Matrix Revolutions Ably Concludes Trilogy
by Ari Armstrong, November 6, 2003
Note: This discussion of the latest Matrix film contains detailed evaluation of the story, including the ending. It is intended for those who have already seen the film. If you haven't seen the film, I recommend you view it; then come back here and see if you agree with my take on it.
I just opened an envelope I sealed on May 16. The paper inside contains my hand-written note:
My Prediction for the Matrix-Rev.
I was partly correct, though it didn't unfold quite as I'd envisioned it. The final film dropped discussion of humans as a power source, but I predicted the truce. Did I know I was right? No, but I believed I was. (Okay, okay...)
The speculation was whether the world of Zion was really just another part of the Matrix. After all, if Zion is the "really real" world, how can Neo stop the machines just with mental effort in the second film? However, my viewing of Animatrix convinced me the filmmakers were playing Zion straight (maintaining it as the "really real" world). The question remains, of course, how Neo is able to stop the machines. Unless I missed something, the final film doesn't adequately explain this. I suppose somehow part of Neo became part of the computer world -- but how would the two "parts" communicate? The best explanation is that the Wachowski brothers are okay with a little mysticism.
A lot of movie critics didn't much like Revolutions, which supports my belief that a lot of movie critics are idiots. The movie is by no means perfect, but it's very good. It compels the audience to think, even as it provides some of the best action sequences put on film.
Just on the level of an action movie, Revolutions works beautifully. The action is taut and the romantic relationships are compelling. I just don't get those who claim the romance between Neo and Trinity doesn't work; I thought it was written and performed quite well (though not as well as the one between Link and his mate). The final scene between Neo and Trinity is tender and poignant.
The "climax" fight wasn't as dramatic as it might have been. It was considerably less cool than the fight between Neo and Smith in the second film. The flesh-and-blood fight between Neo and the Smith-clone in the real world is much more interesting. And the concluding sunrise felt a little hokey. But the film works as a good yarn ably told. I mean, this trilogy will go down in history as more important than Star Wars, as some of the most influential movies of all time. Perhaps that's the reason many critics seem to be applying a different standard to it.
But things really get interesting with the movie's symbolism and philosophy. Now, there are two basic possibilities here. Either the entire web of symbolism was perfectly worked out by the brothers in advance, and all the bits work together to create a metaphorical tapestry, or the symbolism is merely a hodge podge of randomly selected references tossed into a cooking pot. I tend to think the truth is closer to the first possibility. Of course, even if the symbolism was thrown together to create a false sense of depth, that won't stop people from imposing their own order on it. But clearly there is at least some intended significance.
Neo, "The One," Mr. Anderson (son of man), really does turn out to be mankind's savior, cross-pose and all. He does it by defeating Smith, the virus whose purpose it is to destroy life by turning everything into a copy of himself, thereby negating free will. Neo becomes Smith, just as Jesus becomes sin, in order to destroy Smith's power.
I'm not entirely sure why Trinity is named that. According to Daniel N. Schowalter in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Jesus, God, and the Spirit are related to grace, love, and community, respectively. Perhaps Trinity is simply meant to be taken as the embodiment of love ("God is love") that unites Anderson with the community of Zion.
The Oracle leaves open the possibility of a subsequent film. "Perhaps" we'll see Neo again, and the peace he negotiated by destroying Smith will last "as long as it can." Is a second coming in order?
The trilogy shows distinct stages of development. At first, Neo is a nihilistic hacker in the computer world, unaware he's even in a computer world. Then, Neo discovers he is living in a world of illusions, and he is reborn in the real world. But in the first movie, he has an unquestioned faith in the Oracle. The second film shatters the Oracle's myths. There's no longer somebody in control of the outcome. The third film brings a transformation of Neo's understanding of the Oracle. He sees her as fallible, lacking in total foresight, but still good-hearted and trustworthy. The Oracle closes by admitting she wasn't able to predict the final outcome, yet she believed things would work out.
This progression may be generalized. First, a person realizes his or her world is inauthentic. This precipitates a (sometimes violent) reaction, a war against the world of illusion. Finally some sort of peace is established, in which one finds authenticity within (or at least alongside) the original "world." Or, put another way, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
It seems to me that ultimately the best way to understand the Matrix films is as meta-symbolism. That is, it comments upon the nature of myth and symbolism. Significantly, the Oracle is in the habit of telling people "what they need to know." Put another way, people's mythology fits the times. Sometimes people need to believe an omniscient entity can reveal their preordained destiny. (I don't believe that's the case, but it's a possibility.) The Matrix's recapitulation of the Christ myth is ultimately a statement about the importance and adaptability of myth itself.
(Perhaps we should see story problems, like Neo's magical control over machines, as "anomalies" within the "matrix" we plug into when viewing the film. Just as seeing the same cat twice signals a programming glitch, so plot problems point to a glitch in the writing. That clearly wasn't intended by the brothers, but it's amusingly self-referential.)
And the Matrix creates a myth for today's culture. Technology is important, but it can give rise to a war between technology and humanity. What we need are born-again hackers who are able to serve as go-betweens between the machine world and the human world. We need virus killers: repentant hackers who use their powers for good (both in technology and in culture). In times past, people thought evil spirits hid the real world from people by placing us in a "matrix" of illusions that we consider to be our world. People could escape this only by transcending into the spiritual world. Today, some people think crass materialism is a matrix smothering our spirituality and individuality. The world of matter, the world of machines, the world of machination is at war with the world of human values, the world of spirit, and the world of choice.
At one point my biggest fear with the trilogy is that it would devolve into epistemological skepticism: we can never trust our senses because we're always in some sort of "matrix." That's why I was happy to figure out Zion is the "really real" world. Thus, the films endorse perceptual realism (or relationalism) in which it's possible for people to comprehend the external world. It's no huge surprise, then, to find the brothers also endorse a sort of relationalism between people and technology (or choice and matter). Notably, we become clearly aware that programs can have feelings and make choices, too, and that such programs can choose to help people. The second film explicitly notes Zion's residents are dependent on machines, even as they get sweaty and dance.
What makes us human is that we're self-reflective. We're physical bodies that think and care. I'm not a metaphysical dualist, though I recognize a certain duality of experience: some things we experience as internal choices and desires, and some things we experience as the external world. It is this distinction that often gives rise to dramatic tension within the human psyche and within human civilizations. The story of Jesus, the story of John Galt, the story of Neo is the story of how people attempt to resolve that tension through creative synthesis of seemingly opposed forces.