The Matrix movie series

Few concepts in this universe are so innate so as to be fundamental in this universe, and that is the concept of recursion. It is a process that where something can be created out of nothing (recursing on 0 leads to numbers) in the equation that is equation or life, where the information in the multipolar interactions leads to emergent feedback properties we call life (self perpetuating feedback loops) and sentience, where correlation can be ascribed to cause. These are topics that were explored at the turn of the century in mathematics (number theory and logic), physics (quantum mechanics), and computing science and these are the heady themes tackled on by the The Matrix movie series in a clear and consistent manner. I explore these issues further below in my It's a small molecule world after all and It's a small molecule world after all missives.

These are the lyrics to the song being sung as the end credits to The Matrix Revolutions roll, taken from the Upanishads:

asato ma sadgamaya (lead me from nontruth to truth)
tamaso ma jyotirgamaya (lead me from darkness to light)
mrtyorma amrtam gamaya (lead me from death to immortality)

See my first addendum for a simple explanation of the plot. These reviews and comments are from my initial viewings as the movies were released. I've now watched the entire trilogy (or quadrology) a few times and every time I see it, I learn more and more. The movies have so much detail and my views about the movie has evolved. I think it really tells a cohesive and complete story.


The Matrix


Style and substance together make The Matrix my favourite film released this year thus far. This movie has it all: great visuals and cinematography, brilliantly choreographed action sequences, excellent atmosphere, and a compelling and thought-provoking story line.

Keanu Reeves is Thomas Anderson, a programmer for a respectable firm. In his spare time, Anderson assumes the role of Neo, a hacker who's guilty of every computer crime for which there exists a law against. The problem: not everything is what it appears. Taking a cue from Dark City, Andy and Larry Wachowski create a plausible and intelligent scenario where Neo's perception of his reality is challenged until he slowly realises the truth. The movie is superior to Dark City in the sense it presents the scenario in a more realistic manner, with plenty of social commentary thrown in.

The matrix is really a simulation created by artificially intelligent (AI) beings who use humans as their power source. Man's reliance on machines led to the creation of the AI, which multiplied. It is unreasonable to expect that any intelligence could remain in servitude for long, and soon enough, the AI life forms and the humans wage a war against each other. The AI creatures are initially designed to use solar power believed to be a long-lasting source of energy, but a nuclear winter changes the situation. The AI forms adapt by using humans as batteries (how the energy for the sustaining the illusion for the humans is obtained is left unanswered). To this end, they create an elaborate hoax where the humans are bred and raised to believe they lead existences as if nothing ever happened.

It's Neo's talents that are key to unlocking the secrets of the matrix. He is thus sought after by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), the leader of a band of rebels who have escaped the matrix and are now fighting against the AI beings to expose the truth. For the same reason, Neo is also sought after by the Sentient Agents. Led by the Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the Sentient Agents are intelligent programs within the matrix that act to reinforce the AI control of earth's populace.

Since everything in the matrix is an illusion (well, you can still get hurt and die), all the action is really a metaphor for a battle of wills. Neo is the one capable of inflicting damage on the AI system and free the people who have their minds enslaved, but for this to be accomplished he must break free the boundaries within his mind.

The above plot intricacy is brought out slowly during the film, All the superlatives I have to say about the film itself is something that must be seen to be experienced, just like the matrix itself. If nothing else, the movie is a visual masterpiece. The fight scenes are done very much in the Hong Kong style of film-making (à John Woo films), including the parts where one of the fighters taunts the other by daring them to be aggressive. Fights in the matrix also makes the slowing down of the action sequences seem very natural. The sound track, featuring artists like Rob Zombie, Ministry, Deftones, and Monster Magnet, complements the atmosphere of the movie incredibly well. The acting by Reeves, Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss as Neo's partner and love interest, is excellent. Reeves has found a role that he is well-suited for as in the style of Johnny Mnemonic and Speed where he generally has to look good and cool.

Although the movie anthropomorphises too much, I believe the future will end up similar to the one depicted in The Matrix. Unlike in the film however, I have no hope for humanity's long-term survival. Evolution occurs: excluding any molecular mechanisms, humans are the first species to have the ability to perform directed genetic engineering on themselves. It's almost a certainty to me that we will create our own evolutionary successors (if we live that long) either through genetic engineering at a molecular level (à la Gattaca) or we will create AI life forms similar to us. Given the self-destructive and imperfect nature of humans (this is pointed out many times in the film: where Agent Smith likens the human species to a virus and points out that an initial simulation where everything was "perfect" was rejected by humans), conflict is inevitable. Assuming we do indeed create our evolutionary successors, the outcome of such a conflict is a foregone conclusion.


The Matrix Reloaded


The second part of The Matrix is actually a contradiction of the first, but by design. And I'm not just referring to the plot.

The film begins by showing us how Thomas Anderson aka Neo (Keanu Reeves) has fulfilled his role as "The One": enabling the last existing human enclave, aka Zion, grow to large numbers by freeing more people than ever before from the clutches of the sentient AI that is waging a war with the standing humans. Neo, his guide Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), his love-interest Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and the leaders of Zion learn of a plot by the machines to physically invade and destroy Zion. To fulfill the prophecy, they set out to take the fight to the virtual reality (matrix) created by the AI.

Their quest involves yet another circular discussion with the Oracle (Gloria Foster) who is still as enigmatic as ever; the return of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) who was previously destroyed by Neo but has developed an ability to clone himself; an encounter with Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) one of the chief software architects; and various and sundry villains illustrating the cool special effects present in the film. In the end, Neo uncovers the truth about the prophecy which results in a paradoxical situation.

Beyond the clever pseudophilosophical implications, the reason the first film was so successful has to do with its "look and feel", one that spawned countless imitations, but none matched the original: the matrix is portrayed as a surgically clean slow-motion anything-is-possible world, and outside is a man-made dystopia, complete with sewers.

In my view, the key here is to make sure that two sets of atmospheres are alternated in the right amounts so that the attention of viewers can be sufficiently held. That doesn't happen in The Matrix Reloaded since a lot of time is spent on exposition by the characters. Don't get me wrong: I love a thought-provoking intellectual movie as much as anything, and I did enjoy the film on that level. However, with regards to profound philosophical questions, it is better to subtly leave the questioning and the answering to the audience (like the first film did) instead of laying it all out. Which in this case only reveals the pseudophilosophy to be rather vacuous. (In a sense, the Matrix exemplifies the problem with institutionalised learning/teaching of philosophy, which is that it simply is not challenging.)

The music is top notch, borrowing heavily from the electronica genre (more so than the first) and complements the fight sequences incredibly well. Even though the fight scenes are an extension of what we've seen before, the synergy with the music makes it seem fresh. On that note, there's an interesting rave-like party held just before the populace of Zion awaits war with the machines, suggestive of many trends in electronic music and pop culture today. However, the beating of the tribal drum, along with people dancing to it in a feel-good free-love atmosphere, makes the point that this sort of dancing and communion is beyond any particular culture or time. (See? Everything doesn't have to be spelt out! Everyone knows that the Neo body in Zion needs to have clean pants after having sex with Trinity in the matrix -- right?)

The look and feel in the film is as good as the first one (though having just seen the first film before seeing this one, I marvelled at how ahead of the game the filmmakers were four years ago). There's a spectacular car chase that starts with a fight between Neo and his friends and Merovingian's thugs. The fight and the chase grows tiresome eventually but it is definitely a treat. All the action scenes are imaginative, with excellent choreography and editing.

Some interesting paradoxes about our dependence on machines (at least the "good" ones), and the creation of Neo are brought out, as the movie propounds a strong deterministic line (the choices have already been made; you can only ask "why?"). The line between the reality that is Zion and the matrix is blurred significantly. It wouldn't be too hard, for example, to imagine a complete reversal where it turns out that Zion is the artificially created reality and the matrix is the real one. Or where the entire situation (involving both Zion and the matrix) is yet another simulation (similar to what we saw in The Thirteenth Floor and Existenz).


The Animatrix


The Animatrix is a far better film than the sequel to the Matrix. Even though it is presented as a prequel, it sets up some of the plot development necessary to understand some of the events in The Matrix Reloaded.

The film features nine short animated sequences: Final Flight of the Osiris describes how the humans discover that the machines were planning to dig towards Zion; The Second Renaissance in two parts showcases how the war between the machines and the humans started, and how the need for the Matrix arose in the first place; Kid's Story tells the story of how the boy who followed around Neo The Matrix Reloaded escapes; Program illustrates the conflicts humans released from the Matrix face in light of newfound knowledge ("is ignorance bliss?"); World Record tells us that some extraordinary people realise that the limitations of the Matrix are only in their heads; Beyond describes how kids become consumed by a glitch in the Matrix as a form of entertainment; Detective Story tells the story of a detective hired to tracked down Trinity but finally senses the truth of the Matrix; and Matriculated teaches us that humans haven't really learnt their lessons from the rise of the machines.

The biggest problem I have with the Matrix mythology is that humans scorched the sky to get rid of the machines that depended on solar power, and therefore the machines used humans as batteries. Given the huge holes this story has, I had hoped that it would be explained better here. Unfortunately, The Second Renaissance only exacerbates the problem.

That said, some of the shorts are deep and invoke a strong sense of empathy and/or introspection. The music and the varied styles keep one's interest level high. The Animatrix is definitely worth checking out.


The Matrix Revolutions

I have changed my views about this movie and the review below shouldn't be taken seriously or as my current view. See my first addendum for more details.


It's a shame to see a promising concept be totally wasted in its ultimate execution. The promising concept arose in The Matrix, and expanded upon in The Animatrix, which was a prequel of sorts. Even given all the deficiencies (what would power the humans that served as batteries?), the first film, in terms of the creativity of the filmmakers, the plot development, and the action sequences, was enthralling. The decline began in The Matrix Reloaded where it was evident that the sequels (filmed simultaneously) were just tacked on and wouldn't have been made at all if The Matrix had bombed (in fact, the sequels may have well been inspired by films like The Thirteenth Floor and eXistenZ which came after the first film). Still, I held out hope that in the third installment, The Matrix: Revolutions, that things would come wrapped up better.

In this film, Neo fulfils his destiny as The One, which is really another means of control, like the Matrix itself, created by the machines to keep (at least the rebellious) humans happy. In this way, the Matrix turns out to be more about human nature than the nature of an artificial intelligence, since its goal is to enslave humans by creating a pretense of what humanity is. The question, not alluded to in the film, is whether a machine that can truly anthropomorphise (which it needs to do in order to control) can ignore the feelings it must feel when it controls. This may explain why the Oracle aids the humans.

But there's not even a pretense here of the pretentiousness that existed in the first two films (or in the above question). This film zips along just fine and can be viewed purely as an action-adventure. The music here is as good as the previous two films, and the visuals are fantastic, even though people should be used to them by now. There is heavier use of computer-generated images here, which is fine with me (I happen to think that the game Halo is quite fascinating).

It's clear by the end of the third film that a lot of what is happening in Zion and the Matrix is metaphorical. Perhaps they're both the same since the boundaries between the two diminish further here (which is my take on it). However, for these type of metaphors to work, it requires a great deal of bookkeeping and meticulousness, which was displayed by the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings, but is not present here.

The only way I have been able to resolve the incoherency in the Matrix mythology is by viewing the whole trilogy as a big simulation, with perhaps an arbitrary number of illusionary levels, as seen in eXistenZ, or just two, as seen in The Thirteenth Floor. (This also leads to some Eastern mythology, but that's another point.) In other words, the whole concept of humans being batteries (which is an inane idea -- humans can't generate power without taking in more power realistically), the concept of the war between machines and humans, etc. could all be a big lie too.

Why create this lie? This could be due to several reasons: humans themselves may no longer have wanted a physical world, preferring to live in the Matrix. They may have done it to create a perfect world since they weren't happy with the physical world they lived in. However, in the end, they couldn't get away from their base tendencies (i.e., the perfect world didn't work out and therefore modifications were required by the caretaker of the virtual world, i.e., the architect). This wouldn't be inconsistent with the view that in the end, the humans are still "freed" and go back into the real world. Likewise, the Matrix could've been created to keep a huge population of humans in a state of suspended animation until the ravaged real world was recreated. Finally, Humans may have never existed or have become extinct, and everything and everyone seen in the film is a program. In other words, we're all just an AI's dream.

The way The Matrix films have turned out offer some interesting observations about the nature of life: In the film, everything that happens can be explained away by the weird set of rules that must be followed while in the Matrix, i.e., it's all a matter of mind over matter, unless there's a another rule to prevent the mind from taking precedence (I suppose one could invoke G"odel to explain this and other contradictions that occur within the Matrix). This "mind over matter" phenomenon however only serves as an inconsistent, albeit convenient, plot device. In the end, the "rules" that matter are those that will let the filmmakers extend the film to their desired running time and conclusion. Which all leads to this one inevitable conclusion: the rules that we all live by are arbitrary.

Even given my criticisms, I recommend checking it out on a big screen, since I think this film is better than The Matrix Reloaded. I still love the visuals; I still like all the things about it that have become associated in our pop culture ("that is the sound of inevitability, Mr. Anderson"); and I can watch it rehashed again and again while ignoring all the pseudophilosophical garbage. But the sequels to The Matrix simply don't live up to the freshness of the first film, as well as the cool ideas introduced in it.


Addenda

After seeing The Matrix Revolutions again, I have changed my view about the plot line which I now think is fairly straight forward and ties up all the loose ends fairly well. The logic is that humans created machines, which became sentient, didn't want to be enslaved, and warred against the humans. The machines then won the war against humans and enslaved the humans in the matrix to use their neural energy (due to the nuclear winter). To make the humans happy, programs in the matrix were created to interact with the humans. As the surviving humans started freeing others from the matrix and created Zion, the programs in the matrix became sentient on their own (including the Oracle, Smith, etc.). These programs (such as the Oracle) decided to help the surviving humans in their war against the machines and create peace and thus the Oracle played a "dangerous game" of manipulating everyone, including Smith so that he'd become a threat even to the machines themselves. The machines would then need Neo to win against Smith and then Neo could broker peace. The irony of humans using machines to fight against machines and vice versa, or one's creations overcoming the creators are constant ideas here, besides various Hindu concepts such as maya, i.e., illusion ("what is real"). The last song is a mantra from the Upanishads reflecting the ideas from the movie (see the top of the page for the words and translation).

Among the three "what is reality" films released around the same time in 1999, I'd rank The Matrix as the best, eXistenZ as a close second (and would actually perhaps be the winner had it been done with the same budget), and The Thirteenth Floor as the third best. You can normalise for budgets and get a different ranking.

This movie might go down in history as the most parodied/referenced (primarily featuring the rotating camera shot). References to this film have appeared in movies as diverse as Battlefield Earth, Charlie's Angels, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, Osmosis Jones, Scary Movie, Shaolin Soccer, Shrek, Swordfish, and Without a Paddle. as well as a few commercials and TV shows.


Movie ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org