A French Philosopher Talks Back to Hollywood and 'The Matrix'
by Brent Staples
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard seemed to fight off a yawn when I asked him recently about the celebrity that has come to him through "The Matrix," a futuristic cyber-thriller that hit the screen three years ago and became one of the hottest movies of all time. Before this movie, Mr. Baudrillard's dense little book "Simulacra and Simulation" was studied mainly by cloistered graduate students and theory-heads. Because "The Matrix" cribbed from the book for its dialogue and gave a full-screen shot of the title, "Simulacra and Simulation" has become a cult hit, even though it is difficult to pronounce and not easy to read. The book's profile is likely to rise even higher when the first of two sequels hits the screen next year.
Most writers would swoon over product placement like this. But Mr. Baudrillard was unimpressed when we conversed by e-mail recently. He noted that the film's "borrowings" from his work "stemmed mostly from misunderstandings" and suggested that no movie could ever do justice to the themes of this book. This sounds like a parody of a French intellectual, but it also happens to be true. "Simulacra and Simulation" is a tightly argued manifesto against a world in which humans increasingly appear as props in front of a computer-generated backdrop. Anyone who's read the book will find it hard to watch "Spiderman" or the latest "Star Wars" episode without being perpetually conscious of how the digitalized action scenes overshadow the human actors. Mr. Baudrillard sees the obsession with virtual reality not as mere amusement, but as an attack on the basic distinctions between the "true" and the "false," the imaginary and the real.
This apocalyptic message owes something to the work of the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick (1928-82), a cult figure who wrote extensively about the moral problems that result when the distinctions between the natural and synthetic began to blur through cloning, artificial intelligence and android technology. Mr. Dick foresaw a future in which synthetic beings were mass-produced to be used as soldiers, assassins, Stepford-style love slaves and synthetic families next door, manufactured to keep settlers company when humans colonize other planets.
His most widely known novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" - made into the wildly successful film "Blade Runner" - centered on synthetic beings that escape servitude to pass as human, only to be tracked down and "retired" by a bounty killer. Hollywood's indifference to the moral fine points was evident by the way it changed the plot. The bounty killer in Mr. Dick's novel returns home to a realistically problematic marriage and a flesh-and-blood wife. In the movie, he falls in love and runs away with a synthetic woman manufactured by a firm whose motto is "More human than human." Since "Blade Runner," erotic involvement between humans and androids has evolved into a new form of soft-core cinema porn.
The hero of "The Matrix," played by Keanu Reeves, has the dignity to decline when offered an intimate digital encounter with a virtual blonde. This is a nice touch - and one of many references to Mr. Baudrillard's theories - but not enough to keep the movie from succumbing to the techno- and cyber-chauvinism that the philosopher hammers away at in "Simulacra and Simulation."
The movie portrays a Baudrillardian future in which tyrannical, hyper-intelligent machines have enslaved the human race and connected all the humans by cables to a computer matrix where they live in a virtual reality that only a few suspect to be false. The revolutionaries recruit a select few who participate in a cyber-war to overthrow the machines and restore civilization to its rightful place in the "real world."
The "real world," however, appears almost not at all in this movie. The heroes spend nearly all their time with their brains wired into cyberspace, where their virtual selves run up and down walls and leap effortlessly from one skyscraper top to another. Despite its anti-cyber rhetoric, the movie dwells mainly in the digital sphere, where the distinction between the real and the imaginary is blurry indeed.
The advance publicity on the next "Matrix" film talks about more special effects, suggesting that the real world that the heroes set out to save may have been placed permanently on the back burner. Given the success of digitalized movies like the "Star Wars" series, the merely real could soon be viewed as too boring to appear on film at all.