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Published 25 December 2001

"The Matrix" by Larry and Andy Wachowski/Joe Silver

The Matrix of Hollywood’s common manipulation

The Matrix comes up with an interesting premise: imagine our actual world was nothing but a virtual projection of sensations onto our brain - the machines, which have taken control of the earth, keep humans alive to use them as sources of energy and distract their minds from their pathetic enslavement by feeding them with sensations of a normal 2Oth-century life. As a result, people live in their illusionary 1999 normality but are in fact like dozing aphids in a huge mechanical ant hill. But a bunch of courageous men have managed to break free and are now looking for their savior - the man who can turn their desperate resistance into an ultimate victory.

This is a stimulating modernization of 17th and 18th-century philosophical debates that questioned the materiality of sensations and their relation to the spiritual world of the soul. Berkeley, for instance, had sketched the pattern of a world of pure sensations delivered by God - God being replaced in the Matrix by a 1999 technological substitute: machines.

As in Terminator, Machines have reached a supreme level of autonomous intelligence and turned into our powerful enemies, the paragons of evil parasitism. They suck our vital energy out of us and keep our minds busy with an alienating daily routine of the 1990’s. The heroes realize they actually live in a gloomy, godforsaken world, while their "normal" life is a concealed form of enslavement. In that regard, the first "message" of the film calls for rebellion against the routine of life, against the conformism of mainstream professions such as "lawyers, teachers" and so on. "We don’t need no education, we don’t need no brain control" is not that far, but this subversive message rapidly melts down into the demagogical broth of pseudo-technological verbiage and techno-pagan mysticism (the oracle, the elect savior, Zion?!?). What’s more, Morpheus’s didactic speeches sound like the most conservative form of sectarian teaching, which undermines the apparent intentions of the authors of the film.

Nevertheless, they have got rid of the necessity of those collaborationist teachers of normal life by paradoxically letting technology play the role of teachers: to learn kung-fu or how to pilot a helicopter, they just have to download the appropriate software and in a few seconds, they are virtual gods in those fields. Learning is a lot easier that way. Kung Fu doesn’t need a physical and psychological maturation through meditation and hard work - it’s a compound of technical gestures. Their only true proficiency lies in self-made computer knowledge. The resistant heroes, regarded by machines as the "terrorists" of the mechanical order, are hackers, the ultimate embodiments of the modern rebel, the free thinkers of the 21st century. The traitor is the one who servilely prefers the virtual sensations of a normal life to the dreary environment of "real" freedom.

In fact, the tour de force of the movie is to turn the notions of virtual and reality upside down: the world of television, computers and technology becomes the true dimension of real life while our normal life with plain people is in fact the virtual universe meant to deceive us. Networks and phone lines are the bridges between the virtual farce created by machines and the bitter reality of the free world. Even though we see none of the promised land of "Zion", the usual pattern of resistance against Evil to restore the original Garden of Eden is once again the matrix of the film. The matrix?

Wake up, innocent viewer. Beyond the initial sensation of being surprised by unexpected premises, don’t you have that sensation of déjà-vu? The spectacular special effects at the expense of the characterization, the ultra-conventional plot staging a hero longing for peace and normality but pushed into resistance and primitive violence by the stupid challenge of the evil character, the happy ending where the hero is dominated but eventually saved from the afterlife by a last-second miracle (here a kiss that reminds us of the Sleeping Beauty revival). The hero can then destroy the bad guy in a gross profusion of violence and retribution. And how about the codified gimmicks, such as sunglasses as outer signs of power, the flashy promotional clips, the cheap morality, the cult of wired technology, the falsely subversive demagogy for teenagers, who are the Majors’ commercial target... Compare so many TV commercials with the film: the same appropriation of underground values, of rebel attitudes on which big soda or sporting shoes corporations have thrived for so long... Always the same recipe... the same MATRIX!

Yes, the ultimate message of the film is a tricky challenge of the viewer: will you get the clue and realize that the alienating Matrix is in fact the Hollywood film industry that has produced the movie you’re watching? Just like the machines in the story, they’re trying to make you believe that the glossy world of heroic fantasy they’re feeding you with is reality, but you can open your eyes, unplug, and face the dull reality of the world... It’s your choice. Will you choose the simplistic universe of Hollywood, or are you ready to fight against that infantilizing machinery? Will you be strong enough to resist the sirens of digital immediacy, anti-culture and anti-reflection ideology (never study, never think, just do it), and demagogical commercialism? In that regard, The Matrix could be seen as the "red" (for revolutionary?) pill of the film that tears you off from the comfortable virtual world of sensitive illusions, but it has to be the blue pill as well then. The superficial culture of Hollywood conformity is too prevalent in the film to turn the subversive potential of the theme into a credible leverage on reality.