Volume 4 : Critic's Column (1)

Matrix trilogy - A Reading of the film

Parthasarathi Raha


In its immense popularity and influence on the sci-fi action thriller genre, ‘Matrix trilogy’ has almost gained the place of a myth. No doubt it is an important film of our time. ‘The Matrix' offers elements of entertainment for everything. The plot mixes both new and old conventions of the action genre in a stylized fashion and it unfolds the film's visual innovations, such as its groundbreaking use of bullet-time photography, or the action sequences whether it's in the form of kung fu fights or shoot-outs much similar to video games. There's also betrayal, romance, some humor, moral dilemma, and struggle of good vs. bad. It places an action genre on a philosophical premise which being seamlessly interwoven attempts to rationalize the dominant violence in the film. It's this philosophical ground which is the point of interest in the present discussion. It tries to find an answer to "Why it is better to live in real world than in a virtual world called Matrix" which forms the very basis of the plot. Morpheus explains: "The Matrix is everything, it is all around us. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to shield you from the truth." So the question arises what is the truth that exactly Matrix veils from the human being? Or what is Matrix? The film leads us into different, incommensurable, and sometimes incomprehensible theories and philosophies with its countless reference to different stream of thoughts. So interpreting Matrix is essentially a reading in intertexuality, locating its root in a particular way against the already existing thoughts.

The film may be viewed as an allegory of Eastern world denying thought, in which the known world is perceived by an elite few as an illusory dream-prison from which one must escape. There are also references to Christian parable, in which mankind is born into slavery until the arrival of a messianic one who will bring liberation to all. However the film depicts a world very much like our world as an illusion and a prison, it does not show freedom from that illusion as escape from physicality into a state of disembodied spiritual happiness. On the contrary, the "real world" depicted in the film is even more physical and far more disturbing, risky than the illusions of the stable Matrix world. The film takes us to the year 2199 - the world has been taken over by the Matrix and humans are living in a computer-generated dream world. Humans are being harvested like plants to be part of the Matrix. Humans live their lives in an artificial reality never realizing that they are slaves to machines. A few rebel humans discover the horror of the Matrix. They believe that computer programmer Neo, is "the one" who according to prophesy, will save the world from cyber-slavery. The Matrix trilogy rather ends on an existential note in which Neo gives up on freedom, love, and other basic human values, but fights out of choice. The ground work for Matrix may be correlated closely along phenomenological and existential discourse.

Descartes concluded, the objective external world, including our body, may not exist. We have only knowledge of our own subjective inner life. This cartesian premise was followed by thinkers in the West for the next three centuries. Immanuel Kant argued that human beings could never know reality but only their own mental representations as they are in it. But, since these representations had a common source, each person's experiences were coordinated with the mental representations of all the others to produce what he called the phenomenal world. In the early Twentieth Century, the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl held, like Descartes, that there is no objective world, to interact with, and so we seem to be confined to our inner experiences. As Morpheus says to Neo: ‘‘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….’’. Existential phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleaue-Ponty, in opposition to Husserl, countered this Cartesian view. They pointed out that understanding cannot be actualized in the absence of the object. The inner electrical impulses are just the causal basis of what one feels. In a Matrix world which has its causal basis in bodies in vats outside that world, the Matrix people whose brains are getting computer generated inputs and responding with action outputs, are directly coping with perceived reality, and the reality isn't inner. It is external and so objective. Thus coping, in the Matrix, is not less direct than what is conceived in the real world. Then what is the boundary between the two worlds as it can be perceived by a human? As in Matrix it is shown that one can come to know reality like Neo. Once Neo's body is flushed out of the vat he has a broader view of reality and sees that his previous understanding was limited. It is an awakening from the dream and there it tries to establish a distinguished boundary between the real and the Matrix world. Yet the two worlds seem to appear like two faces of same coin. Because the basic premise on which the films dwell in is "We can't get out of our brain". Both worlds in essence are perceptual; that is phenomenal. So how can one be truer than the other? Living in the Matrix world does not seem to be less moral than living in our everyday world. The Matricians are dealing with real people, and they are free to choose what they will do; they can be selfish and betray their friends like Cypher, or they can be loyal to their friends and ready to risk their lives for them, like Trinity and Neo do for Morpheus. So what, if anything, is wrong with the Matrix world? Why it is better to live in a real world rather than living in an illusion created by the machine? It may be argued that in the movie, humans in The Matrix are slave. They are limited in ability to shape their own world. Morpheus tells Neo there is some sort of limit on what people in the Matrix can think and experience. According to Mopheus Matrix is a computer-generated dream world, built to keep human being under control. But how could a successful simulation of the electrical impulses to and from the brain, be a limit on what we can think and experience. There seems to be no obvious answer in the movie. It seems clear that, if the Artificial Intelligence (AI) do their job and make a complete simulation of our world, the people in the Matrix world should be able to do everything and experience everything that we can. Like them, we all have a causal basis in a brain in a vat. True, the causal link between their brains and the physical universe is different from ours, but why should that be a problem? How can the Matrix be, as Morpheus claims it is, "a prison for the mind," any more than our dependence on our brains and their causal inputs in our real life?

It may be argued that that the pervasive world of Matrix lacks in plural reference for understanding the reality around us. Heidegger calls the reference as "being". Being, according to Heidegger, is "that on the basis of which beings are already understood". Being is a cultural product which depends one the ways we are socialized and hold the shared views of the worlds. So the difference in the socializations lead to different beings and hence the difference in understanding of world. Husserl claimed in Cartesian Mediations that mere physical things are encountered first on basis of the input into our perceptual system and then afterwards are assigned meaning as cultural objects. The AI researchers believe in the same. However in that case, there won't be any alternate being and so chance of understanding reality outside Matrix seems infeasible given with the totality of simulation as the film claims. The very logic behind existence of Morpheus and his followers pose a scope for serious doubt. On the other hand if the phenomenological description of the plurality of perception is right, then one can't just model the world by writing programe to simulate experience of bare objects, and leave the rest up to the mind. If the understanding of being in a culture could change so that objects are perceived differently with time that would definitely pose a serious problem for the Matrix programmers. Heidegger observes, the understanding of being that governs perception and action in our culture is not static, but has gone through a series of radical changes. The change is actually in the shared understanding of the world. Heidegger holds that such changes in the understanding of being start as local anomalies. These marginal practices then may be propagated by a few people so that they produce a world-wide change of style. If Heidegger is right, then the best AI can do to avoid the Matrix, required to be reprogrammed or to get scrapped is to eliminate out the local anomalies and marginal practices before they produced a major style change. For the changes may be unpredictable so will be difficult to be programmed given with the countless possibilities of outcome. That may acount for the reason for fear of any change and so introduction of the Agent Smith into the Matrix to prevent a change in the current understanding of being by violent means. But again, in our pluralistic world, there are many different cultures, each with its own understanding of being. So in the first hand it becomes hard to believe that there may be a possibility of one homogenized Matrix world which can originate and grow into so totally self-contained and stable system, if we have to argue in the line of phenomenological premises. The limitation which Morpheus talks of, is then may be the limitation of one's exercising the right to change the world - not whether the world is virtual or real, and whether one has the knowledge of the truth of the world. According to Heidegger this is because it is the essence of human being to change the world. However that is not what is very obvious from the plot. 'Matrix trilogy' suffers serious inconsistencies and vagueness in its disparate reference to the narratives beyond.



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