The Matrix Anthology moves in three distinct phases as a series. The first movie has a much more gnostic bent, and while it’s true of elements of the series in total, the first movie adheres much more strictly. Next, the two central sequels incorporate a lot of Hinduism. The third weaves between those and is often neither of those.
One of the things you can put under the “learned facts” about me is my love of gnosticism. When my students would ask, “What religion are you?” I said, “Two thousand years ago: gnostic. Now? Who knows.”
In short, those that don’t know of gnosticism, it’s a branch of early Christianity (some argue a mystery cult predating Christianity, but I think that assertion is less verifiable) that believes that the God as portrayed in The Bible – Old Testament specifically – is actually just a god: one of many. This god they call the Demiurge, which means half-creator. They may also call him the Blind God. This god, though one of many, believes himself to be the sole god and creator. He structures a safe little dome universe around himself safe from the greater reality of the actual universe, and the actual unknowable creator. Here he makes his own rules, and he makes physical matter – an affront to the universe at large. This god proclaims himself a god of love, but it’s very conditional: it’s love given only at the cost of the obedience of rules either incomprehensible (i.e. the penalty of death before the reality of death as concept) or incompatible (do not murder or rape unless I tell you to).
For the Gnostics, if you fast forward some amount of time, you arrive at the personage of Jesus, a man who was inhabited with a renegade spirit known as the Kristos from the larger universe. This renegade spirit imbued him with special insights and gifts and his mission became to allow every human being the ability to connect to this same extra-universal source and see the Demiurge-who-cavorts-as-Yahweh as the fake he is as well as seeing this world as a mirage designed to keep us preoccupied and manageable. Salvation comes through special knowledge (gnosis being a Greek word for knowledge), and that knowledge comes from inside as opposed to external revelation. To that end, it’s possible, and argued, that according to Gnostics, any exceptionally visionary person is in contact with the Kristos including, possibly, people such as Siddartha, Muhammad, possibly Moses or Zoroaster.
One danger, of course, is just taking the people you like and saying, “Well, they’re in touch with the Kristos,” thus transforming what is most likely a matter of opinion into a matter of religious fact.
There are greater subtleties and complexities, and those might get expounded as I pontificate, but this is the broad stroke. And like any other religion, gnosticism has taken many forms and there are varieties and schisms as different as modern Christianity. What I have outlined here is, roughly, the approach I wish to take in thinking about The Matrix.
I hadn’t seen these movies in probably a decade. Since the release of the third one I would have to guess. I forgot how utterly cool every single second of the first one was. Somehow, it’s able to reach through the TV and make you salivate after the presentation of fashion, motion, attitude, and philosophy in every frame. And somehow the first one genuinely manages those things in nearly every scene.
Obviously, with Gnosticism as the outline, The Matrix is the quintessential fake reality. But it shows how impossible it is to actually tell reality from surreality, and how or why someone should or could even care. Our Kristos is Neo who, much like the probable physical Jesus (assuming he’s historical fact), is fairly unremarkable. He simply has the sneaking suspicion that something is slightly off with his reality. And he’s just anti-authority enough to see it through to the end. Even now, how much this movie hates “the man” moves me.
Neo moves through the film at the urging of Morpheus, the lord of dreams, who pushes him to the absolute limit of the dream so that he can’t help but fall out of it. In true Gnostic fashion, his transformation to messiah-hood depends entirely upon self-revelation. Unlike what has become mainstream Christianity, no one can give these revelations to him. Others can bring him to the brink of his limitations, but the ultimate burden of transcendence is his.
Typical to gnosticism are the Archons: these are semi-divine beings created by the Demiurge to oversee the enforcement of his will on the material plane. In The Matrix, these are obviously the agents, and their actions and movement call to mind images of demon possession. And this is where the 90’s message “don’t trust anybody” comes into play, a message that should still be as relevant as it ever was; a message that should be tattooed on all our knuckles: anyone at any moment can turn on you, can shift from civilian to world destroying Archon. Perhaps this is the metaphor of the Gnostics who feared systematic and repeated extermination at the hands of the loving god and his early Pauline Christians.
The movie ends with Neo finally getting to see the world for what it is, and on one level, it’s a shitty burnt out flying submarine hiding in the tunnel of a shitty burnt out world; on the other it’s incomprehensible scrolling text. FINALLY it’s at this point that Neo comes to the realization that violence can only serve a very limited function, and in order to undo the work of the Demiurge, he has to drastically change his tactics. He neutralizes (OR DOES HE!?) the existence of a single Archon by merging with him. We see this as him literally jumping into the body of Agent Smith.
Before I leave the first Matrix, I noticed all the old technology. Old technology, I would hypothesize, has started to carry a mythological existence for generations X, Y, and millennials. At least that’s my hypothesis. The world of The Matrix is rooted in green-on-black text whether it’s Neo’s own amateur hacking or Dozer monitoring his crew’s progress via monitors. Meanwhile, the world of the Nebuchadnezzar and the machine cities looks reasonably futuristic in that it exceeds what we’re capable of now, and while nothing is holographic or excessively futuristic, there are touch screens galore. In the world of The Matrix, cell phones seem rare, payphones are common, and DOS seems to be the dominant system. I think by the time this movie came out, it had been a full five years since I had to seriously wrestle with DOS, and my family had just upgraded to the incredible Windows 98 (and some of us currently writing prefer 98 to this Windows 8 garbage). Several horror movies (The Ring, VHS) center around obsolete technology, and now I have to keep my eyes open more carefully as I feel like I’ve seen other representations of outdated-technology-as-oracle.
Click page 2 below to read about the sequels.