Walker Percy was fond of describing the south as Christ forgetting and Christ haunted. The much-anticipated final entry in the Matrix trilogy, Matrix Revolutions, a disappointing film roundly and justifiably lambasted by critics, provides evidence that the story of Christ continues to haunt the most unlikely of communities–Hollywood. The problem: Well, the problem is the film, whose narrative is tedious indeed. Neo–identified repeatedly as a Christ figure who must take upon himself the burdens of humanity–comes closest to speaking for all of us long-suffering viewers, when he asks the Oracle, “Where is this going? Where does it end?”
The film is plodding and ponderous from the very beginning. The opening finds Neo “trapped” between two worlds. It also introduces an issue that has been at the heart of some of the best science-fiction films, such as Blade Runner
and Dark City
, the possibility that computer-engineered programs can experience complex human passions such as love. Unlike the first film, which was true to its motto that the “question” drives us, Revolutions
shows little curiosity about this or any other issue. Neo himself appears initially as a slow-witted Eastern philosopher arrayed in action-figure garb.
There is endless blather about choice, its significance, and its consequences. Once again, there are traitors who make choices that prove costly for Neo and his cohorts. But the most-important plotline in Matrix Revolutions
occurs in silence and deep within the soul of Neo; it involves not so much his wrestling with options as his growing realization of who he is and what he is called to do. As his core group awaits his direction, he disappears, only to reappear to tell them that he must take a ship to the Machine World, an apparently suicidal course of action that Neo concedes is “difficult to understand.” Those gathered immediately divide into the skeptics, proclaiming this a “waste,” and the true believers in Neo. The scriptural echoes–his withdrawal to be alone, his plan to go directly into the midst of his enemies on a ship named “The Logos,” the presence of traitors, and the accentuation of faith in a person–multiply as the film moves toward its climax.
As was true of its predecessors, this film is something of a mishmash of symbols and myths. It mixes a superficial dash of Eastern or Jungian opposites, as in the Oracle’s assertion to Neo that Mr. Smith “is you, your opposite, your negation,” with a bit of the blind-seer theme from Sophocles’s Oedipus–or was that lifted from the pedestrian Minority Report? But what is surprising about Revolutions is the clear ascendancy of Christian imagery: the suffering servant, the One who conquers evil by enduring it, light overcoming darkness, and especially the cross.
The first film in the trilogy, by far the best, made economical and dramatically effective use of philosophy and myth; it also had a captivating plot. The Wachowski brothers seem to think that the dramatic impetus of the first film is sufficient to keep our attention through nearly five additional hours of footage. It isn’t. To make matters worse, Revolutions is the most-humorless film in the trilogy, in part because Mr. Smith has dropped his ironic, stand-up comic posture of Matrix Reloaded. Proclaiming, “This is my world,” he now functions as a sort of devil figure to Neo’s Savior. Smith comes out as a nihilist philosopher, a despiser of both human flesh and human aspirations. He describes the human body as “nothing…a piece of meat,” so “fragile” that it is not “meant to survive.” In his final encounter with Neo, he asserts that “the purpose of life is to end,” that the ideals of truth, love, and peace that inspire Neo are “illusions” and “constructs,” futile attempts at “justifying an existence without purpose.” The sad fact about Revolutions is that it nearly fits Mr. Smith’s description of human life: a series of illusions and constructs without purpose.
The recent popularity of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and especially Lord of the Rings tells us much about the appetite of American audiences for grand mythic tales, with myth understood not in its derogatory sense but in the sense deployed by Lewis and Tolkien. The peculiar contribution of The Matrix was to focus on the dilemma of humanity or post-humanity in the age of machine intelligence. It began with a bold and crisp articulation of this dilemma. It could have ended as a powerful and compelling affirmation of the enduring vitality of classic myths. It could have sharpened our sense of the options: a debased, mechanized humanity, void of the aspirations characteristic of what is best and most noble in our traditions vs. a humanity that has recovered a sense of purpose, a sense of the goods for which we ought to be willing to fight and die for.
It could, the imagery of the finale suggests, have been a marvelous contemporary recasting of the myth that has woven itself most intimately into the traditions of both east and west. No, not Joseph Campbell’s Gnostic and narcissistic “monomyth,” but the myth that begins with the audacious proclamation of the Word made flesh. That this story should continue to haunt Hollywood is more instructive than any lesson contained in The Matrix trilogy.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, wrote an essay for the volume, The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real.