The Matrix Trilogy
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Blurred Line Between Humans and Machines
The films of the Matrix trilogy pit man against machine in a clearly drawn battle, but they also reveal that the humans are more machinelike than they think, and that the machines possess human qualities as well. The humans, for their part, are as relentlessly driven as machines. Morpheus’s faith in the Oracle’s prophecy, and in Neo, is unwavering and unquestioning, and his own followers follow him automatically. Trinity’s loyalty and attachment to Neo have machinelike constancy. Her actions suggest her love, but her love expresses itself not so much as passion or emotion than as ceaseless, frenzied activity. As Neo, Keanu Reeves exudes an almost robotic calm, and both he and Carrie-Anne Moss wear sleek, androgynous clothes. Their incredible fighting skills and superhuman strength seem to put them in the machine category, and their fluid movements are the result of programs that have been downloaded into them. The Agents, by contrast, are fluid, adaptive, and creative. They shift seamlessly throughout the programs and listen intently to human speech, responding accordingly and sensitively. When Agent Smith removes his glasses and orders the other Agents out of the room in a decidedly unmachinelike manner so he can confess something personal to Morpheus, he infuses his speech with human emotions such as disgust and horror. Indeed, Smith seems to become almost desperately human, and his endless replication of himself is decidedly egocentric.
With the line between man and machine blurred to the point almost of disappearing, the Matrix trilogy raises the complicated question of how interdependent man and machine actually are, or might be. One fear of artificial intelligence is that technology will entrap us in level upon level of dependence, and in the trilogy Neo discovers more and more about the thoroughness and subtlety of the Matrix. Technology threatens to become smarter than humans, but one larger point of the trilogy is that technology doesn’t have to be smarter than us to enslave us. As long as humans turn to technology to solve human problems, humans and technology are interdependent. In the trilogy, the machines are dependent on the humans for life, and they grow and harvest humans so they can continue to exist. Though the reverse doesn’t necessarily follow—humans don’t rely on the machines for their existence—the trilogy’s entire story hinges on the fact that at one point humans needed artificial intelligence for something, and so created A.I. to fulfill that need.
Fate vs. Free Will in the Matrix and the Real World
When Morpheus asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will. In the Matrix, fate rules—since the world is preconstructed and actions predetermined, all questions already have answers and any choice is simply the illusion of choice. In the real world, humans have the power to change their fate, take individual action, and make mistakes. Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will isn’t pretty. The real world is a mess, dangerous and destitute. Pleasure exists almost entirely in the world of the Matrix, where it’s actually only a computer construct. Cypher, who regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix, views any pleasure, even false pleasure, as better than no pleasure at all. Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, and the others in Zion, of course, value free will and reality no matter how unpleasant they may be. The Matrix trilogy suggests that everyone has the individual responsibility to make the choice between the real world and an artificial world.
Though Neo is the exemplar of free will, fate plays a large role in his adventure. Neo relies on the Oracle, and everything she says comes true in some way. If she can see around time and guide Neo to the right decision at each encounter, he doesn’t have to exhibit much, if any, free will. Morpheus tries to describe the Oracle as a “guide,” not someone who knows the future, and at the end of the trilogy she tells Seraph that she actually knew nothing, she only believed. Nonetheless, the Oracle is always right, raising doubts about how much free Neo actually has. In another way, as an integral part of the Matrix, the Oracle’s intelligence and composure lead her visitors to believe what she says, a trust that perhaps renders her prophecies self-fulfilling. In this sense, she shares the same final goals as Morpheus, Neo, and Trinity, and together they actively shape the future.
The Relationship Between Body, Brain, and Mind
The Matrix trilogy explores the interconnection between the body, the brain, and the mind, especially how that connection changes when the world turns out to be an illusion. Two different kinds of humans populate the world of the Matrix films: ordinary humans and those who, thanks to a port in their head, can be jacked into the Matrix. People in the Matrix can feel physical sensations, which are created by the mind, and the Matrix trilogy makes it clear that the body cannot live without the mind. If skills, such as fighting skills, are downloaded into the brain, and if the mind is free, a person can control his or her body as if he or she actually has had these skills all along. The trilogy suggests that humans need the body, brain, and mind working together simultaneously to stay awake in the world, which, in a way, is a declaration of the power of individuality and humanity. The existence or absence of all three elements separates Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity from not only the Agents but also the Architect, the Oracle, and all the other Matrix-bound entities.
Sexuality and Sensuality
In The Matrix, all references to sex occur only in the Matrix—that is, in the mind. Mouse, the young techno-whiz, creates a fantasy woman dressed in red as part of a simulation of the Matrix. The Matrix Reloaded shows an earthier version of sex in the real world, in the human city of Zion. Neo and Trinity, whose passion was previously much colder, make love under an arch, a traditional symbol of heavenly blessing. The film interrupts their lovemaking with scenes of the earthy, sensual Zionites celebrating their community to the beat of tribal drums. They’re loosely garbed in earth-toned clothing and are muscular, tattooed, and sweaty. The vast population jumps up and down, undulating in a sweep of ecstasy that seems to serve as a connection to the earth. Sex and sensuality are concrete in the real world, while in the Matrix, they are illusions like everything else.
The Matrix Revolutions portrays the Merovingian’s underground club, Hell, as an S&M paradise, full of latex, whips, chains, masks, and muscular bodies. The club suggests Dante’s circles of hell, in which sinners receive various tortures and punishments. Here, the Wachowskis present the idea that the simulation of punishment, the sensations of various materials, bindings, and masks, and the assumption of various roles of domination and submission can be a liberating and sensual experience. What the Christian Dante condemns as debauchery, the Merovingian presides over as an entertaining party.
Sunglasses, Eyes, and Mirrors
The renegades and the Agents always wear sunglasses in the Matrix. Sunglasses hide the eyes and reflect those who are being looked at. The removal of sunglasses signals that a character is gaining a new or different perspective, or that he or she is vulnerable or exposed in some way. When Neo removes his glasses to kiss Persephone in The Matrix Reloaded, he looks deeply into her eyes, indicating both the precariousness and gravity of the moment. When Morpheus offers Neo his crucial choice between the pills, the blue pill is reflected in one shade of his sunglasses, the red pill in the other, an overt reference to the two different ways of seeing that Neo must choose between. When Neo enters his new world, his sunglasses serve as protection for him, keeping him invulnerable to the dangers and surprises he encounters.
Mirrors reveal how we see the outside world, but also, crucially, how we see ourselves and our own world. When Neo takes the red pill, he enters the real world, and the mirror he touches infects him slowly with metallic goo, suggesting the fraying of all his illusions as he enters a new realm of perception. Other reflective materials are shattered throughout the trilogy. Skyscraper glass rains down, water rains from above and pools below, and anything transparent continually shifts forms and locations, transforming whatever it reflects.
The films in the Matrix trilogy frequently employ biblical references to augment character development and suggest a significance greater than the mere actions taking place. On the plaque of Morpheus’s Nebuchadnezzer, for example, as part of its identifying numbers, is the notation Mark III, No. 11 . In the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament, Mark describes large crowds who follow Jesus and are healed of their diseases. Chapter 3, verse 11 (King James Version) reads, “And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him and cried, saying, ‘Thou art the Son of God!’” In some ways, Morpheus parallels a Gospel writer delivering news of a savior. He is, after all, the first person to believe and declare that Neo is the One. When Neo disembarks at Zion for the first time in The Matrix Reloaded, afflicted crowds await him and treat him as a messiah, begging for his healing touch just as the crowds in Mark’s Gospel do. Though Neo isn’t necessarily a messiah, the biblical reference here suggests he embodies the qualities of one and presents a possible interpretation of his role.
Just before Agent Smith’s first appearance in The Matrix Reloaded, we see the license plate on the luxury car he drives: IS 5416. In the Old Testament, Chapter 54, Verse 16, of Isaiah, reads “Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire and that bringeth forth an instrument for this work; and I have created the waster, to destroy.” In this chapter, Isaiah refers to the Lord’s assurances that Zion, the promised land for the Israelites, will be victorious in future glory. He reminds his people that he created everything and goes on to reassure them that “no weapon forged against you will prevail.” Though we don’t necessarily need to recognize and understand the biblical reference in order to understand the Matrix trilogy, references like this one add a second layer of meaning to the films. They augment what we do know about the characters and add depth to the conflict, giving the films hidden meanings and reinforcing the idea that what we’re seeing isn’t all that’s there—more lurks beneath the surface, if we just know where to look, much as those who take the red pill discover an alternate universe just beyond what they know.
The meaning of the human city of Zion changes throughout the Matrix trilogy. In The Matrix, the city is discussed but not seen and works mostly as a metaphor for a promised land of sorts, and a goal that makes the fighting worthwhile. The Zion in the films recalls the biblical city of Zion. In the Old Testament, Zion is Jerusalem, the heavenly city God promised to the Israelites. The city sits on the top of a hill, commanding a distant view of the kingdom—both for meditative purposes and for safety. The people in Zion live in harmony and are unified in their faith. The word Zion suggests safety, since the city became a religious haven for the Israelites after years of wandering and enduring torture. In the Matrix trilogy, Zion is still a promised land as well as a safe haven, but the parallels end there. The Zion of the Matrix commands not a vast view of land, but is instead buried within the heart of the earth, and though it offers the illusion of safety, in The Matrix Revolutions the enemy infiltrates that safe haven and crashes violently through its borders.
The Zion in the Matrix trilogy contrasts with the illusory program of the Matrix. The Matrix represents a system of control that operates completely in the mind. As a complex, machine-driven program, it appropriates any personal, political, or ideological leanings and renders them wholly false. It allows illusions but no action. Zion, as a promised land, represents a real, tangible, human place fought for, worked for, and died for. Zion is a living sanctuary and a memorial to the efforts and faith of a chosen people. When Zion appears in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, its symbolic connotations intensify as its inhabitants fight for a true human community.
The Green Light of the Matrix
Everything in the Matrix is bathed in a green light, as if the camera were capped with a green-tinted lens. (The green in question is the color that characters on computer screens used to be before the advent of Windows and word-processing programs that used black-on-white color schemes to make the computer world look more like the “real” world of paper and ink.) This color suggests that, unlike in the real world, what we see in the Matrix is being shown, or filtered, through something else. When Neo finally develops the ability to see the Agents as code rather than as their fake human shapes, he sees them in the same menacing green color that saturates the rest of the Matrix. In all three of the movies, when something is evil, green light is involved—Club Hell, for example, is bathed in green light, and green flames surround Bane/Smith just before Neo kills him. We might expect, then, that Neo will see nothing but green when he approaches the supposedly evil Machine City. Instead, with his second sight, Neo sees golden spires of light reaching toward the sky—no hint of green. Whatever the machines are, they’re not only embodiments of evil indulgence and selfishness as are the Merovingian and Smith.
The Matrix trilogy itself is, of course, three films, and arrangements of threes and references to threes saturate the films. The number three has strong spiritual significance, which appears in the character of Trinity. The name Trinity suggests the holy trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which represents the divine nature of God. In the Matrix films, Morpheus, Neo, and Trinity form their own trinity, as do Agents Smith, Brown, and Jones. Three ships’ crews, another trinity, try to access the door of the Source: Soren’s, Niobe’s, and Morpheus’s. The reappearance of the number three perpetuates and emphasizes the idea of the trinity. The Matrix begins and ends in Room 303 at the Heart O’ the City Motel. Without the zero, the number becomes 33, which recalls the purported age of Christ at the time of his crucifixion and resurrection. Neo also has visions of three thick cables bound together in The Matrix Revolutions, and these power cables lead to his penetration of the heart of the city.
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