The Passion of Neo
by Stephen Faller
The Passion of Neo #1
Here we go. What follows is the first of five articles around the theme “The Passion of Neo.” It’s a set of articles that focus on the end of Matrix: Revolutions. Over the next few days, expect a serious look at the theology and symbology behind Revolutions, and expect the full explanation you’ve been waiting for.
It’s not a hard argument to make that Revolutions was one of the most widely razzed, misunderstood, and criticized movies of 2003. Just a few months afterwards came Gibson’s controversial film The Passion of the Christ. And that thing is still breaking records. Now, admittedly, Gibson’s story is the myth-proper and the Wachowskis employed Christianity as metaphor, but I am one fan who found it strange that one would be so widely embraced, and the other so widely rejected.
Let me introduce myself and then we’ll get started. I think that’s fair to you as the reader. My name is Stephen Faller and also the author of Beyond the Matrix: Revolutions and Revelations. I even have a website at http://beyondthematrix.stephen-faller.com if you want to learn more about me or the book. In this space that I have been graciously afforded by “The Last Free City” [and MatrixFans] I want to talk about Revolutions specifically. There were many things that I didn’t want to explain in greater depth for a variety of reasons, but now the opportunity is here. And as Holy Week and Easter are fast approaching – along with the Revolutions DVD, I thought it was high time to set the record straight (fans will remember that the original Matrix came out Easter weekend in ’99).
One more disclosure about myself and then I’ll disappear and we can have an honest discussion. I’m a Christian and I have a couple of degrees in theology. But I don’t want to do here what has been done so poorly elsewhere; that is, appropriate the beautiful work of the Wachowskis as Christian propaganda. Let’s just agree that Revolutions uses a lot of Christian symbology and mythology, and to really get the most out of that it will help if any commentator, such as me, is versed in these things. But I hope the feeling is more Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth than some type of over-simplistic diatribe.
To be fair, some movie reviewers did their homework and uplifted themes of gnosticism and dualism and all of the philosophy from the trilogy. Most did not. Most people didn’t get it and then jumped on the doggie-pile the way we go after a celebrity or politician caught in a scandal. Life imitated Gibson’s art, and reading the reviews felt like watching hecklers at the Crucifixion. Review after review went like this: “I don’t know why I didn’t like it. It just wasn’t fun. It must have been overloaded on the effects.” My eyes popped out of my head every time. It’s their job to name that certain something which makes of breaks a film. But they didn’t even bother.
Let’s make some concessions. Revolutions isn’t as “super-perfect” as the Matrix was (although even the Matrix had gaps – remember how they never developed the cut scene around the Oracle’s cookies). Personally, I really thought the chemistry was off between Carrie-Anne and Keanu, and I think this damaged their scenes. Simply, they were more magnetic when they were trying to get together than when they were actually united.
For that matter, Gibson’s movie has some genuine points of criticism. He adds a lot of things to the story of which there is no account. And his desire to shock the viewer sometimes overpowers his desire to transmit the tradition. But let’s be honest. There is far more opposition to the film coming from outside the Christian community than from within. The Hollywood of today would never have made this movie or any movie like that. And there is a reason for that.
I’m not going to tell you that I think there is some anti-Christian conspiracy. That’s just silly.
Don’t forget that the Wachowskis worked very hard to create a myth that was as religiously deep as philosophical. I think this is where the problem came in. Hollywood is increasingly comfortable with movies about general spirituality. But spirituality is different from religion. Spirituality is sort of a general human impulse. Religion tends to be particular. Religion tends to be tied up in myth and meaning. Hollywood is comfortable creating a new kind of spirituality (half a dozen movies will say things like angels are aliens like a cult of baby-cloners) but religion is more personal. Religion tends to probe myth and ritual that are personally meaningful. Movie spirituality is addressed to the culture. Religion in movies is addressed to you. Maybe it’s how a religion has hurt people. Maybe it’s how it has helped them. But it’s personal and tends to rely on layers and layers of symbol and meaning.
The Wachowskis wove religion throughout the entire fabric of the trilogy. To me, it is most recognizable as Christian, but anyone can see the Taoism (the Path), Buddhism (spoon boy), and the Hinduism (reincarnation). But probably with a name like Wachowski, the guys were most familiar with Christianity – and we can see this in their decisions to put Bible verses on license plates and on the plaques of each hovercraft (most visible on the Neb, but you can see others on the official website).
Ultimately, Revolutions was too religious. Look at the crosses in the explosions. Look at Neo in the Christ-pose, and as any Italian pieta. Look at his sacrifice and Crucifixion. Listen to the words of the Deus Ex Machina, “It is done,” which ought to remind a lot of people of Jesus’ last words on the cross, “It is finished.”
I’ll close with one thought. Maybe the Matrix trilogy is a Christian parable. It’s not too hard to see Neo as the savior who has come to fill the prophecy. If so, I don’t think the Wachowskis told this parable to advance the cause of organized Christianity. These guys are way too anti-establishment for that. But I will suggest that they chose to tell a parable with the religious resonance of their own culture. Their parable is one that suggests new hope and possibility. It also suggests that religion and philosophy have something to give you, and that philosophy and religion want you to get it. And historically, this is a very dangerous message. As Gibson points out, this is a message that at worst can get you killed and at best, get you rejected.