Four years after its release, the world of The Matrix has been greatly elaborated by a pair of sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Given the intense philosophical and religious scrutiny to which the original film has been subjected, doubtless fans will be scrutinizing the new films to see what light they shed on the first film, and how they themselves should be viewed in light of the spiritual questions raised by the first film.
To me it makes sense to me to consider the first film sui generis, and then to add considerations from the second two films as a separate layer of consideration. The sequels, made back to back almost half a decade later, represent a single creative act reasonably separate and distinct from the first film, and probably reflect more how the Wachowskis, looking back at the completed first film, decided to extend and develop the story, than any grand united vision informing the creation of the first film.
Beyond that, the popularity of the first film took root at a point when it was a single film rather than a trilogy, and it remains to be seen whether the whole story as developed by the Wachowskis will capture popular imagination the way the first film alone did. (For separate consideration of the original Matrix film, see Part 1 of this essay.)
In a nutshell, my view of the original film is that it is essentially a sci‑fi action-adventure tale told in a mythic mode, not meaningfully gnostic, Christian, or anything else. The Matrix contains echoes or influences from biblical and pop-spirituality sources, but it references them in a post-modern narrative way, not a spiritually significant way.
With the advent of the sequels, the already-tenuous case for the gnostic and Christian interpretations of the Matrix trilogy collapses entirely. To be sure, the new films continue the East-West philosophical riffing; "karma" as well as "love" are among their buzzwords, and in Revolutions there’s something reminiscent of a redemptive crucifixion scene.
But the sense of deeper meaning is gone. It’s possible to debunk each of the theories separately — on the one hand, the charge of gnosticism seems not to fit the new films’ increasing focus on the "real" world rather than on the illusory Matrix world; on the other hand, further developments in Neo’s story-arc clearly diminish the Christological resonance of the film’s mythology.
However, the real reason the Matrix sequels effectively undercut the gnostic-or-Christian debate is that the completed Matrix story lacks something that, ironically, is common to both gnosticism and Christianity — namely, transcendence.
By transcendence I mean something having to do with ultimate reality or absolute truth above and beyond the finitude of the created order. In this sense, both gnosticism and Christianity might be described as "transcendent" worldviews, in that they both involve truth-claims about ultimate reality.
The original Matrix, as my friend and fellow Christian film writer Peter T. Chattaway recently pointed out on an online Christian film discussion board, included a hint of such transcendent reality interacting in human affairs. Fate, prophecy, chosenness, perhaps even miracles all had a place in the world of the first film — not merely the synthetic world of the Matrix, which would mean nothing, but the "real" world.
Specifically, the Oracle’s prophecies that the One would free the world from slavery to the machines, that Morpheus would find the One, and that Trinity would fall in love with the One — as well as the consequence that Neo could not die because Trinity loved him and so he had to be the One — all inexorably had real-world implications. Beyond that, love, freedom, and truth appeared bound up with these transcendent realities in a way that was at least humanistic, if not spiritual.
However, the sequels pull the rug out from under this perception with revelations about the Oracle and Neo’s chosenness that, while not making total sense, clearly undercut the first film’s hints of transcendence and higher truth or meaning. In these sequels, Neo may still have special gifts, gifts that inexplicably extend even into the real world, but there’s no sense of his being in any way destined or chosen to accomplish his mission. Without giving too much away, Neo’s messianic promise is ultimately undercut not only by his diminished abilities, but by what he is actually able to accomplish.
What’s more, in the end Neo no longer fights for truth, love, or freedom, but in the name of one final ideal: choice. In fact, truth and love and freedom are explicitly and contemptuously debunked as artificial constructs by Agent Smith, and neither Neo nor anyone else can gainsay him. Instead, the only rationale Neo can offer for battling Smith is that he chooses to do so.
If I had to give a name to this picture of finding purpose or direction not in objective values or higher reality but in individual autonomous choices, I would call it existentialism. The Matrix trilogy ends on an existential note, having given up on love (another scene suggests that love is no more than programming), freedom, and other basic human values, but leaving the door open for human beings to create values for themselves through their own choices, defying the indifferent universe that ultimately beats them down and destroys them, only to be itself destroyed.
Even so, this final existentialist note doesn’t remotely make the Matrix trilogy a cinematic cyberpunk Nausea, a postmodern action-adventure The Stranger. In a word, it’s not coherent enough. The trilogy is not a thought-out existentialist tract, but a philosophically allusive sci‑fi series that played with everything it could find and gradually discarded most of it, in the end winding up with little worth keeping.
The original Matrix thus remains the most worthwhile, for it represents a stage in the story’s development when anything was possible and everything was interesting. The sequels merely squander the first film’s potential and erode what made it an evocative, interesting film.
Note: For further discussion, see Part 1 of this essay.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.