The Agents

::: a special four-part series

One of the perpetual pleasures of The Matrix lies in the fact that, unlike the majority of what Hollywood puts out, this film does not insult the viewer’s intelligence. Quite to the contrary, The Matrix has something to fill your cup whether your mental capacity is that of a thimble or a bucket. It is a pleasure that increases with time, because you see more and get more out of it with each viewing. Another recent film that rose to this level was The Game. In that film, the purpose of the Game was to discover the purpose of the Game. In The Matrix, the essential question remains even after the film is over: What is the Matrix? Executive producer Andrew Mason explains the intended audience effect best, perhaps, when he says that "The Matrix is really just a set of questions, a mechanism for prodding an ignorant or dulled mind into questioning as many things as possible."

To prod us into the questioning mode, the movie presents as the basis for its plot a world almost completely incomprehensible to our minds. It is a world in which all reality is nothing but some electrical signals sent to our brains. It is one thing to have your 9th grade English teacher ask you "If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?" It is something completely different to have to figure out that the Neo with the socket in the back of his head is the real Neo. We then make the journey with him to try and understand how to operate within a world that is purely in his mind. The beauty of the movie is that it takes us almost as long to figure this out as it takes Neo. If The Matrix has engaged our imagination, we spend over two hours with our minds wide open seeking answers to questions we might never have asked. Having survived the experience, we are now freed to question other parts of "reality" that always seemed beyond questioning.

Unlike any of the dozens of other films it pays homage to or appropriates through intertextual reference, The Matrix is doing something absolutely unique in the history of cinema. It is preaching a sermon to you from the only pulpit left. It is calling you to action, to change, to reform and modify your ways. Can a movie successfully do this? Or is a piece of cinematography, by the codes, conventions, and conditions of attendance that surround it, also and necessarily just another part of the Matrix? Jacques Ellul said that the purpose of one of his books (The Presence of the Kingdom) was to be "a call to the sleeper to awake." I don’t know the answer to the question, and it probably ultimately hinges on the individual viewer’s pre-existing awareness, but if a film can wake us up, then this is it.

In The Matrix, technological progress is portrayed in its extremes. Some of the questions this should inspire us to ask are:

Do we have technology or does it have us? The answer, which is neither absolute nor binding, is in the hands of the audience.

What if we made computers that were so good that they were smarter than we are? This question has been posed before, but never in such a unique way. Instead of being destroyed by computers, we become their puppy dogs.

What if reproductive technology were perfected to the point that sex and motherhood were no longer necessary? Even the "romance" in the movie is unerotic (Neo and Trinity are androgynous), as should be expected in a future where sex was unnecessary. What if people were bred simply for convenience (ours or the computer’s) in pods on farms?

What if we progressed so far technologically that it destroyed us, and all that remained of our technology were the sewer systems? Although nuclear weapons are never mentioned in the movie, the charred remains of earth above the ground are a clear allusion to nuclear winter. Zion is in the core of the earth "where it is still warm".

What if communications technology progressed so far that information was delivered directly to the brain, bypassing the senses? What if someone other than ourselves were in control of the information flow? How different is this from television today?

"What is the Matrix?" is a question that never stops being asked because it is as old as humanity itself. We have always used technology to improve our condition in life, yet in the embrace of each technology we find the classic Faustian bargain, a gaining of one thing at the expense of another, often unseen thing. And it is the unseen thing that then comes to dominate our lives, enmeshing us in a network of technological solutions to technologically-induced problems, forbidding us to question the technology itself.

What is the Matrix? If you’ve read this far, you deserve an answer.

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