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The Matrix (or Reality Bytes) (1999)

Directed by Larry & Andy Wachowski

With "The Matrix" poised to "Reload" all over us in a few hours, here's another contribution to the seemingly endless stream of articles about the meaning of "The Matrix." It's not just a techno, chop-socky flick with moments of metaphysical babble but it's also one of the best sci-fi/fantasy movies to come out in years, maybe the best since "Blade Runner." Like "Blade Runner," "The Matrix" has roots deep in history and philosophy, filtered through pop culture. This article is about connecting these themes from "The Matrix" with important pieces of science and philosophy, such as Plato's "Republic." Give it a chance. Plato was every bit as nuts as the Wachowski brothers. Plato's concepts about the natue of reality are bewildering and would be completely familiar territory to "The Matrix's" Morpheus (played by Larry Fishburne). The Wachowski brothers must have some awareness of ancient Greek culture because "The Matrix" is riddled with its references. For instance, in Greek mythology, Morpheus is the god of dreams. In "The Matrix", Morpheus wakes Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) from his computer induced slumber so that Neo can, in turn, wake all of humanity from its false reality. In Plato's "Republic," it is Socrates who is trying to "wake" all of humanity to the "real" world.

"The Matrix" effectively taps into the way constant change can make people feel disconnected from reality, to make you ask what is real. Change is so fast now that it's no longer what you know but how fast you can learn new technology and new ways of life, and forget about the old. Reality never seemed more transitory. Technology is a turbo-charged engine driving change in a constantly morphing present. Technology gives us wonderful gifts but it also gives us gridlock, global warming and The Bomb. There's anxiety lurking in the progress.

Over two-thousand years ago, Socrates and his disciple, Plato, lived in a world undergoing drastic change, and they didn't like it. They lived in the city-state of Athens, which was a superpower in steep decline. Plato expressed his anxieties by imagining a perfect, unchanging, metaphysical world in his series of writings now known as "The Republic." Especially interesting is a section known as the "The Cave." The protagonist of his writings was his old teacher, Socrates, who, as far as we know, never wrote down a word of his own philosophy. In Plato's writings, Socrates is the moral compass by which all others are measured. Both share a dislike of the ever changing, imperfect forms of the natural world and share a love of the static, eternal ideas of the metaphysical world.

Plato takes this idea to extremes with discussions about a perfect chair that exists in the metaphysical world and which we all compare when we encounter imperfect chairs in the natural world. Paradoxically, to Plato, the perfect chair in the metaphysical world is more real than the ones that exist in the imperfect, real world. In other words, chairs in the real world are just imperfect copies, mere shadows, of the perfect metaphysical chair that exists... somewhere else. The only reason I bring this up is that "The Matrix" also touches on this subject. When Morpheus shows a disbelieving Neo what the Matrix is, he points out that Neo's body is no longer the imperfect body that he now knows he possesses in the real world. When in the Matrix, Neo's body appears whole and unmodified for intergration with the machines. Morpheus calls it Neo's "mental projection of your digital self." This is an inversion of Plato's philosophy. Morpheus offers the imperfect nature of reality as proof of its realness, not the other way round. It's this idea that drives Cypher (played by Joe Pantoliano, aka "Joey Pants") to betrayal, telling Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), "I think that the Matrix can be more real than this world. All I do is pull a plug here, but there (in the Matrix)... you have to watch Apoc die."

In "The Cave," Plato pictures humanity as prisoners shackled and forced to face a wall in a cave. There is a walkway behind the prisoners with men carrying torches back and forth. The torches cast shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. To the prisoners, the shadows are the only reality they know. If one of the torch-bearers makes a sound, the prisoners imagine that the sound is coming from the shadows dancing on the wall before them. The prisoners talk to each other and name the images they see moving before them. As Socrates puts it, "Such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things (Socrates to Glaucon in Plato's "Republic" Book VII, 360 BCE)". Does this sound familiar? Did Larry and Andy Wachowski ever read Plato's "The Cave"? It doesn't matter, but they do share ideas about the nature of reality expressed in "The Cave." Even the quick sketch of the torch-bearers (prison guards "guarding all the doors and holding all the keys"?) have an ominous, inhuman, Agent Smith quality.

How do we define reality? It's kind of a crackpot question but one that probably occurs to most ordinary people at one time or another, especially during moments of crisis. On 9/11, did you question the reality of what you were seeing as the World Trade Towers crumbled? Take yourself back to the moment. I watched it from the rooftop of my apartment and it seemed pretty unreal. I know friends and family who had to visit ground zero to satisfy themselves that it really happened. It's seems to be a uniquely human reaction to the trauma of sudden, catastrophic change.

In Schrodinger's cat, we are presented with a situation of a cat being placed in a small box with a bit of decaying matter that has a 50/50 chance of killing the cat. Until the box is opened, the cat is neither alive nor dead, or is both alive and dead, if you want to look at it that way. Well, so says the quantum physicist Schrodinger. It's a way to come to grips with the concept of superposition of subatomic particles which is a description of the physical reality of this universe. In other words, a particle exists in all its possible positions until it collapses into a definable state at the exact moment of quantum measurement and that is all. We have no idea where the particle is the moment before or after this snapshot at the quantum level; it can be described as being in all its possible positions. The strangeness that defines the reality of quantum mechanics goes doubly for "The Matrix" and "The Cave" but they are all addressing the same thing, the limits of our senses to accurately describe reality. However, "The Matrix" and "The Cave" suggest that you still don't know the state of that damned cat even after the box has been ripped open.

In the Wachowski's "The Matrix," instead of a cave, we are asked to picture humanity as prisoners living within a computer generated reality known as the Matrix. What is the Matrix? "It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth; that you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind (Morpheus to Neo in Larry & Andy Wachowski's "The Matrix" 1999)."

A cave or a computer generated reality, both imply that reality is not that thing that we experience with our five senses, but resides somewhere else. It also supposes that reality is the property of an elite group of people who have special insight into humanity's predicament. However, these people are viewed with suspicion and hostility by the majority whose minds are still imprisoned by the false reality. In "The Matrix," Neo is "the one." In "The Republic," Socrates is "the one who knows." Why Neo is "the one" is not any clearer than what Socrates "knows." Actually, Socrates (hump that he was) claimed that all that he knew was that he knew nothing.

During his lifetime, the famously ugly Socrates was often the object of laughter and ridicule. In Athenian plays (the "Saturday Night Live" of their day), Socrates was satirized by actors who would float on wires while making pompous speeches from prop clouds in a place they mocked as "the thinkery." The Wachowski's have taken Keanu (I'm pretty sure that "Keanu" is Hawaiian for "Todd") Reeves' Neo and have floated him on wires for a very different effect. Neo is geek-cool personified. All the hackers in "The Matrix" are sheathed in high fashion black leather or latex. They seem most at home in slimy, dark, or subterranean places (like subways, the Hotel Chelsea or S&M clubs) and engaged in furious martial arts combat. It's a brainiacs wet dream, to be transformed from out-of-shape, virgin asthmatics wearing Radio Shack attire into supermodels battling their way down the catwalk. Neo might be the man Socrates would have liked to have been, or at least a better portrayal in front of his fellow Athenians.

Morpheus tells Neo, "The Matrix is a system, Neo, and that system is our enemy. But when you are inside and look around, what do you see, businessmen, lawyers, teachers, carpenters. The minds of the very people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of the system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it." What Morpheus is saying is a pretty good example of circular reasoning. We are trying to save these people by destroying the system that enslaves them. These people are fighting to protect the system that enslaves them. Because they are fighting to protect the system we are trying to destroy, they are our enemies, and it's okay to kill them. In a nutshell, Morpheus is saying we have to destroy the village in order to save it. Vietnam here we come!

Socrates goes on, explaining the plight of someone who has seen past the false reality and into the real world, "and if he once more had to compete with those perpetual prisoners in forming judgments about those shadows while his vision was still dim, before his eyes had recovered, and if the time needed for getting accustomed were not at all short, wouldn't he be the source of laughter, and wouldn't it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it's not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn't they kill him (Socrates to Glaucon in Plato's "Republic" Book VII, 360 BCE)?" The truth hurts, especially for those who dare to speak it. If you wander from the herd, you get eaten. It's nature's law.

Although Socrates didn't get much positive press during his lifetime, early Christians seized on him as a Christ-like pagan. His martyrdom and his apparent monotheism held tremendous appeal to them. Plato's writings go a long way to drawing a portrait of a heroic Socrates who is unafraid of death as he tries to wake the enslaved minds of his fellow Athenians. A similar messianic theme in "The Matrix" is barely disguised. A prophecy that "the one" will come and deliver humanity from the Matrix seems to be pointing directly to Neo, at least that is how Morpheus sees it. Neo is the new Moses or Christ who will lead the people out of enslavement. But first, just like one of the Greek heroes of old, Neo is taken to see The Oracle.

Heroic journies, especially tragic ones, are often imbued with a sense of destiny or fate. From the Oracle, Neo learns that, "In the one hand, you will have Morpheus's life. In the other hand, you will have your own. One of you is going to die. Which one, will be up to you." Like Socrates, Neo is cast in the role of martyr in the cause of universal freedom. On the subject of whether or not Neo is "the one," the Oracle is cagey. She never explictly tells Neo that he's not "the one," however, she informs him that, "You got the gift but looks like you're waiting for something... your next life, maybe." Like stories of Oracles and prophets from the classical era, what she says turns out to be true, but it is of little use to Neo in the way of avoiding his fate. He's looking for something explicit. Instead, she tells Neo "exactly what he needs to hear," not what he expects to hear, because there's a difference between "knowing the path and walking the path." It's maybe the best sequence of the movie, a perfect confluence of action, characters and message. The Oracle scene is then referenced at every important moment until the closing credits.

"The Matrix" is as subversive as Socrates was perceived to be in ancient Athens. In the infamous "lobby scene," Neo and Trinity gun down an army of police in a building in which Morpheus is being held prisoner. Neo has "guns, lots of guns" but his real weapon is his concept of reality. The people he's trying to save are fighting to protect the system that enslaves them. That makes them the enemy. Using this view of the reality, Neo guns down every last one of them without a moments hesitation or doubt. It's okay. After all, it's for their own good. This is the type of thinking that ignites wars and revolutions. This is the stuff of religions. "The Matrix" is cool as hell, but what sets it apart from a lot of movies is its message. Like "The Cave," it's both powerful and troubling. You couldn't ask more from an entertaining Hollywood summer flick.

Tom Graney -- copyright 2003 Hollywood Outsider

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