The Passion of Neo #3: Matrix Resolutions
by Stephen Faller
Hollywood has a particular formula for storytelling, and society is pretty well trained to receive its stories in that way. We don ’t have loose threads or unnecessary characters. If there’s a camera shot of a shoe throughout a movie, then we will expect to know what happens with the shoe as the movie ends. We like things to be all wrapped up. We like to leave the theater with a sense of having mastered and comprehended whatever we just saw. This is a fine way to make a blockbuster, but a terrible way to create a myth.
In a movie about Ragnarok, no one should stop and ask Thor how his hammer came to have special powers (Roland’s hovercraft, by the way, is named for Thor’s hammer and the battle at the dock just may be Ragnarok). The Wachowskis understand this and they were not afraid to leave loose threads. We don’t know exactly what the deal is with the Oracle and candy. We don’t know the backstory behind the Merovingian, or why he refers to Seraph as Judas. We don’t have all the answers, and this is why a lot of people left the theater feeling that things were unresolved.
But things can unanswered and still be principally resolved. In fact, when we try to search myth for objective answers, we destroy myth. This is the sad journey that human spirituality makes when it goes from a sense of epiphany to literalism. I believe that the Super Burly Brawl does resolve the story. And remarkably, it does so on a number of different levels at once, certainly religiously and philosophically. I believe that this scene holds the meaning of the entire trilogy. I believe that Revolutions offers the resolution that people were looking for — if they can give up control of the story and the need for easy answers. In this third section of “The Passion of Neo,” we will examine the resolution that Neo offers.
If we’re going to explore resolution, then we need to understand what it means for something to be resolved. Something is resolved when its tension is released. And as soon as we mention tension, the category of the Dialectic is introduced because tension is necessarily dialectical. The Dialectic is a key concept of Western Philosophy, and not surprisingly, it is manifested throughout the trilogy even though it is never named. If Part #2 of this series seemed more religious than philosophical, expect this installment to be more philosophical than religious.
Perhaps Socrates is the best place to turn for an introduction to the Dialectic (and fitting too, for the way that the first movie made such a large gesture to Plato’s story about Socrates called “The Allegory of the Cave”). The word “Dialectic” has pretty much disappeared from casual discourse, but this is what people are referring to when they mention the “socratic method.” Socrates never wrote essays. But he would engage people in dialogue. By pretending to be ignorant, he would take the opposite point of view and force the other person to explain themself. Socrates took one side (often veiled in ignorance) and the poor sucker would take the other. By the end of the dialogue, Socrates’ opponent was invariable forced to concede that the truth is somewhere in the middle. This is the essence of the Dialectic.
The Dialectic is foundational to Western Philosophy and science itself. It’s what we listen to every time we try to tune in to the truth. A little to the left. No. A little more. A little to the right. No — somewhere in the middle. We constantly pair opposites together until we find something that fits better.
It’s worth it to stop for a minute. It’s worth it to try to appreciate how much this approach completely saturates our ability to know anything. Logic itself exists on this marriage of opposites. The binary logic of computers exists only in 1’s and 0’s. On or off. Black or white. It’s incredible. It’s breathtaking.
But the Dialectic is not without its problems. It’s not an unqualified good, because many of the classical problems of philosophy also exist because of the Dialectic. Hegel popularized the notion of Thesis, Antithesis, New Idea. And from then on humanism became implausibly optimistic. We began to think that New Ideas just kept getting better and closer to the Absolute Truth. Nationalism and Marxism spawned forth. We should have known better. Zeno’s Paradox showed us that if you only go half the distance with every step, you’ll never get anywhere.
One of the biggest problems in philosophy is known as the mind/body problem — and this is core to Descartes and the central ideas of the Matrix. Exactly where is the mind? And how does my mind connect to the outside world? How do I know the outside world is real? Like all dualities, the mind/body problem exists because of the Dialectic.
It’s also worth noting that the Dialectic exists in religion. We are reminded of that every time we see the Oracle with her Yin/Yang earrings. The world exists in balance. And we find the Dialectic hard at work in the history of Western Religion. From the earliest Church Councils on forward, Christians have been trying to faithfully approximate their way to understanding the Gospel. We think this is faithful; that is heretical. And so on and so on. The Catholic Church became the dominant voice in the West, but then other voices emerged. Calvinists came along and said, “You guys are emphasizing choice too much, we are going to emphasize prophecy and destiny.” The Anglicans then came along and epitomized the Dialectic itself. They said, “We are going to be the middle way between the Catholics and Protestants.” Something in-between. Something that can’t be named. But it was named, and they called it the via media, or middle-way.
Of course, the Dialectic in religion is just as dangerous as it is in philosophy. People get caught up in notions of right and wrong and forget about God. They look at myth, maybe like the Garden of Eden and come away with strange ideas that men are good and women are bad.
Throughout the Matrix trilogy, the Dialectic itself is treated dialectically. That is to say, the idea of dialectical approximation is itself held in tension. On the one hand, we know things are not as they seem. We know that people and things are not who they appear to be. It is a complicated world and simplistic categories of black and white will not effectively describe the Matrix. But a world without absolutes is subject to the slippery slope of moral relativism.
On the other hand, everything begins with choice. We know that our choices do matter. Occasionally we go through watershed moments after which everything is changed. It is either the red pill, or the blue. No middle ground. Either/or. This should echo to some of Soren Kierkegaard who emphasized the importance of choice in his book Either/Or. (He is also the basis for the character Captain Soren.) And it won’t surprise anyone that he was opposed to Hegel and the idea that philosophy is almost automatically self-improving.
This brings us to the Resolution of Revolutions. Do you remember the beginning of Reloaded? Do you remember the “Final Flight of Osiris?” The machines were digging. By the end of Reloaded, there was only one of two possibilities. Either Neo and the Neb crew would find some way to destroy the machines from within (and this is what Morpheus believed), or the machines would destroy Zion (the eventuality Lock was preparing for). The Wachowskis defined their ultimate Dialectic precisely this way: It was Morpheus or Lock, hackers or machines. Everything was set in motion like the two tractor trailers in the head-on collision.
But what happened? Neo flew in and changed everything.
Through self-sacrifice Neo was able to offer a third way. Something in between. Something new. Neo is the prefix for new, no? He broke the Dialectic and the Wachowskis got to say something true about peace. Peace requires a middle-way to the dialectic of mutual annihilation. As long as two parties believe their survival depends on the destruction of the other, there can never be peace. The anomaly is fully expressed and the Dialectic is broken.
Let me underscore how this fits in with the Christian metaphor of “The Passion of Neo.” Human beings encounter the Dialectic because that is the nature of human limitation. We are male or female, alive or dead, and so on. By dying on the cross and then being resurrected, Jesus showed early Christians that there was a way beyond the Dialectic of sin and death. Beyond conquering mortality itself, Jesus also conquers the dialectical logic of a limited existence — Jesus shows that a life in God has no limits. Similarly, beyond fulfilling the prophecy of ending the war, Neo achieves his original purpose of showing us “a life without rules, boundaries, or control.” Or something like that.