After viewing The Matrix: Reloaded and Minority Report back-to-back—two science fiction films released within a year of one another, each focused ostensibly on the foibles of human perception—I have reached two conclusions. First, our present culture has apparently developed a healthy viewing appetite for slick boys in black who set out upon quests of self-discovery.
Maybe it started two decades ago when Luke finally ditched his beige wraparound (fine for shooting Tatooine womprats in one’s T-16 but totally unsuitable for facing down evil-but-impeccably-dressed fathers who wear breathing masks like Prada) in favor of a smart, sable outfit that more dramatically set off his green lightsaber. Whether they are destined to become Jedis or saviors of a human society enslaved by supercomputers or merely threatened by a flawed technology, men on the road to self-actualization have to look the part.
I wish my priest could do that.
The provocative black garment appointed to Neo, the protagonist of The Matrix Reloaded, suggestively fitted with Roman/Asian collar and full-length skirt, indicates that the part he plays in the film is that of a priest. Granted, most of the clerics encountered these days in one’s local parish or Buddhist temple neither fly like Superman nor fight like Bruce Lee, but we get the visual gist. Neo functions as some type of sacred intermediary for his people. His journey toward self-discovery, undertaken in a landscape painstakingly sculpted from religious derivatives, is spiritual. Besides, any guy who dates a woman named after the Triune God has pretty much given up on a strictly secular existence.
In contrast, John Anderton’s dark garb, which varies between a sleeveless black t-shirt (the better to show off Tom Cruise’s chiseled biceps) and scuffed leather jacket combo and a hooded jogging suit worn à la Unabomber, mark him as a disturbed fugitive.
Man in the hood.
He is always running in the film—literally, from the cops who want to “halo” him for a murder he has yet to commit, and figuratively from the lingering pain of his young son’s disappearance. He does not wear the priestly robes sported by Neo in the Matrix, but Anderton actually fulfills the role of sacred intermediary more convincingly than does his collared counterpart. The reason is that he wrestles profoundly with his own human limitations before achieving any good for himself and his fellow human beings, a point that brings me to my second conclusion: The true cinematic priest is known not by the clothing he wears but by the action he takes when he is stripped bare. I speak not of explicit nude scenes, but of explicit spiritual struggle, as we shall see.
When we first met Neo in The Matrix, he was rudely awakened to the fact that his entire life had been a computer-generated illusion, fabricated by sentient mechanized beings who manufacture human beings like batteries. Neo struggled to relinquish his ideas of truth, to let go his ways of knowing. He learned to defy gravity, bend time, instantly acquire abilities. He simply had to believe he could, that he was truly “the One.”
In the first sequel, Neo’s quest broadens. He must explore the scope of his powers within the Matrix and test them against new, stronger enemies. Agent Smith now operates as a renegade commando, able to single-handedly (no pun intended) create an army for himself. The evil establishment continues to pursue Neo with its sinister hive mind, co-opting ordinary citizens in Dali-esque fashion to become its eyes, ears, and fists. Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus also get to fight a collection of other offbeat baddies, hired thugs of another evil player they plunder to fulfill their new mission. Neo must penetrate to the heart of the Matrix, dismantle his opponent’s base of operations from within, and liberate humanity from their cybernetic slumber.
It all sounds simple enough, except that our hero is forewarned that his entry into the Matrix’s mainframe will prove exquisitely painful to him. And so the religious dilemma is posed: will the black-clad, messianic figure risk personal sacrifice to save others?
But Neo’s status as a savior is determined long before he is forced to answer. And while he may wear the robes of a sacred intermediary, Neo does not shoulder the particular burden of evil that the Matrix ultimately begs us to consider, which is this: People can choose to be deceived. They can throw the precious and painful gift of their humanity away in favor of the comfortable dream. This is the sumptuous apple that tempts the Adams and Eves of the future, to lay their free will upon the altar of technology and let the machines do the thinking—and the living—for them. The humans thriving in Zion must remain ever-vigilant that the technological advances they adopt to support their existence and fight their mechanized enemies don’t end up controlling them.
Neo certainly frets in the movie. He loses sleep over his foreknowledge of impending loss, trying to figure out how he can prevent the harm he sees replayed again and again in his visions. He also displays empathetic discomfort at the overwhelming needs laid at his doorstep in Zion, where the free petition him to watch over their loved ones, still trapped within the evil dream. And let’s face it, he fights like a digital demon, besting his opponents with such artistry and finesse that the Terminator looks by comparison like your grandmother’s hand-cranked eggbeater.
But for all his strength and compassion, we never see Neo struggle in the depths of his soul with the sin of self-deception. He is never tempted to give himself over to a “dark side.” The only evil Neo need resist resides “safely” outside of him, a moral geography that fosters plenty of fight scenes but little character development—let alone spiritual growth—in the protagonist.
With the exception of Cypher, a freed human who in the first movie betrays his friends in order to regain the delights of the Matrix, all human characters in the Matrix universe appear to be morally neutral. The only bad guys are computer programs or people taken over by them. As a result, people in Zion require but one kind of salvation from Neo, that of physical survival. In fact, he plainly states to an eager devotee that he can’t rouse anyone from their symbiosis with the Matrix—each individual must do that for him or herself. Neo’s job as sacred intermediary is simply to ensure that those who choose their humanity have the chance to experience it.
Not that this isn’t a high and noble calling. I relished watching Neo become increasingly adept at whupping compugoon butt. Had he been dressed in Skywalker homespun or even Buck Rogers spandex, I would have left the theater entirely satisfied. But those priestly robes—and that sacred title—left me wanting more of my cinematic savior. I wanted to see evidence of spiritual, as well as physical, exertion. I wanted to know that this “superman” could wrestle internal demons, face down a darker self, prevail over a personal hell. Without threat of moral deficit or danger, his assumption of new truths and powers seemed about as heroic as my hard drive assimilating additional files.
Granted, the budding Buddha shows oodles of courage. But he carries no past wounds or regrets to complicate his responses to the world. Nor does he explicitly agonize over any of his future actions. In fact, he is told several times in the film that the hard choices have already been made; he has only to discern the motivations behind them. Call me crazy, but this type of verbal casuistry sounds suspiciously like Higher Power code for “You’re actually too dumb to make big decisions, so let’s see that triple-kick thing again.”
Perhaps my Judeo-Christian roots are showing, but I think the most convincing saviors to emerge in epic stories are those who participate in the pain of the oppressed. Neo’s body does bleed in one of Reloaded’s many fight scenes, but real people also bleed from within, an essential human quality that Reeves’s character consistently fails to demonstrate. Twice Neo is prompted to divulge his fears and misgivings, as Trinity and an older priestly figure invite him to reveal his troubled mind. Twice he defers, choosing silence rather than risk a vital connection with others. While he may cut a fine figure in those black robes, Neo is more the lone warrior than relational priest.
The final scene, however, shows our champion completely “defrocked,” as he reaches a fresh and costly understanding of an intangible connection he shares with the forces of evil that are penetrating Zion’s defenses. Temporarily stripped of his sacred garb and super powers, Neo departs our view at a pivotal moment. Depending on how this “hands-on” fighter responds to an upcoming battle that will undoubtedly try his virgin spirit, Neo may prove himself a fine intermediary yet.
If forced to bet money on spiritual agility, I’d rather put cash on Cruise’s character, who spends the entire length of his film coping with some serious inner deficits. While he may prove the deft “Pre-Crime” agent by day, calmly sifting through torrents of violent images as though conducting a symphony, John Anderton spends his nights either replaying the same few scenes of his son and wife, or roaming the streets in search of illegal drugs. Unable either to get close to the woman he still loves or to put any distance between himself and his trauma, John knows well the tyrannical power of unappeased emotion. Like Neo, he cannot sleep, but it is not a future he fears—it is a past he cannot put to rest.
In the world he inhabits, populated by people who betray and brutalize each other (or intend to—it’s all the same in his mind, initially) or else snatch away innocent sons, John Anderton appears to have lost all hope of generating any more goodness in the world. He can stay the hand that threatens to murder. He can preserve life, but not add to it. Minority Report’s high priest comes before the audience in a raw and vulnerable state. He personally has witnessed the worst the world has to offer. His wound is incurable, for he wants a life he can’t have back, and hasn’t the eyes to perceive the possibility of peace or joy beyond his cruel experience.
Beneath the sad irony of a dope-addicted cop lies the even more poignant irony of John Anderton’s vocation: a man paralyzed in the past prosecutes people for future crimes. Thankfully, this film noir contains a few fight scenes of its own to break up the narrative intensity. At one point, Anderton brawls with his arch-nemesis in an operational auto factory, gets built into a car, pops up like a whack-a-mole from beneath the chassis and drives the assembled coupe away. Apparently a very elastic body houses our champion’s brittle soul. That, or future cars are made of shiny feathers.
Entrenched as he is in human evil and his own broken responses to personal tragedy, John Anderton only begins his spiritual quest when he slips even further into darkness. His last bastion of belief, the supposedly infallible Pre-Crime program that supplies his shaky existence with both structure and meaning, soon exhibits a sinister chink. The lithe man in black suddenly, inexplicably, appears before his own eyes on the panoramic screen hooked up to the precognitives—as a perpetrator. Hunter becomes hunted as John races against time to decipher and dismantle a future visually assigned to him by a system he has hitherto supported.
The public disclosure of his “precrime” strips him of his attachments to the world, forcing him to relinquish his remaining shreds of identity. John is no longer a husband, father, law officer, or even free citizen. Trapped between an irrecoverable past and a damning future, the shorn and tortured soul is left to recover the only self that remains to him. He must discover what it means to be human.
Like Neo, John also encounters an oracle who directs him on this journey. Dr. Iris Hineman, co-creator of the system that uploads the visual prophecies, apprises Anderton of the existence of “minority reports,” records of dissension between the precognitive trio. The three might see the same event, but interpret it differently, she explains. To unravel the mystery of his own future, he must tap the thoughts of the most gifted of the precogs, the perceptive Agatha.
To his credit, John immediately grasps the implications of fallibility in the system he has implicitly trusted. He shoulders the challenge of exposing its flaws, not only for his own sake, but for the sakes of the numerous individuals he may have wrongly imprisoned. Having scoured the dark underbelly of human existence, personally and professionally, John still holds justice very dear. It is his love of preserving what is good that transforms this furtive pilgrim into a true priest, a sacred intermediary who liberates others by entering into and overcoming the source of their oppression.
“Sometimes in order to see the light you have to risk the dark,” Dr. Hineman says to John, indicating the nature of his imminent ordeal. Like Neo, Anderton faces a physical threat (capture), but his primary battle occurs in the realm of perception. As he strains to learn who he truly is and what he will become, John must decide whether he will walk by faith or by sight. Will he act on unexpected information he cannot fully comprehend or stick to what he can see and know for himself?
Stripped to the bare bones of his humanity, John makes the leap of faith, a choice both wise and costly. The fugitive priest begins the painful process of exchanging the garments of his former identity for the sacred vestments of his new office, beginning with a fresh set of eyes. Risking the darkness with a supremely symbolic gesture, Anderton relinquishes his visual organs for replacements that will fool security scans. The gruesome surgery leaves him temporarily weak and blind, unable to avail himself of the provisions left for his recovery or to protect himself from intruders. Overcoming these setbacks, he manages to penetrate to the heart of his former workplace and gain access to Agatha. (I must admit, I was puzzled by the fact that Anderton’s eye, cleverly salvaged from surgery, could still work as a key to the inner sanctum. I thought, “Hey, you’d think that a scan of Pre-Crime’s Most Wanted might trip off some alarm.” But then I thought, “Hey, the guy’s holding his own freakin’ eyeball,” and decided to suspend some more belief.)
Holding on to faith.
Once the priestly champion enters the Temple, the chamber that houses the precognitives, he supplements his new eyes with the figure of faith herself, embodied in Agatha. Escaping through a birthlike canal (complete with amniotic fluid, a parallel of Neo’s flush from the Matrix into the sewers of reality), the unlikely duo make their escape. “Reborn” into the world, he drapes his fragile yet powerful charge upon his body, bearing her like a sacred garment. He carries her, but she directs him, fashioning an ingenious escape from everyday elements and actions: an umbrella, balloons, and precisely timed intervals of walking, giving, and waiting. It takes only moments for the viewer to grasp why this luminescent female is the key to the precognitive trio, why the prophetic machine will not run without her. She looks beneath the surface of things, glimpses the extraordinary in the ordinary, trembles with compassion for all those around her. As Anderton bears her inexorably toward his moment of truth, Agatha consistently reminds him of what makes him human. Faith never gives up believing that the man who holds her to himself will make the right choice.
Eventually, John does make the right choice, for himself and for those who might suffer under a system that does not recognize their most precious gift of free will. His role as sacred intermediary is confirmed in the final scene of the movie, which shows the three precognitives, happily ensconced in a liquid-free environment, reading books in a cozy cottage.
Faith, we understand, was never meant to be co-opted as an instrument of prediction, but cherished as a catalyst of human potential. When first liberated from her prison, Agatha confessed to John that she was “tired of the future.” Now she may live happily in the present (with a full head of hair).
For his part, Anderton’s initiation into the cinematic priesthood releases him from the past, and secures his experience of peace and joy in the present and future. Though his final scene teeters on the schmaltzy side, we last see our champion staring at the rain, hand perched lovingly on the stomach of his very pregnant wife. Anderton is not only stopping the bad guys, but apparently has been busy trying to stock the world with some good little guys too.
Maybe it was the sight of that singular bulbous belly, draped in a white shirt no less, that got me thinking, I sure hope they finally tossed that old eyeball—but the point is well taken. Sooner or later we have to outgrow our old perspectives and reach out, blindly, and perhaps painfully, toward an uncertain future. Minority Report provides a compelling figure of faith, born of tragic circumstances herself, who calls us to choose to become more than we presently are. Her initial question, “Do you see?” is finally answered in the affirmative by a sacred intermediary who not only perceives the dimensions of his own internal struggle, but discerns the dangers others are doomed to suffer if he does not act in faith.
In contrast, The Matrix Reloaded presents us with a champion who wears the black cloth of the priest, but does not suffer his inner agonies, nor risk his spiritual leap. In the spirit of Agatha’s persistent belief, however, we must afford Neo the chance to develop some cool religious moves in the next flick to match his formidable fighting skills. I don’t suppose there’s a mantric equivalent for, “Guns. Lots of guns,” is there?
Rebecca Rhee is an Asian American who spent her formative years in San Juan and absorbed way too much literature and sun at an early age. She has written for a trade publication in Detroit and obtained degrees in humanities and religion and literature at Yale. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Hebrew Bible at Boston University and resides in Connecticut with her husband. She speaks Spanish, chants Hebrew, and makes great soy-sauce chicken.