This past week I watched the original Matrix in preparation for the release of Resurrection, the fourth film in the series. I was curious to see how it held up as it’s been a while, and also because I didn’t enjoy the sequels, and so the first one had gotten buried beneath my growing disinterest in the world. I was interested in exploring why I enjoyed the first one so much and what my struggles with the sequels stemmed from. I think it comes down to the story and how well the films allow the story to be told. The visuals in the first film, given their cultural placement in revolutionizing the game and redefining the action film and the limits of CGI, actually hold up decent, even if they don’t have quite the same impact they had when it first released in theaters. The story though, however buried it might get as the series goes forward, is where the first one truly shines.
Matrix: The Incarnate Word Made Flesh and the Fulfillment of the Messianic Hope
When it comes to the story I think what resonated so strongly for me all those years ago was the way it deals with its messianic themes and the way these themes dial back into some of the most essential existential questions relating to human existence. I can’t remember when I was given this book, but I can imagine it being around a similar time in my life. It was the book How to Win Friends and Influence People: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. That was what began this inevitable journey towards discovering how it is that our lives, as Matrix suggests, are products of our biology/chemistry and how easily these things can be manipulated and controlled and how predictive our actions truly are when pared back to contingency and cause. It challenged the ways I see and distinguish between free will and determinism. That free will does not exist is a basic tenant of the Matrix and a conclusion that I think fits with the smarest minds. That the things we call reality are illusions created by the cultural norms and expeeriences that give us purpose and definition is likewise a key facet of this discussion.
Of course key to the existential wondering of the Matrix is this basic tension between what is better; is ignorance bliss or is it better to face the truth of our existence? And can facing the truth recover the simple and unquestioned ability to embrace life in our willed or unconscious ignorance. That question is arguably up for debate, especially when we consider that positivist approaches to life hinge on these illusions giving us purpose every single day. What disrupts this is of course suffering, oppression, and struggle, which is the motivating force of the resistance movement in the film. Seeing the reality of our enslavement sparks the need for hope. And yet one of the key questions of the Matrix is how we live in hope on the other side of this unveiled reality. To see the need for liberation is one thing. The questions of how we lay claim to promised liberation when reality says otherwise, and further what it means to live as a liberated people when things like personhood and choice are simply illusions we hold to in order to reach liberation is another question altogether.
Here is where the film gets startlingly honest though. There is a common tendency in humanist approaches to conflate or even pit against natural evolution and cultural evolution. Culturally speaking the truth evident in the Matrix is that the natural progression of cultural evolution is the gradual blurring of technology and biology, the product of our creations versus the basic value of the human living in a natural world. Natural evolution plays into this, and even against it, by speaking about human distinctiveness, highlighting humanities drive to “be fruitful and multiply” as a distinct trait and, in the film, equating that with the workings of a virus, the only other life form that shares this trait. This sets the question of our existence into the natural order as a question of survival and necessary change. What the Matrix understands is that lives in tension with a tendency towards human exceptionalism, the move to see cultural evolution as a mark of humanity and as then necessarily winning the war over natural evolution in the same way as the virus. This is where the Matrix doubles down on that peculiar thing called choice, exploring how it is that choice can both be something that is not real but also have real world implications at the same time, caught up in the system that creates us and thus having the power to enslave us as products of this world. The second film explores this a bit more in relationship to that hope. Where choice comes in to play is in this relationship to hope for a healed world versus humans being bound necessarily to our human nature, which the second film posits as the problem of any movement towards necessary human salvation. At best, it offers, we have the greatest potential to thrive when we merely believe that we have choice in a world operating by a benevolent authority or creator, benevolence being something of a contingent term. It is the feeling that we don’t have choice that disrupts the natural order of human evoluiton, and that leads to great potential for destruction, making it challenging to imagine any sort of saving work that rests on human ambition alone.
This is where the film’s messianic themes come into play. The “One” raised up in line with the prophetic voice, the one predicted on the hope of liberation, and one that insists on some level of necessary sacrifice as the contrasting voice to the natural order that holds us in balance. This is how this balance is necessarily broken, with the question of whether it should be up for grabs. What the Matrix imagines though is the nature of such a messianic figure, particularly when it comes to the ancient understanding of such figures being human or divine, is a crucial part of this discussion. This is where we find that familiar Jewish/Christian expectation coming into focus, caught up in its struggle to make sense of a messianic figure that is both human and divine (disrupting the natural order of empire) that stands opposed to the way of Ceasar (as the natural order). The statement “there is a difference between knowing and acting” in the way of truth seems to echo the Jewish/Christian mystery of Divine revelation making known the truth of the relationship between the human and divine natures. This is particularly pertinant when it comes to the “One” needing to invade the space of the Matrix in order to make this truth known, this decending move of the incarnate Word, of God made man, that challenges the upward movement of Ceasar towards becoming the Divine. This is where we find the meeting of heaven and earth in the birth of this messianic figure in the Matrix. We also see this in the Gospels portrayal of Jesus as the fulfllment of Jewish expectations.
As Morphius suggests, hope requires a vision of the future to be true, even if we don’t know the present outcome of our choices. How we lay claim to this promised vision within this conundrum forms a crucial concern of the matrix. The power to enact change comes from choice, but choice itself is contingent on something greater than mere will. Choice after all isn’t actual choice in the way we often mean it. The messianic figure emerges precisely at the point where the choice, which is demonstrated more as the necessary action, is not bound to the same rules as the laws of nature even as it operates within it. This is the Divine nature, which is not defined as the ability to create but rather as the ability to embody the fullness of what intuition or the spirit suggests is goodness itself. The power to speak to a natural world where darkness and death has the last word and to lay claim to a different reality. This is what we find in Neos Resurrection. Without that the story has no hope. As the third film suggests, where good and evil, light and dark are at war, the question is not how this brings about necessary change; that is the limit of humanist ideals as they remain bound to the natural order that demands death and darkness to maintain balance and order. The question is how does change operate within a greater vision of reality. How do we actually lay claim to the promise of a different reality and call it good. Here in lies the problem of choice that is bound to the natural order, the laws of a determinitive nature. Hope then is the freedom to give oursleves to the uncertainty of momentary decisions knowing that good and the light have already layed claim to the victory and been declared as true. This is how the messianic figure lives into the way of this eartly ministry so to speak, much in the way that we see in Christ. As the Gospels repeat over and over, now is not the right time, only in the fulfillment is the fullness of time revealed. Until then we know what we need to hear for this present time, or we hear what we are able to know in this present ime, which is why such a messianic picture plays into the microcosms of the cyclical rise and fall of empires, even as the world continues to change and evolve with time. Questions and truths remain the same. But in the birth of a baby who arrives in the messianic hope we participate in these microcosms of the here and now knowing there is a future reality we can lay claim to as a promised fulfillment.
Matrix Resurrection: Navigating a Post Resurrection Reality
As my story goes, just to rearticulate it for context, I loved the first film, was let down by the second and angered at the third (after having resisted seeing it for the longest time). So I wasn’t actually anticipating much from this fourth entry, or this sequel to the trilogy as they say.
And then some of the initial think pieces started releasing, which seemed to indicate that this latest entry was landing most assuredly for those who loved the first and hated the sequels. That was good news to me as it seemed to suggest that this one might resist the trappings of the bloated action in the sequels and recover the movies strong philosophical core. In a narrative move that proves this latest entries degree of self awareness the film takes the time to actually weave this tension into the story. I’ll get to spoiler thoughts in a moment as there is much to unpack here on a thematic level, but the way it structures the story and this return to the Matrix finds a way to be able to comment on the real world narrative of the franchise even as it works to then recontextualize the narrative for a modern audience with its increased emphasis on living false lives online through screens. One of the questions that it casts onto the table is what precisely defined the story of the Matrix as a cultural phenenon, especially when you consider how widely embraced the first film was and how universally rejected the subsequent installments were. This latest entry makes the decision to not try to recapture that ability to revolutionize the action film through state of the art CGI, instead updating and smoothing out the edges of the some of its trademark CGI and practical action/set pieces for the modern age and then grounding it in an integrated fashion so as to render it a more holistic part of the larger story. The action being simply melded into the overall structure without standing out as it’s defining trait allows the film to double down on the philosophical and existential joruney that pervades this franchise at its core. This is where it shines, so much that it is actually, shockingly enough to me, contending for one of my films of the year. I genuinely think the script, with its emphasis on theme and character, is that strong.
Now for some spoiler thoughts, so I’ll throw the SPOILER WARNING up here.
To repeat, my love for the first film came down to how I saw the film fleshing out the messianic themes within its story. I found the intracy of the story to remain intact through all three, but the second and third films muddle it with the bloated action. Questions then that are as old as time struggle to find their way to breathe through the spectacle and the noise, turning what was rich mythology into some watered down science fiction fantasy.
This fourth installment does the opposite. It does the work of removing the clutter and reclaiming the central story, and what stood out for me again is how it deals with the presence of the One, this messianic figure.
As mentioned, I thought the first three films tapped into, be it unintentionally, some key portions of the Judeo-Christian narrative, especially as it tries to make sense of the messianic figure as having a distinct salvific purpose over and against illusions of empire. The way it presents the decending nature of Neo’s savior like figure over and against assumptions of the ascending figure of the allegorical Caeser, narrowing in the question of how it is that divine and human come together in the One, and how it is that this must, by its nature, break the laws of nature in order to declare liberation in an authoritative sense (which is what happens in the resurrection), was astute and profound, especially when it comes to then contextualizing this into the philosophical wrestling.
What I imagjned as I was watching the fourth, staying with the Judeo-Christian narrative, is a Jewish people facing the destruction of the temple and the next generation asking the question, where is the One who promised liberation. If it was not to remain true, how true then can his resurrection be. Is not his death then made more real than the claims of the resurrection by looking at their present reality? This sits at the heart of Trinity’s assertion that she both longed for Neo’s anticipated return and also wondered why it took him so long to show up. This captures the essence of that Jewish expectation as attempts to wrestle with the messianic presence amidst its lingering absence.
This is what the people, having moved on from Neo and established their own means of “surviving” the present struggle, are forced to contend with when encountering the resurrected Neo. The question at the heart of this film is, what did Neo actually accomplish if the truth of their reality remains the same, and what does his resurrected presence mean for reimagining a different reality moving forward.
One key element that renders their present reality different than the one they faced when Neo first invaded the Matrix is that the battle between good and evil has been decided. Like a good theological exposition of Christus Victor, the film recognizes that this is crucial to asking the follow up question, which is how then does this make sense of the already-not yet nature of our reality. If the state of our world has changed and good has won the war over evil, how do we then enter into a world where evil still exists and live differently, imagine differently. This is at the heart of the Apostle Pauls letters, who calls a people content to simply integrate into the surrounding society and avoid unnecessary conflict to live as though this is true, that Christ actually accomplished something and that this is hope and good news a world still wrestling with the state of things and the ever existing cycle of this clash of empire. This is where revolution flows from.
And here in lies the root of Neos story and the Gospel message. It is by seeing the war between good and evil as an external reality to humanity itself, and as embodied in systems and a natural order predicted on death and suffering rather than hard and fast depictions of good and evil people or a good and evil creation being created evil, that we are then free to see a world where our reality looks different. We are free to see a world where goodness wins, precisely because it has already won and it is reshaping our understanding of who we are and what this created world is. We are free to see humanity, and thus creation as good precisely because it is declared to be so. As this latest Matrix entry suggests, in this new reality the only true power evil has is operating within a Matrix that is self sustaining precisely because it is self decieving. Its power is the lie of a false identity, befitting the Jewish and Christian idea of the Powers being the great Deciever, the author of lies that betrays our true identity. As the system itself says at one point, I exist because this is what the people utlimately want. They want the self deception. They want the illusion. And who’s to say that the illusion isn’t more true than the reality if we experience it that way? The message that emerges then is that this invasion of the Matrix that declares this new reality to be the more fulfilling and true way to life is predicated on relationship, a relationship that in the victory of the first three films begins with the faithfulness of the One to stay true to the promise of self sacrificially coming to the Matrix and bringing the reality of Heaven to it. Here the question then moves to the faithfulness of those who’s lives have been changed by his story. It is in this that the new creation becomes both a reality and a potential. This is what we find in the relationship between Neo and Trintity. As the system declares they will never win over the true desires of the people, and this remains their biggest obstacle, they declare back that as Trintity takes on Christ likeness, beginning with the self sacrificial act, she works in relationship with Neo (the Christ figure) to bring about what has already been declared to be true- that a new world will be built and it begins with them. As it says at one point, the difference between Neo and Smith is that anyone can be Neo while Smith can be anyone. This demonstrates the way in which the good ultimately wins over evil. In God becomming human and humans becomming Christ the world is saved through relationship to the other. With the Matrix people are bound to the system, to the laws, that shape it.
This becomes the powerful picture present in the film. All the questions that the first Matrix tabled and that the franchise has been wrestling with are cast in the truth a new post resurrection reality. What is choice? What is real? What is fate? All of this is reframed as a question of what story we are living in to as we move to image a new creation taking root, one of peace, love and goodness. In Christ, as in Neo, we are given that story, one that must then continue to be told in each new generation. As the film suggests, it is the same story being told over and over again, it is simply a new context. This is how change moves from the embattled place of binaries, of good and evil in contest, to the creative expression that it simply is good. This is the true freedom Christ affords us in the new creation. Otherwise change is left perpetually and eternally trying to write the better ending to the story, something that, as the film suggests, leaves us bound to nature itself where hope and despair are really the same indistinguishble code. This is where we exist by nature, forming things into narratives that give us meaning even as they are based in illusions, forever depending on that which we wish to attain and that which we do not have as the necessary and upholding tension. That is what keeps ‘human” nature both purposed and enslaved, ultimately always leading to systems of power and violence based on scarcity being marketed as abundance. What Neo and Christ announce is that this cycle has been broken, imagined in this embrace of the human and the divine.
I just love this picture so much. As I said, I think it unintentionally captures this Gospel proclamation, which is what makes this so powerful to me. It’s truly rare that you find a film like this tackling serious philopshical questions without deviating into the modern trappings of strict humanist ideals. This is far more challenging than that, and far smarter. It recognizes the weight of its questions while also daring to imagine where it might lead. In truth choosing to escape the Matrix is risky business. It means the abandoment of self for the sake of true freedom. It means facing the questions of god with us head on. And yet the reward is life. And as we gain this life what we find is new meaning and purpose in the call to create, to make, and to serve. And we do so in relationship as we see and know the suffering of others and declare the good news of hope, standing in the truth that the new reality has already arrived in our midst and that because of this we can rest in the promise that our work is in fact building a better world. We and this world and this exisence become broken signposts of the beauty, joy, newness and goodness that define the liberated world over and against the lies of the great Deciever.
Good news that begins with the birth of the one who invades this earthly reality and in whom heaven and earth collide.