First of all, let me say that I love The Matrix. The day after I saw The Matrix, I saw The Matrix again (dragging my bewildered spouse along). Had the following day not been a work day, we would have seen it yet again. We bought a DVD player just so we would be able to watch The Matrix on it. In short, I think it rocks.

However.

I've been reading science fiction and comic books pretty much since I was able to read, and I've long been fascinated by the philosophies and activities of extremist hate groups. I pretty much know an ultra-paranoid, sociopathic, power fantasy when I see one and frankly the underlying message of The Matrix scares the crap out of me. Here are the basic assumptions that inform the movie:

  1. Everything you see and experience is an illusion. Nothing is real; it is all a fantasy. The only thing you can be sure is real is your own consciousness.
  2. Furthermore, this illusion of reality is a trap, a prison. Not only the bad aspects, but the good aspects also are part of a conspiracy to keep you in bondage to a malevolent power that exploits you every second of your life. Everything about this world must be resisted and if possible destroyed, by any means necessary.
  3. Of your fellow human beings, only those who have been "awakened" to the truths described in propositions one and two can be trusted to any degree. The rest are part of the prison and are to be considered as enemies to your well-being, your freedom, and your survival. It is entirely possible that at some point they will turn into an "agent" of the evil power and try to kill you. You must be ready at all times to kill them.
  4. Those people who are past a certain age are incapable of being "awakened" to the reality of the situation. Not only are they the enemy, they will always be the enemy until the day they die.
  5. Those who act to defend the consensus reality and its rules (particularly authority figures, police officers, and security guards) are to be killed instantly and without remorse.
The assumptions Quizro identifies here are not terribly different from the assumptions that fed the internecine conflicts within Christianity after it became a state religion following the reign of Constantine. While the closest parallels to this closed system of thought may be found in the beliefs that we are given to understand were held by many of the gnostic sects destroyed in the course of conflict, my own reading finds that many of these features and beliefs were prevalent also in the emerging orthodoxy of that time. Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels) provides a good starting point in reading about this period, as does Peter Brown, especially his treatment, The Body and Society.

For the science fiction tie-ins, I would start with Philip K. Dick, especially his (few) books from VALIS onward, which develop this theme in detail. Many of his friends and supporters feel he was undergoing a profound psychotic break at about this time, but however one chooses to interpret or characterize his mental state, the books written during his period of epiphany certainly capture this mindset as few others have managed to do. The Matrix, Total Recall, Enemy of the State and other recent films develop these sorts of themes. Small wonder that many, like Minority Report and Imposter also happen to have been based on short stories by the late Philip K. Dick. Also of note, the creation of a Philip K. Dick award which has gone most frequently to writers identified with the cyberpunk genre of science fiction.

No doubt that this is a prevalent theme in current entertainment, and perhaps a dangerous one, though I wonder which is more dangerous: the fact these ideas are expressed in fictional form, or the possible blurring of lines among some particular subset of mentally vulnerable viewers? I recall (poorly, and even perhaps mistakenly) that Francis Ford Coppola was hugely upset that there was a big up-surge in military enlistments shortly after his Apocalypse Now was released.

In that case was:

  1. the movie a recruiting tool?

  2. Did its nihilism appeal to disaffected youth, mostly young men born near the end of the Baby Boom years?

  3. Or did the movie's release simply coincide with a surge in enlistments taken in response to the Recession of 1979?

  4. Or was it simply "Morning in America"?

A significant number of my friends who are interested in Buddhism see the Matrix more as a parallel to the teachings of the Buddha (excepting the violence, I suppose).

Lessee... according to Buddhism, the world around us is maya, illusion. Our attachment to the illusions around us keeps us trapped in the cycle of reincarnation. What we should be working towards is freeing ourselves from these illusions so that we can reach nirvana. Boddhisattvas (or enlightened ones) can help you or point you in the right direction, but those who are still trapped on the wheel of reincarnation (especially those from a different culture, like Americans) will mostly not understand and will try to keep you from finding nirvana. Sounds like the Matrix to me.

Enlightenment is sometimes described as a place surrounded by a high wall. Some, finding the wall, jump over it and pass on to enlightenment and nirvana. Others, finding the wall, turn back around and go back the way they came, so that they can lead yet others towards enlightenment. It remains a personal search, though. "I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."

As an aside, I don't consider Morpheus' statement about people over a certain (unspecified, btw) age not being able to make the transition to be ageist, but more a reasonable comment, based on sound psychological principles. The things that happen to us when we are young imprint themselves strongly upon us. As we grow older, we lose some of our mental flexibility; it is far easier for children to learn foreign languages, for example, than for adults.

Actually, The Matrix hearkens back to an ancient (if widely rejected in modern times) belief of metaphysical philosophy: Idealism.

Originally introduced by Plato in his The Allegory of the Cave, Idealism is (in very basic terms) the concept that there is only the mind, and that everything that is not the mind are merely sensations of the mind. Plato makes analogies to this cave as the place where people see nothing but shadows, and to become enlightened, one must escape the cave and have true experiences. Upon leaving the cave, one cannot easily return to enlighten others. The others will be caught in their own illusions of reality and consider the return a threat. People historically do not take well to having their belief system shaken up. Therefore, what would happen to the returning enlightened? He would at best be ridiculed by the residents of the cave. At worst, killed.

Neo being "awakened" is merely his escape from this cave. It makes for an interesting story, and one of the few blockbuster movies that actually takes a tenet of philosophy and uses it as the foundation of its plot.

There's really nothing all that sinister about it, unless you are exceptionally paranoid. And it made for a great movie. Idealism is kind of a silly idea, if you understand the arguments that make it silly, but that belongs in a different node.

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