Original creation date: 20 May 2003
Last edit: 12 February 2006
What follows below is a comparative-literature-style exegesis of selected parts of Matrix Reloaded. My basic thesis is that Matrix Reloaded is a story about Genesis. Not the creation story. I mean the transcendence story that comes immediately after the creation story, in which the serpent, who is Loki the Inventor God, who is Neo, leads humanity from the Garden into Middle Earth. (I have a sneaking suspicion the three-movie arc is going to be about machine evolution as well.)
Foreword on disobedience
“I am not a number! I am a free man!” — Number 6, The Prisoner
“Afterward, I knew the rules, I understood what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey.” –Agent Smith, The Matrix: Reloaded
Thomas Anderson was a disobedient fellow. He was frequently late for work. He didn’t do as he was told. He had a problem with authority. Fans of the first Matrix film identified with Thomas Anderson because of that rebelliousness. We all grinned when Thomas Anderson offered to give Agent Smith “the finger” in the interrogation room. So let’s imagine for a moment that our boy Tom had done what was expected of him. Suppose after being scolded by his manager, Tom learned his lesson, went back to his cubicle, and conformed.
Not much of a story. There’s Tom, working as he should in his cubicle. The end. Tom just became part of the machine. A robot. A machine.
As luck would have it, Mr. Anderson is compelled to disobey and we have a story after all. But it is not just about having a story. Not hardly. It is really about choice, which is what Neo realizes in the Architect’s chamber. When you get down to it, there are only two fundamental choices: you can choose to be robot or you can choose to be human; asleep or awake; dead or alive. Someone will always be telling you what to do. The robot, tin-chested and lifeless, does what he is told. The robot obeys. The human being disobeys. The human being gives Agent Smith the finger. The human being eats the apple.
The Architect gave Neo the same two choices. Neo chose not to be part of the machinery of the Matrix any longer. After that he was free.
P.S. If I could put 14 colors of flashing bold italics on the word “disobey” I would do that. Disobey. You are not a human being until you give the Man the finger.
Foundation of criticism
I am really displeased by all the “liar” commentary that has sprung up about this movie. [Ed: This has of course since disappeared, but at the time between Reloaded and Revolutions the most popular theory to explain Neo’s apparently supernatural powers was that they were in another layer of the Matrix. I recognized this for B.S. and was irritated enough to write this entire essay in an effort to refute it.] For some reason, people find it easier to conclude that the characters in the movie are all trying to deceive each other, and that the film-makers are trying to deceive the audience, than to come up with a coherent analysis of the movie. I especially do not like the idea that the audience is being tricked. That is a very poor theory that does not require a criticism that works within the framework of what we see in the story. You see, if we are being tricked, then we can advance any crazy theory we like and no one can argue against it. To make the crazy theory “fit” we just have to keep calling everyone a liar.
Therefore I will take these to be the foundations of my criticism:
- No one in the movie is “lying.” For example, when Agent Smith tells Neo there is a connection between them, there really is.
- The movies themselves are not lying to the audience. That is, the first movie was not one big lie. Also, the core group’s escape from the Matrix to the real world was not a lie. The real world is really real (i.e., the two-Matrix theory is bunk).
- I am very textually oriented and I believe we can construct a good analysis of the movie based solely on what evidence we can find in the movie itself. Things like “affective” interpretations do not matter much to me. (I think affective approaches are not arguable, therefore moot.)
- Despite that, I do believe that many (good) authors are very intentional with their references and scene choices. Story scenes are there for a reason, not just to fill time or show boobs. So it is with our Wachowski bros. If something is in the movie, I will assume they meant it to be there and are not just being gratuitous.
- Following on #3, I have tried to disallow The Animatrix and Enter the Matrix as evidence for any part of this essay. I do not entirely succeed. Cope.
“So God created man in his own image…And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.” –Genesis 1:27;31
The Architect is God as we see him in the creation stories of Genesis (there are two creation stories). This God has some particular characteristics. He created earth in six days, then took a break, then commenced taking leisurely evening walks in the Garden of Eden. And, well, that is about it for God. He is apparently content do this forever and ever, amen. Oh,except for one more thing. He put up a couple of special trees and told the humans not to eat their fruit. They were the forbidden fruits of the Trees of Knowledge and of Life. And so it is with our Architect. He created the Matrix and now sits back in his comfy chair watching everything unfold on his TV sets. Just like our early Genesis God, the Architect cautioned his charges against too much knowledge. Both Gods say, “Here is a perfect world for you to live in. Just don’t start thinking too hard about why you’re here, or where the rain comes from, or basically how any of this works.”
This is the Creator God, the Father God. Brahma is a good parallel. Brahma creates the world but does not rule it. Brahma essentially just sits on his lotus flower. He is like the cosmic Clock-maker of the Deists who winds up the springs and then only watches things happen. But in addition to this Brahma-like quality, the Genesis God and the Architect both have this forbiddance against knowledge.
And, of course, there is the serpent.
In the Garden of Eden, everything is taken care of. It’s a paradise, right? There is no suffering. Recall Agent Smith from the first film, who said, “the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world. Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy.” The Architect confirms this in Reloaded. (There is not a one-to-one correlation between Matrix versions and the Garden — they are all the Garden from various viewpoints.) The Garden is also timeless, a quality shared by the Matrix. This is a point that has been made extremely well by others, a good example of which appears on the comments page. Just how long has it been 1999 in this version of the Matrix? Maybe hundreds of years. Nothing ever changes; it’s perfect already, so it cannot possibly change. It isn’t alive, either, because change is necessary for growth and life. And so we introduce the Tree of Knowledge, through Morpheus (a human being). New knowledge is change: the exit from the immortal, perfect, unchanging Garden into the field of time. In the Matrix, this exit appears as the taking of the red pill.
Now back to the topic of the serpent. It’s often overlooked that the serpent was created by God and put into the Garden. I mean, who else would have created him? It is a mistake to read Genesis with the assumption that the serpent is evil. He’s not any more evil than dish soap is evil for breaking up the grease on your plate. One (I think good) translation of the adjectives applied to the serpent is “crafty.” As in, he has knowledge of crafts. This is really Loki, who is also branded as a deceiver or a trickster, and that’s part of his nature, but Loki also brings new technology: he is crafty, an innovator. He is the quintessential hacker. At first I always identified Neo with Loki, but in the first movie I think Morpheus fits the bill better, at least in the beginning. (By the end of the first movie it is 100% Neo, as it will be for the rest of the trilogy. This is a good fit, too, because Morpheus was the mentor, the guru, that showed Neo the door to enlightenment. After that, Neo surpasses Morpheus.) Either way, the role is the same: “tempting” people with the forbidden fruit — the red pill — so that they may exit the Garden into the real world of suffering and the passage of time.
As a small sidenote about this topic, notice how it is only after Neo is first awakened from the Matrix that he gets any sense of what year it really is.
The essential point of the red pill and the “Loki effect” is that, just like in Genesis, both of these things were designed into the Matrix by the Architect. And that puts the Architect’s relationship to Neo in a very interesting light. I used to say the Architect did a touchdown dance when Neo finally broke free of the cycle and chose Trinity. That’s still true, but I found that too many people misunderstood what I was saying. The Architect, with the obvious assistance of the Oracle, designed into the Garden a way to exit its borders. I feel that this is really profound. What possible reason was there to put an exit door on the Garden of Eden unless God wants you to disobey. If you don’t, if you always do what you’re told, you are only a machine.
When they are put in the same room together, I find it interesting that there is a stark visual contrast between Neo and the Architect. The Architect is in all white and Neo, well, he looks just like the devil himself in all black. This is a pretty good interpretation. The Architect’s Godliness is established, because he created the world. Neo at this point has fully taken on the Loki/serpent role. We are not talking about good and evil here. The serpent in the Garden isn’t a force of evil. It is a force of change, of opening the exit-door from the Garden that God Himself put there. The serpent is a catalyst, inviting us to think rationally about our surroundings. On one hand, the serpent is responsible for putting events in motion that lead to the invention of agriculture, and so the serpent is the inventor god, i.e., Loki. On the other hand, the very idea of a snake is the most rudimentary image of life (life equals change), and so by “following the serpent” we exit the timeless Garden and descend into the field of time. It is only by leaving the Garden that we can awaken to genuine humanity. It’s pretty clear that being in the real world is better than being in the Matrix. We somehow get a sense of revulsion when Cypher makes his deal with Smith. Plug me back into the Matrix. It’s skin-crawling. The real world might be harder and dirtier, but at least you are conscious. On a very primitive level we know it’s better to be free than to be well fed (c.f. the juicy, delicious steak).
And so we have Neo positioned as the serpent, acting to subvert the Architect’s creation. Thus, Neo is the devil. The important part while we are analyzing the Architect is that Neo is a devil created by the Architect. On second thought, Neo represents the devil element that was designed into the Matrix by the Architect. (Neo-the-devil may be more a child of the Mother than of the Father.) In other words, God put the devil into the world in order to achieve some greater purpose.
Below are several lines of dialogue from the Architect scene, and I will use them to discover what is really going on with Neo and the Architect. These lines aren’t sequential; they’re just the ones I want to highlight.
ARCHITECT – You have many questions, and although the process has altered your consciousness, you remain irrevocably human.
I stand by the idea that the Architect does not lie during this conversation. He tells us quite directly that Neo is a human being. This should put to rest all theories that Neo is a computer program. Those were some of the worst, most misguided theories I’d ever heard. It’s important that we establish Neo as a human being, because the story is meaningless if he’s just doing what he’s programmed to do. [Ed: Oh, goodness, that’s a very interesting sentence. Remember the part about disobedience? That is, not doing what you are “programmed” to do.]
ARCHITECT – That [response] was quicker than the others.
ARCHITECT – While the others experienced this [attachment] in a very general way, your experience is far more specific. Vis-a-vis, love.
The translation here is very plain. There have been “others” — other Neos — and this one is different. We have already had this difference demonstrated in the Merovingian scene, but it is confirmed here. Neo is at first treated as “just another incarnation” by the Merovingian. But Neo expresses a level of skill that the Merovingian does not expect. In addition, Persephone, the “love detector” helps us understand that Neo has a special, powerful connection with Trinity. The fact that this incarnation is different also means that the previous five all chose the right-hand door. [Ed: I honestly haven’t watched this carefully enough, despite the 10 or 12 times I’ve seen the movie. I imagine it’s the right-hand door, but maybe I’m wrong.]
ARCHITECT – I prefer counting from the emergence of one integral anomaly to the emergence of the next, in which case this is the sixth version.
There have been five previous incarnations of Neo. This is similar to the Hindu god Indra being confronted by the fact that there have been countless previous Indras. It means: you are a part of something greater than yourself. There is also a tremendous significance in the fact that the present Neo is the sixth incarnation.
ARCHITECT – [The Mother] stumbled upon a solution whereby nearly 99.9% of all test subjects accepted the program, as long as they were given a choice.
NEO – Choice. The problem is choice.
How many times was the idea of choice and free will raised in Reloaded? Quite a few. It comes down to this moment, and both the Architect and Neo state it clearly. This is about choice. Neo’s choice — between the right-hand door or the left-hand door — is a magnified, superconcentrated version of the choice given to all humans connected to the Matrix. Will you accept the world you’re given, or will you follow the serpent? This choice is why Neo and the Architect are shown as competing opposites — the God and the devil. They are the embodiment of the two choices. However, by design, there is an exit. There is a way out for the Sixth One, the manifestation of the Sixth Day — the genuine human being. Neo takes this exit.
My belief is that the Architect is hoping that Neo chooses the left-hand door. (Or whichever door it is. The Exit.) In other words, I am saying (1) that the Architect is hoping for something and (2) the thing he is hoping for is that Neo chooses Trinity. There are several key pieces of evidence for this belief. What tips the scales for me is the “parting shot” from the Architect:
ARCHITECT – Hope. It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.
Why does the Architect say this? Why does he mention the word “hope”? Why didn’t he simply say, “So long, dummy?” I think it is because this is a moment of fulfillment for the Architect. He knows his job is finished, because by choosing the way out, Neo is going to destroy the Matrix. I thought perhaps by ending on “weakness” the Architect was classifying Neo’s choice as a bad one. Not so. Weakness is a state of non-perfection. Human beings are defined by their imperfections, their weaknesses. So this is a statement of liberation from perfection. Neo is breaking free. He is exiting the Garden.
But the Architect is also saying something much more profound than that. Look very carefully at the sentence. The Architect is saying that Neo isquintessentially human. That is, Neo has truly transcended his boundaries by choosing Trinity. He has genuinely exercised free will. And that leads to the most incredible part of the relationship between the Architect and Neo.
Neo #6 is the creation of man on the sixth day. The true human being, who disobeys, who leaves the Garden and finds his own way back.
The rave scene
By “the rave scene” I mean the one immediately following the address by Morpheus to the people of Zion, and then everyone dances and Trinity and Neo go off by themselves (ahem). This scene received a storm of bad commentary. People said, “that scene sucked,” or, “it was way too long,” or, most often, “that scene was totally unnecessary.”
Oh, how wrong. It’s not that the story information in this scene could not have been presented differently. But the scene did its job very well. (To be fair, I have seen a lot of people “get” this scene, but still not like it. Clue stick: life is dirty.)
First, just as we enter this scene we see that it is in a kind of temple. No fancy interpretation necessary: this is a spiritual event. That initial view means everything that happens for the rest of the scene should be interpreted as having spiritual significance. And here are the highlights:
- Repeated shots of feet on the ground.
- People dancing in a sexually provocative manner.
- Almost everyone has at least some African ethnicity.
- Wide shots showing molten lava at the center of the cathedral.
- Neo and Trinity are naked, and have sex.
The feet on the ground means that Zion is on Earth. Plain and simple. This parallels the Architect scene, and gets to the main thesis. We are cast out of the “perfection” of Heaven and living in the Real World. Symbolically, the Matrix is Heaven. Cypher makes this point in the first movie. The Real World is hard, dirty, and uncomfortable. The Matrix is, well, paradise. This point is made again in the first movie by Agent Smith, who calls the Matrix “the perfect human world” [paraphrased]. Recall that the Architect scene happens in utterly clean, utterly white perfection.
The Biblical reference is clear enough. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, and the rest of Zion have rejected God’s Garden of Eden where all their needs are taken care of in favor of a hard, scrabbling existence where at least they have free will.
A minor diversion: This is how we come to interpret the serpent in the Garden as the inventor (or hacker, or technologist). The serpent is the catalyst for curiosity and the invention of agriculture. He asks significant questions, of the form: “God gave you such-and-such rules. Given those rules, should not such-and-such a result be possible?” The reason he posits questions like that is because he has to. On Earth, you will either invent or you will perish. [Diversion from the diversion: I understand such figures (e.g., the serpent, Loki) to be abstract models of parts of our own psyches. So this part of Genesisreally means that a human being or group of human beings will begin spiritual growth by asking the type of questions posed by the serpent. Taken another way, God wants us to be curious, rational, and…well, to apply the scientific method.]
Now about the sexuality of the dance. Morpheus’ speech before the dance helps us interpret the meaning of the dance: we are in the Real World of flesh and blood and dirt and animal instinct. This is not Heaven where divine, passionless entities “do what they are there to do.” (There is entirely another thesis in those words.) This is Passion and Feeling. The first interview with the Merovingian included an “orgasm sequence” meant to make a point about free will. But did you notice how the orgasm played out? It was explosive but mechanical. Not anything like the animal lust of the dance scene. In Zion, we see human beings neither rejecting their animal selves, nor completely giving over to their animal selves either — it is a human activity with choice and rhythm and purpose, but also filled with basic impulses. In other words, they are reveling in their humanity.
Another diversion: I hate to do this again, but I don’t want the point to get away. Mythology of all stripes teaches that we are between worlds. The very Nordic concept of “Middle Earth” means literally “in the middle between the animal world and the divine world.” To be human is to stand in between animal instinct and godliness. Morpheus in his speech talks about the actions of those present resonating “from red core to black sky” — i.e., between the two. The “red core” is the animal, warlike heart. (I’ll touch again on this in a few paragraphs.) The “black sky” is the Dome of Heaven, what we might call simply Sky. (That it is black gives it double meaning, but I will not explore that here.)
The African ethnicity says something important too. Africa is the birthplace of humanity. Then, symbolically, African ethnicity signals what is fundamental about human beings. It also signals, plainly enough, birth, in more ways that one. If Africa is the “birthplace” then we can say Africa is the Mother. (Yes! You got it now, didn’t you? Suddenly you are interested in the Oracle.) (Genesis is a birth story. I think it is also a resurrection story, which is why there are so many interesting links and parallels in Biblical stories, and why the recurrent theme of resurrection in The Matrix movies is very compelling.)
Continuing on the Mother theme, we have the wide-angle shots of the belly of the Earth gurgling lava and steam. This has two meanings. The first meaning is the quick interpretation (which happens to be right). It’s supposed to make you think of Hell. This is a good complement to the Earth imagery we got from the muddy feet and the African-ness of the dancers. Before anyone thinks I’m equating Africa with Hell, pay closer attention. The dance doesn’t happen inHell, but basically at its gates. It sets up Zion as the antithesis of the “Heaven” of the Matrix. (If you are still clinging to the Matrix-within-a-Matrix theory, give it up now. Zion and the Matrix are consistently portrayed as opposites. Therefore, if the Matrix is a virtual world, Zion is the real world. Really. Really, really.)
The other meaning of the firey lava is that we are in the “womb” of the Earth. The very core, the center. The birth connection is easy enough, I won’t draw it out. I’ll say this though — Kali is the goddess of death and birth combined. That is what the lava cavern is all about. Go watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The core is deadly, but it is also a holy place where humanity is born. There are a number of Native American creation stories that start with the first people climbing out of a hole in the ground. If you don’t understand that metaphor, you have no imagination whatsoever.
And then we’ve got the sex scene. It doesn’t take much brain power to realize that the way the movie cuts between the dance scene and the sex scene means that they symbolize the same thing. This really seals it as far as interpretations go. The main things you have to take away from this are:
- They are naked and having sex. What’s important is that they clearly are in love with each other — remember, the machines don’t comprehend this. Also they are having pretty good sex, which is embracing their animal sides — remember, we’re not in Heaven but on Earth, close to the gates of Hell. Run with that concept a while.
- We are confronted with the left-over sockets in their bodies from their years in the Matrix. The camera spends a lot of time showing those sockets. They still have the marks of Heaven, but now they have “fallen” (remember how Neo fell?) to Earth. They have rejected the Garden, but it frees them into humanity in Middle-Earth.
ARCHITECT: If I am the Father of the Matrix, then she would undoubtedly be its Mother.
NEO: The Oracle.
Those two lines sum up a tremendous amount of the story. But what exactly is the Oracle the mother of? The Architect designed a perfect Matrix in versions 1.0 and 2.0, and both failed. He couldn’t completely capture what it was to be human. It took another program to do that, one “less bound by the parameters of perfection.” The answer came from an “intuitive” program. The Oracle. The part she contributed that he could not was Neo.
Very briefly, I want to detour to stamp out the idea that the Oracle is not the Mother. [Ed: This perception has gone away since the time this essay was written. But back then, it was extremely common for people to put forth crazy ideas about this Mother business.] This is as much a wrong interpretation as the Matrix-in-a-Matrix theory is. Mostly, people want to believe that Persephone is the Mother. There are some good reasons why the Oracle is a better choice than Persephone. We can start with her name. The Wachowskis do not pick names at random. They didn’t choose the name “Neo” by accident, and they surely did not choose the name “Persephone” just because it sounds neat. Persephone is not a mother figure in mythology. Not coincidentally, she is nothing like a mother figure in the movie either. I am not saying Persephone is an unimportant character, but she is definitely not the Mother. The Oracle on the other hand, portrayed so well by the late Gloria Foster, is every bit the mother figure. She gives Neo fresh-baked cookies when he first meets her, for Pete’s sake. Who the else gives you fresh baked cookies other than your mother! OK, detour over.
Or, maybe not quite.
I made a quick reference to Kali a while back. She is the goddess of both birth and death — that is, she brings death-and-rebirth to the universe. This illuminates the flaw in Architect’s previous Matrices, defines who the Oracle is, and reveals precisely the limit of the machines’ intelligence (and why the Architect cannot entirely predict Neo’s behavior; perhaps the Oracle actually can, though). The cycle of death-and-rebirth is equivalent to GROWTH. You know: things die, and their remains are feasted upon, and therefore generate new life. It’s the way of things, and can’t be avoided. We can apply that truth to basic physical existence, the death and consumption of another to yield bodily growth. We can also take that as a spiritual metaphor. That is, there is no spiritual growth (i.e., becoming fully human and entering Middle Earth) without death and rebirth.
The reason the previous Matrices failed was that there was no way for the humans to grow, a need so fundamental that no one would accept the world they were given. Agent Smith, in the first movie, tells the truth when he says “humans define their world through suffering.” Death must come before rebirth. How many times has that progression been shown in these movies so far? This is absolutely central to the theme. Smith’s recognition of it is portentous. Given no other demand, life on Middle Earth would slowly expire, and result in death. When a loved one dies, he is no longer present, and is missed. That is suffering: the passage of things into time. And, in truth, we humans define our life by it, and no other. “Life is pain, Highness,” says Wesley, a.k.a. the Dread Pirate Roberts. “Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” Too true.
The fact that the Architect designed two entire Matrices without the capacity for human growth, i.e., real suffering, indicates that the machines have little comprehension of growth. In fact, they can’t grow; they strive instead for static perfection. The only way they have “grown” so far is in response to human actions. The Oracle knows this, which is why she says “the only way forward is together” [paraphrased]. She knows that the machines will stagnate without humans to lead them forward.
[Ed: This cuts straight to the core of the whole story, and dismisses why the machines don’t use cows for power. They don’t want power, they want thefrission of suffering. How will an immortal machine suffer, die, and grow? It can’t! So they use humans to generate that kind of energy for them. THAT is what they need, not mere motivation. By the way, “electricity” in itself carries this kind of mythic quality.]
So…the Oracle is Kali. She brings death and misery to the world, but also renewal, precisely what the machines need to go anywhere, anyway, at all. She could have prevented a lot of misery by imparting her foreknowledge, but she doesn’t. She reserves it for whomever is ready — whomever knows himself enough. She doesn’t deprive humanity of it’s wont to suffer. We like it! You see? It’s our own wish to suffer that keeps us from the Oracle’s knowledge, i.e., Neo not being ready, and this is about disoebedience, and therefore has to do with another essay that I will write on that subject. Suffice to say that weMUST disoebey and have suffering in order to become genuine human beings. Else we are robots. Machines.
I suggested that the Oracle may be able to truly predict Neo’s behavior. She “birthed” the Neo routine into the Matrix. It is her special child, and therefore Neo is her child, and she is the Mother (you see?). The Architect doesn’t understand it (or Neo). He merely knows the parameters of how it is supposed to function. But if the Oracle gifted growth to the Matrix, then she must understand it (even if she herself cannot do it). To wit, you cannot grow and remain static at the same time. The Architect thinks the Neo routine is a method for maintaining a static system, but it cannot be so. Growing cannot be quantified! Each time the routine runs, the death-and-rebirth cycle repeats, and all of humanity grows up a little more, expressed specifically as Neo. By its very nature, by its will to grow, humanity will reject this Matrix too. Like Matrices 1.0 and 2.0, this one will also be destroyed.
I think there is something special with this “The One” business. The Architect and the Merovingian talk about predecessors and previous versions of “Neo.” I suspect that each time around he (or she!) was a little more powerful, although it might have been unexpressed or undetectable to the machines. We have plenty of Buddhist/Hindu reincarnation clues in these movies, and we can say that each incarnation was the same soul growing toward Enlightenment. In the first movie, the Oracle tells Neo he is not yet The One. “I don’t know what you’re waiting for,” she says. “Your next life, maybe.” She isn’t talking about his fulfillment of the death-and-rebirth routine built into the Matrix. She is talking about the continually reincarnated Neo evolving into THE ONE, which is something she knows is bound to happen eventually. In fact, it takes six — no, wait, seven! — incarnations to get there. Humankind will commune with Godkind at the end, and become ONE….THE ONE.
And now we get back to the conclusion about the Architect. The Hindu trinity includes Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Each god has his consort, who reflects and compliments the god’s own power. So we make a small substitution and replace Shiva with his goddess counterpart, Kali, who is the Oracle. As I mentioned earlier, the Architect is Brahma. They are working together to create the enlightened human being — Neo — but perhaps also the enlightened machine. And if this trinity holds, then we will need to identify Vishnu as well, but that may have to wait until Revolution. [Ed: In fact Vishnu is revealed in Ramakandra!]
The truth about Smith is simple, but the way to get there is a little complicated. Said another way, there are a lot of facets to Smith which are all true but don’t sound like each other at all, even though they all “add up” to the same thing. Basically, Smith is to the machines what Neo is to humanity.
Facet #1: Quieting the Mind. Let me start with the standard mountain analogy. A quality mountaineer will tell you that any rock has multiple ascents. Some climbers do better on one ascent, other climbers on another. It’s impossible from a logical standpoint to differentiate between ascents. You might state facts like “More people prefer this ascent.” But that doesn’t make it “better.” So it is with Enlightenment. It’s quite difficult in, say, Confucianism to say that a path is evil as long it leads you higher up the mountain. That lesson has to be applied to Smith to see him properly. He is the nemesis of Neo, his arch-enemy, and our traditional modes of thought make us label Neo “good” and Smith “evil,” but it’s more aptly described as pairs of opposites, an isometry of Enlightenment.
I had this feeling about Darth Maul, too. On the surface he seemed thoroughly evil. But there is no denying that he was powerful, and I always believed The Force to be similar to kung-fu-style enlightenment — Jedi and Sith have astounding powers because they have quieted their minds and are attuned to the world around them, which is a very enlightened thing. (Lately we have to stretch this, because Lucas has spoiled our Force by describing it as a blood condition.) Just because Darth Maul got up the mountain through hatred and anger, well, he got up the mountain just the same. Smith is like that, too. He really hates humans, and most of all he hates Neo. What that gains him is clarity. Smith says to Neo that he has found a purpose, which is a sign that he has reached some level of quietude. When we are searching for a purpose we are pretty ineffectual, but when we can submit ourselves to a higher purpose we respond with increased energy.
Facet #2: Hero’s Journey. Here is some additional evidence that what Smith has been through is equivalent to Neo’s journey. We don’t get to see it, but Smith’s longish speech to Neo before their fight scene gives us enough to go on. The chronology is:
- Neo explodes Smith, which is clearly Smith’s death.
- Somehow, Smith is resurrected from death.
- Smith spends a lot of time being very disoriented and confused.
- Smith finds a purpose (i.e., destroying Neo).
Step 2 is amazing in its own right. You see, resurrection is a human trait. The machines don’t have it. If we take it apart, it’s a death-and-rebirth cycle — the fundamental characteristic of biological life. I think the best way to state this is that Smith has awakened to spirituality. He is able now to GROW, to start his path up the mountain.
There is a subtext in Steps 2 through 4, however. This is a hero’s journey in the plainest sense (c.f. Iron John, etc.). So not only is Smith awakened by his resurrection, he immediately starts on a cycle of spiritual growth. This is especially interesting because he starts another hero’s journey before our eyes. Smith takes over the avatar of Bane and then downloads himself into that guy’s head. If that’s not crossing the threshold of adventure, I don’t know what is. (I don’t want to lose anyone: Luke Skywalker crosses the threshold when he agrees to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan. Neo crosses it when he follows the white rabbit to the club.) For a while Smith-in-the-real-world is disoriented and awkward. He soon gets his bearings and sets off on his “quest” — which is to stab Neo in the back with a knife.
Sidenote time: I had some email exchanges with senteniment@NOhotmail.SPAMcom (who was a great help in talking about The Animatrix), in which I started to get into the psychology of Smith wanting to kill Neo. Murder can be an act of possession, killing what you want to become. This is mythologically born out by way of hunting, killing, and consuming, e.g., eating the still-beating heart of a freshly slain buffalo. Cannibalism is an expression of the same thing — the cannibal eats another human being to gain his power. (See Ravenous for a yucky-but-good treatment.) There are many hunter-gatherer rituals which embody this act, and although they seem creepy to our sanitized Western palates, they speak to the core of what it is to live. It’s Oroboros, the world-serpent eating its own tail.
Facet #3: Growing Programmatically. This is how we get to what is probably the most central facet of Smith’s character. The capability for growth that Neo instilled in Smith — or wait, this is mysterious; Neo obviously did not resurrect Smith, so who did? It’s positively religious to contemplate it — is probably the factor that throws Smith into a bout of confusion. How to grow? Machines don’t know how. Finally, Smith figured out that replication is growth. And, you know, Smith would be the one to figure this out. He spent perhaps hundreds of years studying human beings and their viral nature. You can’t logically define growth without replication, even if it’s only at the cellular level. That is interesting, because it means Smith’s behavior is like rudimentarily life forms. He’s just learning how to be a growing being. He will learn fast (you’ll see).
Rewind a little to my conversations with senteniment. By the time that discussion took place, I had already made this note, but it’s the first time I said it publicly: recall what Smith said to Morpheus in the first movie, and you will understand what is remarkable about Smith’s viral replication. When he was torturing Morpheus for the codes to Zion, Smith talked about humans as a virus on the Earth. But his tone during that rant was one of disgust, revulsion…you got the impression that humans ought to be wiped out based on their revolting nature. That’s Smith. He is utterly sickened by human beings and their — what? — rampant replication!
Smith has become what he hates most, which is to say he is like humans now. And he blames Neo for that, all the while using it like it’s going out of style (how can he help it?).
Facet #4: Smith the Hacker. How is it that nobody noticed what a hacker Smith has become? The virus infection routines are magic. (It’s not “cracker” this time. Let it go.) An audience of geeks would, presumably, see Smith as a fantastic Gibsonesque consensual-reality cowboy, just like…hmm…Neo! I don’t know why this wasn’t more widely understood. Smith is hacking like crazy, which makes him Loki just like Neo is. (It also makes him disobedient like Neo is.) Not only is Smith hacking the Matrix, he is hacking reality by downloading avatars of himself into real human beings, and seemingly hacking their brains. The reference to Snow Crash is unavoidable, which only bolsters the hacker concept.
HOLY…wait a minute. Hacking their brains?! Here is where people really fall off the wagon, but I think it gets extremely interesting. There was a comment on Slashdot about how “unlikely” it was that Smith would be able to hack somebody’s brain and download a copy of himself, because the formats would be incompatible (or something like that). Well, let’s just assume it’s possible. Why haven’t other agents done this? Because they are incompatible! Smith, on the other hand, has become compatible. We could start an entire book with that line. Instead, let’s sum up in two points:
- The machines and humans have a LOT more in common than meets the eye.
- Smith marks the emergence of a type of program/machine that lives by the same rules as humans do, which means there is a common point of understanding. In other words, they can live together.
This is really serious evidence about where the entire story arc is going, and plays quite well into what the Oracle had to say about going into the future together. This makes me wonder if the Oracle can predict Smith and his behavior. I am genuinely uncertain, but I lean toward “yes.” The only reason I say so is that it would lend a truly metaphysical bent to the story, and you would have to sit back and wonder, “Now how could she know that?” and get this basic sense of awe that an unseen hand was guiding everything all along. It makes the trilogy have a really epic quality.
Facet #5: Neo’s Mirror. All of these facets so far get to the principle issue that Smith is a mirror image of Neo. In a simplistic story-sense, all that means is that Smith’s “negative reflection” of Neo serves merely to highlight Neo’s character in various ways. That is true, but not hardly the whole package. (It is a mark of good storytelling for there to be multiple levels of functionality like this.) Let’s line up some of their features side-by-side.
I could go on for a while with the duality. It goes way back into the first movie (albeit with different symbols), and I expect it to be amplified greatly in Revolution. I think much of this mirror quality points directly at the story arc. I’ll deal with it in that section.
There is a really “easy” way to see the Neo-Smith mirror from a criticism viewpoint, and that is to call them the same character. That is, the fact that they are nemeses means that Neo (because he is the protagonist) is actually in conflict with himself. This is a good approach. Recall Seraph, who fought Neo — apparently to a draw! — and said “You never truly know someone until you fight him.” Uh, what did Neo and Smith do upon their first meeting? Yeah. Add to that Smith’s murderous intent toward Neo (i.e., possession, which means knowing). If Smith can been seen as a splinter of Neo’s psyche, the part of Neo trying to know himself, that boosts the theme of Neo’s journey to Enlightenment substantially.
Don’t get too sidelined by that last bit, though. It is right from a symbolic perspective, but in order to see the plot implications you have to do this thought experiment: I said we should see Smith as an indicator of Neo’s character because Neo is the protagonist. But why is he the protagonist? We don’t know the whole story yet. So let’s assume that Smith is the protagonist, or maybe that Neo and Smith are both protagonists against…the Architect? It could be. Look at how Neo illuminates Smith’s character. Smith is really “out there” from a certain standpoint. He is compelled to disobey the Matrix-system, exactly as Neo disobeys the Matrix-system. Zionites idolize Neo, but who among machines is in favor of Smith? If Smith is the savior of machines the way Neo is the savior of humanity, then the machines are in for an awfully big shake-up.
Here is a general arc summary so far:
- 01 is born.
- 01 wants to coexist with humanity, and offers such. This plays with Genesis perfectly. Remember, 01 is God. (I think that’s profound.) Here’s how Genesis gets into it, in the classical interpretation: there is a “simple good” and a “complex good” as described by C. S. Lewis. The simple good would be for humans to accept what God tells them and live accordingly. The complex good is that humans reject God, learn why they were wrong, and then come back to God in the end. The highlight is that complex good is more good than simple good. Nothing’s more human than that, if you ask me. You have to disobey to produce the goodest good that comes from free choice.
- Humanity rejects 01’s offer of coexistence — i.e., the complex cycle begins.
- Humanity in its hubris thinks it can wipe out God by blackening the sky. Among metaphors in contemporary literature and film, there are few that can match this one for elegance and meaning. The sky is Heaven, and so this is an assault upon Heaven. Wow.
- The assault on Heaven fails, and humanity is cast into the pit. Okay, metaphors aside, the humans lose a war against the machines and are subjugated.
- Several iterations of the Matrix are tried, and finally one is devised that allows humans to grow (so they won’t reject it). In large part, the machines don’t understand the growth aspect of the Matrix and want to control it, to make the humans comply.
- The Oracle, who helped design Matrix 3.0, ruminates on her creation for a while and realizes that it will eventually lead to humans that can transcend the Matrix. (In heroic fashion, whomever transcends the Matrix can bring that gift back to society and they all benefit from it.) She sees as well that this transcendence is necessary if machines are to evolve at all. In the complicated relationship between man and machine, she sees that humanity’s evolution benefits both sides, and will help bring about machine evolution.
- Neo 1.0 arrives on the scene, chooses rebirth for Zion, and the cycle begins again.
- Neo 6.0 arrives on the scene, chooses Trinity, and begins the Revolution (i.e., the transition to a new world order). The choice is significant because trinity equals godhood. This is one of the most complex, meaningful themes I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. Humanity achieved “simple” godhood by creating beings in its own image. It will achieve “complex” godhood by reuniting with its estranged children. At the same time, so will machines.
Now we are in unknown territory. What follows is pure conjecture but I think it follows rationally from my analysis. [Ed: These predictions are untainted. I have never edited them from when I wrote the original draft of this essay in May of 2003. I’m not crowing, just defending against a charge that is frequently laid against me. I do like to read them, though. I was very close!]
- Neo and Smith are two superentities from “opposite” sides streaking toward the same conclusion. They will both achieve some kind of Enlightenment together (this could be “together” in the sense of “revealed while they are fighting each other”).
- I say “opposite” sides because the END product of the trilogy will be a NEW WORLD of humans and machines moving forward into the future together. Heaven and Earth will come together.
- The old systems will be broken down. They have to be. Humanity will return to the surface. Matrix 3.0 will be deleted, and quite likely Matrix 4.0 will be in the works, but this time it does not enslave but liberate.
- Dollars to donuts the sun breaks through the dark clouds. That would be 10 on a scale of 1 to 10.
- All the parties that stand to lose something by the breaking of the system will be out in force in Revolution. The Merovingian and his minions will be back. The agents will be back.
- Expect some unexpected alliances between humans and machines, especially near the end of Revolution.
- The Oracle will not be fully revealed or explained. Probably neither will the Architect. They are gods, after all.
- The conceptual barriers between the real world and the Matrix will be eroded — as if it isn’t already. But also the heightened man-machine interaction in the Matrix will be expressed more in the real world (a la Neo’s power over the sentinels).
- More bullet-time.
- This is not my own idea. It comes from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. When I first wrote this essay I assumed all my readers (I predicted around 25-30 of them; oh, the naivete) would know this book well.↩
- A lot of people get irritated by this assertion. Just to throw gasoline on a fire, how about this: the Devil and the Christ are brothers. They are a yin-yang pair. The Devil is the thing in you that chafes at perfection and desires to get out of the Garden and grow. It is the splinter in your mind. The Christ is the thing in you that desires to return to the perfection of the Garden, to slay the dragon and unite with the princess (wholeness).↩
- Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Therefore, by offering the right-hand door, the Architect is asking Neo to sit at his right hand. Neo would become the Christ for the Matrix, sacrificing himself for the good of the world. This is what every previous incarnation has done. The fact that he doesn’t do it this time indicates he (and by extension the Matrix and humanity) has gone beyond this and is adventuring into something new.↩
- Ebert thought this play of African ethnicity in Zion vs. the super-whiteness of the Architect and his chamber conveyed racial themes. I suppose we are to take a Feminist angle and find exclusionary metaphors here. Well, it’s a good enough theory. I could probably build a whole criticism around it, except that I don’t believe it one single bit. And I find it depressing and off-putting as well. In other words, there are no racial overtones here except the ones that you bring to the party.↩
- But it can be minimized. That is the lesson of the crew of the Nebachadnezzar, with shaved heads and basic gruel for food. Do not consume more for your appetites than is required for you to survive. This the the Middle Path, as was very correctly pointed out to me — the Grey, the way between Shadow and Light, the Way between Gluttony and Death.↩
- Vegetarians and vegans cannot escape (but can minimize, see #5). Whatever you eat was once alive. Even if you pick up what drops from the tree you are interfering in that plant’s reproductive cycle, which is the same as death. There is no life but through death. It’s yucky, and at the same time it’s why we have religion.↩
- What amazing evidence that not all of the machines are working in concert. The agents are there to protect the static continuance of the Matrix. They do not serve the Architect directly. In fact, the Architect is practically Deist in his non-involvement. He made the place, but doesn’t have anything much to do with running it day-to-day. This also brings up the very interesting fact that servants of the Merovingian (i.e., “the twins”) attacked agents when they showed up, so the Merovingian has nothing to do with the maintenance of the Matrix in general.↩
- Neo is crossing this boundary as well. His statement that he can “feel” the approaching sentinels likely means he is bridging the gap to the machines as much as Smith is bridging the gap to humanity. Much later I was introduced to a better explanation for all this, which is that the source of energy for everything is human bio-energy, i.e., human emotion. The One is designed to be a conduit for human emotion — he’s powered by human “batteries” too. So we have Source -> machines and we have Source -> Matrix and we have Source -> Neo. What is novels is that he reached back through the system like this: Neo -> Source -> Machines. I want to believe this is the right way of thinking about it, because it is symbolically correct. Neo is the penultimate human being, the “story of us all.” We disobey and exit the Garden, which is a symbol for the Source of Being, and then we seek our way back to the Source of Being and finally are reunited with it. This is Neo’s path, and so it is appropriate for him to reach back like this, to orient himself toward the Source, which is what the rest of the story ends up being about.↩
3 thoughts on “The Matrix: Reloaded, Explained”