|The Matrix is an atheist film.
||[Jan. 26th, 2006|01:05 am]
Theology of the Matrix
I've been constantly amazed over the years at the amount of people who continue to believe that the Matrix Saga is pro-religious or, more specifically, a parallel to Christianity myths. As an atheist who has religion pushed down my throat daily in this country it was personally vastly annoying to me that people took such an anti-religious, anti-dogma film and tried to turn it into a generic retelling of Jesus’ resurrection and sacrifice. Especially since it was based mostly on surface elements such as “a friend betrayed him”, “the second coming of the One was foretold”, and “a resurrection”
Also it was frustrating because the films were clearly much more anti-authoritarian, and anti-dogma than anyone gave it credit. One would be hard pressed to be anti-authoritarian and overtly religious. In fact, it’s virtually impossible since refusing to have faith just for faith’s sake is a tenant of religion. Since the atheist point of view is virtually unheard in America, these thoughts haven’t really been published anywhere.
This is broken into two portions. The first portion follows the journey of Neo and his rejection, possible failure, and the complete impossibility of him being a messiah in any religious or spiritual sense of the word.
The second portion details my personal interpretation of the films in their relation to religion. As a rabid fan of the mythology of the Matrix this is not in the least my only interpretation of the Matrix and in no way am claiming that this is anything near what the Wachowskis actually intended. Two of the great things about the Wachowskis are that they’ve created such a fantastic work of art that can be interpreted in so many different ways and that they’ve allowed us their silence to create those interpretations.
Since I so thoroughly hate dogma, I’m not saying this is set in stone in any way. I’d love feedback from anyone and everyone who reads this. I’ve only written this because I feel so passionate about this mythology, thus any dialogue on the subject is welcome. My opinions can be changed. Right now, what follows, are those opinions. All feedback is welcome.
1. Neo’s Journey A common misconception is that Neo is an analogy for Jesus, or in some way a messiah and saviour for mankind. It is true, the first film portrayed him as a messianic figure, at least in theme if not word. Was that messianic figure Jesus? Sure, that interpretation is valid. As much is Neo = Allah, or Neo = [Whatever Uber-Hero You Want]. In the 1st installment, Neo is our saviour. He could be any religious or mythological figure of hope and sacrifice. The most common reason I’ve heard for the belief that Neo = Jesus is the resurrection at the conclusion of the 1st installment. But if one looks deeper into the actual resurrections in both the Christianity myth and the Matrix myth, they are vastly different.
Jesus is brought back to life because he’s the Son of God. He is Holy. God resurrected him. That makes sense since he’s the messiah. In the Matrix myth, Neo is not brought back by God or even by a proxy for God (i.e., Dues Ex Machina). He is brought back by another human. Not only that, but he’s not resurrected by that human for any grand purpose. The dogmatic figure, Morpheus, didn’t bring him back. Trinity did. Trinity didn’t want Neo to live so he could end the war or destroy the Machines or be the Saviour of Humanity. She wanted him back because she loved him. Not a love one has for a Saviour but a love a woman has for a man. A kiss by a romantic loved one is much more akin to a fairytale like Sleeping Beauty than to any religious fable.
For Neo’s part, we must assume that in some part of his mind he chose to be resurrected. Choice is a major theme running through the saga. Since he allowed himself to die in the first place, it must be within his choice to stay dead. The question is “Why” did he choose to be resurrected? It surely wasn’t to be a Messiah for humanity. Whether or not one believes Neo was a Jesus-figure, it’d be hard to argue that it was a role that Neo at all embraced. Again, it’s Morpheus’ role to embrace him as the Saviour. As Neo put it, “I’m sorry, I’m just another guy.”
Neo allowed himself to be resurrected because he loved Trinity. It’s a story of love, impassioned love between a man and a woman, not of a Holy intervention. So already, even within the very 1st installment something isn’t adding up.
Neo is wildly unholy. At the start of the first installment it’s revealed that he’s broken many, many laws. Sure, only white collar crime, but he more than makes up for it as he and his girlfriend go on an impressive killing spree an hour later. Remember, Neo and Trinity don’t only murder “Machines”, they murder the Blue Pills that become Agents; they kill Blue Pill security guards. They kill generally anyone who gets in their way. Neo has killed human beings. And that doesn’t even bring up the issue of whether or not ending Machines is equally reprehensible. As we learn in the 2nd and 3rd films, the Machines feel love, feel compassion, believe in karma, and want to protect their offspring. Yet Neo ends as many as he can. I don’t remember Jesus storming the Roman Palace and taking out everything that moved to rescue John the Baptist.
Most of the nuance of the story were lost on the American psyche which only saw Cypher’s betrayal and a resurrection and instantly read it as shorthand for a Jesus analogy. A betrayal and a resurrection does not necessarily equal messiah. Although to be fair, given the morals of most American movies and the black and white nature of the conflict in the 1st film, it’s easy to see why many people believed Neo was a stand-in for Jesus. In 1999 I believed it myself.
Then the Wachowskis pulled off one of the biggest story twists in cinema history (and IMO, do not get nearly enough credit for it) by obliterating the messianic status of Thomas Anderson in Matrix: Reloaded. The twist was so incomprehensible to the majority of the audience that they didn’t only not “get” it, they didn’t even notice it. Instead the mainstream audience—including most critics—were left in a confused haze where they felt the second film didn’t make sense or just wasn’t good. To be fair to these people, the twist is a big one. In cinema history it would be the equivalent of if Empire Strikes Back painted the Empire as a perfectly good solution to a crumbling Republican and the Rebellion as possible terrorists.
As the film begins we see Neo’s exhaustion. As he says, “I just wish I knew what I was supposed to do.” This is a man who has been pushed into a messianic role by Morpheus and the civilians of Zion (and the American movie-going public) but without a God talking into his ear. No wonder he doesn’t know what to do. The man who freed him believes he’s the second coming, the civilians of Zion worship him like a living God, and all Neo wants is to have sex with his beloved girlfriend and to be left alone. Over and over he denies what people want to push on him. He tells The Kid, “I didn’t find you… You save yourself.” Instead of promising to protect Zionist’s children in the Matrix, all he can muster is a feeble, “I’ll try.”
One of the scenes that seemed to annoy the mainstream filmgoer the most was the “rave scene”. Many people argued that it was so bad that is shouldn’t have even been in the film at all. Others simply didn’t like it and found it boring. What they fail to realize is that the scene is integral to the entire Matrix story. Here we have a scene of dirty, wet, multi-cultural naked humanity in hedonistic pleasure. It’s a filthy scene brimming with human sexuality.
Filthy isn’t to imply “wrong” in the religiously moral way, but filthy as a counterpoint to the sterile environment of the Matrix. Those dirty feet in the mud, the thin clothing that stuck to the bodies from sweat and water, body parts of all kinds, fondling, grasping, holding in one giant mass of semi-naked humanity. You can nearly smell the aroma of sex off the celluloid. This is not a scene that implies “safe sex” or condom use or wedlock. It implies orgy. This is humanity, people, horny, wet, passionate, loving, intense, incredibly raw people. If that wasn’t enough to drive the point home, we have Neo making love to his girlfriend (no wedlock here either) on what looks to be an altar. This is a scene that puts humanity’s true nature diametrically opposed to everything the Matrix represents. Humanity is reckless, dirty, and out of control. The Matrix is: order, sterility, and control. Lets face it, the rave scene is out of a fundamentalist Christian’s worst nightmare.
Sex and intimacy with Trinity is all Neo wanted for the first thirty minutes of the film. The offerings from his followers were left where they were placed, getting only a haunted look from Neo. After the sex, Neo returns to the Matrix to meet the Oracle and walks through an alley filled with every religious idol and icon under the sun being sold on the cheap in a flea market setting.
The speech with the Oracle continues the change of Neo from Messiah to man. Neo lacks divine wisdom, hence his confusion of what to do, but he is a very smart man. He figures out the Oracle is a program and comes to a startling conclusion—both for him and for the audience. She might not be there to help him. In fact she might be BS’ing him at that very moment. But he still does what she tells him—to go see the Merovingian-- because, basically, he doesn’t have any better ideas.
Neo then encounters Smith again. Here we get a very interesting speech about purpose. Without purpose, what do we have left? This question isn’t answered, perhaps because the answer is too bleak even for a film as subversive as Matrix: Reloaded. Or perhaps it’s implied that once one accepts there is no inherent purpose in life they are free to choose whatever purpose they desire. There are many implications from that which I won’t go into here. What it boils down to in this scene is that no one knows what to do. Smith is no longer an Agent, has no purpose but doesn’t want to be deleted. Neo doesn’t know why he has God-like powers in the Matrix. We have these two entities staring at each other and neither has a true goal in mind. So they fight. This is a human response. In religion there is a right and wrong, a path. There is no path here. Smith has nothing left, he decides to try and take Neo’s free will, his perceived purpose, by turning him into a Smith copy/slave. So he attacks him. So Neo fights back. But neither is really fighting for anything, at least nothing they understand.
The deconstruction of Neo’s “path” as well as the meta-destruction of a major film convention continues with the meeting with the Merovingian. Here the Merovingian gives it to Neo straight. Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus have no idea what the Hell they’re doing. The One’s “path” along with the film’s plot is being dictated to the three, but without them having any idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. All they’re doing is following directions. They haven’t made any true choice yet, in fact they haven’t even expressed free will in the Matrix. This is brilliant on two levels. On the first, meta-level, it’s brilliant because generally that’s how movies work—usually the plot advances by advancing the plot. Hero goes from Point A to Point B so he can get to Point C. But here the Merovingian does the impossible. He tells them to get a clue and refuses to allow the plot to go forward—refuses to let them continue to wander aimlessly from Point A to Point B.
This is resolved in one of the most wonderfully strange scenes in a mainstream movie: the Hero has to cheat on his beloved girlfriend with a beautiful woman for the common good. If this happened in a generic Lynch movie it would be hailed as brilliant. Here it’s mostly overlooked. It shouldn’t be. It shows they’re still just following directions. They’re still obeying and obeying blindly at that. It boils down to “Do what I say and you may continue.” Neo doesn’t cleverly trick Persephone somehow to get out of the kiss, Trinity doesn’t beat it out of her, and Morpheus doesn’t break out the Keymaker with guns blazing. Instead Neo says, “… Alright.” And after an awkward first attempt gives it his all. Sure, it’s only a kiss, but what’s profoundly important is that the kiss is there.
This is not the way one builds a messiah. Not that Neo kissing Persephone makes him incapable of being a saviour, but as a scene in a film—and such a deliberate scene-- it’s just not a logical step to building a messianic figure. Yet paradoxically it shows Neo making a choice of sorts, and that choice is choosing his “obligation”, his “path”, over Trinity. Of course it’s “only a kiss” as Persephone purred. But as many “only” things, it’s the first compromise Neo has to make to his love for Trinity. Potentially it could lead to a slippery slope where the messianic role thrust upon him destroys his love with Trinity.
In one of the greatest ironic meta-moments in film, the reward for doing what one’s told to do to continue the “path”-- and the plot-- is the most elaborate, over-the-top car chase ever put on film. It’s unclear until the finale how much stock to put in the words of the Merovingian. Neo, led by Morpheus’ prophecy, continues down the “path of the One”.
He is on the messiah fast-track so to speak. The prophecy’s working are vague. A key is needed. A door needs to be unlocked. Only “The One” can do it. “The One” must return to “The Source”. Like most religious texts it doesn’t go much into specifics on the “how” and “why”, but—again like most religious texts—the ending, the reward, could not be clearer. Do what you’re supposed to and the war will be over; Heaven, so to speak. How does “The One” returning to “The Source” free billions of humans, destroy the Matrix, and defeat the Machines? If you asked Morpheus I’m sure he would say, “Have faith.” Sound familiar? Neo does what he’s told, follows the ancient prophecy and that brings him to the Architect.
Here two major things occur that destroys the notion that Neo is a Jesus-figure, a messiah, or any sort of religious or spiritual savior. The entirety of the Architect’s speech is to reduce Neo back to what he really is: just another guy. The fascinating aspect is how well it demolishes the concept of religion without most people catching on.
The first major revelation: the Prophecy is a hoax, another system of control, a way to authoritate over human beings. This is astounding and subversive. All of the quasi-religious imagery, the mixed and vaguely defined “path of the One”, the reverence of faith; it is all disassembled. None of it is true. If Neo IS a proxy for Jesus Christ, and faith in the prophecy CAN be considered faith in religion then Architect disassembles the concept of faith. The Architect is saying, “Religion was never meant to get you to Heaven. It was meant as a form of control to keep you in line.”
After that implication it’s tough to see the Matrix saga being viewed in any way advocating or promoting Christianity or any other religion. That is an atheist point of view. God doesn’t exist, you will not be saved, religion is the opiate for the masses. Every success was allowed, every decision guided by the system. No one is tending the light at the end of the tunnel. The Architect virtually admits to using most human’s need to have faith in something the exact same way that people in power all throughout history have used it: to get what they want, whether that thing is blowing yourself up as a suicide bomber or putting money in the collection plate or returning to the Source. Neo cannot be a spiritual or religious savior in the Matrix mythology because the entire concept was orchestrated as another system of control.
Yet as Neo so “adequately puts it” “the problem is choice”. He still has to make a choice. He cannot be a messiah in the true sense of the world. The best he can do is allow Zion to be destroyed then rebuild it so it can be destroyed in the future. That is the true path of the One. Not Heaven, not peace, only submission to the system. At this point Neo can still choose to resemble a messiah, even if it’s a failed one. All he has to do is finish the path put in front of him.
The choice could not be more clear: save every single person on the planet or let the entire species of humanity die and try to save his girlfriend. What an easy choice for a messiah. Neo doesn’t even have to get up on the cross for this one. All he has to do is let Trinity and Zion die, then “break out” 23 fresh Red Pills from the Matrix who know nothing about this reality, take them to a newly cleaned up Zion, be their defacto leader, and tell them that one day someone in the future will be born who will free everyone. Talk about a false prophet. But Neo isn’t the messiah. He’s not “The One” in any profound, spiritual sense. He is not a Saviour. He’s just a man. And that’s why, without a second thought, he walks out on all of humanity—the thousands in Zion, the billions in pods, and even the Machine civilization that will face a catastrophic system crash if he doesn’t return to the Source. He walks out on all of them for a single woman that he happens to love deeply.
At that point anyone who tries to hold onto a Neo is Jesus or any sort of messiah ideal is just deluding themselves. The film could not make it more clear. When Jesus Christ was told to sacrifice himself for the sins of all mankind, I don’t remember him saying, “Let ‘em die” and then taking off with Mary Magdalene. In retrospect of course the prophecy wasn’t true. That’s why it’s so vague, why it never had to make actual rational sense. The true answer isn’t “have faith”, it’s “this is clearly not true”. Another major piece of fallout from this is the total destruction of the character of Morpheus. It’s no coincidence that he’s a central character in the mythology up until the point that the prophecy turns out to be a hoax.
He’s a man who’s based his faith on a religion that has demonstrably been proven not to be true. We saw it in his eyes in the first film when he believes Neo has died. We see it in his eyes in the second film when it’s proven the prophecy was a hoax. What does the religious zealot have if his faith has been proven, without a shadow of a doubt, to be false. The answer is nothing, hence Morpheus’ role in the third film, a glorified co-pilot for the majority of his time on film. He literally has nothing else to do. No wonder the response to the films was so divided. Storytellers and especially filmmaker’s just don’t do things like that. As an example, imagine Frodo throwing the ring into Mt. Doom after his exhausting journey to Mordor, only to realize that’s actually what Sauron wanted all along and now Sauron has the ring back and is going to destroy all of middle-earth.
The majority of the third film deals mostly with two ideas: 1) There is no Us and Them, there is no “With us or against us.” There are good programs and bad programs, there are good people and bad people. 2) Life without the prophecy, without faith, dealing with reality, without the flight and fancies of the Matrix.
There’s no kung-fu and wire-fu in the Neo/Smith fight in the real world. It’s not graceful, it’s not orchestrated with techno pop. It’s a real fight. Two men clumsily hitting, getting bloody, choking each other, desperately grabbing any weapon for an upperhand. This is a secular fight. No grace, no meaning, only desperate, dirty fighting for surivival. The Matrix is virtually unseen for the entire third film. I’ll go further into why a bit later.
Right now we need to address the sacrifice Neo makes at the end of the third film. Again the religious people came out seeing what they wanted to see. Neo is Jesus, Neo sacrificed himself for all of humanity, a savior, a messiah. Lets look deeper into the exact choice Neo made and, more importantly, the circumstances surrounding that choice.
Remember, these films always want to expose the “Why”. Did Neo sacrifice himself to Smith as a Savior or as a man? Clearly he did it as the latter. Look what it took to make Neo decide to sacrifice himself: his adored lover is dead, he is blinded, he’s hundreds or thousands of miles away from any help, his ship is destroyed, all of his friends in Zion are either dying or about to, Smith has destroyed the Matrix and is about to kill everyone attached to it along with the machine civilization. That’s what it took for him to sacrifice his own life.
It doesn’t take a Holy messiah to make that call. Any person in that position would do the exact same thing. It wouldn’t even take much bravery. It could be argued that Neo and Smith played out a double suicide more than anything else. Remember Smith’s line after he’s absorbed Neo, in a voice so vulnerable it sounds like a scared child, “Is it over?” He never knew what he was fighting for or even if he had won or lost. All he knew was that he wanted out of the Matrix. Yet inhabiting a human’s body in the real world wasn’t his cup of tea either. So then what? Fight until you’ve destroyed everything or until everything destroys you.
Perhaps the Merovingian was right all along and there was no choice, only cause and effect. Not a single time in any of the three films, the 9 animated shorts, the Matrix Online or in any official Matrix canon does Neo say, “Yes, I’m the one. I will save you.”
In fact he spent three films saying exactly the opposite. Zion, the people who need to believe in something, and the movie-going public are the ones who thrust that upon him.
He died—perhaps committed suicide (what a fine line between martyrdom and suicide)—for reasons that are truly human. He had lost everything, felt he had no choice, and was tired. As he said so firmly to Smith before their final battle, “It ends tonight.”
Part II coming later...