Sculpting in Bullet Time:
The Matrix Trilogy Revisited
Note: This essay refers to important plot points in the Matrix films. If you haven’t seen the films and wish to be able to do so without knowing in advance what will happen, please do so before reading this article.
This essay, written for Catholic World Report magazine, is significantly based on reviews and essays previously posted at Decent Films.
By Steven D. Greydanus
The Matrix is everywhere — all around us.— Morpheus, The Matrix
With the complete Matrix trilogy now on DVD and video, perhaps the time has come for one last look at the Wachowski brothers’ brainchild.
Love it, hate it, or ignore it, there’s no getting around it: The Matrix phenomenon has become one of the most pervasive cultural touchstones of our day. It has been and continues to be referenced and expounded upon in university courses, philosophy books and essays, websites, everyday conversations, and even sermons and homilies.The Matrix is simultaneously a philosophical model and a popular myth — a postmodern analogue to both Plato’s cave and Homer’s Odyssey, Descartes’ daemon and Pilgrim’s Progress, the brains-in-vats scenario and Star Wars.
The phenomenon is more than a film, or even a trilogy of films. The complete Matrix experience, for those committed to plumbing its depths, is an intermedia adventure that includes "Enter the Matrix," a narratively complex video game featuring nearly an hour of exclusive footage starring the cast of the films, "The Animatrix," an anthology of animated shorts in various techniques fleshing out the history of the world in which the Matrix stories are set, and a series of comic-book stories.
The Matrix phenomenon began in 1999 with The Matrix, a cinematic fusion of philosophical, literary, and spiritual allusiveness with cyberpunk fiction, Japanese anime and Hong Kong martial-arts influences. Additionally, like Star Wars in the 1970s, The Matrix was powered by a visually innovative approach to action cinematography that redefined action-adventure storytelling for the coming years.
With Star Wars, the breakthrough was a new cinematic vocabulary predicated on computer-controlled camera movements that carried the viewer swooping and diving through George Lucas’s miniature sets. With The Matrix, the Wachowskis made creative use of a photographic process that had been around for awhile but never fully exploited: "bullet-time photography," in which an array of cameras positioned in an arc around their subject fire simultaneously or almost simultaneously, creating the effect of a virtual camera swooping around a subject slowed to motionlessness or near-motionlessness.
Though the principle wasn’t entirely new (for example, a similar effect had been used in a series of Gap TV commercials), the Wachowskis not only developed it far more extensively, they utilized it to evoke a new kind of experience, suggesting a heightened level of awareness on the part of characters whose abilities and physical speed were so great that beside them ordinary people seemed to be standing still.
As a vivid metaphor of expanded consciousness and enlightenment, this visual innovation hypercharged the film’s philosophical and spiritual resonances, capturing the public imagination in a way that would have been unlikely with a merely clever sci‑fi film. Fans studying the film eagerly documented references to Lewis Carroll, Jean Baudrillard, the Bible and Christian theology, Eastern mysticism, Greek mythology and culture, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, Sleeping Beauty, and Superman. Christians, Buddhists, postmodernists, neo-gnostics, and others all found their own beliefs echoed — or undermined — in the film. Books with titles like Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in the Matrix and The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real examined the film from a variety of angles.
With the recent sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, the Wachowskis haven’t again struck quite the popular nerve they did with their first film. Cinematically, despite some technically impressive effects sequences — a large-scale, heavily digitized fight scene; a ballyhooed freeway set piece shot on a quarter-mile loop of highway built for the film; an immense, video-game style sci‑fi siege sequence — no new artistic breakthroughs akin to the first film’s bullet-time are in the offing.
Perhaps the franchise’s artistic significance now lies elsewhere. As mentioned above, the Matrix experience is bigger than the films; and, while it’s not the first franchise to include comic-book and video-game tie-ins, the phenomenon goes beyond the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek in the extent to which the various elements are crafted, not as subordinate spin-offs, but as integral components of a single multimedia storyline.
In fact, the Matrix phenomenon may represent, to a greater extent than any previous film franchise, a landmark in a new kind of narrative: transmedia storytelling, a still-new collaborative art-form concept in which artists in various media work together to create a single multifaceted narrative, with no component necessarily subordinate to any other, each being reasonably complete and satisfying in itself, each contributing to the whole and enriching the experience of the others.
If so, the Matrix phenomenon may be an important experiment, if not quite a successful one. Public disappointment with the sequels suggests that the films, however meaningful they may be to diehard fans immersed in the rest of the franchise, are not able to stand on their own the way the first film was. The strength of the first film lay in part in its ability to communicate powerfully on a popular level to mass audiences, including casual viewers. The sequels, by contrast, seem much more an insider fan phenomenon, rather like the Star Wars prequels in relation to the original trilogy.
The first Matrix film, like the first entries in the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises, follows a familiar, archetypal story pattern Joseph Campbell called "the hero’s journey." A young, uninitiated nobody — in this case, Thomas "Neo" Anderson (Keanu Reeves) — is introduced into a larger conflict in which he is mysteriously destined to play a critical role.
For Neo, this conflict is nothing less than the enslavement of mankind by machines, which grow human beings in liquid-filled pods, transmitting illusory sensory data directly into their brains so that they believe they are leading normal lives in the "real" world.
Because the virtual world — the Matrix — is not real, Neo learns that its artificial rules can be bent, even broken, like a computer program being hacked. What’s more, Neo himself appears uniquely gifted with the potential to transcend utterly the Matrix’s rules and controls, turning the tide in the war against the machines and ultimately bringing about the liberation of mankind.
Now, however, the sequels have failed to deliver on this promise. After seemingly transcending the Matrix’s rules and controls at the end of the first film, in the sequels Neo became quite limited again. The story seemed to get bogged down in a parade of red-herring plotlines and irrelevant supporting characters, mostly programs; and, despite emphatic and repeated foreshadowing about the impeding end of the war, a decisive, satisfying resolution was not forthcoming.
In popular consciousness, then, the first film will probably remain the major cultural touchstone, and popular discussions will probably continue to focus primarily on the concepts outlined in that film, more or less disregarding the sequels.
How should Christians respond to The Matrix? Because the film depicts what is ostensibly the "real world" as an illusion and a prison, many have interpreted it as an allegory of world-denying gnosticism, Buddhism, or Eastern mysticism. Truth, in The Matrix, is a secret, esoteric reality known only to a small, elite group of initiates, just as the gnostics believed in secret or hidden truth known only to themselves.
These gnostic resonances are heightened by various esoteric and pop-mysticism type bits of dialogue, such as: "Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: There is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."
Within the world of the Matrix, it’s quite true that "there is no spoon." However, the line "it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself" is unavoidably pseudo-mystical gibberish, deliberately echoing or resonating with popular pictures of world-denying mysticism.
At the same time, Christians should note that the film as a whole is very far from supporting anything like a gnostic or world-denying contempt for physicality or the body.
First and foremost, although The Matrix depicts a world very much like our world as an illusion and a prison, it does not depict liberation or freedom from that illusion as escape from physicality into a state of disembodied happiness. On the contrary, the "reality" behind the illusions of the Matrix is even more intractably physical — and far more disturbing — than the world of the Matrix itself.
In fact, it’s precisely in the Matrix — not outside of it — that Neo and Morpheus and the others leave behind their real physical bodies and escape, at least partially, the constraints of gravity and other physical laws. Yet the film is quite clear that it’s the quasi-disembodied state of the Matrix that’s the prison, and the real, physical, bodily world, frightening as it is, that represents true freedom.
The heroes of The Matrix are precisely those who have chosen to reject a comforting, disembodied illusion for the freedom of corporeal existence in the physical world, with all its rough edges and sharp corners. "Welcome to the real world," Morpheus tells Neo when he emerges from the Matrix for the first time. Significantly, the one character who does finally choose the Matrix’s disembodied illusion over the reality of the physical world is precisely the traitor.
The film also establishes that, even while in the Matrix, the heroes remain inseparably dependent upon their physical bodies in the physical world. The importance of the body is graphically illustrated in a scene in which a character in the Matrix is prevented from returning to the real world when her body is forcibly unplugged from the Matrix. From a gnostic perspective, we might expect this to be the character’s moment of liberation from the prison of the body. Instead, she dies. This is hardly a gnostic repudiation of the body.
The Matrix further contradicts gnostic attitudes by depicting the common gnostic dream of escape from sex and procreation as part of the nightmare of mankind’s enslavement, and idealizing normal human procreation. While the Matrix’s human slaves are grown in laboratories by the enemy, among the free humans of mankind’s last remaining community are some who are naturally conceived and born. "Me and my brother Dozer, we’re both 100% pure old-fashioned home-grown human, born free, right here in the real world," one of them tells Neo with a smile.
This cheerfully positive attitude toward sex and procreation is the very antithesis of gnostic contempt for physicality. (In the sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, this positive physicality and sexuality is expressed even more forcefully, if objectionably, in a notorious four-minute rave/sex scene that, while hardly morally uplifting, is anything but gnostic or anti-body.)
Significantly, there is one character in The Matrix who shows no enthusiasm for physical or sensory experience, even in the simulated world of the Matrix. In the film’s lone flash of something like real gnostic-like contempt for bodily and physical experience, the malevolent Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) — an enemy computer program — expresses disgust at even the simulation of physicality around him.
"I hate this place," he tells Morpheus. "This zoo, this prison, this… reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it."
Even the film’s traitor, who would rather eat steak in the Matrix than real-world rations on the Nebuchadnezzar, doesn’t exhibit this utter world-rejecting attitude of Agent Smith, the movie’s one true gnostic.
If the premise of The Matrix seems to some Christian viewers genuinely gnostic or world-denying, this may be in part due to a lack of familiarity with the more direct philosophical roots of the premise — specifically, the thought-experiments of Descartes.
Descartes’ philosophical method was to begin by asking whether we can know anything at all — even that our own bodies or any of the things we see are real — since we can imagine that all our perceptions are being generated by a powerful enemy spirit. In subsequent philosophical discussion, Descartes’ hypothetical powerful spirit has often been replaced by a mad scientist, and the hypothesis has come to be known as the "brains in a vat" hypothesis. This — not eastern mysticism or world-denying philosophy — is the real imaginative source of The Matrix’s premise.
Incidentally, Descartes’ conclusion was that we at least know that our own minds have existence (cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am"). From there, Descartes proceeded to argue for the existence of God and thence to the knowability of the world around us. In other words, he effectively rejected the Matrix hypothesis, on the grounds that it would be inconsistent with God’s perfection to permit so absolute a deception to occur. If he’s right, this has obvious implications for the extent to which The Matrix can be regarded as a Christian allegory.
At the same time, the Christian parallels are obvious. In the world of The Matrix, we are told, men are "born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch." We also see a promised deliverer, "The One," who "dies," comes back to life transformed with greater power and authority, and, in the film’s final shot, ascends into heaven, where he prepares for the coming liberation of humanity.
Neo is the "One," but he’s also connected with "Trinity" (Carrie-Anne Moss). It can also be argued that Morpheus, besides being a John the Baptist figure, is additionally a kind of father figure to Neo and the other resistance fighters, forming a "trinity" of heroes. And there’s also a Judas figure (in one scene he and Neo drink from the same cup, as Jesus and Judas dipped in the same dish).
Other resonances with Christianity can also be found. The "fallen" world of the Matrix, we learn, was preceded by a "perfect," paradisiacal simulation-world "where none suffered, where everyone would be happy." But its first inhabitants rejected this blissful environment, leading to the creation of the more familiar Matrix-world. This back-story both echoes the doctrine of the fall and also suggests the impossibility of putting fallen man back into a paradisiacal setting ("I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery," opines Agent Smith).
Despite these Christian and biblical references, The Matrix isn’t really a Christian allegory, any more than it is a gnostic fable. To put it another way, however interesting the film’s Christian references may be from a critical perspective, The Matrix offers little in the way of genuinely edifying or uplifting moral or spiritual significance, at least as regards the Christian parallels.
Certainly Neo is a dynamic hero, perhaps even a charismatic one, but as a Christ-figure he doesn’t inspire the viewer with anything like faith or love. His willingness to face death to save another may be dramatically pleasing, but it lacks any sense of true moral depth, self-sacrifice, humility, service, or love. By contrast, Gandalf and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Fr. Gabriel in The Mission, and even the eponymous hero of The Iron Giant are all much more evocative and inspiring Christ-figures whose various self-sacrifices resonate far more persuasively with Jesus’ passion and death.
More troublingly, Neo’s mission of salvation involves killing dozens of innocent human beings. In the movie’s biggest set piece, Neo and Trinity walk into a government building lobby, armed to the teeth, and begin blowing away dozens of unsuspecting security guards.
From the perspective of real-world moral theology, this is akin to resistance fighters killing innocent, unwitting civilians of an oppressive regime. The film tries to justify the massacre, in part with some philosophizing about people in the Matrix being "part of the system," but it doesn’t wash. Nor does the mere possibility of an Agent taking over the virtual body of one of the guards offer credible justification.
There are also other problematic implications to the film. From a Christian perspective, the whole premise of the unknowing enslavement of all of humanity by machines is a staggeringly apocalyptic event that raises serious eschatological questions: Would God allow all of humanity to be subjected to so immense a deception? Descartes, grandfather of the Matrix hypothesis, argued not.
Consider especially the implications of generations of humans living and dying without real physical contact with one another. While it’s possible to imagine Christian faith existing in such a world (and indeed Morpheus mentions people going to church in the Matrix), the Church itself, and in particular apostolic succession and the papacy, cannot be perpetuated under these conditions, since there is no physical laying on of hands. (This problem is potentially mitigated by the fact that the film does establish that not all of mankind is in the Matrix — there is one surviving human community, Zion, where it’s possible, at least in theory, to imagine the Church having survived. However, with the sequels, from what we actually of Zion it’s hard to imagine Christians, or Jews or Muslims for that matter, existing as part of the cultural mix there.)
In fact, God and religion seem to be basically irrelevant to the characters in the film. Morality, too, tends generally to be a nonissue.
In a word, the original film seems not to be meaningfully gnostic, Christian, or anything else. Rather, it is essentially a sci‑fi action-adventure tale told in a mythic mode, referencing and alluding to biblical and pop-spirituality sources, but in a post-modern narrative way, not a spiritually significant way.
The first film’s East-West philosophical riffing continues into the sequels. "Karma" as well as "love" are among their buzzwords, and in The Matrix Revolutions there’s something reminiscent of a redemptive crucifixion scene.
But the resonances of deeper meaning are gone. Viewed as a trilogy, the Matrix story-arc ironically lacks something common to both gnosticism and Christianity: transcendence, connection to ultimate reality or absolute truth above and beyond the finitude of the created order.
The original Matrix film included hints of transcendent reality interacting in human affairs. Fate, prophecy, chosenness, perhaps even miracles all had a place in the world of the first film — not merely the synthetic world of the Matrix, which would be a mere contrivance of the machines, but the "real" world.
Specifically, the Oracle’s prophecies that the One would free the world from slavery to the machines, that Morpheus would find the One, and above all that Trinity would fall in love with the One — with the attendant consequence that Neo could not die, because Trinity loved him and so he had to be the One — all inexorably had real-world implications. Beyond that, love, freedom, and truth appeared bound up with these transcendent realities in a way that was at least humanistic, if not spiritual.
But the sequels pull the rug out from under this perception with revelations about the Oracle and Neo’s chosenness that, while not making total sense, clearly undercut the first film’s hints of transcendence and higher truth or meaning. In these sequels, Neo may still have special gifts, gifts that inexplicably extend even into the real world, but there’s no sense of his being in any way destined or chosen to accomplish his mission. By the end of the films, Neo’s messianic promise is undercut not only by his diminished abilities, but by what he is actually able to accomplish.
Beyond this, in the end Neo no longer fights for truth, love, or freedom, but in the name of one final ideal: choice. In fact, truth and love and freedom are explicitly and contemptuously debunked as artificial constructs by Agent Smith, and neither Neo nor anyone else can gainsay him. Instead, the only rationale Neo can offer for battling Smith is that he chooses to do so.
If one had to give a name to this picture of finding purpose or direction not in objective values or higher reality but in individual autonomous choices, one might call it existentialism. The Matrix trilogy ends on an existential note, having given up on freedom, love (an early scene in the third film suggests that love is no more than programming), and other basic human values, but leaving the door open for human beings to create values for themselves through their own choices, defying the indifferent universe that ultimately beats them down and destroys them, only to be itself destroyed.
Even so, this final existentialist note doesn’t remotely make the Matrix trilogy a cinematic cyberpunk Nausea, a postmodern action-adventure The Stranger. In a word, it’s not coherent enough. The trilogy is not a thought-out existentialist tract, but a philosophically allusive sci‑fi series that played with everything it could find and gradually discarded most of it, in the end winding up with little worth keeping.
The original Matrix thus remains the most useful, for it represents a stage in the story’s development when anything was possible and everything was interesting. The sequels largely squander the first film’s potential and erode what made it an evocative, interesting film.
In the end, for Christians, the real significance of The Matrix is not what it does or says in itself, but in how it can be used. Not to be adopted wholesale as a Christian allegory, nor opposed as an anti-Christian tract, it should ideally be utilized as a shared frame of reference, a common shorthand with which to raise, clarify, and explore questions — and possible answers — concerning the world, human nature, God, and the nature of truth.