Neo in The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix: Reloaded, Re-Decoded

Propaganda and the Freedom to Believe

Metaphilm’s theologian in virtual residence takes another crack at interpreting Reloaded. Can you free your mind if the Matrix is really your own desire for salvation?

Tommy Viola

“A fad or heresy is the exaltation of something which even if true, is secondary or temporary in its nature against those things which are essential and eternal, those things which always prove themselves true in the long run. In short, it is the setting up of the mood against the mind.” —G.K. Chesterton, William Blake, p. 168

As the May 15 release date for The Matrix Reloaded approached, the anticipatory buzz around the Metaphilm offices had reached a fever pitch—due not only to our enthusiasm about viewing the film, but also to the cumulative desire of every Metaphilm writer to be appointed the plum assignment of taking on Reloaded. Metaphilm’s essay on the first film rocketed its author to numerous speaking engagements and a book deal, and while most of us made the appearance of happiness over Mr. Schuchardt’s success, what we really wanted was our own turn at the plate.

So when the unknown and newly hired “Brothers” (they really are brothers, but I agree it’s a corny pseudonym that tries a leetle too hard to cash in on the Wachowski/Warner/Wannabe Brothers associations) were given the nod for the second film, it aroused more professional jealousy than Jayson Blair at the Times. But now that the response to their piece has been tepid at best and scathing at worst even the most vigorous detractors among us can’t help feeling a little sorry for these bros. They’ve been morosely silent at staff meetings, spend hours poring over the public responses to their essay—heck, they even refused to accompany most of us to a recent Metaphilm-expensed lunch at Nobu. It seems they’ve been misunderstood—or have they? I’m still not sure myself.

No piece, but a sword

For those of you who haven’t read their original piece on The Matrix Reloaded, now may be the time to do so. To sum up, the Brothers contend that the second film in the trilogy betrays the messianic promise of the first, subverting the theme of transcendence and freedom from “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” and replacing it with a worldview much more consistent with that of a cult—“another system of control,” as the Architect puts it.

What they mean here—and I hope I’m reading them right—is that not only is this switcheroo pulled within the plot of the film (Neo glumly telling Morpheus that he is not the One, Morpheus lamenting the end of his dream) but also inevitably in the eyes of we, the viewers. We find that by buying into the film we have entered not into a liberating kinship forged from Truth (“it will set you free” says Morpheus) and Love (as in the film-ending kisses of Trinity and Neo) but into yet another Matrix from which you can’t come out. We have joined a cult, as the Brothers so frankly put it. The only way out is resignation. Kansas does indeed go bye-bye, but we don’t arrive in Oz, we end up in Nebraska. The rabbit hole doesn’t go deep, it merely goes wide, and it leads only to a life with no purpose at all.

This view, according to the responses of several of you, the viewers at home, “is as bland and empty of content as they come,” “tenuously substantiated and misunderstood,” and was “written from the perspective of a jilted lover.” Dodge that.

I’m not here to defend the Brothers’ essay. In fact, I agree with some of the critiques that have been leveled. But as resident theologian here at Metaphilm (at least that’s what the sign on the door says), I’d like to step into the breach and address some of the issues that have been raised in hopes of continuing the conversation a bit. Maybe the essay falls short in execution (surely the sequel to a 25,000-word essay should be longer than a top-ten list?), but I’m not sure that it fails ultimately.

Many share the feeling that their analysis was a whiny gripe that Neo didn’t choose twelve disciples, ascend to Heaven, and send the Holy Spirit to his followers—“Neo is not Aslan. So what?” Good point. And since I’ve only read one of the Narnia books, I’m glad he’s not, since if he was I’d have no idea what was going on. So while I won’t address the Christian-ghetto cultural yearning that The Matrix series be a gospel tract disguised as a summer blockbuster, I do resonate with what much of what the Brothers say on a metaphysical level, regardless of where one stands on the religious spectrum. It may be that a promise was broken in Reloaded—not to Christians, but to the prisoners of the Matrix, wherever it exists.

Sticking it to the script

The Brothers talk a lot about the Matrix as a cult. Well, there is a right way and the wrong way to critique a cult. The right way critiques the cult based on its deviance from the established tenets of a historic creed. The wrong way simply attacks and critiques all cults and all historic creeds as equally pointless. Thus, without an awareness of the subtle but significant difference between a cult and a religion, the discussion itself can seem somewhat silly. It is like asking a vinegar salesman to taste your wine and then being surprised or disappointed in his inability to appreciate it. He has already soured on the idea of fermentation and sees no special value in something that has aged well.

Thus, to discuss The Matrix, or any film that employs a “messiah figure” as obvious and intentional as Neo, and to then express disappointment that the figure does not live up to the archetype, may seem like something of a rosy-eyed effort in the first place. Hence the grenades lobbed at the Brothers essay, many rightly aimed. For many people see only an archetype in the human and cosmic intersection where Christ actually stood, and nothing more can be added that will persuade them. And that’s fine, so far as it goes. And an essay that simply points out the deviance of Neo from the Christ-story is valuable only as far as it goes, which isn’t far if you’re not a Christian.

But there is something more here. Even if you dismiss Christ’s claims as patently absurd and/or unprovable (which they are), you still must contend with the reality that they are of great cultural and global significance in the world we live in, and that they are of the utmost personal significance—particularly so if you are in fact mistaken about the truth underlying their absurdity. The interpretation given by the Brothers’ essay goes deeper than to suggest that Neo is a false messiah and that he is in a cult, at least in my view. It suggests that by adopting the worldview of the film, we will unwittingly be entering another system of control disguised as liberty. It reads Reloaded as not only “critiquing . . . all salvation narratives” (upon which the first film built such an impressive edifice), but also as surreptitiously asserting its own salvation narrative—a narrative that is light-years away from the overt sales pitch.

Let’s go back to the Christians complaining that Neo or the Wachowskis are not staying with the Gospel of John script. The question is not whether Christ was who he claimed to be, it is to what extent the Wachowskis are aware of his claims and are using his archetype as a pattern on which to model their own hero while simultaneously and subtly subverting these claims by having their hero behave and act in ways antithetical to Christ’s conviction.

I’m not talking simply about Neo’s doubt or his shacking up with Trinity or any other “sin.” The antithetical element comes in the film’s measured yet vigorous sapping at the foundation of the messiah story (a story resident in scores of religions, mind you, not just Christianity). There is no spoon. There is no messiah. Except there is a messiah and you’re it, says the film. You and no other. Believing in any other is bondage—letting go of all of them is your only hope. And this is where the graduation of the Wachowskis from Landmark Education is perhaps—perhaps—of more significance than any other single fact about Reloaded.

Caveat observator

Many who have graduated from EST or the Forum or Landmark are in fact, completely normal, healthy, sane people. They are not psychotic, neurotic, or on the verge of breakdown, depression, or suicide. They claim, quite reasonably, that the Landmark experience is, like most things in life, an admixture of truth and error, and that any reasonably intelligent person can separate the male bovine byproduct from the truth and enjoy it for what it does have to offer, in all its limitations. These people are, more than anything, victims not of a cult but of a trend that happened to sweep their culture at a given point in time, from the sixties to the early nineties.

The problem—if in fact there is one—is twofold: the subtlety of the group, and the subtlety of error. Landmark is now much more serious, much more savvy, and much more subtle in their approach, recruitment, and retention of members. They are not, according to their own literature, a cult, a religious organization, or even a philosophy. They are simply a self-help group that employs a process for the maximizing of human potential. With widely applicable slogans like “the confidence to be your best in any situation” and “results that last a lifetime,” who wouldn’t want to join? Furthermore, and more germane to this article, what does it all have to do with the film?

A lie is never so harmful as when it is almost the truth. And this is why, when watching a film that first employs messianic imagery and motifs, and then proceeds to subtly invert or destroy them, you should be on high alert for a scam, even if the last time you were in a church was for your niece’s baptism. Being entertained by the scam suggests an ignorance of what’s going on; but indifference to the scam suggests something far worse: it reveals a lack of understanding of what is at stake.

Preliminarily what is at stake is the freedom to believe. For when the sacredness of a historic creed is trivialized through uses like this, the possibility and context for belief becomes all the more difficult. People increasingly become unable to stand publicly behind their private convictions for fear of being out of tune or touch with the culture in which they find themselves. This is not just about religion, either. “Historic creed” may point to any number of things. The issue at hand is the implicit declaration in Reloaded that the old ideas don’t work, and not only do they not work, they are irrelevant, for they propose that there is any such thing as an external source of deliverance. You need to be saved and you want to be saved and there is One out there who can save you, says the first film. Fat chance, says the second.

It’s a sad tale to tell, but it’s especially heinous when the tale is a pin lodged in a piece of steak and thrown to you, the eager dog (as in Dostoevsky and Vonnegut). You die a slow painful death, choking and bleeding on what you think is nourishing you. It is one of the primary stories in the history of propaganda, and in the evolution of mass media. Fifty years of hard-nosed Communist oppression couldn’t corrode folk cultures in Eastern Europe (picture a thick Russian accent shouting, “You do not need to be saved; you don’t want to be saved!”). Ten years of the West carpet-bombing the same region with slick, sexy capitalism has done the trick nicely (picture a voluptuous Kate Winslet cooing that Leonardo DiCaprio saved her “in every way a woman can be saved”). The story has been destroyed not by asserting that the story is untrue—it has been destroyed by twisting the story inside-out.

The olestra narrative

But that’s just for starters. There’s more. The nature and purpose of any good post-Christian cult, but especially the Scientology-EST-Landmark Forum type, is specifically to pull off that destructive kind of bait-and-switch that offers “salvation” of some kind, posturing as deliverance from above, when in fact the deliverance is that there is no deliverance.

The endless rabbit holes of the film turn out to merely be mole holes—tunneling just under the surface of the subconscious but ultimately arriving nowhere. You can see the movie as an endless chain of red herrings, an endless progression of “curtains opening, with a forever changing wizard behind every unveiling” (as Rylan so aptly puts it) only to ultimately reveal—surprise!—nothing, except perhaps another clue to follow. And this, ultimately (and speaking of scams), is why the marketing of Matrix-related paraphernalia has been so successful. The Wachowskis have convinced most consumers that in order to properly understand and interpret their story (to “get” it, in cult terminology), you first have to do the job of being a good consumer by buying everything that offers clues (but no answers) to the ultimate meaning—thus you must buy the video game to get the rest of the story, you must buy the soundtrack to unlock levels and meanings of the video game, you must listen to the lyrics to “get” insights into the film’s story, and you must buy the Animatrix series of nine shorts in order to get the back-stories and side-stories, in addition to which you must visit the official WB website in order to really be on top of it all. Many have done all of this, and more. And as Bono put it so nicely, they still haven’t found what they’re looking for. Because this consumerism is in fact just a distraction.

The Matrix films (thus far) execute the bait-and-switch with especially beautiful zeal. They strive to get you, the wannabe “believer” (you rooted for Mulder over Scully in every episode, didn’t you?) over your messiah complex by first offering the truth that there is an external, supernatural messiah who is real (the premise of every major monotheistic religion, mind you), then blowing your mind by informing you of the illusion that you are the only messiah available (you are God), and then (and only then) attempting to “wake” you to the illusion that nothing is real except your desire. You are thus a “machine” whose purpose is to execute your will, which, through escalating levels of commitment and manipulation, slowly and ultimately becomes not your will but the will of the cult.

Not only is the freedom to believe stripped away, the possibility of belief is reduced to one creed: Free your mind by realizing that your desire for salvation is the Matrix. This is simply fundamentalism by another name, which is what all relativism ultimately is. The message is that all salvation narratives are a hoax, except ours, which is the narrative that there is no such narrative.

Once again, this one is especially shrewd since it comes riding in with all the pomp and circumstance of all the messiahs you’ve ever heard of. From Odysseus to Jesus to Superman, the Matrix packs into Neo a smorgasbord of saviors to feed your metaphysical gluttony, but only in an effort to satisfy and then release you from your hunger. But guess what? You’ve been on this diet before. Tomorrow morning you’ll wake up and want to eat again. Welcome to the human condition. This is not salvation; nor is it a release from your desire for salvation.

The Brothers’ interpretation as posted may be, as one reader suggests, an “extreme reaction,” but I see something more than reaction. There are two doors through which we can go, metaphysically speaking, and the uneasiness that many of us, religious or not, felt as we left the theatre was that somehow Reloaded had switched the signs on us before we made our choice.

Yet again, there is always Revolutions, and a certain kind of inevitability. Even if the Wachowskis have attempted to create a perfect little heresy and want to follow through on the premise stated above (and it is simply a premise, my best guess at the moment), they may discover on its completion that they have merely succeeded in mimicking the salvation narratives they are so anxious to elude. Even heterodoxy wants orthodox resolution.

Tommy Viola is a musician and works from his home as a counselor and teacher. He plays guitar for Sufjan Stevens and Michigan Militia. He put off administrative work that is long overdue to write this essay. He should not have done that.
posted by editor ::: August 07, 2003 ::: philms ::: (27) Comments