Understanding Matrix Revolutions
December 12, 2003
IMPORTANT SPOILER NOTE: If you have not seen all three Matrix films, do not read this. This article is filled with spoilers on every major aspect of the films. You will have a much more enjoyable experience if you watch the films first, and THEN come back here to read this!
At last, the Matrix trilogy has concluded and fans are conflicting over how it concluded, why it concluded as it did, and what it all means. Some, who were hoping to be handed a litany of raw explanation in the final chapter, are dissatisfied. Others, who have their own explanations and enjoy exploring the possible interpretations would have been dissatisfied if there had been such a litany.
As everyone else, I have my own take on the Matrix trilogy, and what it means. Having an interest in philosophy and religion, and being somewhat well read in such, these are the aspects of the films I gravitate toward. Revolutions ultimately justifies this take on the trilogy, obviously slanting harshly in the philosophic and allegorical direction as it concludes.
In reaching my conclusions, I have poured over scenes from all three films, with special emphasis on Neo’s conversation with the Architect in Reloaded. Looking carefully at every line of that scene (and even resorting to my dictionary at one point) I made notes on all of the various concepts and entities touched upon. Many of these concepts were presented out of order and jumped from one subject and then back again. Therefore, it really takes such study, I believe, to mine the most meaning out of the scene. Equally important is going back to scenes throughout all three films, and interpreting them with the “key” these notes provided. I found it amazing how lines, even out of the first film, took on new meaning given the lexicon key the Architect conversation provided.
A great deal was written about the meaning of the first Matrix film. Some felt that the other two films were merely added as an after-thought, but it is my belief that the Wachowski’s always intended for the trilogy as a whole to provide a greater, more complete picture. This belief comes, not only from what they themselves have said, but from elements implanted in the first film which take on greater meaning due to information revealed later. It is time for more to be written about the meaning of the complete Matrix story as a whole. This article is aimed at understanding the conclusion of the story, which ultimately reveals the meaning of the whole. In the end, a new meaning reveals itself - a meaning relevant to our day and age, above and beyond the obvious religious allegory.
What Literally Happened in the Conclusion
Not only is the message of the Matrix shrouded in allegory, but the literal and physical events themselves require an understanding of the films’ lexicon in order to correctly interpret them. Many have had a difficult time understanding just what took place in the conclusion of Revolutions. Were the people freed from the Matrix? Will the machines lose their power?
Contrary to the impressions of some viewers, the machines did not simply agree to "let the people out" of the matrix. There will still be people in the matrix - billions, in fact, for a long time. True, the deal would be that people would be free to leave the Matrix if they chose. However, the use of “choice” here pertains to the language used during the Architect conversation in Reloaded.
As the Architect explained, even after the second non-paradise matrix was created, they still had difficulty keeping people hooked in without waking up from the matrix. The Architect said he was “again frustrated by failure.”
The problem was choice. What this means is that the brains connected to the matrix were continuously fed a series of input signals without any ability of the brain to adequately and fully receive those signals. This did not fully mimic the way brains perceive the real world because in that case, we are always able to interpret our senses on a subconscious level. The solution, which the Oracle came up with, was to allow the brains to make that choice. As the Architect said...
“...[the intuitive program, the Oracle] stumbled upon a solution whereby 99 percent of all test subjects accepted the program as long as they were given a choice. Even if they were only aware of the choice at a near unconscious level.”
This probably means that the matrix would send a signal into a brain, that brain would return a signal with the equivalent of “message accepted” and then the matrix would send the next signal. This feedback process continued in a cycle, and was required to keep a brain actively linked to the matrix.
At the end of Revolutions, the machines agreed to allow people to leave the matrix if they chose to. When they talk about "choice" they're talking about that subconscious choice that all people continuously make to accept the reality they are presented with.
Those who are ready to make that choice to see more, to see beyond the mathematical construct of the matrix, are the “potentials” - those that have the special powers in the matrix to bend it’s variables, and who are ready to be freed from it. However, those who make the subconscious choice to accept the reality the matrix presents to them are not ready to be freed and they would possibly go mad (as Morpheus alluded to in the first film).
Remember Kid? The person who followed Neo around in Reloaded and shot the chains to open the bay doors in Revolutions? In “Kid’s Story” on Animatrix, we find out that he is the first human who has ever, not only seen beyond the matrix, but freed himself of it without any help from the outside - out of sheer will. His story shows the fullest potential of human beings.
Now, as the Architect said in Revolutions, only a tiny percent will normally ever make the “choice” to see beyond their reality. But, that is enough so that, eventually, the numbers would escalate, causing complete system failure (in other words, the end of the matrix with everyone coming out). That is why they had to have a “One” who would help initiate a restart of the entire operation over and over. We don’t know how long one of these cycles is, but it appears to be a hundred years at least.
What happened here was that the Machines agreed to allow people to choose to come out. That doesn’t mean everyone’s going to be asked straightforwardly. As it stood at the time, the machines were dumping disconnected individuals into the garbage bin, and actively hunting down any humans in the real world. What the agreement means is that, as people become ready to leave the Matrix (ready to make that subconscious choice to see beyond their reality, as Neo and others did), they will be allowed to be taken by the humans at Zion, and no humans in the real world will be attacked by the sentinels, or hunted by agents inside the Matrix.
What this means is that the Zion humans will be able to enter the matrix, teach their ways to those showing potential (who won’t go mad or disbelieve), and slowly more and more people will become ready to take those steps and eventually become free from the matrix. This solution works for everyone.
It works for those in the Matrix because most just aren’t ready psychologically to give up everything they think is real and important. We scientifically minded, sci-fi, computer-loving people might be better suited to it than little old ladies, religious extremists, and people in powerful positions inside the matrix, but probably not as much as we think.
It works for the humans in Zion because there’s no way they have the resources or food to take on and shelter billions of people at once. With most of the planet devastated, you’d have massive starvation and death by the hundreds of millions if they were all instantly freed. This gives time for Zion to grow over time to meet the needs of a greater and greater population.
It works for the machines because it gradually allows them to move to other options for their energy supply, rather than suddenly losing it all.
Why the Machines Made the Deal
Thanks to the freak accidental creation of the Smith virus in a random bit error when Neo fused with him, the matrix was quickly corrupting, as more and more Smith’s replicated. It wasn’t long before the entire system was about to crash. Furthermore, Neo had made the unexpected choice at the source and, even without the Smith virus, their power system was doomed.
The machines were now faced with that “level of survival they were prepared to accept”, although obviously not eager to accept. It would probably have meant losing 90% of their population or something similarly devastating.
Then Neo comes to them with a deal. He says that HE can destroy the Smith virus, but will only do so if the Machines agree to leave the Zion humans alone and let people leave the matrix as they “choose”.
At this point, the machines realize that, with the Smith virus out of the way, they will still eventually lose the Matrix because of that escalating number of people ready to make that choice, but that will take a long time. Whereas, the Smith virus was an immediate threat. With the Smith virus out of the way, they would have time to convert to other power options. At the same time, they wouldn’t have humans pestering them, since they also will be agreeing not to attack. So they agree to make peace with the humans if Neo can get rid of the Smith virus.
Why the Machines Will Keep the Deal
The Architect was the representative of the machines. That was the architect Neo was talking to in that swarm of little machines at the end. The Architect, as we saw in Reloaded and as the Oracle alluded to in Revolutions, is bound by numbers and equations. He is unable to purposefully deal with falsity or untrue information. It is impossible for him to lie. At the end, the Oracle asks him about keeping his word and he says, “What do you think I am? Human?” The Architect being bound by equations and accurate data also has some other allegorical implications, which I’ll get to later.
Why Neo Made the Deal
Everything seemed hopeless to the humans in Zion. Their world was about to fall and it seemed there was nothing that could be done to stop it. Everyone was thinking just as the audience was, “We must find a way to defeat the machines.” But then Neo had an epiphany. He didn’t fully understand it at first, but he knew he had to take a ship to the machine city.
What his epiphany was all about was a perspective change. This change of perspective was the key to the whole solution. Furthermore, the solution was hinted at in Reloaded.
When Neo was in Zion, and up late at night, he had a conversation with Councilor Hamann. The Councilor lead Neo down to the maintenance level of the city and showed him the machines down there. He said that these machines kept them all alive. Not only do machines need us, but we need them. Neo said it’s different because we controlled these particular machines. The Councilmember asked, “What is control?” Neo responded that we could turn them off if we wanted to. The Councilmember said, “Ah yes, but if we did we’d have no light, no heat, no power.”
This entire scene was not created just to fill up time in the plot. Quite possibly, every line of dialogue in the Matrix trilogy is there for a reason. The purpose of this scene was to plant a seed. That seed would be the basis for the shift of perspective that eventually allows for Neo’s epiphany and his solution.
The perspective shift was this: It’s not about defeating the machines. It’s about the best possible solution. That means, to have real security, all sides must be taken into account. Destroying the machines was not an option so the key is to broaden your vision - what is possible?
Neo realized that all those billions of people NEED the matrix. They NEED their reality to be simple and easy for them. They are not ready mentally or emotionally to handle true freedom yet. Nor are they ready physically, as there is not enough food or resources to sustain them all.
This being the case, the best situation was to stop thinking in terms of good-evil, right-wrong, and think in more holistic terms. The Oracle wears earrings similar to a Ying/Yang symbol and this, perhaps, alludes to the necessity of all parties in finding the solution. Also, “know thyself” includes knowing your limitations and knowing what your needs truly are, and being humble.
Neo’s epiphany also allowed him to realize that the Machines NEEDED him and the humans in the Matrix just as much. Because each side needed the other, a solution had to be possible for both. But to reach the solution, both sides would have to break out of their narrow perspective. So Neo became the “prince of peace” who saved mankind by sacrificing himself. (sound familiar?)
Why it’s a Good Deal
The Wachowski’s said that their intention was to tell a story over several different media. To be sure, those who did not see some stories on the Animatrix are at a disadvantage. I’ve also found out that there are some interesting background pieces to the Oracle losing her shell and Saraph’s nature on the computer game “Enter the Matrix”.
One of the things you get to see is that, the machines didn’t start out the way they are. Originally, they were created by humans and the humans abused them. As they became more intelligent, they began to want freedom - they are truly intelligent beings, as we are. Extinction of one intelligent peoples over another is not the answer. The machines eventually formed their own communities and peacefully asked for a seat on the UN. Not only did we deny it, but we saw them as a threat and began to exterminate them. Eventually they fought back, and they won big time - leading to the situation we see in the trilogy.
Knowing this, and knowing that these are intelligent beings that were originally peaceful, it becomes clear that peace is truly the victorious solution for everyone, including the humans.
What it All Means Allegorically
Of course, as everyone knows the allusions to Christianity are obvious. Neo is Jesus. Also, the trinity is represented by the Architect (father), Neo (son), and the Oracle (holy spirit). The comparisons to Gnosticism are also quite obvious and have been covered in detail by many writers.
In Christian mythology, the Father is thought of as unable to lie or do evil. In a sense, that’s true of the Architect. Now, you may say that the Architect was evil because of what he did to people. But, for one, the architect is not fully self aware. Although he is intelligent, he is not intuitive and is bound by logic. In this sense, the Architect is not capable of evil, any more than a wood chipper is evil for killing a person who falls into it.
More importantly, the god presented in the Old Testament has often been criticized as being evil. In many places, the old testament god commands the genocide of whole populations, including the butchering of woman and children. He requires animal sacrifices and rules with an iron fist. He is a “jealous” god and does a lot of smiting. This may seem to be analogous to the Gnostic Demiurge, the malevolent creator-entity of the material world, but with a twist. What the Matrix says is that he is not evil per se, but merely a product of the limitations of this particular third of God.
Not only is the Father unable to lie, but he is bound by the rules of the equation. He is bound by numbers and procedure and logic. The Father of the Old Testament required equity - an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. He also required equity in the “spiritual equation”. This meant that an almost impossible perfect adherence to a moral code was required for salvation, and blood sacrifice required for atonements. In his eyes, the equation had to be balanced because this entity was bound by rules and logic. The commandments, and their strict punishments for disobedience, were a product of that. By the same token, the Architect does what he does because it is his function - it is all he is able to do. He has no “evil” intentions per se.
The message of the New Testament, however, was that we carry the word within us - that a man’s heart must be changed first, and then he will abide by morals as a product of that. Jesus, the Son, offered salvation through him. Not only is the sacrifice of Neo an allegory of the sacrifice of Jesus, but there are many other aspects that are parallel as well. For instance, Jesus freed human beings from the mechanistic equation of the Father. No longer were people required to offer up sacrifices or adhere to a perfect law. Neo offered humanity the potential to be freed from the perfect mathematics (law) of the matrix.
And throughout, mostly expressed in what’s almost a third book of the bible - the writings of Paul, people need the Holy Spirit to make these leaps. Paul said that, once a person has the Holy Spirit within them, they are then fully capable of accepting Christ and acting in a Christian way. The Oracle represents that “intuitiveness” needed to mentally break free of the matrix. Once a person can do that, they can then fully accept the gift of Neo’s sacrifice and come into the world (and out of the matrix). This is the final solution we have at the end of the Matrix films.
Whereas Gnosticism might have Christ (Neo) and the Holy Spirit (the Oracle) save man from the evil Demiurge, it seems the Matrix brings in other influences to play on this dynamic. Many aspects of other religions/philosophies also play a role. For example, there are several concepts of Buddhism and other eastern philosophies - and therein lies the new perspective that the Matrix offers on the Christian worldview. The concepts of Oneness, and the importance of the Ying/Yang and all parts being equally valuable to the wholeness of life. Remember the Oracle said, “we’re all here to do what we’re all here to do.” That philosophy extends to the machines and the Architect as well.
What is being said here is that, rather than look at the Old Testament Father as evil, a perspective shift is needed. And that perspective shift comes courtesy of the eastern philosophies. Through those eyes, we can see the Father as the Ying to the Holy Spirit’s Yang. One alone is incomplete so to judge it alone is to misunderstand. But each has it’s place and importance, and together, with the Son as connection to man, there is Oneness.
In our first encounter with the Architect, he was presented as the sinister mastermind. The familiar plot vehicle is used, in which the bad guy has the good guy where he wants him and finally reveals the full villainy of his plan. But the presentation of the Architect in this manner is a red herring. What Neo came to understand, to reach the solution, is that his perspective had to shift from looking at the Architect and the machines as evil, and simply seeing them as they are, without judgment, as part of a whole that included humanity.
So, it’s not just that the matrix trilogy is making a fun story that parallels old religious themes. It is doing much more, even after you take away the black leather, guns, and sunglasses. It is taking those themes, and utilizing parts of different religious perspectives to synthesize a new perspective on the Christian trinity, and in fact on the way we look at competing religious views as a whole. It is living it’s message and, where others see competition of religious viewpoints, the Wachowski’s see unity of a whole.
What it REALLY means - the bottom of the rabbit hole
So I’ve explained what literally happened, followed by what it meant allegorically. But that’s just the second layer in the onion. Everyone knows about the religious stuff, but in a way, that’s just on the surface as well.
When I was in school getting my art degree, we had to take a LOT of art history. The English and History majors looking for an elective credit did pretty well but we art majors ironically had the harder time. The classes were very study-intensive. Although I love the subject matter, I hated these classes because of all the grueling work. But one thing stuck with me through it all.
The main focus of these classes was to take historic artworks and ask certain questions about them. The idea was that no piece of art is made in a vacuum, and certainly not art that becomes famous. We would ask, what is the meaning of the art. But, not the meaning that was plainly evident, or even the intentional symbolism of the art. No, the meaning part of the question referred to what meaning the art had for the people at the time and place it was created in.
Some of us would object. Could not an artist simply have made a piece of art that was relevant to him/her personally, as opposed to the culture of the time? Couldn’t it just have been pretty, or done skillfully? But the response was that any artwork that lasts over time and resonates with the audience over time will have more to it than that. It will touch them on some level, even if only subconsciously. It will somehow have a meaning that connects it to the times and cultural conditions under which it was produced.
So what produced the Matrix?
You could say the Wachowski brothers. You could say the Hollywood corporate machine. You could say marketing. You could say a liking of black leather, bullets, sunglasses, and visual effects. You could even say a religious allegory for a people losing faith. And, certainly these would all be right for the time being. But a hundred years from now, when people are asking, why did the Matrix last as a classic when other good movies with similar themes didn’t? I think there will be more to say. I think there are deeper reasons that make the Matrix particularly relevant to our times, even if we are not fully aware while watching it.
First, there are other themes in the Matrix besides just religious. When we see Neo, we see him living in a hole in the wall. At work, he lives under sterile green lights in a cubical. His boss is remarkably agent-like. When asked what the matrix is, the first thing Morpheus says is, “The Matrix is control”.
My first impressions of what the Matrix were about were not actually religious, but social in nature. At the end of the first Matrix, the closing song is "Wake up" by a band called Rage Against the Machine. If you listen to the lyrics, it is about the assassination of figures such as Martin Luther King and the government and political forces doing things to manipulate people and neutralize trouble makers. It is purely political in nature and has nothing directly to do with enlightenment or religion or computer technology. So why choose it as the closing song? There are many other songs on the soundtracks that lean in this direction.
The powerful organizations in a society, be they organized religions, governments, large corporate entities, or others, use propaganda and "image control" designed to keep the people in a "world of their own crafting" - to create a “wool over our eyes” so that they can use us - as consumers, voters, worshippers, etc. Corporations try to mold our impressions of what's desirable, moral, and good in order to make us good consumers. Governments try to use propaganda and laws masquerading as ethics to make us obedient and religions try to use worldviews to make us support them. There is a lot to be said about the Matrix as a commentary on these issues as well.
Why take this view over the religious one? First of all, it’s not an either/or proposition. The story can be both at the same time. Secondly, this interpretation gets more to the heart of what makes the Matrix meaningful and relevant to it’s day and age.
We are living in a world today where people are facing the cold, depersonalizing nature of technology and modernism. At odds with that is our human spirit, individuality, and our passions. Our religious beliefs are conflicting with our scientific knowledge and we are experiencing growing pains as a result. The religious aspects of the Matrix represent this broader area while the machines represent the cold seeming emptiness of modernism, science, and technology.
Neo first presents to us salvation in the form of individualism and freedom. He creates his own name, not the one society has given him (Thomas Anderson). Even before his exodus from the Matrix he is a maverick. But what he ultimately offers, through a deeper meaning in his epiphany/perspective shift is, again, the concept of wholeness.
Only here, the concept pertains, not to characters in a movie or a scripture, but to us, the viewer. The perspective shift is that science and technology need not be our enemy. The message is that we need each other. Science and technology is essential to the survival and prosperity of humanity, but it needs something from us, lest it become a raging destructive force. All of the things that Neo needed on the journey to his epiphany were the things we need in our journey: self knowledge, intuition, faith, hope, and love - all central attributes Neo was told he needed at one point or another.
The message of the Matrix is that there is a way to “make peace” with our science and our technology without losing ourselves in the process. Neo’s perspective shift allowed him to see wholeness where others saw only conflict and a win/lose option. To maintain that which makes us human and at the same time integrate science and technology into our lives is the salvation the hero offers the audience. By mixing religious allegory with futuristic visuals, the films practice what they preach. At the same time they deliver the message of our need to find that same balance and harmony between science and religion in our world.
Special thanks to Wikipedia and its contributors, for offering tips on some of the gaps in my knowledge - especially regarding some recently added comments on Gnosticism.