“The Matrix” (1999), part one, is, and will always be, a masterpiece. It’s like a moving Rorschach picture, and a very stirring and powerful call for change. Usually, though, stylized action flicks such as “The Matrix” have a quicker expiration date. Even a classic like this one shows wears and tears, not only because of outdated digital effects, a primary cause, but also from endless reruns, copies, imitations, and some very funny parodies. Yet these tireless efforts to undermine its pretense and seriousness, have in fact tested its resilience and proven outstanding quality.
What follows are some enticing predictions I made back in 2003, when they had just released part two of this immensely popular trilogy: “The Matrix Reloaded”. By extrapolating from the implicit philosophical meanings and assumptions in the first two films, I had come up with three (in some ways slightly overlapping) alternative endings. Needless to say I got it all wrong. But looking back now it still makes for interesting reading, and it’s amusing to see how idealistic I used to be. Enjoy!
!!!MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT!!!
I believe that in the last instalment of the Matrix Trilogy, Neo will finally free humanity (duh), but in one of three ways: 1. The first, is the one the Wachowski brothers could use, but which I hope they won’t: Neo discovers he really has ‘superhuman’ powers in the real world because of some freak accident, or because he has learned to ‘free his mind’ in such an extreme fashion during his escapades in the Matrix, that he’s now able to break free of every real limitation, every physical restraint. This is the boring explanation which most people would perhaps like to see, but which breaks with the entire philosophy and message of the previous two parts. It’s what I’ll call the ‘easy way out’. They could make use of it because it’s ‘cool’, but they don’t have to, because it’s the last part and everybody will go see it anyway. Even if it sucks because it wasn’t as they had hoped or expected it to be. If the Wachowski brothers choose one of the other two options they’ll have a better chance to make cinematic ‘history’, and be respected by a more reflective audience.
2. The second possibility: The ‘real’ world isn’t the real world after all. This has been hinted at throughout the movies and fits perfectly with its philosophy and message. For example: Neo has ‘superhuman’ powers in the supposedly real world, this actually undermines the realness of this world, because Neo isn’t superhuman but a unique individual who can only change the arbitrary and artificial rules of a program called the Matrix, due to a certain mental capacity. There’s good reason why someone could do this in the Matrix, although it’s a controversial hypothesis: Most people would believe the one outside the program has more power over the one inside. But it’s absolutely ridiculous to believe Neo could change reality. No one in or outside of philosophy, believes you can do this. You can at most change your attitude towards reality, and ‘magically change’ it, by changing yourself and/or others around you (through ideology: Lacan’s mirror stage, Althusser’s interpellation).
Other clues towards this end, are in the conversation Neo has with the Architect, who says something along the following lines: Neo is a calculated/necessary glitch, or ‘risk’ built into the Matrix, and has been used by the machines to actually increase their control over the people inside the Matrix. The irony in a way is, that the One (binary code: Neo is an anagram) is really responsible for the unfortunate fate of humanity, by continually rebooting them back into the Matrix, creating an endless loop. He’s responsible, for he keeps making the same choice, and not the machines who actually leave room for a not to happy alternative: The supposedly destruction of the whole human race, or crash of the system, which Neo chooses at the end of part two. Other hints are the philosophies alluded to in the movie, for example the hollow book Neo keeps his dangerous hacking software in, Jean Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacra and Simulation’: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”, and Plato’s allegory of the cave, Descartes’ dualism etc…
Another rather obvious clue is the following fact that the Architect mentions: That Neo has been there a couple of times before, and that the machines had almost destroyed Zion several times. This means the machines have control in the real world. It also means that Neo actually helped ‘destroy’ Zion in the past through the choice the machines left him. It means Zion should have been nearly ‘excavated’ by now, which doesn’t seem to be the case though, because the machines actually have to dig a new hole again and again. Zion appears to be constantly ‘recreated’, and the twenty or so survivors (Neo’s Ark) that Neo may choose to survive the reboot and start all over again, indicate the other rebels somehow mysteriously disappearing (surrendering) from Zion. Although they certainly don’t want to be rebooted even if Neo were to ask them very nicely… This can only be accomplished by forcing them into the Matrix by machines inside Zion, or just by rebooting this ‘reality’.
Then there’s the name ‘Zion’ itself which is an idealization of the state of Israel, or the heavenly spectre of Jerusalem, the ‘City of God’, meaning that it’s not of this world. So maybe you could see this movie as a disclaimer of religion, ‘life after death’, or any other ‘denial’ of the world, and urges us instead to focus on a return to reality. It also fits with what agent Smith tells Neo in part one, about a first Matrix (this is in accordance with the Architect’s story) which was like paradise, but went completely wrong: Whole crops of humanity were lost. This indicates that the supposedly ‘real’ world is actually an ultimate safeguard or safety valve for the Matrix, and is actually part of the same program. While on a philosophical level it’s a warning against the naïveté of utopian visions.
Agent Smith tells Morpheus in their cosy private little chat, that humans define their existence through ‘fear and suffering’ (in line with Schopenhauer) and that their ‘primitive brains’ couldn’t accept the paradise program. Immanuel Kant would have said that we hadn’t done anything to deserve it, so we wouldn’t be able to ‘accept’ it even/especially if it were given to us freely: We need to change before we can accept change, otherwise we cannot recognize it (does not compute). That’s why the ‘real’ world seems so incredibly real to the rebels because it is in fact, what they expect it to be: Utterly crappy to live in and so it must be the real thing, vindicating their believes. Who would create a crappy program everyone would want to leave? Someone who would want to manipulate the actions of those living there without using force, because the machines know how these humans function and more importantly: What they want to believe.
The humans fighting for independence are in this sense those who won’t accept the Matrix programming and define themselves through struggle, fear and suffering. These rebels believe they’re right, and look down upon, and even kill those who ‘just live in the Matrix’ or are ‘part of the system’. Without realizing it they’re in a way an even worse kind of people! Blind egoists with supposedly good intentions and high ideals. It’s ultimately they, Morpheus and his merry band, who keep the Matrix in place and wash their hands in innocence. They can’t live without Neo and his prophecy, they can’t live without ‘evil’ machines to fight. It’s this need for the fighting of ‘evil’, ‘injustice’, or blaming others in general, which is the true foundation of the Matrix and one of the definitions of the One. This fits perfectly with the morality of the movie, because it is not just the lie of the computers, which isn’t in itself as bad as all that (if there weren’t evil machines), it’s better living there than in this so-called ‘reality’ of Morpheus. The real crime is the political and/or ontological freedom that is missing in the Matrix.
Humanity can’t make fundamental choices for itself, because real changes would disrupt the basic programming. It can’t in Heideggerian sense ‘disclose new worlds’. We’re trapped in supposedly the peak of our civilization at the end of the twenty-first century, endlessly repeating itself through the reboot by the One (das man: A slave of habit). The machines are keeping a close eye on us, and will only allow things that won’t interfere, or endanger their programming – they run society! This is in fact an interesting and very necessary point. It is a problem, like agent Smith said, with humanity itself, but it isn’t as he believed a ‘deterministic problem’ at least that’s what we’ll have to believe, otherwise any fighting would seem pointless. The ‘fear and suffering’ is something which in part comes about through the mentality of ‘modern man’ who sees himself as an individual, completely determined, and defined by the production of ‘absolute truth’ through our secular Cartesian sciences.
Modern man is defined as a ‘homo economicus’, an individual who’s terrified of death, and fixates on life to escape the thought of death. Life is defined by fear of death. We’re captured in our mortal bodies, destined to collide with each other’s wishes and actions for all eternity. This ‘modern man’ is estranged from himself, other human beings, and his work: He is completely cut off. He’s limitless, because his life isn’t anymore about ‘quality’, but ‘quantity’ (commodities, information, pleasure). In his limitlessness, ‘man’ loses his identity, sense of order, or self. The problem in a way is ‘excess’, a curious inherent human struggle between limitedness, through limitlessness (read: mindless consumerism), on the one hand, and limitlessness, through limitedness or self on the other. This is the theme Neo confronts throughout the movies, for example in the slogans of the Oracle (1) “nothing in excess”: “Just one cookie”, and (2) “know thyself”: Define and discover your limits, through your given capabilities and choices (order yourself by creating a ‘self’). It’s also a problem of freedom, choice, and responsibility.
When some characters such as Trinity are asked, or comment on why they must keep on fighting, it’s because humanity’s being deceived by the machines, or even worse: Just because their lives are in danger (Morpheus is the exception to this rule). The real deception, the real ‘dangerous’ Matrix is in their own heads, in the way that they think, in the way we all think, the words we use to describe ourselves and reality. They need a new ‘mentality’, to be truly free of control, they must see that they themselves are in control of their own lives and are responsible for the freedom and choices they (have to) make, and of those they don’t, or won’t: There’s no spoon. But there are always choices! They’re responsible for their own situation, that of others, and in some sense the state of the world.
This is pure Existentialism (similar to the American dream), but you also find it in Kant’s controversial moral philosophy, where he says that it is true that we’re in one sense completely defined and determined, but at the same time we cannot accept this in our thinking, or in our (moral) acting. We must presuppose, or believe we are completely free in our choices and actions. This ‘must be’ the case, because it can’t be any other way, it’s a necessary truth, even the act ‘not to act’ is a free choice for us. Denial would lead to depression, nihilism, or anarchy believing that we can’t control our own lives. It could also lead to doing nothing, but giving in to excessive, and thus destructive behaviour, trying to forget ourselves in oblivion and ‘interpassivity’. Further more everything we hold dear would become meaningless and arbitrary. But also because we are, or at least feel, like limitless beings in our unformed potential (our formal abyssal self). We can become anything we want by changing our attitudes, when we make the subjective choice to believe in something and act accordingly! And because we can change our attitudes, and beliefs, reality changes accordingly. This doesn’t mean we can achieve everything we want, but it does mean that some of the things do change by the way we interact with the world. And it’s our moral duty to always try, and change the coordinates of our symbolic order: To change the ‘matrix’ of possibilities.
Thus in the end the movie seems to be a mixture of elements of Kant’s moral philosophy and Existentialism (and lots of other stuff too, like: Christianity, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Empiricism, Rationalism, Idealism, Marxism etc). Existentialism makes us to believe that we’re part ‘facticity’ as a result of being ‘thrown into the world’: Born at a certain age and place, with certain physiological conditions, dispositions, a personal history, and living in a specific cultural, social, historical context. All of these ‘accidents’ are unchangeable from a metaphysical viewpoint, and must be accepted as given. At the same time we’re ‘transcendental’ creatures, because we also ‘live in the future’: We are ultimately free in our choices, beliefs, ideals, attitudes, and actions, we aren’t limited in any set way, not even emotionally (Existentialists believe emotions are in an important sense choices), except by disbelief, or ‘bad faith’.
‘Facticity’ and ‘Trancendentality’ are of course in constant conflict which each other, but we’re also in conflict amongst ourselves: People living for themselves, or more precise: fighting each other (“Hell is other people”, Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit”). We must therefore find the right balance between these conflicting forces, or we fall victim to various forms of ‘bad faith’, which lead to unacceptable excuses. By making a dire choice, like Neo, we become aware of the fact that we do (and always) have a choice, however absurd it may seem. This makes Neo aware of his true potential, his ‘transcendence’. It also makes him ‘anxious’ when he chooses the destruction of humanity for irrational love (which plays a central role in the movies: The purification and redemption of love, while at the same time being the defining distinction between man and machine). Because of this ‘anxiety’ which is the result of the confrontation of imminent annihilation by the machines (the messengers of death), he discovers his powers, his full potential (he has nothing more to lose). In this way he comes to understand, and see through the ultimate deception of the machines: The fakeness of ‘reality’. He now has complete ‘negative freedom’ (freedom from external restrictions: the Matrix), and ‘positive freedom’ (freedom from internal manipulation: So-called ‘reality’) and even ‘ontological freedom’ to radically change our way to perceive and engage the world. In other words he has discovered the way out, and is able to show the error in our misguided ways.
By placing reality beyond this fake ‘reality’, the yet un-shown reality may be truly beautiful, or normal, and be worth all the effort! Neo will know it really is reality in so far as this is possible or necessary, by losing his superhuman powers. Powers that only appeared superhuman because of the fake boundaries that were never truly tested and successfully resisted until Neo. Thus finding a place suitable for ‘true’ unrestricted human development. So even if this new reality proofs to be another ‘fake’, if it is changeable in a meaningful way and accommodates to the human condition, it will do. Furthermore this world-disclosing ‘act’ of Neo is in itself a romantic example of the necessity of the human condition to develop itself in its limitless potential, and perhaps at the same time help the program evolve with it, to adapt to it.
The important aspect of this ‘leading out’ (which has it’s etymological roots in the Greek word for education), is the process of the unification of humanity and the realization of their godlike potential/power as a whole, their ‘immortality’. They’ll learn to see that they don’t have to fight and limit each other, nor the machines, but only their own ignorance, limitations, and fears. It is like Aristotle said: “The roots of education are bitter, but its fruits are sweet.”. The test is to let go of their bitterness and resentment, and to accept the heavy burden of free choice, and responsibility as world-disclosers. In this sense Neo will perform Morpheus’ role of educating in part III, except from the inside-out, making it an even harder and a more subtle accomplishment.
3. Third alternative is an elaboration on alternative one, or two, and is in fact the merging, or the growing together of man and machine. For example by way of war, like in a Sartrean relationship. They’ll come to see each other through new and unclouded eyes, as worthwhile and respectable partners. This is hinted at in the Animatrix, see the brilliant ‘Matriculated‘, and in the fact that the so-called ‘evil’ programs and machines in the Matrix, become more and more neutral, differentiated and even good (the Oracle) as the story progresses. If the real world isn’t in fact real, this might also explain why the Oracle knows so much about things happening outside the Matrix, without the script falling into the trap of complete determinism or fatalism. Of course we should keep in mind that all the philosophy expounded here is in the end merely a pretext for the super-slick manga-styled ultra-violence, making the red pill taste more like a chocolate candybar. And a good reason for me I think to conclude with a world renowned scene that forever changed the face of cinematography: The Matrix Gun Ballet!