Film review: Mythology of The Matrix


What makes The Matrix so seductive and exciting? Not the philosophy, not even the action. The real heart of this movie is the way its amazing amalgam of Christian and Greek mythology speaks to us more deeply than we realise. The Matrix and its recent sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, are set on a near-future Earth where machines have taken over and made a world of complete illusion. All human freedom has been eliminated except for the beleaguered community of Zion. Neo - the chosen one - must use his miraculous powers to save Zion from the threat of destruction by the Matrix. The plot develops at three levels: action, philosophy, and spirituality. As an action movie, the fights and chases reach surreal heights of absurdity, but are at least made plausible by the device that anything is possible within the illusory world. At the level of philosophy, the film has been focused upon for the ideas it raises about freedom of choice and knowledge of reality. My own view is that the real message of The Matrix is at the level of mythic spirituality. A key theme is how the Messianic remnant must overthrow the evil imperial system in order to institute the rule of truth and justice. The story of moral victory against the overwhelming power of a soulless machine speaks to a deep sense that our world system has something fundamentally wrong in its organisation and goals. Drawing on millennial visions of salvation, this spiritual theme deserves to be the central point of analysis of the movie, in terms of how it resonates with mythic themes at the heart of Western thought. Other major movies are also based on this theme, notably Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings. They have also struck a deep chord with the public through their treatment of this Messianic myth. We relate profoundly to the idea that only the pure faith of the chosen one can save us, whether it be Neo and his kung fu wizardry and Superman flight, Frodo Baggins and his perilous journey to Mount Doom in Mordor to break the spell of the magic ring of power, or Luke Skywalker and his miraculous reliance on ‘The Force’ to destroy the imperial death star. The common salvation myth in these movies involves an apocalyptic showdown between the forces of good and evil. The origin of this story is the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, the Apocalypse of Saint John. Generally regarded as too weird for normal interest, Revelation contains powerful images which are remarkably well-known for all their strangeness. For example, it tells of the millennial rule of the Lamb of God in the holy city of New Jerusalem, the battle of Armageddon, the fiery wrath meted by God on the faithless city of Babylon, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and the mysterious prediction that the number of the beast would be 666. Much of the strangeness of Revelation derives from its resolutely unscientific aspects, such as its claim that the future can be predicted and involves Messianic salvation, a claim reflected in Morpheus’ total faith in Neo. Revelation calls the saints to persevere in hope and love, in recognition that the world around them is built on lies. Its central story is the prophecy of the domination of the whole world by the power of evil, and the eventual victory of the divine forces of justice, truth and light personified in the Messiah. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and The Matrix are essentially newly-packaged versions of this core Christian myth. Watching The Matrix Reloaded, I was struck by how much it draws on Christian symbols. For example, Neo himself is a Christ figure, his lover Trinity brings in her name the Father, Son and Spirit, and their mission is to save Zion, itself named from the holy city of Revelation 14. When Neo finally meets the architect of the Matrix, we find a wealth of Biblical undertones. In telling Neo that hope and love are meaningless, the architect sounds rather like Pontius Pilate and his question to Jesus Christ about truth. The choice he presents to Neo between reason and love is like Satan offering Jesus all the power and wealth of the earth if he would deny God. The central Christian question of whether salvation comes from faith or works also finds a reflection in The Matrix, with the debate between leaders in Zion on whether to rely on faith - by relying on the chosen one, Neo - or on works - by ensuring all their resources are deployed according to military logic. The Christian dimension of The Matrix presents a provocative parable of our society. Jesus Christ told us we cannot worship both God and Mammon, meaning that greed for wealth for its own sake prevents the spiritual openness we need in order to find God. It sometimes seems that our capitalist culture promotes a fantasy world of total selfishness rather like the Matrix, cutting people off from nature, from God and from each other, by teaching us to place total value on material consumption and prestige. Jesus taught that real relationships are the only basis for life, and that reliance on false and superficial relationships causes us to wither and die. Neo and his team have the same motive for their attack on the Matrix as Saint Paul’s critique of Rome, namely that it seeks to replace the truth with a lie. The power and complexity of The Matrix really start to hum when we see how the movie goes beyond the Christian frame by drinking deeply from the ancient pagan wells of Greek mythology. For example, Neo’s heroic quest takes him via a wise old woman, similar to the old grey women who helped the Greek demigod Perseus find the snake-headed gorgon Medusa. The wise woman guides Neo to two intriguingly named characters, Merovingius and Persephone, where we also find the hideous gorgon in the form of two Rasta-haired cool suits who then pursue the hero with ectoplasm and machine guns. And when Neo saves Trinity from certain death, it looks just like Perseus flying in on his winged sandals to save the beautiful princess Andromeda in the Greek myth. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the Merovingian dynasty were the French sorcerer kings of the early Middle Ages. Secret Masonic legend says they were descended from Jesus Christ. Books such as Bloodline of the Holy Grail by Laurence Gardner tell how the Merovingian kings were renowned for their secret wisdom, while official Catholic history deliberately suppressed much of the story of Jesus. In a similar way, Merovingius in The Matrix hints at the sense that all is not as it appears. Perhaps his name is a mere gesture, considering his murderous hostility to Neo’s mission, but Merovingius does at least play an essential role in the quest by introducing Persephone. In Greco-Roman myth, Persephone is Pluto’s bride, Queen of the Dead, and the source of new life and the seasons. Persephone’s defiant role in The Matrix contains amazing depth of symbolism - she leads the way to the keymaker in return for Neo kissing her with the passion he reserves for Trinity. Persephone makes her cold lover Merovingius look like the dark king Pluto. Her sad, beautiful passion and essential contribution to the defeat of the Matrix allude to the role of her namesake in overcoming the annual death of winter. Carl Jung explained how the symbols of popular myth should be understood as archetypes - themes which resonate with deep meaning for our lives. This archetypal mythic dimension is not just the re-packaging of old myths, but also involves the creation of new myths for a postmodern world. The story of The Matrix has power precisely through its integration of archetypes - the apocalypse, the heroic quest, the fear of machines, and the biggest archetype of all, the idea that we are saved not by our own deeds but by placing complete trust in God through Christ.


Robert Tulip

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