Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Matrix

At one level, there’s not much to say about The Matrix. The only reason to take it seriously is that so many other folks take it seriously. Whatever you think of it as a movie, it’s a cultural phenomenon worth commenting on.

But let’s say a few things about the movie itself before commenting on its popular appeal. It plays on the perennial theme of the gap between appearance and reality. This goes back to Parmenides. For him, time and motion were illusory.

No one might have taken that seriously except for two influential disciples who did much to popularize and immortalize his counterintuitive views. One was Zeno. His celebrated paradoxes lent a loony logic to Parmenides. They were deployed to prove something "obviously" false. And yet, even to this day, some of them are very difficult to disprove.

In addition, there was Plato, the mythmaker and prose-stylist. If Zeno lent logical appeal to Parmenides, Plato lent him aesthetic appeal.

The same sceptical outlook infects Indian and Buddhist philosophy, viz., Sankara, Nagarjuna. The world is "Maya"--illusory or delusive.

You also get this with Bishop Berkeley. Locke had drawn a distinction between primary and secondary properties. Primary properties were objective while secondary properties were subjective impressions. Berkeley took this a step further. Since our only port of entry to the primary properties is via the secondary properties, why assume that there is any extramental object at all? All properties are mental ones. No one really believes this, and yet, how do you disprove it?

And even if you believe in a world "out there," you can never know to what extent your perception of the external world resembles the external world. Where do sense and sensible meet?

So when the character of Morpheus asks, "What is real? 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," this poses a genuine philosophical conundrum. And the first half of the film, which toys with this theme, definitely pricks the curiosity of the viewer.

But the answer is less interesting than the question--at least as the movie develops the answer. For the second-half is anticlimactic--a long fuse without a bang.

There are several reasons for this. One is the acting. Where Keanu Reeves is concerned, I just don't see what anyone sees in him. Maybe the girls go for him or something. But, for me, he’s just a blank space on the screen--what with that lobotomatic stare and surfer-dude delivery. This is the actor who put da "duh" into "duh." He’s a parody of a parody.

By contrast, Laurence Fishburne has real stage presence. But that only serves to expose the vacuities of the lead actor.

Neo’s love interest is played by a fetching actress. But she has no dramatic function. Her only purpose is to be pretty and kick some major butt.

Then you have the underlying premise. Computers have turned their makers into human batteries. Now, the generic idea of computers outstripping their makers and taking over the world is a stock theme in SF film and literature. And there is a horrific irony in the idea of computers turning human beings into mechanical components.

However, the idea of computers harnessing our body temperature as an energy source is simply absurd. To begin with, surely there are inanimate energy sources at their disposal--even if you take solar power out of the picture. And as far as biological sources are concerned, would it not be more efficient to harness a larger warm-blooded mammal than Homo sapiens?

There is also the question of how much energy would be expended in the care-and-feeding of the human host. And where are all these human batteries being warehoused? How are they kept warm on a sunless planet?

But even if we waive all that aside, why entertain the human host with simulated sensory input? If all you need is a warm body, a comatose state or even brain-dead host on life-support would seem to do the job just as well without recourse virtual recreation.

In addition, how does simulated sensory input connect one mind with another? How are they conscious of each other’s existence? Would that not require some mode of mental output to form a shared awareness?

It isn’t just that the human batteries are interacting with virtual characters in separate programs. Rather, they seem to share a common VR world.

And how is it that Morpheus or Trinity us able to "jack into" the Matrix without the computer monitoring this security breach?

For that matter, who was the first human being to break the spell? And having awakened from his dream-world, how did he escape his pod? How did he survive? Where did he go?

Finally, what’s the point of all that gravity-free kung fu--like Peter Pan on steroids? Why must the computer resort to a martial-arts program to polish off the hackers? Why doesn’t it just delete the neural interface without all the kickboxing antics? Who’s in control of the video game--the computer or the hacker? Cyberspace is real to a character within cyberspace, but neither the computer nor its escapees are laboring under that illusion.

The reason for this parade of illogicality is to furnish a clothes-hanger on which to drape all the fancy f/x. Of course, many SF films stumble and fall down at that common sense level--sacrificing elementary logic for razzle-dazzle. But if film is to be a serious artistic medium, and if SF is to be a serious literary genre, then shouldn’t we hold the SF film to a higher standard? If the SF genre is incapable of fabricating an internally consistent world, then why bother with the SF genre? Why not work within the fantasy genre where you are not bound by the laws of physics? Where you can make your own rules?

I admit that I only saw the first installment of the series. To judge by movie reviews, the second was worse than the first, and the third was worse than the second.

And yet the Matrix was a cult movie in more than the artistic sense of a cult following. There were fans that really came to believe in the "Matrix." And even for fans who could still distinguish between fact and fiction, the movie was taken quite seriously, generating a good deal of philosophical analysis and debate. And this despite its overdraft on the willing suspension of belief.

What accounts for this deep-seated appeal? Two related reasons, I surmise:

i) As touched upon before, The Matrix trades upon an apprehension of and appetite for the transcendent. There is, indeed, more to reality than meets the idea. By dint of natural revelation and common grace, even the unbeliever can intuit the existence of an unseen realm and intangible dimension.

ii) The Matrix pirated redemptive themes from the Christian faith. To be sure, the Wachowsky brothers borrowed a lot of ideas from a lot of folks. But many of these names and allusions were merely clever and incidental.

Yet the redemptive themes run deeper. Neo is a cyber-Messiah. And the Messianic motif is central to the story. In addition, the identity of "Zion," as antipodal to the "Matrix," plays off the Exodus and Eschaton.

This illustrates the fact that post-Christian art cannot revert to the state of pre-Christian art. It can go back on the faith, but it cannot go back of the faith.

Neo cannot be a Savior of his world, for he is a creature of the world. For all he knows, his escape from the Matrix is just another VR program. Only the designer of the Matrix would be in a position to know where illusion ends and reality begins.

Christ can be the Savior of the world, for Christ is the Maker of the world. Neo is from the world, but Christ comes into the world. He knows what the world is really like. And he is able remake a fallen world.

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