Journal of Religion and Film

Reassessing The Matrix/Reloaded

by Julien R. Fielding

Vol. 7 No. 2 October 2003

Reassessing The Matrix/Reloaded

by Julien R. Fielding


Much has been written about Larry and Andy Wachowski's film The Matrix and on practically every angle.1 from philosophical precedents to the realities of artificial intelligence. Religious scholars, too, have thrown their hats into the academic ring, expounding on the Gnostic, Buddhist and Christian aspects found therein. But as many have discovered, the Wachowski brothers are syncretists, pulling bits from here and there and then mixing it all together in a science fiction-martial arts stew. They do this so thoroughly that when one tries to impose a singular religious paradigm on top of the film(s), slotting in the characters one-by-one, it seems to work only until put back within the context of the film(s). It is then when everything begins to unravel. Even though scholars have done it time and time again employing one religious worldview to understand The Matrix and The Matrix: Reloaded simply does not work. It's almost too simplistic a method for a film this complex. And this paper will demonstrate why.


[1] The Matrix: Reloaded opened May 15 with much anticipation and fanfare. Not only did it vanquish its competition, knocking X2: X-Men United from the No. 1 spot, but on its opening weekend it also earned  $93.3 million, making it "the second-highest first weekend grossing film of all time."2 It has been four years since part one of the trilogy opened and many wondered how, now that Neo (Keanu Reeves) was freed from his artificial intelligence slave masters, the saga would progress. Now we know - not well. Two hundred and fifty thousand sentinels are rapidly drilling into Zion, the last human outpost, and Neo can't sleep, for his dreams contain unsettling images of Trinity's (Carrie-Anne Moss) fate.3 But it's worse than that. When he encounters the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the Godlike creator of the Matrix.4 Neo learns that the prophecy might end the war but not in the way Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) has envisioned. In the final reel the film's spiritual leader is left a broken man, "I dreamed a dream, and now that dream is gone from me."5

[2] A number of scholars have looked to The Bible to understand The Matrix, and rightly so. The basics seem to be there. Neo/Thomas Anderson is the One, the predetermined messiah who has the innate purpose of and ability to save humanity. His name says it all - as so many have pointed out - Neo is an anagram for the One. This Greek word also means new with the additional mantle of being something in a different or abnormal manner.6 This certainly fits Neo, who really is a "new and improved" human; he's superhuman. Unlike his shipmates, he can read the raw code without need of a computer monitor. By Reloaded he can fly, dodge and stop bullets and move at unimaginable speeds; he's Superman in a dystopian milieu.7

[3] Before transforming into Neo, his hacker alter-ego, he is Thomas Anderson, the respectable corporate programming drone. Even when he is enmeshed in the "dream world" his name hints at greater things. When broken into its components, Anderson becomes "Son of Man."8 The name Thomas also furthers ties The Bible to The Matrix, for in the beginning this character suffers from doubt. "No! I don't believe it. It's not possible," he tells Morpheus once he's learned the truth - that human beings are grown in fields so that their body heat can be converted into batteries to run the master machine. Put all of this into a Christian context and it is not difficult to envision Neo as Christ, the man-God sent to save humanity from evil forces. Building on this connection, in Reloaded when Neo and Trinity come out of the elevator into Zion, a large group of followers have assembled; waiting for the messiah's return. Many extend offerings or ask for help. "I have a son Jacob, please watch over him," one woman pleads. Another begs Neo to watch over her "daughter on the Icarus."9

[4] Other scholars have turned to Buddhism to understand Neo, casting him as the Buddha or a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who forsakes nirvana to stay behind and help humanity. And evidence in the film(s) supports this, too. Morpheus wakes Neo to the fact that the world he has taken to be real is anything but. It is maya, literally "deception, illusion ... The continually changing, impermanent phenomenal world of appearances and forms, of illusion or decision, which an unenlightened mind takes as the only reality."10 Only by seeing the truth will Neo be released from this "prison for your mind." One visual hint in The Matrix that Neo has surrendered himself to his new life takes place after his muscles have been rebuilt.11 When he goes to meet the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar his head is still covered with a dark stubble and his shoulders are wrapped in a blanket, making this recent initiate resemble a Buddhist monk. And life on the ship is anything but luxurious. Like the monks of so many traditions, these prophecy-followers subsist on a single bowl of bland "gruel" and cope with cold, cramped accommodations.12 In addition to Buddhism, Flannery-Dailey and Wagner look to Gnosticism for elucidation and conclude that Neo must be the "redeemer figure who willingly enters the world in order to share liberating knowledge, facilitating escape for anyone able to understand."13

[5] All of these approaches work on a certain level but are far from decoding The Matrix trilogy. The problem with associating Neo with Jesus, the Buddha or the Gnostic redeemer is that all these traditions have negative attitudes toward the physical body. In Matthew 16:21, Jesus tells Peter, "You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." In Galatians 5:16 Paul writes, "live by the spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the spirit, and what the spirit desires is opposed to the flesh ... Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness ...envy, drunkenness, carousing ... I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God." And in 1 Peter 11, the author writes "I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against your soul." Finally consider what God did to the wicked cities Sodom and Gomorrah14 in Genesis 19:15-22. Even today Christians think of Jesus as celibate and when anyone tries to present him as anything else - The Last Temptation of Christ springs to mind - the placards come out and the teeth gnash.

[6] Before he became the Buddha, the enlightened one was Siddhartha, a married prince who also had a son, appropriately named Rahula or "fetter." When he "woke up" to reality - that sickness, old age and death wait for us all - he cast off his family, becoming an ascetic. Even when he found the Middle Way, he didn't go back to being a householder. At the core of his teachings is the fact that not only is craving  or desire, the thirst for sensual pleasure and the becoming and passing away, the root of suffering but it is the very thing that keeps us shackled to the wheel of birth and rebirth.

[7] As for the Gnostics, they were dualists who had a revulsion of the human body. To them the spirit was everything. "The majority of the sects demanded an ascetic life with rules for the mortification of the flesh and a special prohibition on marriage (or at least on procreation), so that the divine soul might be liberated from the bonds of sense and bodily appetite and assisted to turn itself toward higher things."15

[8} So what does all this have to do with Neo? Although he may seem to be celibate in The Matrix, by Reloaded his lust is clearly a driving force. The first time we see that the love between Trinity and Neo is far from a Platonic ideal is in a Zion elevator, when alone the two grapple passionately. Their relationship escalates to an almost five-minute sex act intercut with images of  sweat-drenched Zionists bumping and grinding in the Temple. Those who have equated this serene messiah with the chaste Jesus and Buddha might be left scratching their heads.

[9] What's more puzzling is how does this make us reassess Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), the supposed Judas Iscariot of the piece. In The Matrix he meets with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) at a cyber-created restaurant where he drinks fine wine, smokes a cigar and eats a juicy steak.16 He will give up Morpheus if the Agent will reinsert him into the Matrix. "Ignorance is bliss," Cypher says. From this scene, scholars have shouted a mighty "aha." Cypher, who embraces the sensual world and its distractions, must be the villain.  Then we remember what Mouse (Matt Doran) tells Neo while he and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzer are dining on their bland bowl of "synthesized aminos, vitamins and minerals:" "To deny our impulses is the deny the very thing that makes us human."  Mouse refers here not only to the woman in the red dress17 but also to those things that give a person pleasure. The only significant difference between Cypher and Neo is that one responds to his "impulses" in the dream world and the other acts on them in the real world.18

[10] Those using Buddhism to understand The Matrix cast Morpheus as a sort of Zen dogen or master. Unfortunately, he's neither an expert warrior nor very "enlightened."19 nothing more than a trick; a way to control the humans. Although the freed humans believe they can make a choice, their choices only lead them closer to their obliteration. When looking at Morpheus through a Christian lens, some scholars have labeled him the story's John the Baptist, the desert prophet who in John 3:28-30 said, "'I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him ... He must increase, but I must decrease."20 Since being freed from the construct by the original "man born inside that had the ability to change what he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit" Morpheus has been on a zealous quest for the One. Not everyone believes in the prophecy, though. The camp is split between those who label him crazy and those who treat him like an uber-cool rock star. I would suggest he is more like Moses, the Biblical prophet who leads the Israelites out of bondage, in this case the Matrix could stand in for pharaoh.21

[11] For scholars the most problematic character in The Matrix trilogy has been Trinity. And for good reason. This warrior maiden who fights alongside the men and several times rescues them - even our savior Neo - really has no equal in Christianity or in Buddhism. Her name signifies the coequal triune elements of the Godhead, which consists of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,22 which is interesting because this character also functions on a variety of levels. As Neo's eternal, predestined mate, who also proves nurturing and protective, Trinity has been interpreted by some as Mary Magdalene, the woman who waits near Jesus' tomb to attend to his body and who witnesses his resurrection. Trinity, too, hovers protectively over Neo's body when he goes into the Matrix. After he's been fighting the Agents, at the end of the first film, and he flatlines, she says to him, "Neo, please, listen to me. I promised to tell you the rest. The Oracle, she told me that I'd fall in love and that man, the man I loved, would be the One. You see? You can't be dead, Neo, you can't be because I love you. You hear me? I love you?" She kisses him lightly on the mouth then commands him to "get up," which he does. In this capacity not only is she the divine spark that resurrects Neo it also is her love that transforms him from the confused and lost Thomas Anderson into the still-conflicted-but-getting-there, ready-to-get-the-job-done Neo. This raises the question then, as one of my students asked, is Trinity God? She certainly watches over Neo and on several occasions seems to be directing his actions. For instance, in Reloaded Neo meets 100 copies of Agent Smith and Trinity, who is watching the code, tells him to get out of there, which he eventually does, Superman style. More importantly, though, at the end of the film she goes into the Matrix - disobeying Neo in the process - to "tear the whole goddamn building down" and, as so many times before, ensures that the mission is a successful one. In the ship's hierarchy Trinity also out ranks the chosen one and even refuses to let him single-handedly rescue Morpheus. Incidentally, she is the first freed human to make face-to-face contact with Neo.23

[12] In this paper, I've suggested that no one religious worldview helps to connect the dots. And, in some ways, as exegetical tools Christianity, Buddhism and Gnosticism don't always offer the truest interpretations. Hinduism is one worldview that has not yet been applied to the trilogy and, depending on the curve ball thrown by the Wachowskis in Revolutions, it may or may not be helpful in the end. Despite that, let's press on. In The Matrix, Morpheus explains there's a problem with the date. Neo might think its 1999, when in fact it's much later, sometime in 2199. In Reloaded, during his rousing speech at the Temple, Morpheus reminds the Zion inhabitants that after 100 years of fighting they are still standing. But then the Architect throws a spanner in the works. He explains that the current Neo is the sixth "One" to navigate the Matrix. We can surmise that when this messianic anomaly chooses the (wrong) door that supposedly saves humanity, the whole process starts over again. Now provided this simulated "video game" resets itself every 101 years - an important number in the Matrix - then that means that existence is an unending cycle of creation, growth and death. Although the numbers don't match up exactly, this concept of cyclical time comes close to the Hindu idea of yugas or epochs, which start out with everyone doing his or her duty and obeying one law but ends with people becoming weak and lazy and morality disappearing completely. Both Agent Smith and the Architect suggest that the first Matrix was perfect; a kind of Eden. However, when the human minds refused to accept it, the Architect had to look to an intuitive program, the Oracle, to solve the problem. Her solution - to offer the slaves a choice. "99 percent of the subjects accept (the program) if given a choice," the Architect tells the bewildered Neo.

[13] Hinduism also explains how our savior can copulate with Trinity. As in the Greek tradition, Hindu deities typically have a consort - Shiva has Parvati; Vishnu has Lakshmi and Brahma has Sarasvati - and their relationship is often a physical one. Of these three male deities, Neo has more in common with Vishnu, who throughout history has assumed a certain shape or avatara.24 According to Jan Knappert's An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend, "what distinguishes Vishnu from the other gods, it is his sattyaguna, his virtuous character, i.e. the kindness and mercy for human beings. This quality is sometimes described as narayana 'moving the waters', i.e., granting rain on the desert of human needs." The entry goes on to explain that Vishnu often gets compared to Jesus Christ, "who also was born in human form to take on evil." In these stories "whenever Vishnu descends to earth ... his wife Lakshmi will also arrive ... to grow up, meet him, destined to be his wife on earth as well as in heaven."25

[14] Unlike the majority of "orthodox" religions, Hinduism is populated with strong and powerful female deities. In fact, in one of the branches of Kali-puja, adherents worship the powerful tripartite goddess as exemplified by Kali-Durga-Shakti. "In this doctrine Brahma and Shiva are inactive, but Kali is the Shakti, the fountain of energy."26 Kali is a ferocious, blood-thirsty world-ruler who "leaves behind her a trail of death and destruction."27 Devi Durga, comprised of aspects from the 12 gods in the Hindu pantheon, is depicted with eight hands, each one holding a weapon. She is, as Knappert said, the goddess of defense, warfare, wisdom and knowledge. "The goddess promised that she would arise and intervene each time the Asuras (demons) returned to the world to resume the fighting in their efforts to revive the forces of evil in the cosmos."28 Trinity, the black leather wearing warrior, who can more than hold her own in battle, perhaps owes more to this tradition than any other.

[15] Finally, Hinduism might help us fathom how a messianic figure could unflinchingly murder countless innocents (as evidenced during the rescue mission in The Matrix.)29 In the Mahabharata, there is a 606 verse poem called the Bhagavad-gita, which means "the song of God." In this section, Arjuna, an archer from the kshatriya class, has doubts about going into battle against his family. Krishna, who is his charioteer, explains why Arjuna must fulfill his dharma or duty. "Do not fear to kill," the God says, "I have already killed them." As Knappert explains, Hinduism teaches that "everything that happens is the manifestation of immutable universal laws. The warriors must kill, the victim must die, both should do so resignedly, since it is their destiny."30 Gavin Flood further elucidates the lessons taught in the Gita, writing that "dharma and renunciation are compatible: action (karma) should be performed with complete detachment; the soul is immortal and until liberated subject to rebirth ... The soul is not killed nor does it kill." The crucial element here is to perform one's dharma without attachment, which is why, even if the movie audience feels uncomfortable at how quickly and without remorse Trinity and Neo blow away the policemen and soldiers, "no action accrues to a person who acts with a controlled mind, without expectation and contented with whatever comes his way. Through non-attachment to action, and knowledge of the Lord, a person will be liberated and be united with the Lord at death."31

[16] Although Hinduism elucidates some elements contained in The Matrix, it's also far from the perfect key. Taoism, Shintoism, popular literature, anime and manga, and even popular films from Star Wars to Vertigo help us peel away more and more layers. Why this film has been so frequently discussed is undoubtedly because of its innovative, and often unconventional, use of myth and religious thought. The question that drives many of us truly is - What is The Matrix?


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