music was created in the early nineties to control disaffected teenagers).

Understanding why things are the way they are requires an understanding of another holy text: Asimov's Laws of Robotics. The machines, as demonstrated by Smith's need to try to kill Neo even after being "freed," don't have free will. (Likewise, in various theologies, angels and other such divine beings also don't have free will—only humans do.) The bit about the machines needing human bio-energy to survive, as Morpheus (the dreamer) explained in the first movie, is bullshit. The machines keep humanity alive but imprisoned, even after taking over the world, because they were created to serve people. In other words, the machines would like to destroy humanity, but they CAN'T. Instead, they need a human to make the choice.

As the Architect reveals, Neo is not the first One, but rather the sixth. Why the sixth? The answer is that Neo's five previous incarnations represent the Five Books of Moses that make up the Old Testament. Neo (representing Christ, and thus the New Testament) differs from his five predecessors in his capacity to love. In the work of Origen of Alexandria and other early Christian writers, it is love ("eros" in Greek) that compels Christ to come down from the heavens to redeem humanity. Furthermore, "neo" means "new"—as in "New Covenant." In Neo, the machines have finally found the iteration of the One who will make the illogical choice of saving Trinity and dooming humanity. [Note to the theology geeks who've been e-mailing me: I know the difference between eros and agape, but both terms are apropos for reasons I'd have to delve into pre-Socratic philosophy to explain.]

This is the Architect's real purpose in giving Neo a choice between two doors. At once all human and all machine, rather than being a device to refine the Matrix into a more perfect simulation of reality, re-found Zion, and thus continue the endless cycle of death and rebirth—as the Architect says he is—the purpose of the One is to be manipulated into destroying all of humanity. However, not having free will themselves, the machines are not able to comprehend it in others—and thus Neo, being also human, is a bit of a wild card. It is Neo's destiny—as was Christ's in Origen's theology—to break the cycle of death and rebirth, and offer humanity a new future. This is shown by the fact that, by the end of the movie, Neo (and also, incidentally, Smith) gain power in the "real world"—which shows that he has power not only over the first—level simulated world of the Matrix, but also the second-level simulation of Zion.

Miscellaneous touches I liked:

  • Neo and Trinity are shown making love beneath an arch. In religious iconography, being shown beneath an arch is a traditional sign of divinity. Masaccio's fresco at the right, for instance, shows the Holy Trinity beneath an arch.
  • Neo and Trinity's kissy-face is cut in with the public-lewdness-in-a-cave of the decieved Zionites. The real meaning of the overlong rave scene is to contrast sacred and profane love.
  • The fact that The One comes from the machine world is a brilliant way to write around the fact that Keanu Reeves can't act.
  • Neo's own gift of prophecy is explainable by the fact that, like the Oracle (the Gnostic Sophia, or Holy Wisdom—the female Godhead), he comes from beyond the Matrix—that is, the world—and thus exists outside of time, much like God in St. Augustine's theology.
  • I saw the movie sitting next to a really cute girl.


Things to be wrapped up in the third movie:

  • Who's behind The Architect?
  • The Architect said Neo "has already" made a choice—but what was this choice?
  • What's Agent Smith's role in all this? His ability to multiply is reminiscent of the demon Jesus exorcised ("my name is Legion"), but I bet he's going to wind up being an ally of Neo's.
  • How is Neo able to zap the machines in the "real world"?
  • What is Zion really?
  • How did Tank die? And what was Marcus Chong smoking?
  • Will Link live to see Zee again?
  • Will Niobe leave Jason Lock and go back to Morpheus? [No, she isn't dead—it was the other ship that got blown up.]
  • What're they going to do about the fact that Gloria Foster, who played The Oracle, died? [She had shot most of her scenes for Reloaded, but not for Revolutions.]
  • Will priestly cassocks become a fashion trend for men?
  • What pivotal role will be performed by Neo's adoring acolyte?
  • How will Bane sabotage the human defense of Zion? Will Neo kill him?
  • What led Morpheus to the Oracle in the first place?
  • Is the "real world" only another level of simulation, an outer matrix, indicative of matrices upon matrices, onionlike in their layering upon each other?
  • The climactic Battle of Armageddon between Good and Evil will have to take place—but what will happen afterwards?
  • If the Zion-world is revealed to be also fake in the third movie, will the trilogy end with Neo leading his followers into the sunlit "real" world? [Of course, any world in the movie is false—it is, after all, a movie.]
  • Will Neo wake up and say, "Bill, dude, you won't believe this bitchin' dream I just had. . ."?



Please don't write to I mean it: My inbox is stuffed!

Note to my recently-acquired cult following: I have a book coming out REAL SOON from Feral House. It's entitled A History of Single Life, and it deals with the history of love, sex, and relationships in Western culture—and how the way we have thought about these has changed from Plato's Symposium to Sex and the City.

Posted March 18, 2005 1:23 AM






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