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The Matrix: Spirituality Fiction

Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski (they're brothers), Matrix may well come to be considered a classic work of science fiction.  Of course the Wachowskis borrow freely from sci-fi conventions and cliches, all the way to Buck Rogers and Star Wars. So much so that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a particular scene is intended to be a parody, and when the audience is laughing, whether the laughter is intended. Normally film makers want to avoid the gray zone between satire and plagiarism, but the Wachowskis walk confidently into this field of land mines apparently convinced that the visual power and originality of their film will win the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to make a fantasy like this one work.  And work it does. The action sequences and special effects are highly entertaining. Keneau Reeves (as Neo), Carrie-Anne Moss (as Trinity) and Laurence Fishburne (as Morpheus) make a seductive trio in their roles as heroes.  They wage war against a villain we never actually see: a race of machines represented on what remains of earth by a small army of "Sentient Agents," who appear to be human, but actually are machines endowed with spectacular powers.

The action unfolds in the distant future some untold years after the earth as we know it has been destroyed during a cataclysmic war between the computers and their human creators.  The computers have won. They control the entire planet and keep the human race alive in a totally helpless state, imprisoned in cocoon like shells, and farmed as an energy source.  Everyone is blissfully unaware of these circumstances because the computers have re-created the earth in the form of a virtual reality world in which people carry out their daily routines, coming and going, getting and spending, living and dying, much as we are doing now. But this veneer of normalcy is only a mask and an illusion. It is The Matrix.  In fact, the entire human race has been reduced to a condition of abject slavery and helplessness. 

Meanwhile a small group of rebels wages a struggle, apparently against all odds, to reveal the truth and liberate the human race from its oppression.  Their hope lies in finding The Chosen One, a human being endowed with God-like powers who will lead them in a war of liberation. During much of the movie, the suspense builds and the drama gathers force around the question: is Keneau Reeves The One?   Or shall we be forced to look for another?  Here the Wachowski brothers reach beyond and behind science fiction to draw upon the Bible as well as classical mythology. Neo, Trinity and Morpheus, the names themselves suggest their line and lineage.

This is not science fiction, it is in fact a new genre of film-making in which special effects combine with ancient metaphor and symbol. It is spirituality fiction.

Without giving away the movie's outcome, it is revealing that the strengths which our heroes bring to the struggle are a composite of skills both technological and spiritual. Neo and his colleagues combine a mastery of the computer with the force of mind over matter.  In fact, the outcome of the movie hinges around whether Neo can conquer his own fear and draw upon the deepest resources of the human spirit.

In the end this film is really a statement of faith in a sort of new-age spirituality in which humanity triumphs over the evil which it itself has unleashed upon the earth by drawing upon its own most inward and spiritual strengths. 

Derivative though this film is of both classical and biblical traditions, it is lacking, however, in one crucial ingredient -- the element of the divine. There is nothing supernatural about either the Evil which these characters confront or the Freedom which they seek.  In the end, everything is defined in the terms of the here and now. Which leaves this viewer with a disturbing question.  Our heroes struggle to be free -- but free for what?  In the end the film makers do not show how the liberated world would be in any fundamental way different from the world of the Matrix -- that is, the world as we know it today in the closing hours of the millennium. Hence, when you think about it, the outcome of their battle counts for very little after all, for life has become indistinguishable from a computer game, albeit a spell binding one to be sure. For a follow-up review of the sequel: The Matrix: Revolutions

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.