The Matrix (Groucho II Film Partnership, 1999)

In a post-literate, post-industrial age, where the eyes of the Green Man glimmer not from decaying stonework but from a thousand CPU's, we crave a new mythology. The need for the mythos has not disappeared; as we amuse ourselves with the latest, the cutting edge, the novel, the space within us where our souls would take shelter echoes in vast emptiness. Anaesthetized, we slump in front of the television, pop in the DVD. Distanced -- no, cut off -- from the rituals of time (of harvest and the shifting of the seasons) and space (our conversations happening in virtual rooms, our communities of intention rather than circumstance or geography) we begin to dream it all again.

Follow the white rabbit...

Echoes of Jefferson Airplane, echoing Lewis Carroll, echoing the oldest of Stories, boys or girls innocently following a woodland creature into the heart of adventure. This time, the white rabbit is a tattoo on the shoulder of a mescaline inflamed punk-rock girl..

Wake up, Neo...

When The Wachowski Brothers (three upper case letters: that's the title that writer/directors Andy and Larry have bestowed upon themselves), fresh from the cult mafia-lesbian heatfest Bound, sprang The Matrix upon us, it was quickly looked upon as the latest new thing, a glimpse of the future of film, a kinetic, experimental thrill ride. Its aggressive storytelling and its brutal, often beautiful, violence brought it a large theatrical audience. Its stylistic influence was felt almost immediately, as the advertising world seized on the Wachowskis' stop-time film techniques, and many directors came to feel that their latest product suffered by not having a Matrix homage... The film was one of the early bestsellers of the then-fresh DVD format: special effects featurettes, Dolby sound and weblinks -- all making full use of the new medium. Lost in this forest of novelties, though, was a simple truth: The Matrix was not new. In fact, it is the oldest of Stories, brought back to life.

"The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation - initiation - return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth." - Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

As Prometheus defies the gods to bring fire to humanity, as the Buddha finds enlightenment, so too does Neo awaken... Keanu Reeves is the perfect digital-age everyman. Flat-featured and impassive, with a CRT glow to his pallid skin, Thomas Anderson is a cubicle drone, a programmer with a 'respected software company'. By night, Anderson is known as Neo, a freelance hacker for hire. Neo is obsessed with finding Morpheus, a legendary hacker long on the run from police forces around the world. When the call to adventure comes, as it does for all heroes, it comes literally: Neo's telephone rings. Within moments of screen-time, he is face to face with Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss in sleek back vinyl and leather), another hacker long missing who confides to Neo that what he has been seeking is real, that the Matrix exists...

The blue pill or the red pill?

Neo, as heroes do, denies the call, resists his destiny, falling instead into the hands of Agent Smith (Hugh Weaving), who tempts him with the erasure of his criminal record if only he'll walk away from the world that seems to be opening to him. Neo refuses, instead meeting again with Trinity. He is taken to meet Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne in hipster Zen master mode and an impressively tailored wardrobe), who offers him a choice: "You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe....You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."

Welcome to the real world...

Rather than forcing Neo into an altered mental space, the red pill is a 'tracer', an electronic tracing device. The real world of The Matrix is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, ruled by intelligent machines who farm human beings for their electrical and thermal energy, necessary for the machines' continued survival. And the Matrix itself? The Matrix is everything you see around you, the world we assume to be real. As Morpheus explains, "The Matrix is a computer-generated dreamworld built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this." He taps a battery meaningfully. The red pill not only strips away Neo's illusions, it violently reunites his psyche with his physical body, previously imprisoned in an amniotic soup, fed intravenously on the liquefied remains of other human beings. Bread and circuses... Morpheus believes Neo will be their saviour, The One who can change the shape of the Matrix to his own will, who can work within the program to free humanity, to defeat the machines.

"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive." - Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Drawing from comic books, Westerns, science fiction novels and films, martial arts movies and cyberpunk culture, The Wachowski Brothers have tapped into the well-spring of mythology. Not derivative, though its influences and antecedents are obvious, The Matrix rings with the originality of the great Stories, the soul-burning power of an oft-repeated truth recast and new again. The mythic freight of The Matrix seems so obvious now, but perhaps that is a function of time, and of outside knowledge. Neo's story is not completely told in The Matrix. Two sequels (The Matrix Reload and The Matrix Revolutions) are expected in 2003. The Matrix, itself, stands as merely the first sequence of the mythic tale: separation.

From the initial call to adventure, Neo follows the early cyclic stages of the hero's development as per Campbell's schema in The Hero with A Thousand Faces (despite its -- and his -- shortcomings, The Hero remains essential reading for anyone interested in the mythopoeic arts). From his refusal of the call to the adoption of supernatural aid to his crossing of the threshold into the night world, the world of the adventure, all of the early stages are here. The film ends with Neo on a city street, moments before taking flight. That city street, so familiar to all of us in our quotidian lives is, in this case, the mythworld, the belly of the whale. The road of trials lies ahead.

"One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We're interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. ... These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage..."
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Myths function as the mirror of the soul, holding up both our fears and our beliefs to narrative scrutiny, to examination at a remove. Who cannot relate to The Matrix? Who among us hasn't felt that there was more to the world than we could physically experience? The fears of the industrial age came upon us with the dark satanic mills, and the soulless depersonalization of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Upon first coining the term "cyberspace" 20 years ago, William Gibson in Neuromancer also posited the digital age dichotomy: are you meat, or are you Matrix? The Matrix is the mythological manifestation of that questioning, of those fears and doubts, the thousand and first face of the hero.

Wake up!
Welcome to the real world...

[Robert J. Wiersema]