Waiting for the big one
by Henry Cabot Beck
'The Matrix' is one of the most-discussed films in recent years.
There are movies designed to fit almost any mood or emotion - horror films can inspire dread, for example, while dramas, romance and suspense films get the heart racing in other ways. Some movies make you feel small and vulnerable, others can boost the spirit. And there are those, like Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), that can create a sense of awe while making you scratch your head. But few, if any, authentic blockbusters have inspired the level of discussion, as "The Matrix" (1999), that Mulligan's stew of kung-fu action picture, Japanese animation film, biblical epic, comic-book yarn and science-fiction adventure. Awash in philosophical notions and odd cultural touch points, it has given rise to a vast number of densely written essays and papers.
Rene Echevarria, a co-producer and writer of such television series as "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Dark Angel," recalls the first time he saw "The Matrix."
"I walked out of the theater thinking that something profound had just passed before my eyes," he says. "I can't say for a fact that I still feel the same today, but at the time, the movie struck me as something unique and powerful. It took a lot of digesting."
For many viewers, the impact of the first film in the trilogy continues to reverberate. And it seems likely that its two sequels, "The Matrix Reloaded," which opens May 15, and "The Matrix Revolutions," due in November, will only serve to expand on the ideas presented in the original.
Whether audiences who have, in the interim, figured out some of the intricacies of "The Matrix" will be affected to quite the same degree by "Reloaded" as they were by the first entry, remains to be seen. One thing is certain: The budget of the sequels will match the ambitious vision of the directors, brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski. If anything, "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" promise to be visually unlike anything else anybody has seen before.
Still, it's undeniable that "The Matrix" has tapped into something unusually meaningful - a well of cosmic disorientation, perhaps - for a pop-culture flick. Consequently, the fan debate and scholarly writings, some of which can be found on the movie's website (www.whatisthematrix.com), stretch way beyond the kind of casual curiosity most films elicit.
Deep in the psyche
Some of the essays and articles deal with the technological aspects of the film, the hard science material, the actors and characters, stuff that is fairly typical of any big effects-driven sci-fi film. But also to be found on the Web site, and all over the Internet, are papers that place "The Matrix" at the heart of something so deep in the human psyche that it reaches back two millennia and beyond, to a time when early Christian sects - specifically those known as the Gnostics - had ingested elements of various Middle Eastern and Asian religious ideas.
Like the Resistance fighters in "The Matrix," the Gnostics were a small rebellious group that believed the world was being manipulated by a malevolent God, a deity that created a world of suffering and pain. They further believed that only a handful of individuals could achieve true Gnosis ("mystical knowledge"), lifting the veil long enough to see the inner workings of the universe.
Michel Dejardins, professor of Religion and Culture at Wilford Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, uses Gnostic texts, the Gnostic-influenced novels of science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and movies like "The Matrix" in his classroom.
"It's very much an idea in the Gnostic philosophy that you can somehow put on the special glasses, as it were, and perceive the world in a way that others can't, that you wake up when others are fast asleep," says Dejardins.
In "The Matrix" storyline, our world has been reconfigured as a program, generated by thinking machines, who have enslaved the human population and are feeding them the fantasy of a workaday world. "The Matrix is everywhere," the Resistance leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo (Keanu Reeves), the potential savior. "It is all around us even now, in this room. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. "You were born into bondage, into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch," he adds, "a prison for your mind."
Even more interesting is the idea, briefly touched upon in the film, that the fantasy is a deliberately flawed one, one that at best keeps people only moderately contented. As the main villain, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), says at one point in the film, "The first Matrix was designed to be the perfect human world ... where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. As a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering."
Dejardins suggests that this reflects contemporary perspectives on the story of the Fall of Man. "There is a line of thinking that the snake is not a devil but a liberator," he says, "and that the Garden of Eden is a sort of forced paradise, that once they gain real insight, Adam and Eve deliberately escape."
Living an illusion
Erik Davis, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, and author of the book "Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information," says, "As we engage more and more with virtual worlds and virtual realities, be it computer games, Hollywood special effects or Internet situations, we are inclined to ask this fundamental question: What if the entire world as we know it is some kind of artificial construct, an imposed reality? And that idea especially resonates with kids who are growing up surrounded by any number of sophisticated simulations.
"There's a profound unhappiness at work, a feeling that there's something wrong with the world, something amiss," Davis adds. "And people can easily begin to believe that what we know is actually an illusion, and that there may be some other, better world outside of it. Once you start asking what is and isn't real, you start to connect up with much older ideas, whether it's Gnosticism or the Hindu idea that everything is maya [the illusion of the reality of sensory experience], and that, in turn, becomes good fodder for films like 'Blade Runner' , 'The Truman Show'  and 'Dark City' ."
Many of these ideas were introduced to pop culture through Philip K. Dick's later novels, especially "VALIS" (1981), a book steeped in Gnosticism. It's hard not to see the influence on "The Matrix" of "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall" (1990), which were both based on Dick stories dealing with illusions, paranoia and malevolent authority (as was last year's "Minority Report").
"One reason we like Philip K. Dick is because he was never part of the bigger machine," says Davis. "And being marginal may be one of the only ways to stay outside the mechanism. When a film like 'The Matrix' becomes such an enormous success, it effectively becomes part of the machine, part of the problem, just another kind of Matrix.
"It's a very tricky thing, but it's not just on the level of some postmodern irony about how everything is a construct or simulation," Davis adds. "'The Matrix,' and hopefully people who have gotten more deeply involved with some of the philosophical angles on this material, have a deeper drive for something truer, and more liberating."
The story so far
In "The Matrix," Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Cypher (Joey Pantoliano) and other members of a group of rebel fighters are determined to end the occupation of Earth by artificial-intelligence machines, who have enslaved all but a handful of humans. Their only hope is to find The One - or Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker. The rebels free Neo from physical and mental bondage and help him to discover his heritage, while constantly battling the machines and the treacherous Cypher.
In "The Matrix Reloaded," Neo will discover the extent of his own abilities and continue the fight for truth, justice and the human way as he helps the rebels protect the few remaining humans, who are hidden near the Earth's core in the city of Zion. He will also find more time to continue his love affair with Trinity. Expect amazing battles, an astonishing car chase, heinous villainy and enough special effects to bury most of the summer competition.
What you need to know
The Matrix: An elaborate computer program that keeps humans' minds busy while their life force is being drained to feed the power needs of artificially intelligent machines that have taken over the Real World. Humans who believe they are active and engaged in daily business are actually kept afloat in elaborate mechanical wombs, oblivious to the truth.
Zion: The last human city, deep below the Earth's surface, inhabited by people who are not plugged in to the Matrix. Zion is in constant danger of discovery and destruction.
The Agents: The bad guys, who dress in Kennedy-era suits, and who travel around the Matrix as a sort of Gestapo. They can possess the (virtual) bodies of anyone they choose, they are very hard to hurt, and in the new movie they can evidently clone themselves.
The Resistance: Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is the general of a band of vigilante fighters who travel within and without the Matrix, engaging the Agents in battle and working in the Real World to protect Zion from being found.
The Ships: Morpheus is also the captain of one of a number of ships that travel within the crumbling underground infrastructure of the Real World, always dodging from a group of mechanical nasties known as the Sentinals or...
The Squiddies: These vicious predators attack without mercy, using tentacles and laser beams to kill humans and destroy ships. Expect to see a lot of them in "The Matrix Reloaded."
EMP: Electro-Magnetic Pulse - the only weapon the Resistance has that will effectively knock out all mechanical and electrical energy within a given area, including that which fuels the Squiddies. The down side is that it also knocks out the ships as well.
The Twins: In the new movie, there is a pair of independent bad guys (played by Adrian and Neil Rayment) who have some interesting ghost powers and whose hair seems to have a life of its own. Though they look a bit like Milli Vanilli, rest assured they are not.
Jacking in: The means of traveling from the Real World to the Matrix. It involves having a spike driven into a port on the back of the head. The bad news is that getting out involves finding a convenient and rare (non-cell) phone, and the really bad news is that dying in the Matrix means dying in the Real World as well. The only one to have survived such a death is ...
Neo: a.k.a. The One: Part Jesus, part Superman and part Bruce Lee, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is the person the Resistance has been waiting for. He can manipulate the Matrix as well as the Agents, which means he can fly and do other neat stuff, as we will see in "The Matrix Reloaded."