The release of the Wachowski brother’s film The Matrix in 1999 was a milestone in science fiction cinema and special effects. The film depicts a dystopian future where the reality perceived by humans is actually a simulated reality created by sentient machines in order to subdue humans and utilize their biological energy to power a machine civilization. The plot follows Neo, a messianic character in the film, as he is liberated from the bondage of the machines and attempts to unshackle, or unplug, the remaining members of the human race. Combining elements of cyberpunk, martial arts, and what has come to be known as “bullet time” special effects, The Matrix is both visually stunning and conceptually thought provoking. The film also utilizes imagery and a narrative structure to seemingly illustrate many philosophical and social dichotomies that may be familiar in our current cultural context. I will argue that these dichotomies are in fact complements in the film and are not only symmetrical and interdependent but inform and define each other. I will go through the film in chronological order and use the specific imagery and narrative context to describe and illustrate these complements. I will also discuss how the film is a warning against technology and provide a commentary on the sublime nature of reality.
The film opens with greenish, electrically shimmering film logos and ominous music to immediately convey to the viewer that something will be different in this film compared to others. The viewer is then presented with what seems to be computer code written in an unfamiliar, Asian-like language cascading down the screen, slowly disappearing and morphing into the title of the film. The purpose of these first 40 seconds is to set a tone of disengagement and confusion along with begging the viewer to ask the question, “What is the Matrix?” This is important because one of the themes of the film is the philosophical difficulty of reality. In other words, how does one know with certainty that what they perceive to be real is, in fact, true? The more disengaged and confused the viewer is at this stage of the film, the deeper they will be engaged into the film itself as the story develops. This is the first set of dichotomies established in the film – disengagement versus engagement and confusion versus clarity. These dichotomies serve to bring the viewer along for the ride and also reinforce the notion that belief is important to both character and viewer. In the case of Neo, belief is important in a new “reality” (Matrix) where anything is possible and in the case of the viewer, belief is important in accepting the possibility of such a future. Each dichotomy depends on its analogous parts to drive the intrigue forward, present in both character and viewer.
The next scene follows the character of Trinity, first as a voice discussing Neo and later as she performs some seemingly impossible kung fu and flees the agents on the rooftops. The menacing, corporate clad agents set up another dichotomy with the vinyl clad Trinity both in clothing and morality. The viewer is unsure who she is but it seems clear that she somehow represents good while the agents represent evil. We later learn that this is the case, although it is suggested that the roles were reversed at some point in history when humans unjustly treated the machines in their early stages of self-awareness. Clothing is important throughout the film. The agents in their brown suits, matching ties, and square sunglasses could arguably represent a corporate system of control while the vinyl or leather clothing worn by Morpheus and his crew could represent the bondage of the individual or non-conformist in a corporate state. Again, dichotomies of good versus evil and corporate versus individual are established early in the film before the viewer has comprehension of what is taking place. This scene ends with a phone booth and the disappearance of Trinity, the question of how she disappeared left as yet unanswered.
The next scene introduces the Mr. Anderson/Neo character played by Keanu Reeves by taking the viewer through what appears to be an electronic circuit, greenish patterned energy flowing past. This scene also introduces the dichotomies of waking versus sleep and machine versus human. Neo is first seen asleep with headphones on, a computer search running in the background for Morpheus. The search for Morpheus, named for the Greek god of dreams, is actually Neo’s search for an answer to the question of the Matrix. The answer to the question of the Matrix concerns the nature of reality. The mind relies on the senses to interpret the world by which reality is defined. Without the mind or the senses, neither could truly exist just as dying in the Matrix means death in the real world. This is yet another complementary dichotomy that the film illustrates. The imagery of the computer words on a black screen and not an actual voice waking Neo up speaks to the interdependence Neo has with machines along with the idea that reality can be like a dream state, further supporting the notion that reality may be ambiguous. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy explores and develops methodological doubt along similar lines. This scene will also tie into the computer center of the Nebuchadnezzar in that Mr. Anderson’s room in Matrix looks remarkably like the computer network of Morpheus’ ship. The imagery and quiet narrative of Reeve’s character in this introductory scene are rich with opposites that will reverberate throughout the film – reality versus illusion, waking versus sleep, machine versus human, rationality versus experience - all interdependent and complementary because neither opposite could function or exist without the other.
The notion that “life is but a dream” recurs many times throughout the film along with references to Alice in Wonderland to exacerbate the idea that everything may not be as it seems. References to “follow the white rabbit” and the appearance of the character of Du Jour with a white rabbit tattoo on her shoulder are the most obvious examples of this link to Lewis Carrol. It is interesting that the character of Troy, a somewhat shady figure, reveals the future of Neo by saying, “Hallelujah. You’re my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ” and “Don’t worry, you don’t exist.” Finally, Troy says, “It just sounds like you need to unplug.” This is interesting because he seems serious about his use of mescaline, a mind-altering hallucinogen. This could be a commentary about drug use in that by “dropping out”, one may actually be more in touch with what may be actual reality. This notion is certainly supported further by the choice Neo has to make after meeting Morpheus between taking a drug, whether it be a red pill or the blue.
The scene that takes place between Neo meeting Trinity and his introduction to Morpheus further develops many of the dichotomies already established. Trinity confirms that Neo is searching for something other than Morpheus, the work discipline meeting with the boss that looks like an agent, and the attempted escape illustrate the dichotomy between corporate versus individual, reality versus illusion, and the interconnectedness of man and machine. Neo needs computers in the Matrix to find the answer of what the Matrix is, which proves to be part of the machine world. The lecture given to Neo by his boss is remarkably like the message of the what machine world is attempting to achieve with humans, which further adds to the notion of interconnectedness between the parts and the whole of both the machine world and the corporate world. The attempted escape from the agents not only sets up the inevitability that agent Smith refers to in his fight with Neo later in the film but also another dichotomy between ordinary and extraordinary. The humans that are plugged in need the comfort of the ordinary environment produced by the simulated reality of the Matrix, which is, in fact, an environment where the extraordinary feats may be achieved. The journey Neo takes is from the commonplace world that the Matrix provides, into the real world of Morpheus and Zion, and finally back into the commonplace world of the Matrix, is a journey that allows for his transformation into savior. Once again we see interdependence and complementary dichotomies that help define and inform each other woven throughout The Matrix.
The scene from Neo’s interrogation by the three agents to his birth out of the Matrix further develops the ambiguous nature of reality, Neo’s relationship with Agent Smith, and the dual nature of Neo himself. The viewer is once again transported through an electronic device, which seems to give the illusion of coming though a television monitor. This could be a commentary on the dual nature of television and media in general along with establishing yet another dichotomy. As much as we view television and are informed by it, maybe in a way, television views and is informed by us. The imagery of the “bug” transforming into a fleshy creature, disappearing through Mr. Anderson’s navel followed by Neo waking to Morpheus’s phone call further plays with the notions of disengagement, confusion, and reality both for the viewer and in a diegetic way. Agent Smith’s character is developed more in this scene as well, with many negative “human-like” qualities starting to surface such as pride and sadism in Neo’s disturbing loss of his mouth and subsequent invasion by the “bug”. It is interesting that Neo’s character is many times affectively flat, much like Agent Smith. This is not a coincidence as each character helps to define each other. They are in fact symmetrical and complementary just as good and evil or Jesus and the anti-Christ are symmetrical and complementary. Each is, in a way, without purpose and meaning without each other. We also see that Neo is a dichotomy within himself, living two separate lives with almost two different personalities. His choice of taking the red pill after he finally meets Morpheus does not erase the plugged in side of this dichotomy and indeed sets him up for failure before he succeeds by eventually saving Morpheus. The imagery of the mirror becoming unbroken for Neo, covering him, and eventually overwhelming him supports the notion that the two sides will become one in his future. It is only through finding the interdependence between the two-sides of his nature that he is able to master the Matrix. Besides entertaining and challenging the viewer, maybe this is the ultimate message of The Matrix – we all have two sides in our nature and knowledge of this fact and balance between these forces is what we should strive to achieve.
The scenes from Neo’s birth from the Matrix into the “desert of the real” through his visit with the Oracle to Morpheus’ rescue by Neo work together to develop the interdependence that the Matrix and the “real world” have on each other as well as the relationship between knowledge and belief. The imagery and music as Neo “awakens” from the Matrix in a reddish pod overlooking humanity/power generator towers is probably one of the most memorable in all of science fiction film. It is here that the diegetic reality world is revealed to Neo and the narrative reality to the viewer. The power of the mind over the body is clear as Neo is rehabilitated from an atrophied state into a functional member of this new reality. The interesting part of his rehabilitation, however, is that it requires plugging him into a computer construct for training and education. It is also in the construct that Neo learns of nature of the Matrix, which initially is overwhelming to the point of a psychosomatic break. The machines become the tools and life support systems in a new way or maybe just in a different way.
The harshness of the real world aboard the Nebuchadnezzar is also evident by the imagery of ragged clothes, worn out technology, and less than desirable food. In many ways and what will become Cipher’s argument, the Matrix may make for a better life than the real. The epistemic difficulty of certainty and knowledge is fully revealed in these scenes. How do we know with certainty what we know and how can we trust our eyes and other senses to support our sense of truth and actuality? Other questions that are begged are what makes for a good life or what is an acceptable price to pay for freedom? Cipher’s meeting with Agent Smith in the restaurant illustrate that freedom itself may be an illusion and defining a good life may have universal attributes. The classic kung fu scene between Neo and Morpheus also begin to reveal that maybe belief, not knowledge, is more important in both worlds because knowledge itself may be untrustworthy. The cryptic message from the Oracle to Neo allows him the power or freedom to believe in something not as big as saving the world, but in the saving of one man (Morpheus). Trinity and Morpheus’ belief in Neo is both challenged and confirmed while their knowledge is also tenuous. Ultimately, Neo finally believes that, “There is no spoon.” in the lobby gun and kung fu sequence to rescue Morpheus and Trinity later from the helicopter. Through belief, the student becomes the master, another interdependent dichotomy illustrated in the film. Lastly, these scenes begin to develop the dichotomy between fate and choice and its relationship between illusion and reality. As Morpheus says, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”. This makes the viewer question that notion that if a prophecy can come true, was there ever any choice along the way. The dichotomies in these scenes allow for Neo to become the power that that was prophesized by the Oracle, but challenge both his character and the viewer to wonder if he is simply a tool in a larger scheme, out of his control.
The scenes from Neo’s fight with Agent Smith to the end of the film bring the dichotomies I have discussed so far through imagery and narrative structure to illustrate the complementary and symmetrical nature of interdependent opposites. Neo’s disengagement, confusion, and struggle with the Mr. Anderson side of himself are somewhat maintained in his character but these qualities are brought together with their opposites, which allow him to reach his potential, stop the bullets, and bring about Agent Smith’s demise. Jumping into Agent Smith is symbolic in that there is a part of both characters that is fighting for control and freedom. It also begs the question of how much of Smith is now inside of Neo. If Neo is the ultimate human in the film and Agent Smith is the ultimate machine representation, then by the dichotomous structure that the film takes, both need each other as much they are in conflict. Neo and Agent Smith are visually and narratively the largest representation of Yin and Yang in the film - corporate versus individual, good versus evil, and machine versus human all come together through their interaction. This part of the story will be brought to the forefront more in the second and third Matrix films.
The other dichotomy that is developed in a significant way in these last scenes is between Neo and Trinity. This part of the film develops the love story between them and demonstrates its power over the two characters. Indeed, it was Trinity’s words and kiss, just as in a fairy tale, that was essential to Neo’s resurrection after Agent Smith killed him. This is where the message of hope is revealed – love may sometimes conquer all. Both Neo and Trinity are strong in complementary ways. Both are essential to the plot and storyline in complementary ways. Both find and rescue each other in complementary ways. Both need each other in symmetrical and complementary ways. The notion of male and female, whether that is in physical form or of character, make for the last dichotomy in the film, and not by chance. We cannot venture through this world alone because it can be ambiguous and filled with self-doubt. It is only through the connections we make with other that allows us the hope and ability to make it through each day. This is especially true with those that we consider to be our opposite, our match, or our soul mate because we give as much as we receive in an ultimate state of interdependence. The Matrix presents us with a dystopian future, but it ends on a message of hope, both in the context of the love of one and within the context of society as a whole. Maybe one day all of us, like Neo, we will strike that balance between our own inner dichotomies so that we may also fly.
The relationship that humans hold with machines could arguably be considered fragile. The bone that allowed our ancestors the ability to fend off starvation by killing animals for their meat also held the power for murder of other humans, as Stanley Kubrick illustrated in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The more advanced the tool, the greater potential for its misuse. Computers speed up processes that would be nearly impossible for any one mind alone, but its development also paved the way for new kinds of theft and depravity. Dynamite was invented for use in mining, but history clearly shows how much pain and suffering has come with its development through munitions and bombs. Along with that potential for misuse, the development of technology has increased our dependence on it. We have lost much of the body hair that our ancestors possessed because clothing and other forms of technology no longer made that trait a necessity. How long could we survive without the technology of shelter and electricity? Many of us would survive but it unquestionable that many would perish as a result. It is important to keep in mind, however, that our evolution into sentient creatures may not have been possible without our use of technology. John Harris, author of Enhancing Evolution, argues that human evolution stopped around the mid 1800’s. Technology took enough environmental pressure off of us as a species so that natural selection could no longer act. Instead, he argues that deliberative selection replaced the natural in setting the course for a human future. Therefore, if it is true that we are dependent on technology and have an evolutionary relationship with it (even though it may be misused), it follows that the misuse of technology holds with it the potential to harm us or lead us into our own de-evolution. Technology, like the machines in The Matrix, holds within it dichotomies then for good and evil along with happiness and despair.
The Matrix is, in a way, a commentary on the dichotomy of technology. As much as we depend on technology, the development of technology is dependent on us. Should we ever achieve sentience in the machines that we create, the interdependence between the two would change the way we define responsibility and look at ourselves. In the film, the humans in the “real world” suffer many creature comforts that many would call necessities, but they could not survive without the machines such as the Nebuchadnezzar that serve them. The machine world need humans for power and could not survive without us. We need them as much as they need us. Maybe the conflict between man and machine reached the level that it did because the humans of the future unwittingly built their psyches into the machines and ended up seeing themselves like the repetitive images of mirrors within The Matrix. Many times, we fight as much with our psyches as we do with each other so the future people in the film ended up doing what humans do best – fighting with each other. If we endow a machine with all of the qualities we characterize as human, would we not be fighting ourselves because we have put us into them? What else should we expect of a sentient technology that we make in our image? The message and warning of The Matrix is that technology will no doubt continue to be part of our shared future, but hubris and not remembering that technology has a dark side may become our undoing. Remember that the person that goes higher up a ladder will be able see farther than those below, but the higher one goes up, the harder and more lethal the fall.
To conclude, I will briefly discuss the sublime nature of reality surrounding the story of The Matrix. The epistemological difficulty of reality has been debated since the birth of philosophy. Rene Descartes took the argument to extremes to ultimately argue for the existence of God and provide a method for practicing science. He brought the idea down to one certainty with the cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). The idea of confusing reality due to being plugged into a machine or in a dream state is not original then to the Wachowski brothers. It is interesting that the development of technology allowed the concept of an ambiguous reality to be conveyed in such a sublime way. In other words, without powerful computers and other technology to generate expansive special effects, The Matrix could not be made, which would not provide us the warning against technology. The image of Neo overlooking the towers of humans dreaming away existence is simultaneously beautiful, terrible, and beyond comprehension – the very epitome of the sublime. Agent Smith also commented on the nature of the Matrix as he is torturing Morpheus, the view from the top offices overlooking the expanse of the Matrix to the artificial horizon. As much as the Matrix represents slavery, it is from a sensory point of view, indistinguishable for anyone except Neo. But what if it was true? What if you, the reader of this paper, did not exist in the way that you think you do? That would be sublime as well because there is just as much beauty, terror, and that which is beyond comprehension in this reality as any other imagined reality so even if you did not live in the desert of the real, I argue that it would not matter. Trinity says to Neo on their way to see the Oracle that the Matrix cannot tell you who you are. Meaning, purpose, and perspective ultimately lie within each of us, regardless of reality. The truth of what our senses tell us is not important in the grand scheme of things. Reality or more precisely the idea of reality provides us the challenges to find the balance within and what we do with the cards we are dealt. All of these ideas may have philosophical implications in regards to truth but at the end of the day, we must function within the world that we live. Maybe then truth, like reality, is also sublime.