Like Tron, The Matrix was sold on the back of special effects surrounding a live action movie. The effects in the film were nonpareil, filled with CGI, wire fu sequences, and bullet-time special effects. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Wachowski brothers are the most flattered directors of the twenty-first century. However, what distinguishes The Matrix from Tron is that the Wachowskis spread their not inconsiderable resources across the whole film: bringing fightmaster Yuen Woo Ping from Chinese cinema to Hollywood, hiring top-line actors and spending months training them, and above all writing a plot that had pretensions to critique and a grasp of its own metaphors. Tron grafted a simplistic, conventional narrative onto its otherworldly setting. But The Matrix's plot was as complex as the world it created: a quest narrative, but also a coming of age, also a tale of betrayal; all archetypal motifs, working together in a new way.
The most important element of the Wachowski brother's success was their grasp of the Zeitgeist. There was an organic seam between the production of the film and its subject matter: man and machine struggling to reach perfect harmony in the face of mass confusion and illusion. The Wachowskis understood that the 'real world' that they were critiquing with their metaphor of a matrix was one that already depended upon a multitude of simulacra that were being produced in much the same way that they were making their film. Their film was a simulation of a simulacra (As now seems well known, Simulations and Simulacra is the title of Jean Baudrillard's 1981 book, a hollowed out version of which Neo uses to hide his illicit computer discs). The Wachowskis continually show that they know that they are in 'The Matrix' of film production themselves, not least by appropriating the corporate logos of Village Roadshow and Warner Brothers to the recognizable green 'Matrix' design. They threw a new style down on the ancient question of reality as illusion and dressed it up in near contemporary philosophy by occasional appropriation of Baudrillard's "desert of the real."
To the delight of pomos everywhere, The Matrix gets Baudrillard, if not quite right, then at least interestingly wrong. Over the past twenty years, the power of computers to describe the real world, to extrapolate into various virtual ones, and to display those extrapolations graphically has grown exponentially. This has meant that the macrocosmic simulacra that Baudrillard noted under early Reagan (landscapes, billboards, TV) has been supplemented by the proliferation of virtual microcosms that we experience under a second Bush (mobile phones, ubiquitous internet access, MP3 players). Baudrillard's idea of the simulacra was not so much a philosophical point as a sociological one. Humans have always lived within their own view of the world as they project it out onto the people and places around them. The rays that you see coming out of people's eyes in some ancient art are not the product of a physical misunderstanding of optics, but represent a profound psychic understanding of ideology. We "half-create" when we see (Wordsworth), and construct reality in accordance with our understanding of how they should be. And yet suddenly, in the twentieth century, with the advent of mass media and vast programs of urbanization, people were no longer metaphorically projecting their vision onto the world, but actually building their vision onto and on top of the world.
This is a fascinating phenomenon academically, but a disaster environmentally, because each individual, or each community in realizing their own idea of the world in turn reduces the world. This happens materially, as resources are depleted and climatic balance is disturbed, and epistemologically, since the world in itself exceeds and will continue to exceed our understanding even as we pretend to be the masters of it (as Adorno and Horkheimer discussed sixty years ago). Contemporary science fiction responds to these two challenges, first by painting dystopic pictures of a world ruined by technology, and second by reminding us of the incomprehensibility of all life - including, paradoxically, life that is mechanical (e.g. Blade Runner's replicants, 2001's Hal, Tron's Master Control Program, Star Trek's Data).
Blade Runner and The Matrix hit the existential nail squarely on the head through the dramatic production of imaginatively believable dystopias. In each of them there are whole new vistas of otherness to deal with. In Blade Runner the worry about smog, smut, and Japanese capital taking over America is conflated with the worry that replicants (androids almost indistinguishable from humans) will start to pervade society. In The Matrix the worry about Asian influence has been overcome -- everyone fights like they are from Shaolin -- but there are new concerns: the real world is one in which machines control us, and the false world is the one in which we think we control them.
The Matrix is read by some as a religious allegory (all is illusion,
only a few have the true gnosis, or, Kabbalistically put, all of the world is
code), and its constant allusions certainly invite such readings, yet
it is also an acutely contemporary film, not least because its top-of-the-line
special effects demonstrate the very illusion-making capability
that the film's narrative fears. The film's form manifests
the concerns of its content.
Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here
Simulacra and Science Fiction
I Hear America
I wish I was...
Josh Gets Contacts
When I Met Humility, I saw Letters
Zeek @ Low
June 26, 2003
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