Study Guide for The Matrix

1. Citation

From Clockworks 2: The Supplement to Richard D. Erlich et al., Clockworks: A Multimedia Bibliography (= List) of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF (Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1993):

Matrix, The. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, dir., script, exec. prod. USA: Village Roadshow Productions, Silver Pictures (prod.) / Warner (dist.), 1999. Mass.Illusions, LLC, SpFx. Yuen Wo Ping, fight dir. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Hugo Weaving, Marcus Chong, Belinda Mcclory [sic: on IMDb], featured players.

2. Brief Description

From Clockworks 2:

Cyberpunk film, described by one of the directors as an attempt at "an intellectual action movie," with much of the action of the Hong Kong Kung Fu variety, the tone noirish, and the imagery industrial (Persons 20 and passim). What appears to be an authoritarian America in 1999 is actually—though what is actual gets tricky in this world—a totally totalitarian VR world. We learn more or less reliably that the VR is the creation of the machines, who won a war against humans and preserve the remaining humans in womb-like vats (Fischer: "cocoon" [16]), where they are thoroughly interfaced with the machines and tapped for power—and fed a VR in which they are fairly happy (a eutopian VR was tried, but apparently humans don't like eutopia).

Matrix is a neatly-done compendium of SF motifs of interest, including: questions on what is real, as pursued in the work of P. K. Dick (see under Fiction) and such films as the Dick-derived Total Recall; imagery of containment and body-violation within high-tech computer-interface wombs (unknowingly) and voluntary submission to the superimposition of the electronic and cybernetic upon the human in computer-interface chairs (cf. and contrast the chairs in L. Mason's Arachne [under Fiction]; containment within a high-tech. vessel said to be a hover-craft but visually a submarine (cf. the tradition started by the Nautilus in J. Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea [cited under Fiction]); computer take-over and war against the machines (see, e.g., Terminator, this section); an enclosed, artificial world (see under Fiction R. A. Heinlein's "Universe"); people more or less inside computers (see under Fiction, J. T. Sladek's The Müller-Fokker Effect, S. Lem's "The Experiment" and "Seventh Sally," and C. M. Kornbluth and F. Pohl's Wolfbane; under Drama, see Thirteenth Floor and Tron); dreamers in a VR world (see VR in Keyword Index, and see esp. entries under Fiction for W. Gibson, W. Hjortsberg, and L. Manning and F. Pratt, and under A. C. Clarke, The Lion of Comarre; see under Drama, Nowhere Man, "Kill Switch" episode on The X-Files, Zardoz, and Dark City). For the imagery of going through a mirror-portal into a strange world, see Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventure in Wonderland (1865) and, more explicitly, Through the Looking-Glass (1871), both alluded to in the film. Note very well in this film what Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn have called "The Ovion/Cylon Alliance": i.e., threatening, insectoid machines, here cyberpunk centipedes.

The general release date for the film in the USA was during Passover and Holy Week: which was appropriate given the themes of (1) freeing humans, enslaved to the machines, and (2) Keanu Reeve's "Neo" character as the "One": a Messiah opposing the VR world and devilish machines, with the goal of returning humans to their flesh and the material world (opposing him somewhat to the more Platonic-puritanical visions of the Christ opposing the World and the Flesh, as well as the Devil).

Tech. matters covered in detail by Mitch Persons, Dennis Fischer, and Frederick C. Szebin, Cinefantastique 31.5 (May 1999): 16-27. For Matrix as "The End of Humanism" and a form of "techno-Brahmanism," and the Matrix as "cyber-Maya," see Stuart Klawan's rev. in The Nation 268.15 (26 April 1999): 34-35. (For maya and Brahman, see The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, part of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata but available separately.)

From Internet Movie Database:

Tagline: Believe the Unbelievable

Plot Outline: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against the controllers of it.

3. Major Cast

Thomas A. Anderson / Neo: Keanu Reeves Morpheus: Laurence Fishburne
Trinity: Carrie-Anne Moss Agent Smith: Hugo Weaving
The Oracle: Gloria Foster Cypher / Mr. Reagan: Joe Pantoliano
Tank: Marcus Chong Apoc: Julian Arahanga
Mouse: Matt Doran Switch: Belinda McClory
Dozer: Anthony Ray Parker Agent Brown: Paul Goddard
Agent Jones: Robert Taylor

4. "M.R.S." and The Matrix

(From an e-mail to ENG/FST 350 by Rich Erlich.)

We can slightly expand the mnemonic inferable from Vivian Sobchack's Screening Space discussion of the basics of SF film, to yield:

M: Magic (+ Mystery + Mysticism)
R: Religion
S: Science

Matrix is solidly cyberpunk, from taking "the Matrix" right out of William Gibson's Neuromancer to the mirrorshades, the cyberpunk "totem" according to Bruce Sterling, the editor of the Mirrorshades collection of cyberpunk stories.

Cyberpunk: cyber + punk, a 1980s term. A cyberpunk might be a "console cowboy," going through cyberspace trying to rob the straight by hacking into electronic accounts. Or a cyberpunk could be a "razor girl" street-samurai: a bodyguard/assassin, who body has been augmented for the job, started with retractable razor-talons/claws. Cyberpunks has been called "the apotheosis [glorification] of the postmodern."

It's interesting to compare and contrast the mystic leaps in Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Movement: Outward in Space Odyssey (until the Return to Earth), Inward and Outward in Matrix, but the real action is in cyberspace, not outer space: within, in the matrix (which also means "womb").

Mystic leap: Dave Bowman, with ET help, becomes a god. Anderson -- i.e., son of "Ander" = Man -- becomes Neo (= New [Adam = Man]), who is The Great Black-Clad Hope and who will become ... a savior? The original release was in April: on student said 1 April ("April Fool's Day"), and I'm sure it was during Passover and just before Easter. Anyway, for the original release the Moses/Jesus parallels were unmistakable: Neo will free the slaves and bring salvation.

Medieval Catholic "exegesis" stressed parallels between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures; the Children of Israel pass through the Red Sea from slavery in Egypt into freedom and toward happiness in the Promised Land--yea, even so, individual Christians pass through baptism from slavery unto Satan into freedom in Christ. Cypher wanting to return to the Matrix is like the (relatively few) Israelites who longed for Egypt, plus, of course, Judas I.

Science: Anthropology + Rocket Science (technology actually) in Space Odyssey; computer science (?) in Matrix.

Philosophy/Religion: F. Nietzsche is big in Space Odyssey; Matrix seems to stress Lord Krishna and Hindu/Buddhist idea of maya: the everyday world as illusion.

Note also the different philosophical questions raised. The universe is ultimately a mystery in Space odyssey, but it's bloody-well there. Matrix's dialog insists that the real world there is also there, and real-but the images are more ambiguous, I think. It's all made up of colored lights and sound ...

I'd be interested in your comments on MOD/POSTMOD in Matrix (and Gattaca and Space Odyssey). Offhand, I'd say the Matrix is modern, covering a very po-mo, wasteland reality. The machine-folk are thoroughly modern; the fully human are po-mo in their tastes.