Note: this article was first published in January 2004, in the Tel-Aviv Cinematheque Magazine.
Abstract: “what is the matrix?” This big question that Morpheus presents Neo and us in the first Matrix, has been a matter for debate over the last 5 years. Since then the Matrix has been interpreted as Marxist, Psychoanalytic, Platonist, Post-Modern, Buddhist, Chsristian, Jewish and what have you. This article tries a different approach to this question. While seeking to preserve former interpretive possibilities, it claims: The Matrix is a devouring ideological network. The capitalistic nature of this network is at the center of this piece.
The Matrix Trilogy may be the Star Wars of our generation, creating a new mythology in a new world. It is undoubtedly pretentious in its special effects, and more so in its theory and philosophy, to the point that some critics dismiss the film's lengthy philosophical discussions as hopelessly muddled. Others have looked for coherent meaning in its symbols and langauge, and found exactly what they were looking for - which is to say, they found what they had already believed. That list includes Matxists, Psychoanalysts, Platonists, post-modernists, and even the believers of the world: Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists. Each of them offered his own biased interpertation of the Matrix, like the six blind men who tried to describe an elephant - each was (partly) right, but also very wrong.
The truth is, the matrix is all of these things: seemingly incoherent, and yet Christian and psychoanalytic and post-modern. Yet everyone who has tried to analyze the film using any of these dogmas has have fallen prey to exactly the same deceptive Matrix with which the trilogy deals. The big question everyone is trying to answer -- the one Morpheus presents Neo and us in the first film – is, “what is the matrix?” This question cannot have a single answer because above all the Matrix is simply the Matrix itself, an irreducible term.
Taoism and Buddhism are also very evident in the Matrix. Through the prism of Eastern religion, Neo is not only the Messiah but also “the Enlightened” – the Buddha. Smith tells Neo that the two of them are very similar, and they are. They both identify the self with the world, only in a fundamentally different way. Smith is the Ego, the impurity of Buddhism, the one that sees himself anywhere he looks - egocentricity. This is why, when Smith touches people or other agents, they turn into him. Smith sees himself everywhere. Neo (One), on the other hand, follows the Buddhist ideal of seeing himself as a part of the unity of the universe. Neo can control the world because he is devoid of the ego that separates us from the world and can identify with the universe totally.
In the second movie Morpheus prepares his crowd of believers for the final battle against the machines in a Masada-style speech. Morpheus appears as the prophet of capitalism and calls to the audience: “Tonight, let us send a message to that army.” To explain what he means he adds, “Let us shake this cave! Tonight let us make them remember this is
The cinematic matrix religion of capitalism
In a Marxist reading, one could see Neo’s fight against the agents as a fight against the salesmen of capitalism. Smith, the self-duplicating agent, does look much like one of the businessmen populating
The matrix in that case is a battleground between two kinds of sales agents, and in capitalism it doesn’t matter what you buy, the house always wins. This immunity of the capitalistic network of the Matrix could be seen in the scene at the end of the third Matrix, where agent Neo and agent Smith fight the final battle between mythic skyscrapers. The interesting detail here is that, despite the huge shock waves rising from the ground during this titanic battle and moving as fierce storms between the skyscrapers, those skyscrapers continue to stand and the panes continue to shine.
What could be more ludicrous than Neo appearing on the screen, calling us to leave the illusion and selling us the world of the “real”? Neo’s voice comes from the inner depths of the simulation, Neo and Smith are both agents of the capitalistic Matrix, designed to keep us docile in our seat. Who would dare to rise up from his seat and go outside to “reality” after paying good money to get inside the matrix of cinema?