The Tao of Neo - The Matrix

It's a summer blockbuster. It's the meaning of life.
It's "The Matrix: Reloaded." Are we soaking in it?

By Joe Gross / American-Statesman Staff

The poster for "The Matrix Reloaded" says "Free Your Mind."

But didn't we do that the last time? Didn't Morpheus, Trinity and Neo help us escape from the prison we "cannot smell or taste or touch"? Hasn't the path to enlightenment unfolded before us?

Didn't we already swallow the red pill?

Wednesday, "The Matrix Reloaded" opened in theaters nationwide (to be followed by a sequel, "The Matrix Revolutions," in November), and we were given the opportunity to free our minds yet again. Part of that freedom is the freedom to puzzle and argue over the point of the whole thing. After all, one source of "The Matrix's" mega-popularity was that folks walked out of the theater wondering what it all meant. As with all great yarns, "The Matrix" could mean nearly anything to anybody. Some saw economic metaphors, others philosophical, still others spiritual. Others just dug the kicking and punching and flying.

The film's allegory proved so ductile that a quick look through any one of the books written about "The Matrix" reveals scads of competing theories. Some, such as Chris Seay's forthcoming "The Gospel Reloaded," deal with the film's Messianic strains. "Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present," a collection of essays by noted science-fiction writers such as Bruce Sterling and John Shirley, takes a look at the movie's fictional roots and what it has to say about our cybernetic future. "Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, Religion and the Matrix" collects academic essays, as does William Irwin's "The Matrix and Philosophy," which reveals that "The Matrix" can fit into almost any ideology, schema, or belief system. This prison has many wardens.

Here are three of them.

Turning Japanix

Give "Matrix" writer-directors the Wachowski brothers this: Their ability to blend many flavors without making the whole thing taste like chicken is simply remarkable.

Stylistically, "The Matrix" is a pastiche of Hong Kong action flicks, Carlos Castaneda books, science-fiction novels, comic book heroics and video game maneuvers.

But the overwhelming stylistic influence is Japanese animation. "The Matrix" is nothing less than the first live-action animé.

Susan Napier, a professor of Japanese literature and culture at the University of Texas, connects the bits.

Napier, author of the academic book "Animé: From Akira to Princess Mononoke," says the dialogue between Japanese and American science fiction has been going on for decades. Ridley Scott's 1982 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "Blade Runner" had a seismic impact on animé in the 1980s. Here was a future that Japan and America could love: "Blade Runner" is at its core a rain-slicked American noir that's suffused with Asian images and characters and takes place in a world peopled with humans who felt mechanical and robots that thought they were human. Also, it featured really cool trenchcoats.

One animé film that felt the reverberation was 1996's "Ghost in the Shell," a slightly baffling, action-packed story of a cyborg who is torn between being a machine and a human. "Ghost," in turn, with its own questions about the relationship between flesh and technology (not to mention really cool guns) was a profound influence on "The Matrix."

"What you're getting from ('Ghost') is a kind of fascination with the intermingling of human and computers," Napier says. While "Ghost in the Shell" is positive about this, " 'The Matrix' takes a much bleaker line," she adds.

"You have this very dark visual sense of technology as frightening, but also very healing and seductive," Napier says. After all, people have to be told they want to leave the Matrix, and some, such as the first film's Judas-like Cypher (played by everyone's favorite cinematic traitor, Joe Pantoliano) are yearning to return, to meld with the machine.

The main characters have their roots in animé as well. Napier says Trinity is related to lots of tough animé heroines, such as Motoko from "Ghost in the Shell." In addition to looking "very slim and tall and physically powerful" like many animé heroines, Trinity is suffused with a "sense of loneliness and isolation" common to the genre's protagonists, says Napier.

Likewise, Napier sees Neo as an extension of the animé tradition of "nerdy guys" who then become superheroes. "We have that too (in America), but it's even more obvious in Japan," she says. "You have these geeky types who are hackers and live in their apartments. Something happens, and they become transformed."

These parallels add up to more than mere stylistic tics. Napier teaches "The Matrix" in her UT course on "Cinema of the Apocalypse." Animé is littered with end-times images -- presumably because Japan nearly experienced the end times at the close of World War II. "In 'The Matrix,' the apocalypse has already happened, and that's a really fresh aspect to the film," she says. "The end of the world has happened and we didn't even know it."

The Gnostix heresy

Gnosticism, a heretical offshoot of Christianity that dates to the first century, also is based on the notion of an apocalypse we are unaware has already occurred. The Gnostics were convinced that the universe we believe to be a creation of a perfect, loving God is in fact a gross mistake.

"The basic Gnostic idea is that the world itself is a flawed creation and we are stuck in this flawed creation," Erik Davis says from his home in California. "In some views the Creator is evil, in some he is merely misguided or ignorant. That's the basic idea: The world is flawed but we have inside of ourselves something of a greater world. The trick then to transcendence is the recognition of our fundamental ignorance."

Davis has thought about this stuff an awful lot over the years. The California-based writer's 1998 book, "Techgnosis: Myth, Magic And Mysticism in the Age of Information," explores the complicated, nuanced relationship between technology, media and faith. "The Matrix," which set Davis jumping up and down on the bed with excitement (metaphorically, of course), is the inspiration for his essay "Synthetic Meditations: Cogito in the Matrix."

For Davis, the film's great influence is the paranoid science fictions of the late author Philip K. Dick, which have served as the basis for "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report."

"It was refreshing to me as a longtime Philip K. Dick fan to see the basic Dick-ian scenario -- which you could describe as the overlap of Gnostic (ideas) with technology -- finally given full reign. (This combination in 'The Matrix') struck people so strongly it became part of the pop mythology."

Like many viewers, Davis believes the film's critical scene is the moment when the Matrix is revealed to Keanu Reeves' Thomas Anderson as a gooey, podlike construct designed to enslave him. "It crystallized the anxiety and the adventure of stepping out to get a new viewpoint on the world. It wasn't just, like, 'Oh we're stuck in a trap' or 'The world is not what it seems.' " After all, Neo resolves to alter his fate.

But perhaps most impressively, "The Matrix" provides a brilliant reversal of a central Gnostic idea. The original Gnostics, who thought this world was fallen and impure, were trying to escape their flesh. Neo and his companions are desperate to get back in. "In the Gnostic view, the matter is the prison and you escape to the world of light," Davis says. "But in 'The Matrix' it's the world of light, of energy, of electronics that is the prison you escape from into the reality of the body. They really are saying the painful life of the body is preferable to the illusory life of electronics or drugs or whatever the false scenario world might be."

Davis isn't sure the filmmakers can really carry these ideas to a conclusion a mass audience would respond to. He wonders, "Do you have a happy ending or do you take the more dangerous -- but I think on many levels more true -- response where (the fight against the machines) is a perpetual struggle?"

Marx, reloaded

Joshua Clover sees a clear map in "The Matrix." An award-winning poet and critic based in Berkeley, Calif., Clover is writing a book on "The Matrix" for the British Film Institute. For Clover, the cartographer is Karl Marx, who saw the advent of capitalism as a form of apocalypse.

"If I was to guess about (the Wachowskis') intention, I don't think it was to persuade the audience to see things in a Marxist vein," Clover says. "I think they simply accepted Marxism as an obviously accurate analysis of the world." The Matrix itself, a system for exploiting human beings as industrial resources, looks like a souped-up dramatization of "Das Kapital."

But rather than a bare evocation of 19th century toil, "The Matrix" fuses these ideas with the sexy science-fiction pretext of a ragged band of rebels versus the all-powerful computers. It does so, Clover says, by fusing two science-fiction clichés, which he describes as "Man vs. Machine" and "Dude, This Could All Be a Dream."

In "The Matrix," "the machines don't want to crush man, they just want him to work 24 hours a day (as human batteries)," Clover says. "How do the machines do this? They create these dreams that people have while working 24 hours a day."

The unenlightened humans are given "a fantasy of freedom when they're actually always under control," he adds. "That's the social analysis of Marxism."

For Clover, the key to "The Matrix" is "mediation," or, as he puts it, the critical question the film asks: "What are you seeing the world through?"

"In a Marxist account, you're not supposed to notice that your reality is being mediated, you're supposed to think you are seeing social facts," he says. As Morpheus explains to Neo, this is exactly what the Matrix does.

Characters see the world through all sorts of stuff in "The Matrix," Clover points out. The most prominent are sunglasses, windows and computer screens.

Everyone wears sunglasses when they're in the Matrix, and the ever-present rain on car windows matches up with the film's signature image of green code falling down computer screens. The Wachowskis are constantly reminding us to pay attention to the screens we see the world through.

But Clover also believes that in the real-world marketplace, "The Matrix," with its DVD and video game tie-ins, has played out and betrayed the movie's themes.

" 'The Matrix' invented the DVD market," he says. "It was the first DVD ever to sell substantially, then it was the first one ever to sell a million, then it was one of the biggest selling of all time."

Clover contends that Neo's powers reflect how DVDs work. "He gets hooked up to a machine that allows him to do the thing that a DVD allows you to do: freeze action, slow it down and speed it up."

All of which leads Clover to admit he thinks of himself as a bit of a sellout. "As a good Marxist, I feel like a bit of a sucker talking about the film's Marxist text," he says.

"What a hardline Marxist analyst would talk about is the film as a market operation," Clover says. "Just take a look at the manner in which 'The Matrix Reloaded' exists as a film, a video game and an animated DVD, all of which one 'needs' in order to get the whole story.

"The movie is creating a seamless commodity where you can always be in the sphere of the product," he concludes.

Butterflies are free to fly

And yet, for all these warnings, here we are, crawling back into the Matrix.

Our continuing obsessions with these sorts of ideas reminds Napier of the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu's old saw about the man who dreams he is a butterfly -- or is he a butterfly dreaming he's a man?

"The point of the story is that it doesn't matter. But in 'The Matrix' it matters so much," she says. "In the West, we've gotta know. We've gotta take the red pill no matter what."