The Illusion of Choice
All Rights Reserved© 2003 & 2008 M.R.M. Parrott
The text of this article includes versions which appeared on rimric folio in 2003, and from multiple authors in public newsgroups in 1999, and has been protected on GetWiki on behalf of the authors, republished here with permission and/or fair use. All rights reserved.
Older Than You KnowIn the passage of years following that big year for Matrix fans, 2003, and of course, the breakthrough in 1999, I find the "trilogy", "franchise", or just "series", as more and more relevant to today's world, while also striking themes far older. In 1999, and ever the contrarian, I was skeptical about the popular first film, partly because it quickly became a "must see" film (whose DVD release later became the first "must buy", which I bought), but also because I did not know it would be followed up with such a wonderful and rich series of stories, or that the basic questions arising out of the first film would be addressed. In 2003, also in a contrarian mode, I ignored general disappointment expressed by popular sentiment and strongly pushed the sequel films as being even better, and far more substantial, than the first. While the first gave us the basics of Epistemology, the second taught us about Ethics and the third much more about Metaphysics and Teleology. I found the Matrix sequels more philosophical than the opening film.
During that time, and in years since, "geeks" my age have enjoyed the completion of the troubled and inconsistent Star Wars "saga", as well as the incredibly well-produced Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, based on the Tolkien book which was not originally a trilogy. We have also seen countless Sci-Fi and action flicks coming our way which are quite forgettable by comparison, many which are downright insulting. In my view, only the Peter Jackson directed Lord of the Rings "franchise" meets the quality and emotional import of The Matrix series, and indeed, surpasses it in some ways in the "extended edition" form. Jackson's approach to Rings was unflinchingly careful and serious toward the book, and actually perfects the book, rereading it into a flawless "trilogy" of films unlikely to be bested on cinematic and artistic merits anytime soon. If you want to study the basics of great story-telling in tripartite form, you only need study Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and its supporting documentaries and commentaries.
The Matrix films are at least equal in story-telling stature, if not as well developed in terms of satisfying virtually every curiosity, as Rings. What they lack in definite answers they more than make up for in rich connections, multi-layered possibilities of interpretation, and of course, sexy visuals and sounds. The look "back" to the Matrix is really not much of a looking back, so much has a perennial return to that source of inspiration which cannot be limited to 2003 or 1999, a continual reflection on the overarching theme, as I see it, that "choice is an illusion", as The Merovingian lectured. In a time where we face all kinds of choices, we have to ask ourselves if we have real power, if we know the "why" behind our choices. Like ''The Lord of the Rings", "The Matrix" is a timeless tale, and in that, endlessly rewarding in viewing after viewing. As The Architect notes, it is "older that you know".
Below follows a short discussion on a public newsgroup, Alt.Philosophy, and two articles I wrote in 2003 about the series...
Merely Entertainment?(The Matrix, 1999)
"...[The Matrix] had an important concept that people need to be aware of. There is more than standard reality to consider. The reality we experience is far too convenient for chance. There must be some controlling factor that we are not aware of..."
These were (and are) public posts on Usenet from 12 April- 22 May, of 1999. Participating with myself (MRMP) below were: eKSeL, MHK, whatever, DaJoker711, Sadtomato, Josh S., The Vision, Taichi, LessXTreme, REYLC, JPH, someguy, and Kooter.
The replies have been nested into my original, and at least one post seems to have been lost, at least from Google, over the years. Still, the discussion below serves to show how all of us participated that "Philosophy Buzz" after the first film. Keep in mind, many of our questions have now been answered, but at the time, right after The Matrix was released in early April, 1999, there was little reason to believe there would be such revealing sequels and short features to come four years later...
'the matrix', merely entertainment M.R.M. Parrott (12 April, 1999)
Hey, I like graphics like everyone else, I'm a designer; but without the expensive visuals, this movie falls flat.
For example, what about these problems...
1. If the matrix was virtual, why were Neo, Morpheus, and others, limited to human forms?; if they were limited by their minds, then why were the agents limited to human forms?
- eKSeL: easy, if they took forms other than human ones then the people would become aware that something is going on, duh
- MRMP: No, the machines could just put the matrix on hold while the main characters went into other forms and networks, like the blip when there was a deja vu experience.
- The Vision: That's why Neo (note: an anagram for 'one") was supposed to be such a big deal - as 'the one' he could rewrite the program, thus allowing him to break the rules, while the AI's couldn't.
- MRMP: This illustrates my query. Why then, was he limited to kung fu displays, if he could rewrite the programs?
- eKSeL: hmmm, maybe they needed a specific entry point to channel a signal through to the matrix? the telephone system that exists inside the matrix could easily be symbolic of the internal wiring necessary to maintain security by the machines
- MRMP: Then why "broadcast," they should have "connected." Also, why not make it clear?
- The Vision: Remember, those aren't phones at all!
- MRMP: You're right, but my point is why, if they are virtual, are they "referred to" as plain telephones? In other words, why were the characters forced to chase down locations for the phones, except to leave the phone in place?
- eKSeL: what? you spent way too much time to think of this one
- MRMP: More than the writers, that's for sure.
- The Vision: Again - they aren't actually using phones, and communication doesn't necc. equal conciousness transmission (or whatever is involved in linking).
- MRMP: My question hides a more basic one: Why, if the broadcast could create a virtual connection via the cell phone metaphor, down to sewer depth, did the ship have to come to shallower depths to enact such a virtual connection to begin with?
- eKSeL: maybe you could trace the code output from the matrix but have to be closer to actually establish a two-way connection
- MRMP: Why wasn't this made clear, then?
- eKSeL: probably in one of those chamber things like everyone else
- MRMP: Then how did she operate freely?
- The Vision: Dunno. Where were her predictive powers coming from? It's not a premise of the movie that the only free humans are on that one ship.
- MRMP: I meant to imply that it was a plot element which was left out....
- eKSeL: i thought it was combat training, made good entertainment nonetheless, i certainly enjoyed it
- The Vision: You're kidding, right?
- MRMP: No. Again, why was there a specific limit, when Morpheus and Neo could re-write programs? Things like this have to be accounted for in a good script, even if it has been decided that they want the cool kung fu stuff; they have to explain its presence.
- eKSeL: there were not billions more identically like it
- MRMP: Morpheus said there were.
- The Vision: Nope. A) Not billions - they are ( I believe) physical beings, just as Neo, Morpheus, etc. Thus, a finite quantity. B) Once he beat it the way he did, he showed he could beat any or all of them the same way, at any time. All of them together couldn't beat him after that.
- MRMP: The agents were not physical beings. They were programs. If they were programs, then beating one is merely a hollywood excuse for a fight scene; where is the explaination that this was applicable to the host of other agents which would have come after him?
- eKSeL: uh, spiders?
- MRMP: You know, like web-bots....
- The Vision: Hrm? They who? You lost me.
- MRMP: Why did they need a virtual connection, when they were sitting in the ship watching the code go by? If that code were visible, why not send programs to do their work which would not trigger the agents, and if so, could equal their number and force?
- eKSeL: didn't affect the plot?
- MRMP: It was hailed as a mecca; they showed two seconds of the real surface, why not show two seconds of this Zion?
- The Vision: Um, 'cause it's semi-mythical, so we generate our own idea of paradise? Why didn't we see what was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or the box in Ronin? etc. etc. etc.
- MRMP: Right; why?
- eKSeL: hence "appear"
- MRMP: Exactly! Why not make them appear to be doing what they actually are doing?
But hey, those graphics were great !!!
- eKSeL: anyway, quit trying to ruin a good movie damnit, this is one of the coolest movies i've seen in a looong time
- MRMP: Oh, it's cool, but not all that.
- oh, and sorry for continuing a thread that really doesn't belong in this newsgroup, but hey, it was a great movie! =)
- MRMP: It's okay, I think, since there were "deep philosophical implications" and "mind bending stunts" in the movie...
- The Vision: at least there were themes to this movie that were reasonably executed and thought about (i.e. the Arthurian 'quest for identity' story).
- MRMP: Yeah, that was nice, as was the Baudrillard reference near the beginning....
- as stupid 'action movies' go nowadays, it was pretty decent fare.
- MRMP: I suppose so...
- However, if you want to talk problems, let's get into physics, and other small details:
A) There's a nuclear winter of some sort going on. The robots were solar powered. What did they run on before the changeover to human-power (keep in mind the claim that 'whole crops were lost early on' and that a crop would have to reach some certain age before such a problem could occur)?
- MRMP: Though you are keen to point it out, I believe it is answerable by proposing that the latter power source was developed before the winter began...
- B) Relatedly. Suppose the robots lived on human bioeletricity, as claimed. What powers the humans, given A, above? What's the source of the nutrients? We eat flora and fauna. They are powered by the earth's core, and the sun. Without the sun's output, they die. We die. The robots die.
- MRMP: Very good point!! Yet another problem...
- C) When you believe you die, you die? C'mon!
- LessXTreme: Alright, I'm too tired to tackle the philosophical issues, but I can tackle this. It makes a lot of sense. The point wasn't just that when you believe you die, you die. It wasn't like dying in a dream. Psychosomatic effects can be very powerful (though that bit with Neo when the agent was robopunching him drove me nuts-where was the momentum in the real world coming from?). You can pop arteries and veins, break bones, and so forth. So when your body receives sensory input telling it that it's been shot 70 times has 19 broken bones and has 6 organs with punctures in them, it acts accordingly. It's a bit more intense than just if you believed that you died, I imagine...not only do you believe that you die, but your NERVOUS SYSTEM believes that you die...and so you die.
- MRMP: Yeah....whatever. Hollywood bullshit...
- D) Why would the robots recreate the period JUST BEFORE they took over? What happens when the virtual robot war occurs? They start over with a whole new matrix?
- MRMP: Hmmmm....
- E) Why make a single matrix w/ 5 billion+ people? Wouldn't lots of small matrices be much easier to control and handle (not to mention process and program)? Why make one at all? Why not just put all the bodies into vegetative states?
- MRMP: More hollywood schema....
- F) for that matter, why use people? All animals generate bioeletricity, no? And the matrix itself must waste a lot of power!
- MRMP: Of course.
- I used this movie as a reference point in a lecture on Descartes' meditations the other day. It was a nice deus deceptor update.
- MRMP: Cool. Good luck with your Doc.
- Taichi: Hi Vision,
Are you a designer or a teacher? I saw the Matrix flick and thought it had an important concept that people need to be aware of. There is more than standard reality to consider. The reality we experience is far to convenient for chance. There must be some controlling factor that we are not aware of. It is my premise that there is a primary reality that controls this secondary reality. These dual realities are interconnected at the nuclear quark level. The matter anti-matter phenomena each being separate realities. It is possible that people's soul or spirit is from the anti-matter reality and their physical body is part of the matter reality. This would be consistent with Biblical contentions but much more complex. Without some controlling factor, there would be only chaos. If there is some controlling factor, we need to know about it so that we can act accordingly.
- Electrostentialism - creative people in a created reality. Process physics - reality as a complex matrix of force fields. When you strike a metal object you hear the vibrations of the force fields. (e.i. knock on wood)
- REYLC: The use of the matrix as a starting point for teaching Descartes is a great idea. Did you know that Hilary Putnam, the philospher, was consulted heavily for the script. Note that some of dialogue was actual paraphrasing of the meditations in their order!
For those complaining about the inconsistencies in the technical portrayal--get over it! Such comments remind me of the annoying children who watch superhero cartoons and say "what a lie" every 5 minutes. The matrix is fiction.
- LessXTreme: Umm...everything is much too convient for coincidence. How so? What proof is there that we live in a created reality except that you say so? What has happened (specifically) that really is too convient to have happened by chance? And more importantly...did you have this point of view before you saw The Matrix?
- MHK: I have to assume that the flashy lights and effects is what has convinced some people to believe that the mediocre plot was some kind of deep philosophical revelation.
- MRMP: I went into it expecting only the dazzling choreography and visuals, perhaps with some vague teasers about virtual reality. I was pleased as punch that my expectation was met perfectly. There is no philosophy, per se, in the movie, it's just plain old sci-fi; nothing new.
However, did you notice, near the start, Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation", which was a hollowed out fake book, ironically enough, filled with personal stuff? That was the nearest approach to philosophy in the flick.
Now that image was rather rich....
- whatever: not to mention inside the books the text was "On Nihilism" great foreshadowing i thought =)
from the last page:
"There is no longer a stage, not even the minimal illusion that makes events capaple of adopting the force of reality - no more stage either of mental or political solidarity..."
- Jean Baudrillard
- Therein lies the problem of much of philosophy: too much glitz and sparkle. It looks good on the surface, but any in depth examination will reveal holes large enough to drive planets through.
- MRMP: If you mean the Anglo-American-Analytic club, then I agree. The most satisfying philosophers to me are the Eighteenth Century Europeans, like Kant, along with those who followed their thought more closely, such as Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze and Foucault, among others.
- Special effects are nice, but I prefer plotline.
- MRMP: Yes, of course. Something like 12 Monkeys, I suppose...
- DaJoker711: a great writer said that to read fiction it is necesary to read with a restricted sense of disbelief (paraphrase). It wasn't made to make sense.
And the movie rules so don't say nutin bout it either....
- MRMP: Who was that writer, by the way?
- DaJoker711: I forgot... my english teacher said it and she... IS BORING... i only catch words and phrases...that's why i had to paraphrase
- Sadtomato: I think The Matrix, while mostly an entertaining and dazzling rehash of Terminator, Total Recall, etc., did raise some questions for me (not that it's the first film or book to prompt these ?s)...
1. If I knew that the Matrix was a fake world, would I choose (like Cypher did) to forget the real world, go back into the Matrix and live my ideal life? Does it matter if that life is not "real" if I feel that it is real while I'm there?
2. How real is what we consider reality? You could be in a pod at this moment. Would that invalidate your experiences? In a way, no it wouldn't. We're already in a sort of "Matrix" in that our senses and mind are only interpreting waves (from outside) and nerve impulses (from inside) -- our reality is created by deciphering a series of code. Not too different.
- Josh: Not suprisingly there are postings regarding this film. I found it to be much more stimulating than most of its genre, not primarily due to special effects and cool kung-fu, but rather to those "philosophical" issues. It is always interesting to see how humanity thinks about its technological creations in relation to itself. We always believe that in some way our technology will enslave us in some fashion, whether it be by way of a "War Games" plot, or some fifties "radiation enlarges the ants", or "The Matrix". Interesting that these films taunt us with our fears of being enslaved by our creations, and yet we triumph in the end.
Further, I left the theater with a strange awareness of how spirit has generated this reality for itself to inhabit (perhaps Mark would prefer the word "reason" in lieu of spirit). I was reminded of Plato's Allegory of the Cave in some respects. One interesting aside is that Lawrence Fishburne said that, as a leading kung-fu expert was brought in to spend six solid months (daily) training the actores, this was one of the most intense experiences of his life. What we get out of these films is really what we bring in with us to begin with.
I never look to deeply into film looking for logical explanations of event in science fiction stories. Film should be viewed as dreams are-often lacking sense, but ripe with meaning as one part of yourself is attempting a symbolic communication with another part. I am hopeful that people, unlike us "posting" types, will see this film and wonder what kind of reality they inhabit. Will they ask themselves "have I created a reality for myself devoid of freedom, separated from what I feel could be a "more real" world "out there"? This is the feeling that I left with...and of course, I could have seen something really inspiring like the new "Star Wars" film, which is so easy to digest since there is such an obvious distinction of good & evil. At least this film is worthy of some discussion.
- The phrase I think you're looking for is "willing suspension of disbelief", and I don't know who coined it, but it's usually used in reference to science fiction writers like Poe and Verne.
I'm one that often sees the wires on the truck that is "knocked over" or the digital watch on the seventeenth century woman, but at some point you have to let that stuff go, or you'll never enjoy the film, which is by definition, an illusion. I don't think we could prove that OUR world is free of inconsistencies, let alone the world of the Matrix.
The Illusion of Choice(The Matrix Reloaded, 2003)
"...the problem indeed is the choice itself, one which would not be present without the very predication of the anomaly, the remainder, the incalculable sense of hope, but also the endlessly deferred affirmative difference."
The second Matrix film came out [four years after the first], and I was happy to see it, but like many others, I also expected to be wowed by a mind-bending type of plot, as found in the first film. My expectation was not met at first, but upon reflection. Online, I've read several reviews by well-intentioned writers who simply did not see that the second film does this job of turning the mind around, only by doing it in a different way. The problem, as Neo says, is choice. In The Matrix Reloaded, we have to understand that the hidden messages are hidden in different ways than in the first. The second film also complicates the first, which left us with a simplistic understanding of the relation of hero to matrix. The third will no doubt clarify these tensions through many climaxes and resolutions.
When the first Matrix film opened, I was fairly critical of it. At the time, I was not impressed as much as many fans with the Philosophy, and felt there were several plot questions which got in the way. Being a philosopher myself, it is easy to gloss over much of what counts as philosophical in the film, as well as the recent The Matrix Reloaded, as sophomoric, what one would encounter during an introductory course. I sometimes neglect to recall that most people never take that introductory course. The whole premise of the first film is little more than a condensed dramatization of Descartes Meditations, specifically the first and second (of six) mediations, frequently excerpted for textbooks. Many have noted the connection with the Myth of the Cave, found at the start of Book VII in Plato's Republic, but the Cave Myth is effectively incorporated into the mediations by Descartes, and also the myth does not directly involve the technical problems Descartes proposed.
It took Reloaded to bring Plato's Cave Myth more into focus. When taken with the first film, the story becomes a nice illustration of the myth, including the Myth of the Sun, from the end of Book VI, along with the Philosopher King later in VII. With less of a demarcation between the matrix and the real world, with the painfully clear exposition of the Christ-like cum God-like qualities of Neo, with introduction of ethical choice and arithmetic derivations, the influence of Plato's work becomes more evident, while the remaining four mediations from Descartes also become more relevant. But it is not as if the Wachowski brothers stopped here, for one can find references to tenets from the "Know Thyself" of the Hellenistic, Oriental, Christian and Gnostic thinkers, such as Plotinus, to the "Desert of the Real" from Baudrillard, and other Poststructuralist notions like Foucault's critique of power. There are plenty of morsels to savour in the films, no matter what your persuasion.
Near the end of the second film, when we fully understand the notion of Neo as the Philosopher King, we find Neo in front of the Architect. The later mediations, passages after the Philosopher King in Book VII of the Republic, as well as Baudrillard and Derrida again, shed some light on a reading of the rehearsed-sounding prose spoken to Neo by the Architect. Plato wrote about mathematics, specifically Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy, as leading one's soul to perfection and unity, and the relation to harmony through music. Descartes wrote about God as the orchestrator behind the scenes, beyond the limits of one's perceptions. The Architect is certainly portrayed as the orchestrator, for whom perfection is mathematical, manipulating Neo through the Oracle and the other characters to choose the love of one over saving the many. In Baudrillard, the notion of what is left within a person, which cannot be described vis-a-vis simulacra, is the remainder, while in Derrida, the difference of individuals can never be reduced to a system of signs.
If this connection with a negative remainder, or affirmative difference, isn't clear, consider that the Architect says Neo is the "sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix," the "eventuality of an anomaly." As Plato might have said of the Republic, the Architect explains the remainder by saying "the first matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect, it was a work of art, flawless, sublime." This also references Descartes, from the perspective of his theory of a clockwork Universe, a pure, mathematical machine which Newton and Liebniz would later describe in more detail. Plato showed how the imperfection of Number proceeds from perfection, to dialectic choice, deduction, intellection, and then back again into the world of images depicted in the beginning of the Cave Myth. Neo's life is the result of choices, the sum of excesses, which are little more than remainders of equations, anomalies of deduction, trifles of intellection. The parallel here between the Architect and Neo in the film with Socrates and Glaucon in Plato's dialogue is quite interesting, but the thrust of the argument is "freewill vs. determinism 101", a number, by the way, which appears again and again in the films, clueing us to their basic lessons.
"Choice. The problem is Choice," Neo says. Much like "There is no spoon" from the first film, this dense line about choice struck me as the key to unlocking the meanings of the second film. The basis of ethical reasoning is an attachment to humanity, as Kant theorized in his Critiques, and as the Architect explains, it is "a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the one." Neo experiences this attachment through his love for Trinity. Because this love can put us in the impossible situation of having to choose between it and survival, the problem indeed is the choice itself, one which would not be present without the very predication of the anomaly, the remainder, the incalculable sense of hope, but also the endlessly deferred affirmative difference.
As the Architect says, the delusion of hope, the illusion of choice, as the Merovingian put it, is at once what makes humanity beautiful and grotesque. Because we can choose to love is as wonderful as the destructive quality in our inverse ability to hate. To hope we can change our perceived destiny is a never-ending lure. The pretense that things could be different from what they are is what keeps Neo on the path, but because it dissolves into a mere manipulation on the part of the Architect and Oracle, because the illusion of his choice has been exposed, he falls defeated, to the lowest point in his story, to rip through the matrix, destroying everything in his wake, as he rushes to save Trinity. It will take the third film, or Act III, if you will, to resolve this predicament of choice for Neo, and for us in relation to the allegory.
The first film made sure we understood that things may not be what they seem, that the matrix cannot tell us who we are. The second certainly continues those messages, but also tells us to beware of false prophets, to know why we are making the choices we are making. The Merovingian makes it very clear. "Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without... Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the 'why.' 'Why' is what separates us from them, you from me. 'Why' is the only real source of power, without it you are powerless. And this is how you come to me, without 'why,' without power. Another link in the chain."
Is this not the problem with contemporary "monoculture" around us? It is an alluring realm of social pretense which never provides power, but only the illusion of power, power (dunamis) being that dynamic motive force to creativity, love and freedom. By following the false prophets of common culture, by succumbing to the more superficial social pressures of the world, by being mere links in an economic chain, we lose our sense of 'why', we lose any possibility of true power. Thus for many people, choices are an illusion, mere algorithms already played out by an endless parade of nearly useless products, services and expectations. The only way out is not merely to ask "why?", but to understand the 'why' of our own behaviours. Therefore, while it remains to be seen in Act III if our Neo, can discover the 'why', discover peace, in the face of such a seductive matrix of control, I feel sure many of us can. The matrix that is our monoculture cannot tell us who we are.
The Source of Light(The Matrix Revolutions, 2003)
"Neo's role in the great game was to see beyond, or beneath this reality, to save himself and everyone else. Through all his visions...we are saved from determinism by seeing a part of what he sees: The Light."
Now that The Matrix Revolutions is out to complete the trilogy, and now that I've had some time to reflect on the film and the overall arch of the three-part work, I can finally say I'm intimately satisfied, and more so every time I reflect on it. To be sure, on first viewing, like many others, I was tremendously disappointed by Revolutions. But, I was nearly as disappointed on the first viewing of Reloaded, and much more after the first Matrix, and many other films. It is all too easy to forget, art which will be satisfying, even edifying, is going to take some time to digest. We all know people who sit at a premiere of a film like this, fully geeked out, and pretend to get every single reference, allusion and subtext on a cold viewing, but they are just pretending, I assure you. They are usually not interested in the finer layers underneath the celluloid. I enjoy all the neat references too, like the repeated use of "101", the allusions to sci-fi classics, and the subtext of light, but what mainly interests me is the philosophical, the deeper meaning.
Perception and Reality
So, like many at the end of Reloaded, I was left with certain expectations of how Revolutions would and should complete the trilogy. Call me demanding and presumptuous, but consider this: Our Neo gained powers in the "real world"; Zion had already been destroyed five times, along with five previous One's; the overwhelming tone of the first and second films led one to conclude there was no Freewill, and that even the "real world" might not be real. Now, given all of this, I hoped the third film could indulge the appetite for action, but show us how these setups lead to an inexorable conclusion: The "real world" depicted in the films was just another layer underneath the matrix.
Further, I expected the characters would learn they were still plugged in, and had only been tricked into believing they were unplugged, that the "children of Zion", as Tank had called himself, would find they had been inside a matrix all along. I also hoped this layer would give way to yet another bubble of "reality", whereby we would be brought back to our own real world somehow, or at least outside any hint of the depicted matrix, perhaps back to Thomas Anderson sitting at his computer. I expected that because the rules of machines were constantly evoked, because destiny was constantly privileged over chance, because the characters were so wooden, that we would find our heroes unplugged for real in the final chapter. I expected the lessons Anderson learned as Neo would be the whole point, that he was merely a gamer in a role-playing exercise, and that in saving Zion and confronting Smith, he, as the player Neo, just as any other player in the simulation, learns he was saving himself, or saving us.
At first, I felt let down from my ideals, but after a second viewing and reading a slew of reviews online, I've been able to see that most of my ideals were met. Consider the following: Neo's powers, including his ability to see beyond Time, stem from his connection to the Source; Zion and the previous One's had fallen more predictably, where as our Neo was different, as the Architect noted; our Neo shows us at the end of the trilogy that there is Freewill, at least for him, even within the determinism of the Source; Neo had already received a spoon from an orphan in the "real world"; and the "real world" was shown to be generated by either machines or the Source itself in the opening frames.
Now, most of the characters know nothing about this, although some viewers might point to Morpheus' last words, "Is this real?", as evidence. I think his reaction is natural, given a life spent waiting and fighting for the end of the war. We are not brought to a world outside the worlds depicted, but that was not a precise requirement. Star Wars episodes, for example, do not show us a world outside the story lines. We are shown that the fundamental basis of all the worlds in The Matrix Trilogy is the fire-code light our Neo can now see. Everything we see, the matrix, the "real world" and the machine city, along with other characters, is built upon that. The entirety of the story takes place within appearances, which makes it a story of simulations, but also a story of mythology. At the end, we can now see that the wooden quality of the acting is intentional, because everyone is a program, and for programs, there is no Freewill, only the illusion of choice. Neo's role in the great game was to see beyond, or beneath this reality, to save himself and everyone else. Through all his visions, the vignettes at the beginning of the sequels and throughout, we are saved from determinism by seeing a part of what he sees: The Light.
In fact, Light is itself a powerful subtext, metaphor and element of the trilogy. Everyone knows the light inside the matrix has a green colour balance. Fewer might recognize the light in the "real world" is not white balanced, but blue balanced. Thirdly, the light of the Source is gold or red balanced. Red, green and blue, or RGB, are primary colours, and The Matrix Trilogy shows us how the blue and green light is added atop the golden red, or split out from it. Also, red is an exciting colour, while green is restful and blue is cheerful. So, the matrix is a place of rest, Zion one of cheer, and underneath it all is the excitation of the Source. There is also a loose reference to the colours of the chakra, where red is the base, sexual energy, green the heart, and blue the mind, but different chakra systems make this classification difficult to overlay onto the films.
Because I am working on a trilogy myself, I noticed there is another use of light in the films, as an arc across the story, if you will. In classical multi-part works, there is an affinity for crafting the story so that it begins in a neutral light, becomes dark with tragedy, then is lifted to full lightness through triumph. So, The Matrix Trilogy shows us the neutral light of Neo's early birth, then shows how the darkness the Oracle fears is approaching as an inevitable part of life, but then how Neo's path is transformed by turning the darkness to light through death itself. This is why he increasingly interacts directly with the Source, why his matrix visage, along with Smith's, are turned to light, and why there is a golden sunset within the matrix at the end, which incidentally, balances out the green of the matrix to a golden, or even white light balance. This is also why Trinity is allowed to see the real Sun at the end, in the final nod to Plato's myths of the Cave and the Sun. Trinity looks upon the Truth, she sees the Light.
Finally, it cannot escape notice that a heavy theme through out is the Messianic, the Gnostic and Buddhist. Here, the trilogy shows us how the path of the One is one of slowly shedding the body, which is a deterioration of the spirit. Neo's journey is to overcome the gross nature of matter, a point which Smith makes clear both in the first and third films, and to return to the Parent-Spirit, the Source. Gnostic and Buddhist salvation, then, is the return of all things to what they were before, hence "Revolutions", and free the light sparks from their material imprisonment. Neo is like the son of God, saviour of the people, whom even Alexander the Great said had seen an Oracle in Egypt, who told Jesus he was the son of Amen-Re. Given this primary element of the trilogy, it would have been strange to return to a Thomas Anderson at his computer, as I hoped for originally, because that would have been a backwards movement, not at all in keeping with the basic Gnostic mythology. Neo, son of the Deus ex Machina, must return to the Source, to turn darkness into light, war into peace, discord into a harmony of primary colours.
Indeed, the return of Neo to the Source, his bodily semblance to be gently carried away on the Arthurean barge, is really the only kind of an outcome which would truly complete this trilogy, because of the carefully laid groundwork. To finish with the whole scenario being merely a computer game or a simulation is a reasonable interpretation, but not a fulfilling one. To edify us all, something larger and deeper is needed than a mere virtual reality trip, and that is the attainment of higher wisdom through knowledge itself, through the return to the ground of all reality. However, we may still cite our Baudrillard, noting the Simulacra, the "desert of the real" of the machine world, Zion and the matrix. Neo's path takes him beneath the desert, to light itself. This is why the Oracle feels the programs in the matrix may see him again, and in fact, he could have embodied Sati to render the sunset, but more likely, it was her own found purpose to render the new light.
Four years after the first film opened, and after dozens of viewings on DVD, I am still wowed by the warp in world-view the first two films offer. The first really takes us for a ride, with the development of the simulation, and the second, with its reduction of choice and chance to destiny. I now believe the third does the same, with its revelation of light, making the second all the more important in the overall trilogy. While I lament the dependence on and glorification of violence in these and other films, I now see that too as so many simulacra within the story, not to mention a vital hook to get viewers in the seats, buyers in the stores. There are many more layers of references in the films than I have illuminated; from Sati's father's name coming from Hindu mythology; to Smith becoming both the cancer and flesh he so deplored while interrogating Morpheus; to the gradual reducing number of regular people in the matrix, from billions at the beginning until we reach zero at the end, all freed by the Architect. No reviewer can hope to catalogue all of the references and meanings; I only hoped to provide a few layers which were the most meaningful to me. Revolutions, the title itself an obvious two-letter play on Revelations, is the crowning touch of a ground-breaking trilogy.
Coming Soon(The Matrix Resurrections, 2021)
Forthcoming, a new essay from M.R.M. Parrott delving into the philosophical meanings of the new Resurrections film...
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