Ioana Manea, Second Year PPE, analyses the philosophical elements portrayed in ’The Matrix’
At the beginning of the movie, Morpheus asks Neo to make a choice between the blue pill- a premature end to the story and a promise of return to blissful ignorance – and the red pill – the commitment to a hardcore, life jacket free dive into the Cartesian rabbit hole. And by the time Neo makes the obvious choice of taking the red pill, he’s already got us hooked. “The Matrix” is a furiously intricate, immersive and thrilling chronicle of the birth and evolution of consciousness. It is a visually dazzling, stylishly fast-paced, and complex sci-fi film created by the imaginative Wachowski brothers. It is a daringly original and sharp illustration of metaphysics for a generation bred on video games.
In what should be understood as a deliberate and ingenious technique used by the directors, the first ten minutes of the film are obscure and confusing; as the plot unfolds, however, the idea behind it is revealed to us just as it is to the main character, Neo – we discover and understand at the same pace as he does, which builds within the viewers a powerful sense of identity with him – the kind that really leaves the audience thinking what they see is real. Neo, a cybercriminal/computer programmer (Keanu Reeves) is driven by a desire to find out what ‘the Matrix’ is and believes the only one who can help him find the answer is Morpheus, a highly elusive figure considered to be the biggest threat to mankind. Neo is led by a mysterious woman called Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) into an underworld where he meets Morpheus. Even though he is warned against it, Neo chooses to pursue the truth about the Matrix – that is, according to Morpheus, human existence and his reality are nothing but a facade, that he lives in a computer-generated, dystopian dreamworld controlled by an army of sentient and ill-natured machines, while humans are being farmed in high tech cocoons using them as energy sources. These computers could only be stopped by a human prophetically referred to as ‘the One’. Now trapped in an alternate, spine-chilling reality, Neo is forced to accept the premise of it and join the Resistance, led by Morpheus. More than that, Morpheus trusts in Neo (anagram for ‘One’) being the One and so, alongside the hero, embarks on a journey of the mind into absolute control, into an understanding of the illusory reality and a rejection of physical limits.
There are several elements that made “The Matrix” a hugely successful, influential, and interesting film. One would be the mixture of the impeccable casting, the creative choice of names and the iconic costumes that, to this day, influence popular culture. Keanu Reeves is a sleek hero, and he’s definitely not your typical action movie hero. His figure is somewhat alien-like, yet his expression is relatable and kind. Although we want him to succeed and we wish for him to find the inner strength to break the rules, he is not always on top of things – he does not own expensive, perfectly-fitted suits, an Omega watch or a smooth car like James Bond does. He doesn’t even get all the girls, although he does have a romantically abstruse dynamic with his love interest, Trinity. We feel for him, but we don’t envy him – and that, I think, is a particularity of Neo’s character among other movie heroes. Over and above that, he is backed by the legendary Morpheus – with his ponderous vagueness, his stoppered but strong voice, his eerie yet reassuring look – and by a whole bunch of cool outcasts ready to save the world, all dressed in black latex trench coats brilliantly contrasting the agents’/ machines’ standard dress of black suits and shades. And, of course, to top all that, there is the Oracle who Neo keeps hearing about and who, equally to his and our surprise, turns out to be a grandmotherly type, African-American woman who bakes cookies – a scene that beautifully tempers and completes the visual bravado of the film.
The script is stirring without being pretentious; the lines manage to be concise and complex at the same time. Lines such as “Do you ever have that feeling that you don’t know if you’re dreaming or if you are awake?”, “You are born into a prison you cannot escape – a prison of your mind”, “You call this free?” or “You have the eyes of a man who accepts what he sees because he is waiting to wake up” are at least memorable if not fully riveting.
The Matrix (1999)
“You are born into a prison you cannot escape – a prison of your mind”
Even more evident and exciting, perhaps, are the fight scenes, lighting effects and camera techniques. The sci-fi couturier eclectically brings together a series of poetically staged, kung-fu inspired confrontations that sell well; a series of techniques such as bullet-time (seemingly sending the camera in a circling movement around slow-motion action); and a series of sinisterly convincing settings.
The film’s visual vocabulary is, in a nutshell, staggering. Its dialogue is thought-provoking and succinct. The characters are credible and well-constructed. The costume design, film editing, visual effects, and writing are all iconic. But all of these serve only as a bridge, a cleverly mastered bridge, between the audience and the idea that the Wachowski brothers wanted to put forward. And that is where the artistry of ‘The Matrix’ truly lies – making some seriously heavy philosophical concepts not only accessible, but fascinating. The Cartesian and Platonic ideas behind the movie remain overwhelming, sure – but they are made to be engaging. ‘The Matrix’ exploits philosophical ideas of philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, Kant, Socrates, Hume or even Nozick while subtly commenting on religion.
“And that is where the artistry of ‘The Matrix’ truly lies – making some seriously heavy philosophical concepts not only accessible, but fascinating.”
Returning to Morpheus’ question and Neo’s choice to take the red pill, that is where we have Neo brought out of his 20th-century Platonic cave and thrown into reality. In Plato’s analogy of the sun constitutes nothing but a metaphor for the nature of reality and knowledge concerning it – the eyes of those forced out of their cave need time to adjust to the light of the sun. Similarly, when Neo is unplugged from the Matrix, he is faced with the challenge of adapting to a new reality – a ‘true’, or genuine reality, a reality that is ultimately liberating and good, but very hard to habituate to. Arguably much more difficult than the metaphorical adjustment to light, Neo’s journey comprises a lot of training, mental/ spiritual exercises, and provocations. In the ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, William Blake reiterates Plato’s argument in the cave allegory by noting: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.’ By forcing him to free his mind, Morpheus wants Neo to set himself free; escaping his limitations, Neo exits into a world of infinite possibilities. Neo fails his ‘first jump’ – the first attempt at jumping off a building. The light of the sun is still hurting his eyes. But by the end of the movie, he conquers his mind and manages to break natural barriers. He is used to the sunlight now and thus reaches infinity.
Another central philosophical concept in “The Matrix”, Descartes’ Great Deceiver, is employed in the film through Neo’s turbulent confusion about the nature of reality and his mentor’s guidance. When he finds that the knowledge he had of reality is false, Neo must question the reliability of his methods of acquiring that knowledge. Morpheus scrutinisingly voices his doubts by asking: “What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” In the same way Morpheus interrogates Neo, Descartes interrogates himself in “Meditations on First Philosophy”. His treatise’s goal is to suspend judgement about any belief, taking a skeptical approach to demonstrate that all of his beliefs about the physical world are doubtful.
Descartes notes: “Everything I have accepted up to now as being absolutely true and assured, I have learned from or through the senses. But I have sometimes found that these senses played me false it is prudent never to trust entirely those who have once deceived us…Thus what I thought I had seen with my eyes, I actually grasped solely with the faculty of judgment, which is in my mind.” Descartes was suspicious of the knowledge he obtained through his senses. He famously came to the conclusion that relating to the world and gathering information about it can only be obtained by using one’s mind rather than one’s senses. “The Matrix” takes this idea and presents it in the form of a spiritual, transformative journey, a journey led by Morpheus but ultimately carried by Neo, in his involuntary quest for true knowledge, for freedom, and for salvation – of himself and humankind.
The Wachowskis do not stop there with the philosophical (and religious) influences. There is an immediate similarity between Neo and Jesus in their role as saviours of humankind. But that does not really say a lot, since pretty much every action movie with megalomaniac overtones has main characters readily taking on messianic tasks these days. What is remarkable about “Matrix” is the philosophical-religious-sci-fi triad it proposes: namely, Morpheus as Socrates; Neo as Plato; Cypher as Aristotle. The Socratic method is revealed in the film by the student-teacher relationship between Morpheus and Neo, similar to that of Socrates and Plato. Aside from that, there is the Judaic figure of the traitor: in the movie – Cypher, in philosophy – Aristotle . A disciple of Plato, and thus of Socrates, Aristotle departs from the Socratic thought and claims what would later be known as Empiricism. In other words, Aristotle argues in favour of returning into the cave just like Cypher desperately concludes “the matrix is much more real than this reality”, hoping to return into the womb/cave.
Philosophical exploration in “The Matrix” involves bullets, reflective sunglasses, black leather, a little bit of romance, and a lot of spectacular stunts. Lending glamour to the crippling idea of immaterial existence, the Wachowski brothers and their beloved Neo triumph in turning human impotence into forthright control over, knowledge of reality, and infinite power, all wrapped beautifully in an ever-fascinating epos of simulated life and death.
Descartes, R., Cress, D. ed. (1993) Meditations on First Philosophy
Plato, Cooper, J.D. ed. (1997) Complete Works
Aristotle, Barnes, J. ed (1984) The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation
Blake, W., Sampson, J. ed (1908) The Poetical Works
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