April 6, 2011

The Allegory of the Matrix [musing time]

"I was looking for an answer. It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did."

The above quotation occurs early in the film, and is probably the first indication that this movie has a much deeper meaning than meets the eye. I think when most people watch The Matrix, they see a hard sci-fi action flick with an interesting premise and a guy who can dodge bullets. New breakthroughs in cinematography, a dystopia with the twist that our world is really just a computer simulation, cool black shades and lots of guns. But what these lines spoken by Trinity do for the film is pull the audience into the world of The Matrix and include them in Neo's struggle. Not the struggle against machines that have enslaved humanity, but his struggle against enslavement of the mind - something the Watchowskis are claiming affects us all.

"That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison 
that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind."

Based on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, The Matrix symbolises a life of limited perspective, where an enslaved mind does not recognise its restraints because it knows nothing else. If a person lived their entire life in a cave, chained down, and the only thing they could see were shadows dancing on the wall, they would think that those shadows were the only thing that is real. They would not know anything different exists, the whole world being denied them. Neo lives enslaved within the Matrix, and he has no concept of what it is really like to touch or see anything real, so he does not know that he is a slave, and therefore cannot escape. Following so far? The movie has a third dimension, which is the parallel effect in which the audience is like Neo. We live in a world with very strict rules, a set of expectations and restrictions, and on a day to day basis we do not think of how restraining the rules of society can be.

At the beginning of The Matrix, we relate to Neo and understand that he is unfulfilled with his day to day life, particularly with his 9 to 5 job in which he has not met society's expectations of success. He is not married, he does not have an expensive car, and he lives in a tiny dark apartment in squalor, despite his aspirations to make money as a hacker. We understand what Trinity means when she says that he is looking for answers, for something more, but then something happens where the audience is sidetracked from their ability to relate to Neo by the flashy sci-fi plot of man vs. machine and we almost lose sight completely of what the real message of the movie is.

The Matrix is a conduit for philosophical thinking about the basis of reality, and goes far beyond the Allegory of the Cave in terms of its scope, but when looking for the film's meaning, the most important aspect is the commentary on modern society - that the Wachowskis are saying that we are all enslaved. Whether or not you buy that, or even care, is one thing. I'm not certain I do. But they definitely have a point when it comes to the expectations and concept of success, propagated in particular by the media. In my opinion, one can have a much more fulfilling and happy life teaching English in the third world country of one's choice or dropping everything to move to Paris and become a painter, than someone working their way to the top of a corporation and slaving away for every dollar.

This is a perfect example of a sci-fi movie with a plot that operates both as an entertaining story and an allegory that matches up closely to a reality of the world. There are many books and movies like it where you can either come along for the exciting ride, or dig in to the meaty depths of the philosophy. If you've already watched The Matrix with one perspective, I suggest you drop everything and go watch it again from the other. Both views are incredibly worthwhile.

Get The Matrix on blu-ray here, through my Amazon associate's link.

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