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The Matrix Reloaded
Our movie maestro Thomas Wartenberg plugs himself into The Matrix Reloaded but says that philosophically, it was destined to be dull.
I didn’t expect much from The Matrix Reloaded and I was not disappointed. Which is not to say that I didn’t like the first Matrix film. In fact, like many philosophers, I found it fascinating for its ability to turn a philosophical issue into a visual experience. What I have in mind is the film’s updated version of the famous thought experiment devised by René Descartes. In his first Meditation, Descartes takes the fact that our perceptions can be mistaken – our senses can be deceived – to undermine his faith in perceptual truths. The world, he realises, might be nothing like it appears. To keep his habitual beliefs at bay, he says that he needs to do more than simply recognise that perceptions may be untrue, he needs a more concrete supposition to overcome the pull of the accustomed. For this reason, he said, suppose that there is an evil genius, much like God but lacking his beneficence, who gets his kicks by giving you sensations but making sure the world contains no objects corresponding to them.
In The Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers update this scenario by putting a bank of evil computers in the place of Descartes’ evil genius. After a long and devastating war with humans, the victorious computers use humans only as energy sources, farming them in a huge industrial complex. In order, presumably, to keep humans from noticing what’s happening, they plug them into a huge interactive computer program known as the Matrix. What the captive humans experience very much resembles the real world of 1999, the year of the film’s release, but really it is around 2200 and the world is a ruined wasteland.
What was particularly exciting to me as a philosopher of film was the way The Matrix actually gave its viewers a visual experience analogous to that of the Matrix’s inhabitants. As we watch the film, we initially believe in the (fictional) reality of the world we see depicted on the screen. Gradually, as Neo (Keanu Reeves) comes to see that the real world of the film is not the world he has believed himself to have inhabited, we viewers have visual experiences that are similar to his as we see that the film world that we had (fictionally) taken to be real was actually an illusion produced by the Matrix’s computers. In getting its viewers to experience the possibility that their experience could be fundamentally in error, the film thus gives us an independent thought experiment to support Descartes’ contention that, for all we know, there might be no reality corresponding to our sensory experience. And in doing so the film actually philosophizes.
But in the original movie, this exciting use of film as a vehicle for philosophical insight is coupled with other more traditional cinematic techniques. Most worrisome to me was the film’s gradual emergence into a quite standard adventure film with Neo and the other rebels battling the computers and their virtual agents. Despite interesting choreography and special effects – Neo learns that he can do things that are physically impossible because what he had taken to be real was nothing more than a computer projection – the film becomes more mundane as it settles into this adventure mode. Also, the film’s attempts at including additional philosophical content were lame. It’s true that there were some echoes of Plato and Berkeley in Cypher’s (Joe Pantoliano) assertion that, so long as it tastes juicy, an illusory steak is real enough for him. But here, we listen to what he’s saying rather than participating in his philosophic experience as we did earlier in the film. From my point of view, the film’s explicit philosophizing is much less interesting and innovative than its pressing viewers to share the experience posited by a philosophical thought experiment.
By comparison, the philosophical content in Matrix Reloaded was quite thin. The issue that it rather ponderously raises at several points is whether human free will is compatible with a deterministic universe. Now this is a very important and interesting question that has been argued over again and again in different eras and in the context of different assumptions – from that of divine foreknowledge to modern scientific determinism. The idea voiced by several characters in the film is that human beings have already made their choices – that is to say, what we do has already been determined by previous states of the world – so that all we can do is try to understand them. This view is reminiscent of Spinoza, though he had a more sophisticated understanding of what this really meant than the filmmakers seem to. For him, a deterministic universe meant that human beings were not capable of free actions if what that meant was an uncaused action. For Spinoza, freedom amounted to accepting what had to be, for we would then become reconciled to our fate. But, as his life attests, this does not amount to quietism, an acceptance of things as they are. Rather, it means that human agents have to acknowledge the limits of what they are capable of achieving and come to accept what happens to them as part of a necessary plan. I’m not completely sure where the filmmakers come down on this issue since they have various baddies asserting the determinist line and Neo seemingly rejecting the idea. But my concern is less with the film’s actual metaphysics than with the manner in which this philosophical view is presented in the dialogue rather than illustrated through the film’s images. That is, rather than developing a narrative that somehow conveys to us the ‘truth’ of determinism – or its falsity – the film has characters such as the Oracle (Gloria Foster) explicitly raise the issue for Neo and, therefore, us. This does not make for a film that presents philosophy to us in a specifically filmic manner.
Reviews of the film that I have read have focused on the car chase that occupies a good deal of the latter half of the film. The special effects here are pretty impressive, but I didn’t find myself being completely absorbed even by this feature of the film. I wasn’t bored exactly, but this film did not emotionally involve me as fully as its predecessor.
One of the film’s more interesting aspects is its depiction of Neo as being able to alter the Matrix. The visual strategy the film uses is to take an element of the image and render it as a threedimensional graph. What we are to understand, as we see the Neo in the Matrix touch something that assumes this form, is that Neo is actually altering the program of the Matrix and thereby what he, the others, and we perceive through the Matrix. I found this an interesting idea, but one whose coherence requires a bit more explanation than that Neo simply has acquired this power because, as the film repeats in mantra-like fashion, “he is the one.”
The Matrix has generated a flurry of writing from philosophers. In addition to the essay competition in this magazine, there are at least three books already published on the film as well as many articles. Clearly, the film has caught the imaginations of philosophers, who see it as providing them with an opportunity for raising and discussing philosophical ideas. Unfortunately, I can’t see the same interest being evoked by The Matrix Reloaded. It lacks the philosophic punch of the first film. Will the final film of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions – to be released later this year – be better equipped to rekindle philosophers’ interest? I’ll be waiting for its release, my skepticism mingled with hope. But I guess I had already made that decision and now must understand why.
© THOMAS E. WARTENBERG 2003
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He is Visiting Leverhulme Professor in the Film Studies Department at the University of Kent.