The Matrix Cult - A Film Review
Much of the semiotic discussion around the
deeper structures of The
Matrix has tended to center around
positive ethical and philosophical systems. Thus, numerous critics have
pointed out the Christian subtext in the film with Neo as Christ and Morpheus as
John the Baptist (James L. Ford: 8). The Garden of Eden story has been
superimposed on The
Matrix as well with the implication
that just as Adam's and Eve's awakening to knowledge makes Christianity
possible, so too, Neo's awakening will lead to the salvation of humanity by a
Christ-like figure (cf. James S. Spiegel: 13). Others have picked out
connections with Joseph Campbell's monomyth concept where the hero must depart
from the familiar world, go into a netherworld and return morally transformed
(A. Samuel Kimball: 176, 198). There is also the Platonic interpretation where
the passage toward the light from the famous cave allegory is read into the
awakening process of The
Matrix: "The theme of appearance
versus reality is as old as Plato’s
Republic. And while perhaps no writer or artist has improved upon his
cave allegory in presenting this theme, the Wachowski brothers’
The Matrix might be as effective an
attempt as any since Plato, in cinematic history anyway" (James S. Spiegel: 9).
Buddhism and its notion that reality is illusion appears as an equally
convincing model for reading The
Matrix (James L. Ford: 10). Even Gnosticism has been used as an interesting
semiotic framework for the film (Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel Wagner:
However, most of the authors mentioned above
sooner or later end up dealing with the issue of violence in the Wachowski
brothers' film. This violence seems to be at odds with the ethical
principles inherent in the Christian, Buddhist or Gnostic interpretative
models. In fact, the martial arts and bloodshed in
Matrix and in
The Matrix Reloaded might move some
viewers to discount whatever philosophical message(s) the films might seek to
convey. If one is still bent on applying a positive semiotic model to the
film, one may be tempted to make the argument that in the cyberworld of the
Matrix the violence is as unreal as the residual images of the characters.
This desire for moral consistency is undoubtedly what motivated the film's
special effects supervisor John Gaeta and editor Zach Staenberg to make the
following remark in the scene-by-scene commentary accompanying the DVD version
Matrix: "Nobody actually dies. All
these people are virtual. [...] [It's] a cathartic experience" (The
Matrix DVD: Feature Length Audio Commentary). They are referring to
the scene where numerous government security men are killed by Neo and Trinity
as the two rebels try to rescue Morpheus. However, this attempt to pretend the
violence is not real within the logic of the story does not stand up to
As Morpheus trains Neo in a virtual reality
program that resembles the Matrix, he explains the relationship that the rebels
have with the inhabitants of the evil cyberworld: "The Matrix is a system,
Neo. That system is our enemy. [...] [The people we're trying to save] are a
part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. [...] Anyone we haven't
unplugged is potentially an agent" (The
Matrix DVD: The Gatekeepers).
Therefore, apart from the agents, the people with whom the rebels interact in
the Matrix are computerized projections of those imprisoned in the pods, i.e.,
each individual within the Matrix is linked to a specific existing physical body
that lives in the power plant. Neo is a case-in-point since his virtual self is
not merely a bunch of numbers in a computer (as would be the case in a video
game for example), but rather a bunch of numbers that represent a real person in
a pod. Thus, the dwellers of the Matrix are virtual and real at the same time.
What makes the reality of these people
indisputable is that the death of a computerized self in the Matrix means the
death of the body to which it corresponds. This is evidenced by the death of
Mouse at the hands of government security men who are pursuing the rebels.
Mouse's virtual self is shot by virtual bullets within the Matrix, and then we
immediately see his real body
inside the hovercraft (i.e., in the real world) writhe in agony and bleed
profusely out of the mouth. The same applies to Neo whose physical body in the
Nebuchadnezzar dies (before his Christ-like resurrection) after his residual
image is shot within the Matrix. Therefore, Zach Staenberg and John Gaeta are
wrong in their assumption that "all these people are virtual" and so "nobody
actually dies" (see above). If the real Mouse dies after being shot, then so
do the real bodies of all the security men shot by Neo and Trinity in the
In this connection Frances Flannery-Dailey and
Rachel Wagner wonder why the Wachowski brothers make the violence so real in the
Indeed, the "violence" which takes place in the
Niko Hotel could still be portrayed, with the reassuring belief that any
"deaths" which occur there are simply computer blips. The fact that the writers
so purposefully insist that actual human beings die (i.e. die also within the
power plant) while serving as involuntary "vessels" for the agents strongly
argues for The Matrix’s direct
association of violence with the knowledge required for salvation (53; also see
Peter X Feng: 151).
I would suggest that a shift in semiotic
perspective occurs when we read The Matrix
in this light. Instead of seeing the cyberworld as analogous to the Buddhist
samsara — a world of illusion
that every human must strive to overcome in order to access a higher reality
(Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel Wagner: 26), instead of interpreting
Morpheus's rebels as the enlightened ones of Mahayana Buddhism who give of
themselves in order to guide the "blind" out of
samsara and toward enlightenment
(Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel Wagner: 30), I would propose the model of a
modern aggressive, violent cult.
The story of destructive fringe religious
movements begins with the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. The author,
John of Patmos, offers a reading of the
Roman Empire not as a sociopolitical network that
offered peace and relative prosperity to most of the world for the first time in
human history. Instead, feeling disenfranchised as a member of a new religious
movement that did not fit into any religious system of the times, John presents
the entire world as an instrument of cosmic evil slated for destruction (cf.,
Adela Yarbro Collins: 141-142). The only exception is a small group of
"saints" that follow John's understanding of Christianity. The method for
legitimizing this stance is the projection of the social conflict in question to
the transcendental plane where the in-group (John's Christians) are agents in
the hands of God while the out-group (the rest of humanity) are representatives
in the hands of Satan (cf. Adela Yarbro Collins: 148-150). This model went on
to inspire various millenarian sects throughout the Middle Ages and the early
Renaissance, e.g., the Anabaptists. As Norman Cohn points out,
one can recognize the paradigm of what was
to become and to remain the central fantasy of revolutionary eschatology.
The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power [ ... ] until suddenly
the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and
overthrow it. Then the Saints themselves, the chosen, holy people who
hitherto have groaned under the oppressor's heel, shall in their turn
inherit dominion over the whole earth (4).
The pattern of social turmoil which emerged as a
result of this thinking worked as follows:
- A marginalized group (often consisting of
peasants that flocked to medieval cities but could find no work or a social
niche) dealt with its frustration by isolating itself from mainstream
society exactly as John demands in Revelation.
- The group argued that society was part of
a cosmically evil enemy deserving of utter destruction.
- Often violent acts (including the massacre
of local Jews [Norman Cohn: 49-50, 61-2]) would be committed against society
on the assumption that a divine agent would intervene and usher in the end
of the unjust world (cf. Norman Cohn: 29-32, 253, 314).
When we consider modern cults, the same logic
appears to be operating time and time again, with Jim Jones's People's Temple in
Guyana or David Koresh's Branch Davidians in Waco being two striking examples
(cf. David G. Bromley and Edward D. Silver: 58). John W. Morehead points out
that the cosmic struggle element is standard in today's aggressive religious
sects (article), and so is the need to refer to a sacred text:
Their role in battle is symbolized by
various scriptural or authoritative imagery that confirms for them the
nature of the divine struggle. The ideology then provides the appropriate
moral justification for violent acts against civilians who would not
ordinarily be seen as combatants and appropriate targets for destruction.
Let us recall in this connection the above-cited
passage from The Matrix where
Morpheus tells Neo that everyone
in the out-group is the enemy. The scriptural equivalent in this war is the
prophecy that drives Morpheus. Since there was a godlike individual who woke
up from the Matrix and predicted his own return in the guise of The One (Neo),
the struggle of the rebels in the Wachowski film shifts from the political
sphere to the transcendental/cosmic one. Thus, anyone standing in the way of
the rebels is preventing something sacred from being accomplished, which
justifies all violent acts against innocent people in the out-group.
Two attitudes toward the out-group seem to be
combined in The Matrix. On the
one hand, the unawakened population of the Matrix is the unquestionable enemy, a
threat that must be dealt with decisively. This would be epitomized by Neo's
well-known request that Tank provide him and Trinity with "guns, lots of
guns." Such a position corresponds to that of the Japanese Aum cult, for
example, regarding which John. W. Morehead writes:
From within the mindset of terrorist
“cultures of violence” the world is already a hostile place, and the groups
themselves, and those they represent, are the ones under attack. What those
on the outside view as terrorism and unprovoked aggression, those
perpetrating the acts consider self-defense.
This difference of perspective is well
illustrated by agent Smith who asks Neo to help in bringing "a well-known
terrorist to justice." To Smith, Morpheus is a terrorist while to the rebel
group Morpheus is a heroic liberator.
The other attitude toward mainstream society is
a paradox inherent not only in aggressive religious cults but also in many 19th
and 20th century revolutionary movements. This is well illustrated by the
lyrics of the Russian version of the Communist International: "The whole world
of violence shall be destroyed by us down to its foundations, and then we shall
build our own world..." (my translation:
Herbert L. Rosedale indicates with respect to the Aum cult,
In a recent work dealing with Aum Shinrikyo,
Robert Lifton has commented on how the view of that cult was manifested in
the apocalyptic goal of “destroying the world in order to save it,” and the
group’s action in killing innocent non-believers was viewed as altruistic
murder that benefited both the victims and their perpetrators.
Morpheus's position is similar in that he too
seeks to save the deluded population of the Matrix but considers every sleeping
individual as a foe at the same time (see above).
The disdain with which the out-group is viewed
by the rebels in The Matrix is
suggested by the term "coppertop." This is how Switch calls Neo in the car
when she points a gun at him and tells him to lift up his shirt for
debugging. Unawakened humans are treated like batteries by the machines, and
the evil of that attitude is indisputable. But Switch seems to share in this
dehumanization, demonstrating not compassion for the enslaved but a sense of
haughty superiority. This social exclusivism can be traced back from the modern
cult to the Book of Revelation. To quote Adela Yarbro Collins, "The dualist
division of humanity in the Apocalypse is a failure in love. [ ... ] One's
enemies, including large numbers of unknown people with whom one supposes
oneself to be in disagreement, are given a simple label, associated with demonic
beings, and thus denied their full humanity" (170). After the events of 9/11
this assessment rings more true than ever:
In-group morality [in Al Qaeda] was
emphasized; there is no moral obligation to those outside the Ummah, or
indeed to other Muslims outside the group. [...] Secularists and
disbelievers are not even considered living. Mahmud Abouhalima, involved in
the first World Trade Center
bombing, described non-religious individuals as moving “dead bodies”
(Christopher M. Centner).
Neo and Trinity have a stone-faced attitude
toward murdering innocent security men in
The Matrix. They kill as if they were part of an action cartoon
with no emotion, no regret, no sense that (and this might have been somewhat
mitigating) this murder is a horrible necessity. Trinity especially tends to
move like a machine as she shoots people at pointblank range, puts knives in
their foreheads and mutilates men who are convinced they are fighting dangerous
terrorists the way real-life police officers would risk their lives to protect
innocent civilians from... Al Qaeda! In
The Matrix Reloaded the same approach to murdering unknowing security
people is observed. After captain Niobe attacks and neutralizes a couple of
policemen, her head shoots up in a jerky motion as if to stress the idea of a
superhero's job well-done. Equally disturbing is the way in which a power
plant is blown up right in the middle of a city in
The Matrix Reloaded; the implicit
countless civilian victims within the explosion radius are discounted by the
film as not even worth thinking about.
Christopher M. Centner's above-cited reference
to "in-group morality," which amounts to the willingness to "trash" anyone in
the out-group, is a position typical of aggressive cults and terrorist
organizations with cult-like elements. This can be linked to Lawrence
Kohlberg's discussion of moral development stages across cultures. Kohlberg
outlines six stages through which a human being can progress in his or her
conception of what is right and wrong. The first two stages are pre-social in
that they make the creation of stable social units impossible and characterize
mainly young children or psychopaths. Thus, stage one is about the simple
avoidance of punishment while stage two is the conception of other people only
in terms of what they can give in exchange for something (Lawrence Kohlberg:
17). It is only with stage three that a rudimentary social structure can
emerge — on the basis of in-group and out-group morality. The in-group tends to
be a smaller interest group, like a tribe, where justice is defined in terms of
approval from the in-group. Such a position makes the creation of larger
social structures problematic because the members of the in-group identify with
a narrow range of goals rather than a broad social system that incorporates many
interest groups or "tribes." (cf. Lawrence Kohlberg, p. 18-21)
The members of Morpheus's rebel group appear to
function at the level of Lawrence Kohlberg's third stage, and in this connection
the parallels with cultic thinking appear very prominent. Since this morality
violates that of mainstream society and age-old traditions, cults tend to focus
on the figure of a charismatic leader in order to bolster their shaky ethical
systems. In fact this goes back to medieval millenarian sects that normally
centered around a prophet-like person or
propheta (Cohn 43). Such a leader declared all conventional norms
invalid and sanctioned violence meant to usher in the Millennium. Modern cultic
leaders function the same way, e.g., Jim Jones and David Koresh claimed divine
status and absolute trust as well as the absolute right to rule the in-group as
they saw fit (cf. David G. Bromley and Edward D. Silver 44: 58).
Matrix Morpheus is undoubtedly a prophet-like leader modeled on John
the Baptist (see above). His superhuman nature is suggested in a scene from
The Matrix Reloaded where the ship's
operator Link appears fearful of what is to come. The situation seems to be
such that Morpheus's actions imperil the rebel group and all of awakened
humanity. Instead of justifying his position by logical reasoning, Morpheus
simply tells Link: "Trust me." In other words, Morpheus's authority is
inspired/divine rather than human and open to questioning. To follow Morpheus
is to believe in him. In fact reliance on belief, rather than logic, is what
characterizes Morpheus and his relationship with the other rebels. Morpheus
repeatedly talks not about what he knows or has experienced, but what he
believes to be true. And the
suspension of critical thinking is a sine qua non in the relationship between a
modern cult's membership and its leader.
Morpheus's special status is illustrated by the
lobby shooting spree and the rooftop rescue in
The Matrix. How does Neo justify
the murder of many innocent people in the office tower during his attempt to
save Morpheus? Morpheus knows the codes for accessing
Zion, and, as Tank tells Neo, in the interests of
awakened humanity, Morpheus's body should be disconnected and therefore killed
before the agents pry the information out of his residual image. Therefore,
the willingness to use "guns, lots of guns" against the security men cannot be
justified even in terms of the rebel's practical goals. The justification for
the ruthless rescue rests on Morpheus's special, semi-divine nature so typical
of modern and medieval cult leaders. The welfare of the divine individual is
by definition greater than that of ordinary humans (awakened or not). After
all, the policemen killed by Neo and Trinity are just a bunch of coppertops
whose value pales in comparison to that of a prophet.
None of this is to suggest that the cultic model
appears as an intentional semiotic structure of
The Matrix and
The Matrix Reloaded. Many critics
have pointed out that the Wachowski brothers were very deliberate in imbuing the
film with Buddhist and other traditionally positive religious overtones. For
example, this is how the directors sum up the film's implications in an
We’re interested in mythology, theology and,
to a certain extent, higher-level mathematics. All are ways human beings try
to answer bigger questions, as well as The Big Question. If you’re going to
do epic stories, you should concern yourself with those issues. People might
not understand all the allusions in the movie, but they understand the
important ideas. We wanted to make people think, engage their minds a bit
(Quoted in James L. Ford, 22).
And indeed, it would be absolutely wrong to
suggest that the Wachowskis fail in their attempt to convey such philosophic
ideas. The obvious presence of the intended message explains the interest that
this "action" film has aroused in the academic and philosophic community. The
problem appears to be that the unintended cultic subtext is there at the same
time as the intended subtext. And the result is a mix of discourses which
amounts to a cacophony of values. Jim Jones, Bruce Lee and Buddha appear
together on the same stage and inevitably sing out of tune. There is no
denying that the bad guys are absolutely bad in
The Matrix and in
The Matrix Reloaded. The problem
is that that the good guys are not good enough.
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