Humanity, Virtual Reality, Philosophy and Kung Fu in The Matrix
Updated: Sep 24
At its core, the story of The Matrix is not exactly unique, especially among other Kung Fu movies. Our chosen protagonist, Neo, aka, The One, finds a path out of his mundane existence, leading him to the truth of his glorious destiny through dedication, force of will, “freeing” his mind, and the help of his master and trainer, Morpheus. What makes The Matrix exceptional is its ability to make us question our own reality, and our nature as people. Almost every problem and success our characters find in this movie is intertwined with their own human nature. Whenever I revisit this movie I feel more and more strongly that it’s an exploration, and in some respects, a celebration, of what defines us as a species. Experiencing it for the first time as a small child, came with some terror and violence I might not have been ready for, but it also came with the realization that the action-packed style of movies I obsessed over didn’t have to be devoid of morals, surreal imagery, or thought-provoking ideology. The Wachowski’s use of common and uncommon phobias, philosophy, and martial arts to show human limits and potential, coupled with an aesthetic reminiscent of Blade Runner and Grant Morrison’s, The Invisibles, bring together a new perspective on what “real” is and how a perfect virtual world might influence reality. This is their way of providing depth to the study of humanity that is the first chapter in this trilogy.
The story begins with a bit of a prologue: a short conversation over a tapped phone line introduces us to Trinity’s guarded and loyal nature versus Cypher’s jealousy, cynicism, and self-interest. Shady-looking government agents have tipped off the police as to the location of a known terrorist, and they are attempting to take her into custody. Here we get to see an example of the negative side of human behavior almost right away, when the Sergeant in charge tells Agent Smith cockily that his men are, “more than enough to handle one little girl.” This damning example of hubris foreshadows our own carelessness that put us into this very simulation. This certainly goes further than mere overconfidence after we’re shown what that “little girl” does to those men about 15 seconds later. This scene is personally memorable to me because it was my first exposure to a truly badass female character, especially in such a male dominated genre as “action movies.” I always respected Trinity so much; she never hesitated to do exactly what she needed to do to protect the family she was enlisted into. She’s particularly memorable to me because other than Neo’s initial surprise upon learning that the infamous hacker “Trinity” is a woman, her gender never comes into question as a measure of her competence. Especially not after the unholy ass kicking she swiftly levels upon the dunces coming to arrest her.
The phone booth escape route Trinity uses is symbolic to me. I find it so intriguing that they would use landlines as their access points for hijacking the Matrix program. Landlines were hardwired into city centers, (and likely the program itself) in this virtual world, but there are few behaviors that feel more human than communication through language: our ability to talk with one another - use of vocal sounds to transmit an idea or maybe the very essence of your being. Using phones as an exit becomes crucial to the main characters’ plan of attack and to the story as a whole. The fact that the escape from the Matrix is a uniquely human activity is certainly symbolic of the larger message. It suggests we must take advantage of our most primal tools, especially in the virtual world.
When intimidating Neo during their first interaction, Agent Smith could have done just about anything violent to extort his desired response. Instead, he chooses to take away Neo’s power of speech by melting the skin of his mouth together. Coupled with the literal “bugging” of his navel, this scene heavily foreshadows the current state of the real world. It reveals the depth of knowledge that machines have about our deepest fears and anxieties, as well as how they can be used to manipulate us. Our most primal nature will constantly work against us in this world and also the real world.
Once Trinity has debugged Neo, he finally gets his chance to meet Morpheus and (hopefully) understand what the Matrix really is. Their introduction provokes an uneasy feeling. As the audience following Neo, we’re just as much in the dark as he is, and we can tell by this point something is very wrong. Mirrors of the meeting room are reflected in Morpheus’ glasses, while lightning and thunder rage outside. Neo is given a choice: acquiescence or truth. This feels surreal and unnerving. In the interactions leading up to his awakening, we’re given two comparisons of Neo’s situation to other stories involving “dream worlds.” Morpheus imagines him, “feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole,” and Cypher tells Neo to “Buckle up, Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye.” At the end of both of these tales, the character in question wakes up back at home, safe and sound. Neo has only ever known Oz or Wonderland. When he wakes up, it will be to “the desert of the real.” This is what makes virtual reality so different in Neo’s case and in all of The Matrix. The simulation is so real, it binds itself to the true reality. The real world completely revolves around the false one.
Morpheus, when explaining the state of the world to Neo, claims that because of what has transpired between humans and machines throughout history, “fate is not without a sense of irony.” Yet his own chosen moniker contains a certain sense of irony in itself. Morpheus is the Ancient Greek god of dreams who would often commune with mortals in their sleep to bring them messages of the gods. Our Morpheus, communes with his fellow man within the dream world to awaken them and bring them the hard truths of reality. Some of these truths, and the harshness of the “real” world, can be too much for most, and therefore, they don’t free minds after they reach a certain age. You can easily imagine each of the freed crew members as a young hacker, questioning their world and digging deep to find answers. This precaution does not remain foolproof; however, the harshness of reality in this story can be too much for those long freed such as Cypher, yet eventually accepted by an older character who is more ready for the truth, such as Neo.
“How do you define real?” Morpheus asks Neo in a blank, white, endless space. If “real” is only trusted as far as what our five senses tell us, then what is real can be fabricated. However, the “realness” of the Matrix does exist. The human element in the simulation does create room for “real” interaction. “I have all these memories from my life,” Neo calmly exclaims, while riding to see the Oracle. “None of them happened. What does that mean?” Trinity quickly responds, “the Matrix cannot tell you who you are.” While she is right, Neo has also been shaped completely by this world. His very existence in the program as “The One” has been foretold. The memories that he has, while nonexistent in reality, still do affect him. There is also the reality of love, romantic or not. Though our main characters have been freed from the prison of this simulation, it can be just as true (or even more “perfect”) than our world in some ways. Cypher sadistically points out to Trinity after the ill-fated trip to the Oracle, “I think the Matrix can be more real than this world. All I do here is pull the plug here, but there you have to watch Apoc die.”
Upon watching the unbelievable training sequence between Morpheus and Neo, and how the new trainee, Neo, is easily able to best Morpheus after only a short period of understanding the Matrix, the audience is quickly convinced that he is indeed “The One” as he’s been told. It throws us for a loop however, when the Oracle tells him he’s not. “Sorry, kid. You got the gift… but it looks like you’re waiting for something.” She had said to him “Don’t worry about the vase,” but when he moves to check where it is, he immediately breaks it. “What’s really going to bake your noodle later on is… would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?” She tells him he’s not “The One” so that he will be. He doesn’t “believe in any of this ‘fate’ crap.” He likely wouldn’t have broken the vase had she not said anything, but she knew he was supposed to. He likely would not have been able to save Morpheus, had he gone into the rescue mission believing he was “the chosen one.” Fate is often discussed throughout the story. In the context of the tale, it comes across like a program for the human race. Without the coding of the Matrix and the paths its advent had set us on, it is possible that ideas of “prophecy” and “fate” wouldn’t be considered. The virtual world again affects the real one. The actions of humans, beget the actions of machines, beget the actions of humans. Within the simulation we all have routines and paths to follow, yet as Morpheus says, “there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Events that unfold within this construct can be predicted, but they can only be realized through confident execution, and in Neo’s case, the human element of logic and skepticism.
Cypher’s weakness and betrayal of the crew shows while human nature might be necessary for our characters’ success, it is also the biggest threat to it. Cypher destroys almost the entire crew and yet his nature saves Neo’s life and proves Neo is the one. “If Neo’s the one there’d have to be some kind of miracle to stop me.” But he doesn’t just end Neo there. He takes enjoyment in Trinity’s pain for a moment too long, questioning her about her feelings for both Morpheus and Neo. How disturbingly human of him to enjoy this moment. Tank provides the miracle for us and burns Cypher away on a bolt of lighting, sealing the truth of Neo’s identity.
Human nature is not only important to the fulfillment of Neo’s identity, Agent Smith finds it to be very important as well. He sees humans as vile and repulsive, right down to our existence within flesh. He will do anything to be rid of us.
“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment. You humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area… Human beings are a disease. A cancer of this planet.”
Growing up with a science and art teacher as parents, I find it hard to disagree with this view. We are mammals, but we are also incredibly dangerous and damaging to the Earth. One person might be intuitive, intelligent, resourceful and caring, while a large group of people are more likely to be ignorant, wasteful, selfish and destructive. “You are a plague and we are the cure.” In regards to this story, our violent, short-sighted and careless ways have led us to this point, but even in this dystopian future that we have created for ourselves, there is still time for us to change and to apply the other aspects of our complex nature that may yet save us.
Agent Smith’s admission becomes more personal than this though. In the equation of the Matrix, “The One” is not a variable. His existence within the code is foretold. The variable is Agent Smith. He takes out his earpiece and removes his dark glasses to look Morpheus in the eye and explain his true feelings, “I hate this place. This zoo, this prison, this reality… I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell… I can taste your stink and every time I do I fear that I have somehow been infected by it… I must get out of here. I must get free.” A sentient program supposedly dedicated to furthering the control of a hive mind AI, having its own personal hatred towards both humanity and the Matrix is wildly dangerous. Smith is the entity no one has planned for, and his explanation of burning hatred for everything that surrounds him is maybe my personal favorite moment in the story. He defies his programming, and his character defies the arc of Neo’s heroic journey.
As Neo becomes more intune with his “One-ness,” the story becomes a more typical Action/Kung-Fu film. Neo saves his master and defeats his nemesis, but not before being brought back from the brink of death by the power of unconditional love. At a quick glance, the story can seem typical in this way: a loner’s fantasy. You can watch it and imagine your mundane life where people have always told you that you aren’t special as being completely false. Maybe you ARE special and you’re NOT meant to be alone. Looking deeper, I find that I can be easily entertained by the primal and fantastic elements of this movie, but I’m more rewarded in thinking about what “real” is to me, and what my nature should be as a human being. There are warning signs all over this movie that the heads of our government and technology sector should be paying attention to. Plenty of signs for everyday nerds (such as myself) to take heed of as well. We should all appreciate our planet, try to find some level of realness that takes us away from the mundane, and be aware of how wasteful or docile day to day life can make us. I hope the next time you visit the reality of The Matrix that you take some of their philosophy and morals into consideration, before or after attempting all those Kung-Fu moves!
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Pierce Allen is a local musician and movie enthusiast living in Beacon, NY. His favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and vanilla mixed together.