Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaver) face off in an unreal world in The Matrix. The film raises a host of queries around the meaning of reality and our ability to influence events in our universe.
The film is more than two years old, but the question remains: What is The Matrix? A John Woo meets William Gibson, kung fu-fuelled bullet ballet with a hit of Alice in Wonderland trippiness and a driving techno-rock soundtrack? Or a thought-provoking allegory on the progressive awakening of the human consciousness and an exploration of the nature of our very existence rooted in the ideas of Plato in 300 BC?
The answer is both.
The hit film, which portrays a future when people unknowingly serve as batteries for machines while “living” in a comforting virtual world called the Matrix, is resonating with academics as much as it did with movie fans when it was released two years ago. It has become a topic of study at schools ranging from Harvard University to the New Acropolis International Cultural Association in Toronto.
While it may seem unusual to create discourse through something as shamelessly about style-over-substance as the Keanu Reeves cyberthriller, science fiction provides a good tool for teaching philosophy. According to James Pryor, a philosophy professor at Harvard University, the genre often deals more directly with larger life issues in a more salient manner than mainstream movies.
In Pryor’s class, for example, a discussion about what makes you the person you are might involve Star Trek’s transporter and whether or not people are “just a collection of molecules that can be broken down and reassembled or whether our identity, the essence of who we are, would be lost,” he says. His students may further examine the nature of identity by reading Spider-Man comics or watching the sci-fi film Blade Runner.
But The Matrix offers numerous philosophical jumping-off points “useful for illustrating and testing different theories,” says Pryor, who has incorporated the film into two of his courses, including an advanced theory of knowledge class.
One of the biggest and most obvious issues the film raises is “how you know whether the things you perceive are real or just an illusion,” he says.
It’s a recurring theme, he explains. In the pivotal blue pill/red pill scene, Neo, the hero played by Reeves, must decide whether or not to “see” the real world. His mentor, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), asks: “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”
Later he asks: “What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain …”
Those are the kinds of questions that have made philosophers’ heads spin for centuries.
“Given that Neo discovers he is living in a dream world within the construct of the Matrix, it can lead us to further question whether or not we are living in the real world or a dream world,” says Pryor. “And how does Neo know that his experiences of breaking out of the Matrix program were real? Maybe it was all part of the program too, and if we’re in an unreal world, how could we tell when we’ve escaped?”
If that’s not enough to bake your noodle, how about whether the computer-generated enemy agents in the film have genuine mental lives of their own? If they are just computer programs without self-consciousness, says Pryor, then why does one agent named Smith tell Morpheus he hates being in the the Matrix program among “all the smelly humans”?
“Do you think computer programs could really have enough of a mental life to hate things?” Pryor wonders. “Could they genuinely desire to be doing something other than the task assigned to them? How would we be able to know whether the programs have real mental lives?”
Pausing for a moment, Pryor’s musings chase the white rabbit from The Matrix into our world. “Do you think we have more free will than machines could ever have? Aren’t our choices and desires just as determined by the laws of nature as their choices are determined by their programming?”
In the end, Pryor says we’re left wondering, “What is it that gives you a mind? Could a computer have a mind?” If not, “What’s the difference between you and a computer?”
“It’s like Star Wars,” says Françoise Soria, director of the New Acropolis, explaining why The Matrix has become a regular lecture topic at the non-profit cultural centre that offers courses in philosophy and mythology. “It has timeless teachings in how The Matrix reflects and relates to the human experience that are [analogous to] the fundamentals of Hinduism, the teachings of Buddha. It’s a modern movie that reflects archetypal principles,” becoming a rabbit hole to exploring the human adventure.
Soria compares Neo’s plight in the film to the man chained in the cave in Plato’s Myth of the Cave. “The allegory of a man who tries to set himself free only to realize that life in the cave is a lie is much like The Matrix, about this progressive awakening of the consciousness” as Neo begins to realize the world in which he thought he was living isn’t real.
While the tagline used to promote the film — What is The Matrix? — is designed to pique the interest of moviegoers, it also speaks to our own search for identity and meaning, according to Soria.
“It’s a realization of our limitations, the feeling of being trapped, the feeling that something more exists in life, and like the movie in front of our eyes, in life we are more a spectator than an actor,” she says. “It’s about questioning the truth in that.”
There’s a very strong religious theme in the film. Neo is presented as a Christ figure. He is called The Chosen One, the saviour of Zion, the last city on Earth. He questions and doubts his purpose. He is betrayed by one of his own people, killed and resurrected.
And much like the question of whether Neo is going to heed his calling, Soria says the film is about each of us heeding our own calling. “It’s about whether or not I’m being completely true to myself, my dreams and aspirations,” she says.
“It’s the idea that something else exists and we have a choice of staying in our comfortable lives, not changing, or going further,” she says. “It’s the crossroads of life” — as shown when Neo meets Morpheus and is given a choice: The red pill or the blue? Fantasy or reality? Subsistence or existence?
“That’s a major moment in the movie,” says Soria. “Am I going further? Am I going to start walking toward authenticity, toward truth, which involves giving up a certain comfort, accepting that I’ll have to go through tests, to grow?”
Soria says when the choice is made, it becomes about preparing oneself for the journey ahead, represented on the screen by Neo’s martial-arts training, “which symbolizes the self-mastery that we have to attain to get rid of our fears, our doubts, [and] learning how to use the mind, how not to be tricked by the mind. As in the movie, it’s very well shown how the mind can be just a program that is actually mastering us.”
Finally, there’s the climactic showdown between Neo and the forces of the Matrix, “which represents the battle with our own shadows and our own dragons, to use a medieval image,” says Soria. “And so it’s the fight for what we believe in and again there is always this choice: Am I going to fight for these values I believe in or am I just going to submit to my fears?”
As Morpheus says, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
And as Keanu Reeves might say: “Woah …”
The New Acropolis is holding a lecture on the philosophy of The Matrix on Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at its offices at 20 Craighurst Ave., Toronto. Tickets are $12 for adults and $9 for seniors and students. For more information, call (416) 486-7198. [email protected]
And the following: Barrett Hooper, National Post
Jasin Boland, Village Roadshow