The politics of the Matrix franchise

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Matrix Revolutions
Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
With Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Keanu Reeves, Mary Alice and Laurence Fishburne
At major cinemas


In an epic blaze of hyper-marketing, the Matrix series has (apparently) run its course with the release of Matrix Revolutions. The final installment of the trilogy has been canned by critics and seems to have been deserted by many fans. That is a bit of a shame, because its message, while not terribly coherent, is not too bad.

It's true that the many of the enjoyable elements of the original — the stark film noir-type scenes, the Hong Kong-style martial arts action, the hip leather-and-shades look and the philosophical digressions — have become almost self-parody in Revolutions.

The Wachowski brothers, with only one feature film under their belts (the 1997 thriller Bound), released the startlingly original Matrix in 1999. It was the story of disgruntled computer programmer Thomas Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves), who attracted the attention of both the state and the mysterious underground leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) because of his activities as ace-hacker "Neo".

Morpheus reveals the horrifying truth that the "real" world is a computer-generated illusion (the matrix), downloaded into people's brains while they lie in tanks and generate energy for the machines that rule Earth. He convinces Neo to devote his life to the struggle to liberate humanity.

Morpheus is also convinced that Neo is "the One", fulfilling a prophecy that a human with powers to control the matrix will one day surface. This seems to be confirmed at the conclusion of the first film.

However, Matrix II and III deal with the uncertainties and contradictions of this salvation narrative. As a massive army of machines threatens and then assaults the last human stronghold — Zion — Morpheus, Neo and his leather-clad lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) search the virtual world for a way to fulfill the prophecy, and defeat the replicating rogue program Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).

The Wachowskis were able to gather US$67 million to make the first Matrix, but its massive success ensured that they were handed an astounding $300 million to concurrently produce the next two films. With the first Matrix's innovative special effects, such as the famed "bullet time" sequences, rapidly copied by other film makers, this mega-budget and the talents of the filmmakers seems to have been concentrated on creating ever more spectacular effects. Meanwhile, the story's coherence and the development of the film's original philosophical and political ideas seemed to suffer.

The reaction to Revolutions seems to show the limitations of mass marketing. The series is the product of the giant AOL Time Warner empire. The conglomerate mobilised its huge global apparatus, which includes CNN, Warner Music, a huge internet presence and numerous magazine titles including the prestigious Time magazine, to promote the second film, Matrix Reloaded.

While Reloaded was a big money-spinner, it received a much more muted reception from audiences than the original. Revolutions has been almost universally panned as adding little to the second film. Its takings are very much down.

However Hollywood has long seen the wisdom of diversifying the base of its profit making, and console and online games, comic books, junk-food tie-ins and various DVDs will ensure that the Matrix multimedia franchise continues to generate tonnes of money for Time Warner.

The media-shy Wachowski brothers have not been too forthcoming about the intended message of their trilogy. One possible reading at least sees the matrix as a metaphor for the ideology that binds people to "the system", and Neo and the cool rebels as anti-capitalist revolutionaries who battle the state and struggle to free the people from their illusions.

The matrix concept perhaps points to post-modernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard's notion of the "simulated" nature of reality in late capitalism more than traditional Marxist accounts of ideology (in the first film, Neo keeps some illegal software in a hollowed-out copy of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation), as well as to mystical traditions such as Gnosticism and Buddhism. In any case, humans trapped within the matrix play no role in the final two films so the philosophical/political concern with consciousness and reality seems to fade.

Nonetheless, the apparent conflict between free will and determinism, related to the story-line of Neo as the saviour, is developed in some interesting ways.

In Reloaded, it's revealed that the whole prophecy is a part of a feedback mechanism within the matrix to co-opt dissent, and Neo is only the latest in a string of "saviours".

In Revolutions, Neo and his comrades seek the truth from the Oracle (Mary Alice), who has apparently manipulated the human resistance for centuries by promoting belief in the prophecy. Along the way, they run into various sentient programs (some introduced in Reloaded), part of a complex virtual society the matrix has created but no longer completely controls. When Neo voices doubts that a program he meets can really understand concepts such as "love" and "karma", the program responds that these concepts are social constructions operating in the human mind much like computer code telling a program what to do.

While this may seem to suggest some kind of crude determinism in human action, the growing interdependence between the virtual and human worlds in the series' story suggests a dialectical interrelationship between subjective action and objective determination. The Oracle's prophecies turn out not to depend on mystical powers but are part of a complex political intervention in the conflict between humans and machines, a plan that has no guaranteed outcome. Neo must reach an understanding of this before he can fully play his part.

How the interrelated subjective and objective factors determining human action are portrayed in the films, while not very clearly spelt out, is not a million miles from Karl Marx's contention that humans "make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing" and Friedrich Engels' aphorism, "freedom is the recognition of necessity". That is, if we can correctly understand the objective nature of the world, we can change it for the better.

The most directly political aspect of the series is perhaps the portrayal of the underground human fortress-city Zion as a vision of a future society. In the collection of pieces related to the film series made by renowned Japanese animators, Animatrix (perhaps the best part of the whole franchise), it's revealed that human chauvinism, exploitation and brutality towards a rising culture of intelligent machines was the cause of the machine-human war, and in the context of this war human society degenerated into militarism and religious fundamentalism and caused the virtual destruction of planetary life.

Animatrix shows how the machines, in order to fight the humans, developed from rational, peaceful beings into the ultimate oppressors of humanity. The films hold out some hope for peaceful coexistence, necessary for everyone's survival. Maybe it's not a scientific analysis of the oppression of nations, classes and other social groups under imperialist capitalism, but it's a message of tolerance that wouldn't go astray in George Bush's USA.

Despite its poverty, Zion — in contrast to the brutal regime that started the machine war — is multicultural, egalitarian and non-sexist. It's run by a gender-balanced council which keeps politics firmly in command of the Zionista military wing. A clue to Zion's politics is the fact that one councillor is played by radical black philosopher Cornel West. West, a member of the social-democratic Democratic Socialists of America, in his writings has sought to synthesise various aspects of radical democracy, black liberation, Christianity and Marxism.

From a range of philosophical and political hints in the films, it seems that the Wachowskis, as well as liking black leather, computer graphics and lots of guns and explosions, want to raise some issues from the standpoint of a left politics influenced by post-modernism and radical liberalism.

The Matrix films may not be completely satisfying or adequate, and their good points increasingly buried under corporate hype and profiteering, but they are better than Star Wars-type militaristic quasi-feudalism, which too often glorified in science fiction.

From Green Left Weekly, December 3, 2003.

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