Philosophers Draw on the Film 'Matrix'

EDWARD ROTHSTEIN

NYTimes, May 24, 2003

Hundreds of millions of dollars ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a hacker named Neo reached into his bookcase and pulled out a leatherbound volume with the title "Simulacra and Simulation" a collection of essays by the French postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard. But when Neo opened it to the chapter "On Nihilism," it turned out to be just a simulacrum of a book, hollowed out to hold computer disks.

It resembled, then, the rest of the real world in the 1999 film "The Matrix" the first of a trilogy directed and written by Larry and Andy Wachowski. That world, with its office buildings and restaurants and teeming populace, was, like its book, a hollowed-out illusion, a virtual universe filled with computer code, a simulacrum of ordinary life, which Neo, a master hacker, is gradually taught to see for what it is: the Matrix.

Neo is inducted into the horrifying truth: that human beings are unknowingly being force-fed this virtual fantasy while their bodies are held captive in gelatinous pods by bug-eyed machines. And as Neo learns to perceive how hidden code shapes the apparently real world surrounding him, so too did fans begin to examine the coded allusions lying within the film itself. Mr. Baudrillard was only the beginning. When asked how many hidden messages there were in "The Matrix," the Wachowski Brothers once teased, "More than you'll ever know."

Now that its sequel, "Matrix Reloaded," is out, the interpretive industry is also gearing up. After the first film, Christian allegorists leaped at the bait the authors left: characters named Neo and Trinity, allusions to Jesus and resurrection, a city named Zion. The Buddhist character of Neo's "awakening" to reality's veil of illusion was discussed. And academic interest grew because the film self-consciously tapped current fascination with pop culture and critical theory. Recent anthologies have included " `The Matrix' and Philosophy," edited by William Irwin (Open Court), "Taking the Red Pill," edited by Glenn Yeffeth (Benbella Books), and "Exploring the Matrix," edited by Karen Haber (St. Martin's Press). Even the Warner Brothers "Matrix" Web site contains a growing collection of papers by academic philosophers: (whatisthematrix.warnerbros.com/rl_cmp/new_phil_main.html).

Descartes, of course, is a recurring presence in these anthologies, since, like Neo, he attempted to discover what man can be certain about, even if, as he put it, a "malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me." Plato is invoked as well, particularly his allegory of the cave, in which prisoners are convinced that shadows on the cave's walls are the sole reality until they are freed by philosophical inquiry and led upward into the sunlight.

The problem is that in the movie, the cave is the reality the rebels hide out from demonic machines in the sewers of this post-apocalyptic world while those who dwell in the illusions of the Matrix bask in sunlight. One character, Cypher, explicitly prefers the world of the programmed Matrix, with its sensual pleasures, compared with the reality of darkness, warfare and struggle. So some philosophical essays ask, is there a reason the choice of the real world is more ethical?

But there is another twist to the Wachowskis' fable. The Matrix is not arbitrary; it is the world of contemporary America. It is our world. And the rebels, in discovering its illusory quality, the film suggests, are discovering the truth about our world: that it deserves to be overturned. "The Matrix" is a political allegory.

This is why Mr. Baudrillard's book "Simulacra and Simulation" is so closely associated with the film (some cast members were asked to read the book, which Morpheus, the rebel leader, also quotes). In these essays, mostly written in the 1970's, Mr. Baudrillard suggests that because of technology and the rise of modern capitalism, everything has become a simulacrum; as in the Matrix, nothing real remains. Disneyland is one of his examples: an imaginary world that invokes something "real," though that "real" world is just as imaginary. In fact, Mr. Baudrillard argues, Los Angeles and California are as fantastical as Disneyland.

There is a distaste for contemporary American culture in many of Mr. Baudrillard's analyses, and a distaste too for American power and its images. This is also shared by the rebels of "The Matrix," who reflect a kind of hacker ideology, seeking to "free" information from its "system" of control, to overturn the Matrix and its tyranny of images.

But this has a disturbing side. In the essay "On Nihilism" Mr. Baudrillard announces that in the face of "hegemonic" power, there is but one response: terrorism. He writes, "I am a terrorist and nihilist in theory as others are with their weapons." Similarly, in "The Matrix," Morpheus tells Neo he must regard all inhabitants of that virtual world as enemies that may be killed; anyway, most people are "not ready" for the truth. Morpheus is even wanted by the Matrix's ruthless agents for "acts of terrorism." While we are meant to cheer him on, neither Mr. Baudrillard nor the Wachowskis nor the philosophical essayists explore the ethical limits of these all-too-familiar convictions.

Now, though, in "Matrix Reloaded," something else takes place. At the risk of spoiling some plot twists, it is worth pointing out that, despite the film's flaws and misjudgments, it seems intent on questioning many ideas from the first film.

Some things stay the same. Neo and the rebels must head off a full-scale attempt by the machines to destroy the underground city, Zion, so the basic revolutionary posture remains intact. In some ways the film becomes even more extreme in its objections to American life (at one point, as a character speaks of the "grotesqueries" of human nature, background images of Hitler and George W. Bush appear).

But other things change. What exactly is Neo supposed to do? In the first film Morpheus hailed Neo as the One, the Savior of the real world. This belief in the real may be one reason Mr. Baudrillard has never found identification with "The Matrix" congenial, suggesting it has "stemmed mostly from misunderstandings" of his own work. But in the sequel he seems a nearer presence. Boundaries and premises break down. Morpheus's prophetic claims begin to seem strident. Neo can't even trust what he is told by the Oracle, a woman who foresees the future but who may also be manipulating Neo with her prophecies.

In fact we eventually learn through cryptic pronouncements of the Architect of the Matrix its software writer, its God that Neo is actually living in the sixth version of the Matrix. In each, a savior figure has arisen. And in each earlier case, the savior has not been able to free humanity at all. Instead, the result has been a large-scale loss of life, until the Matrix begins again, with an apparent upgrade a new web of earthly illusions allowing no recollections of the disastrous past. By the end, Neo has reason to wonder whether any revolutions accomplish what they claim, whether he is free to make a choice at all and whether even the real world is what it seems.

So the third movie, scheduled for November release, faces its own choice. It could end up moving even closer to the nihilism of Mr. Baudrillard and its ultimately sordid message. But faced with what Mr. Baudrillard has called "the desert of the real," it could also find some other path, as yet undreamed of in its philosophy, that may bring hackers, humans and machines together.

Etching is Saenredam after Cornelis Corneilisz, The Cave of Plato, Engraving, 1604