When beginning to experience film philosophy as a serious form of artistic and academic discussion, there is arguably no film more important or influential as the Wachowski’s 1999 film, The Matrix. The Matrix is tightly packed with philosophical ideas, which, through theme and aesthetic, reference theorists such as Descartes, Baudrillard, and Marx, while simultaneously doing so within a mainstream and largely conventional action film style. In this essay, I will outline three central themes within The Matrix, offering suggestions as to how the film uses these themes in order to engage with profound philosophical and theological concepts. I will first deploy the ideas of Descartes in order to enter the film philosophically, going on to offer a modern/postmodern reading of the film, before ending by examining the film’s strong references to both Christianity and Buddhism. How is it that a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster can work so closely with theological and philosophical concepts that its content transforms past the point of sheer referencing, instead managing to affect its spectators on a personal level in shifting our perception, and questioning the way in which we experience and evaluate reality? Let us explore the rabbit hole that is, The Matrix.
As the very first frames of The Matrix play out, we slowly zoom into a stream of computer data; green numbers glide down the screen like a flowing waterfall as we approach ever closer. The number zero pauses before our eyes, which the camera soon enters, pulled into its darken space like a giant black hole. Here, the spectator is physically entering not only the film, but also the concept of the film; we enter The Matrix with our minds, leaving our bodies in the real world as spectators. It is this separation between body and mind that the film then goes on to not only describe, but also explore. The Matrix engages with the ideas of philosopher René Descartes and his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) centered on Cartesian Dualism and doubt. Descartes attempts to doubt the existence of all physical material in order to establish certain knowledge; knowledge that he could be absolutely sure is true. Descartes states, “I had (to) rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted … and to begin afresh from the foundations.” (Descartes, 2005, p.291) The Matrix also engages with these ideas, yet expands upon them one step further. The film first establishes a reality identical to the viewer’s; this reality takes place in 1999, holding the same visual and physical properties present in the world at the time. We meet Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer who goes by the online alias, Neo. The spectator adopts Neo’s perception of reality, one that is ultimately rooted within materialism and perceived rationality. Neo soon establishes contact with Morpheus, who reveals to Neo that what he thought was the real world is actually a simulated reality called the ‘Matrix’, which has been created by machines in order to enslave the human race. Descartes debates that “everything I have accepted up to now as being absolutely true and assured, I have learned from or through the senses” (Descartes, 2005, p.292). Later in the film, Morpheus challenges Neo by proclaiming, “What is real? Real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” With this, the film challenges human senses by liking them to that of a computer. If the brain interprets reality via electrical signals, then how is this different from how a computer interprets reality? The Matrix and Descartes would argue that the difference is the human mind, the fact that Neo knows he is thinking, whereas a computer would not; I think, therefore I am. Neo could accept his sense of vision as nothing more than potentially deceptive electrical signals, but to know that he is thinking proves his existence, even if this existence is taking place within a separate reality to the one of which he senses.
Neo is placed in the same position as Descartes; his mental perception of reality must be reset in order to establish absolute truth. However, the film also forces its audience into the mental state of Descartes as a thinking philosopher in taking what for him was essentially a thought experiment, and making it visually real, not in order to ‘doubt’ the existence of all physical material, but to allow its audience to explore a world that ‘proves’ it. We follow Neo through his journey of doubting the material world, adopting his mental perception, which in turn leads us to carry out the same mental investigation upon our own perception of reality. Thomas E. Wartenberg picks up on this point, stating, “as Neo begins to see irregularities in his experience, the filmmakers disrupt our experience (providing) us with an actual experience of the possibility that our experience is not an accurate guide to the nature of reality itself.” (Wartenberg, 2005, p.278) The film would not provide this ‘experience’ if the audience were to know of Neo’s deception beforehand, yet the way in which the Wachowski’s allow us to experience the events of the film as he does provides a powerful philosophical experience. The film provides this experience aesthetically by including many sequences of Morpheus communicating directly to the camera from Neo’s POV. For example, when Morpheus first introduces Neo to his crew aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, he looks towards the audience, placing the viewer within Neo’s viewpoint. This technique calls into question the film of The Matrix itself being a type of matrix; that is, a simulation in which a fictional world is created from a fictional viewpoint, which is them lived in vicariously via a subject, in this case, the film’s audience. Wartenberg concludes his point by suggesting, “The Matrix, because of its complex narrative structure, is a film that genuinely philosophizes … the film itself engenders skeptical doubts in its viewers.” (Wartenberg, 2005, p.281) This is true, but the film achieves this not only via narrative, but also via its consistent use of shifting point-of-view camera techniques in blending Neo’s perception of his reality with the audience’s perception of theirs.
The next scene in the film sees Neo unplug from the Matrix. This scene is significant for a number of philosophical reasons, but again, the ideas of Descartes are key to understanding the film’s context. Descartes proclaims, “I shall suppose that there is, not a true God, but some evil demon, who has used all his artifice to deceive me” (Descartes, 2005, p.294-295) In the case of The Matrix, this ‘evil demon’ are the machines that program the Matrix itself. As Neo awakens in the real world, he bursts from a womb type egg; he is naked, covered in a sticky red substance, and connected to the egg via wires stretching out from his body. This scene simulates birth, but is also a visual depiction of the body disconnecting from external deception in order to connect to the internal mind. During one scene later in the film, Neo and Morpheus walk along a busy street that is actually a simulated computer training program. Morpheus proclaims to Neo, “The Matrix is a system. That system is our enemy.” In this, the film makes reference to postmodernism, particularly regarding Jean Baudrillard. In his book, Simulacres et Simulation (1981), Baudrillard creates the term ‘hyperreal’ in suggesting that postmodern consumer culture has created a world in which products are made to look like they represent reality, thereby making them a simulation of the real. As Neo and Morpheus walk down the street, the so- called ‘woman in the red dress’ distracts Neo. This is a computer-generated woman designed within the simulation of the system; she has been designed to look beautiful, to seem eye-catching and enticing in her red dress. This woman is an example of the ‘hyperreal’, the product of a system that has been constructed and exaggerated to look and act like a real woman, yet one of which is nothing but a simulation, a tool by which to distract the subject of the computer system. Baudrillard refers to this effect as “the desert of the real”, a phrase that is used by Morpheus in the film while explaining the Matrix to Neo. (Baudrillard, 1994, p.1)
The scene of Neo unplugging from the Matrix is also key to understanding the influence of Marxist theory within the film. In an essay on Marxism and The Matrix, Martin A. Danahay and David Rieder explain that, “according to Marx, workers under capitalism do not recognize the relationship between their labour and the capital that they produce … they must accept the terms of their employment, which are dictated by the owners of capital.” (Danahay, Rieder, 2002, p.217) In the scene, Neo wakes to find a huge network of human bodies plugged into the Matrix. Morpheus later explains that the machines use the human bodies like batteries, harvesting their energy for power within human power plants. The Matrix uses this filmic analogy to reference Marxist ideas, applying it in order to critique the capitalist system. Even the way in which the human batteries are structured in the film exaggerates this, as Danahay and Rieder explain, “The power plant is reminiscent of a corporate building, all of its workers neatly stacked in cubicles, one floor on top of the next.” (Danahay, Rieder, 2002, p.219) Towards the start of the film, before Neo had unplugged from the Matrix, his work office block is styled in much the same way. Not only this, but Neo’s boss refers to him as ‘Mr Anderson’, one of only two characters in the film to refer to him in such a way; the other, of course, being Agent Smith. Neo is trapped within a capitalist system just as much as he is trapped within the computer system of the Matrix.
Developing in the background of these philosophical concepts in The Matrix is a strong theological influence, particularly regarding both Christianity and Buddhism. Neo reflects strong traits of a Christ figure throughout the film; his name itself is an anagram for the “One”. Towards the opening of the film, a friend of Neo proclaims him as “my savior” and “my own personal Jesus Christ”. Neo is a single human called to redeem humanity from its sins, ‘sins’ in this case referring to the rejection of God in worshiping technology and machines, something of which he himself is guilty. Interesting to note is the way in which Neo must be ‘born again’ within the scene that depicts his mind unplugging from the Matrix; this scene resembles a baptism, but is also a transformative moment for Neo’s mental and spiritual state. Working closely with Neo is both Morpheus and ‘Trinity’, who themselves create a symbolic reference to the Christian concept of the ‘Holy Trinity’. In this case, Morpheus is a stand-in for ‘The Father’; a holy figure who is referred to as being ‘like a father to us’ by characters throughout the film. Morpheus spends most of his life searching for Neo; or in this case, ‘The Son’, who, via Morpheus, will sacrifice himself in order to save humanity. Trinity, who acts as a messenger during the first half of the film, completes Neo and Morpheus by bringing them together, but is also the first character to transcend into the Matrix in order to communicate with Neo, thereby acting as the ‘Holy Spirit’ in transcending physical realms. Trinity also transcends physical realms towards the end of the film when she resurrects a sacrificed Neo by communicating with him outside the Matrix in order to affect his physical and mental state within the Matrix.
The Matrix also deals with strong references to Buddhism and other ancient elements of eastern culture, including many elaborate Kung Fu sequences, and an overarching message of mindfulness and self-enlightenment. Regarding The Matrix, Rachel Wagner and Frances Flannery-Dailey highlight, “ignorance enslaves us within an illusory material world (and) liberation comes through enlightenment with the aid of a teacher.” (Flannery-Dailey, Wagner, 2005, p.282) The Matrix sees Neo gain enlightenment once he escapes from the designed world of the Matrix, one created in order to satisfy the material needs of human beings. Towards the end of the film, Neo is able to manipulate the space around him by becoming spiritually connected to his mind, and less physically reliant on the material world. With this, Neo is able to separate the physical body with the spiritual mind, thus breaking free from the ‘ignorance’ of the material world perceived within Buddhism. The scenes that see Neo unplug from the Matrix are also significant in exploring the influence of Buddhism upon the film. After swallowing a red pill offered to him by Morpheus, Neo is taken to a separate room, sat down, and strapped into a machine via electrodes on his chest. Neo sees his own reflection in a broken mirror, yet the cracks of the mirror soon blend together, fixing to form one slate of glass. Neo reaches out towards the mirror, but upon touching it, his hand sticks to its surface. The mirror becomes distorted, an elastic material that soon starts to spread across Neo’s body. Michael Brannigan states, “the mirror is a common metaphor in Buddhist teachings … These teachings urge us to be like a mirror, to have a clear mind, a ‘mirror-mind’ … Just like the mirror, a mirror-mind simply reflects what comes before it. It does not discriminate. Nor does it cling to its images.” (Brannigan, 2002, p.102) Within this scene, the film is forming an inseparable bond between Neo and the mirror, visually representing his transformation towards the ‘mirror-mind’ state of Buddhist teachings. The mirror allows its user to reflect upon their place in the world, to visually depict how their actions affect the world around them. This is further visualized in the film by Neo’s reflection upon a bending spoon. As a young boy bends the spoon with his mind, he proclaims to Neo, “there is no spoon … it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. On this, Brannigan comments, “because there is no spoon, the mirror-reflection (of Neo) reminds us that we need to be careful … the world that is reflected in the mirror is simply an image, an illusion … the Buddha teaches us that the world as we know it is an illusion.” (Brannigan, 2002, p.103) Using mirrors and reflections, The Matrix connects the teachings of Buddhism to the ideas of Descartes. The ‘Matrix’ itself is simply a reflection of the world as it once stood. This reflection may contain all of the social and cultural signifiers of reality, but this in itself does not mean that the reflection is reliable. The spoon does not bend because there is no spoon, only the mind that perceives it; this, argues The Matrix, Descartes, and Buddhism, is the one thing of which we can be sure.
The Matrix works to affect its audience philosophically by blending the concepts highlighted in this essay all together at once; each working to further emphasize their own significance, yet working together to create new ways of thinking about philosophy. The Matrix is not just one philosophical idea screened, but is a mix of several, all working within and around each other to affect the viewer in profound ways. The film is as though several works of philosophy are being written and read at the same time in order to create a new sensual experience, one that is more powerful than any single thought experiment, one that places its viewer right at the center of what philosophy can achieve. The Matrix is more than a mere screening of philosophy, but is a direct experience of it, a thoughtful blend of rich philosophical ingredients; a philosophical trip down the rabbit hole of the human mind.
Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, in French as Simulacres et Simulation (1981), Michigan: Michigan University Press.
Brannigan, M, (2002) ‘There Is No Spoon: A Buddhist Mirror’, in The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, ed. William Irwin, Chicago: Open Court.
Danahay, M, Rieder, D. (2002) ‘The Matrix, Marx, and the Coppertop’s Life’, in The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, ed. William Irwin, Chicago: Open Court.
Descartes, R. (2005) Philosophy: Basic Readings, 2nd edition, ed. Nigel Warburton, from Discourse on the Method and Meditations (1968), New York: Routledge.
Flannery-Dailey, F, Wagner, R. (2005) ‘Wake Up! Worlds of Illusion in Gnosticism, Buddhism, and The Matrix Project’, in Philosophers Explore The Matrix, ed. Christopher Grau, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wartenberg, T. (2005) ‘Philosophy Screened: Experiencing The Matrix’, in The Philosophy of Film, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.