Vol. 4 No. 3, January 2000
The Matrix Rules
Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
Village Roadshow Pictures, 1999
_The Matrix_ is part of a new sub genre of 'virtual reality' films, a theme that has gathered pace and urgency over the past decade and especially over the last couple of years. We are not talking about films like _Lawnmower Man_ which explicitly fictionalise a technology that can create artificial environments for whatever ends. There is a particular narrative theme running through the movies we are referring to here, that take their inspiration from a media critique which sees the new information societies as having created and imposed on their populations a form of organisation structured by mediated forms of experience. It is supposedly the culmination of tendencies first noted over thirty years ago in writings like Debord's _Society of the Spectacle_ where 'everything that was directly lived has passed away into representation'. 
Like Debord's critique, many of these films begin from the premise that there is a 'real' life and an artificial one, and that we need to explicitly dismantle the illusory world in order to see things as they really are, the relations of production finally laid bare. An early example of a film like this is John Carpenter's sadly neglected _They Live_ of 1987. An unemployed working class Joe stumbles upon a special pair of sunglasses which allows the wearer to see hidden media messages which have been brainwashing people. Advertisements for cars or hair spray reveal their true purpose in statements like 'Do not question authority', and 'Marry and reproduce'. Printed on dollar bills are not currency denominations but the command 'This is your God'. Who or what is creating this deception? The answer is a ruling elite who pursue their own interests behind this smokescreen of illusion. This is a conspiracy movie then, with the added twist that the ruling class turn out to be a race of invading aliens whose hideous features are also disguised by the brainwashing transmissions. They live, the rest of us just struggle and dream.
A more recent film in a similar vein to _They Live_ is _The Truman Show_, which combines a virtual reality with the paranoia of an individual persecution complex. Unlike the world of hardship endured by the lower classes in _They Live_, the Jim Carrey character Truman Burbank is a comfortable middle class professional living in an all-too-perfect world who nevertheless begins to suspect that his life is being controlled. In fact he is the only 'real' person, the 'true man' who has grown up in a huge stage set populated by actors and monitored by hidden cameras to produce a 24-hour soap opera. Truman becomes the ultimate surveillance subject -- 'Nothing in the show is fake, its merely controlled', explains one of the cast members, who happens to play Truman's 'best friend'.
_The Truman Show_ was released in the US at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and some critics felt that it accurately reflected the way that Bill and Monica had been forced to play in their own soap opera. But as much as Truman's life is created by the television corporation and its shadowy director Christof, the viewers of the _The Truman Show_ have their own lives constantly revolve around watching the day to day antics of this totally fabricated 'real' person. In fact the similarities between the stage set town that Truman is trapped in and the world outside create the impression that there is nowhere to escape to anyway. When Truman is growing up he announces that he would like to be an explorer when he grows up -- 'You're too late', his teacher tells him, 'there's nothing left to explore'. The system is presented as being all pervasive -- 'There's no more truth out there than there is in here', explains Christof when he finally reveals himself to Truman at the end of the film, just 'the same old lies and deceit'.
In these scenarios the media dream world is explicitly created by a ruling class for our deception and therefore it must be destroyed. For Debord's theory things are a little less conveniently simplistic however. The spectacle is the logical outcome of advanced capitalism and partly becomes a celebration of its own success, justifying the productivity of the capitalist economy by squandering its surplus value on gratuitous media events.  The spectacle is as inevitably a part of capital's historical development as the socialism that must presumably succeed it. This produces a conflict in the origins of the contemporary world of mediated experience. The feeling that someone must have created the mediascape, but that no-one seems to entirely control it, is a problem that many of the films in this genre return to again and again, just as Marxist theories of social transformation found they had to.
The information society has produced a world where the behaviour of its citizens is governed by rules that seem arbitrary and without challenge. Modern living requires constant application for all kinds of licenses, certifications and allowances. The corporations and organisations that control these essential services like insurance, financial management, access to medical provisions and educational qualifications all impose regulations that seem far removed from any useful objective. Success becomes dependent on the citizen's access to the right information that can lever a contractual advantage and their skill at avoiding disclosing facts that may disqualify them in some way. As we become more and more embroiled in negotiating these sets of rules we start to feel distanced from the immediate physical world around us. And the very arbitrariness of these regulations mean that it is impossible to find an objective basis on which to oppose them anyway.
This feeling of living in some kind of a giant game is suggested in David Cronenberg's recent film _eXistenZ_. It is a movie about a group of people who play a virtual reality computer game and uncover a clandestine war between games companies who are trying to own the ultimate mind controlling game. Cronenberg plays around with the usual 'it-is-reality-or-is-it-illusion' setups and finally gets us to the point where you can no longer tell which is which. All you can now do is play the game and hope you don't fuck up. At one point the male lead Jude Law exclaims: 'I don't like this game -- you don't know what the rules are, you don't know what the goal is, and you don't know who is controlling it. I don't think this game's going to be very popular'. 'But that's the game that people are playing already' says Jennifer Jason Leigh, the game's designer. Finally they discover that they have both been playing a game within a game -- a meta-game called 'tranScenZ'. Existence or transcendence, which do you prefer? Either way there must be winners and losers.
Most of these movies contain episodes in which the protagonist is trying to find clues that can tell them whether they are in virtual reality or in the real world. One particularly tense example is in the film _Total Recall_ when the Schwarzenegger character is approached by his 'wife' and a 'doctor' who try to warn him that he is still on an operating table on earth and has dreamed the whole experience of fighting a Martian conspiracy. Schwarzenegger has to decide whether to shoot the 'doctor' as an impostor and risk never being able to awaken or to surrender to him and risk capture and possible execution. As he holds a gun to the 'doctor's' head and slowly squeezes the trigger he notices a bead of nervous sweat appearing on the man's forehead. It is all he needs to tell him that the 'doctor' is a phoney and that his experiences have indeed been authentic -- a single crack in the man's story, he pulls the trigger and blows the man's head off.
But of course there is no fundamental reason to suppose that nervous physiological reactions cannot be faked in virtual reality just like everything else. Perhaps Swarzenegger is still on the operating table dreaming of having saved the Martian colony after all. There are other films where this dichotomy between the real and the vicarious is overcome by fusing the two together into a kind of higher reality. In David Cronenberg's seminal work _Videodrome_ way back in 1982, the central character Max Ren is seduced and brainwashed by hallucinations from a video signal until he becomes an unwitting assassin for an reactionary political group. No longer able to tell the difference between truth and fantasy it is easy for his political masters to manipulate him. But Max is saved by the intervention of Professor Brian O'blivion and his daughter, a character that was explicitly based on the ideas of Cronenberg's fellow countryman, the world's first media theorist Marshall McLuhan. O'blivion explains that the videodrome signal also creates a tumour in the brain that will allow the subject to evolve a new form of human consciousness that can live in both the world of flesh and the video world. With their help Max finds that he can take control of his own hallucinations and use this power to strike back at the conspirators. There is in fact no longer any effective difference for him between reality and media -- both are joined in the new flesh.
Over the course of time between _Videodrome_ and _eXistenZ_ we can detect a certain change of emphasis in the ideas they express. Until quite recently we considered that an ideology exercised its influence most forcibly in particular media forms -- the television soap operas, the newspaper campaigns and the Hollywood blockbusters. 'The spectacle is . . . but a social relation among people, mediated by images', states Debord succinctly.  But now it seems as though images have become social relations themselves, in quite explicit ways, partly due to the reduction of both to digital information. The result is like the creation of a huge machine structured through the information economy in which images as code and relations as code are identical. The conceptual model for this new situation is the computer game -- images, simulations, rules, trajectories. The system is now so integrated that all contradictions can be absorbed, all deviance can be regulated, all conflicts are about means, not ends. In this game we are each offered a character to play that can suit any sensibility as long as we follow the rules. If we are an ethnic minority then we can play a rap star or a black yuppie, if we are working class we can aspire to buy our own council house, if we are a woman then we can hire a lawyer to check that our rates of pay are equivalent to our male colleagues who all work in the same multinational corporation. So is the system now totally complete? Are there any more cracks that can afford us a perspective? Is there anywhere left to escape to?
_The Matrix_ continues many of these themes and introduces some new ones. One difference is that _The Matrix_ is a Hollywood summer blockbuster special effects film which is already rarefied by its very form. Because of this, although the film's writer/directors, the Wachowski brothers, try to introduce ideas about the condition of virtuality, they are always submerged again in the maelstrom of spectacular Kung Fu fights and explosive gun battles -- the very phenomena that they are trying to address. But in spite of this, with an effort of will it is still possible to recover many of these more conceptual materials.
The film's main character, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), is a humble office worker by day and a hacker by night who is trying to discover the meaning of the mythical 'Matrix'. He is contacted by a group of hacker rebels who are lead by an equally mythical hacker called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). After being persecuted by a group who appear to be FBI 'Agents' he decides to accept Morpheus's offer to reveal the secret of the Matrix to him in return for joining his underworld group. He suddenly awakens to find himself plugged into a tank along with a multitude of other human specimens in classic Cronenberg body-horror style. He is picked up and allowed to recover in Morpheus's ship. Now of course, it is revealed that Neo has been living his life in a collective virtual reality construction designed to subjugate his mind. So far it is conspiracy theory territory with the 'Agents' representing the oppressors who enforce the Matrix's rules and are ever vigilant in their efforts to crush those who are asking too many questions. But at this point we take a swing away from nascent human power politics into further science fiction because the builder's of the Matrix are not human themselves but are a race of artificially intelligent machines. Morpheus explains to Neo that, in a premise very similar to the 'Terminator' movies of the previous decade, most of the human race has been destroyed hundreds of years ago in a war between themselves and the artificial intelligences they created. Most of human race that is left is enslaved by the AIs and their bodies turned into biological batteries in gigantic power plants while their minds are kept alive by engaging them in a virtual simulation of the late twentieth century. There is a small human resistance group left who try to disrupt the Matrix by hacking into it.
By this time the conceptual potential of the film might have finally collapsed into a simplistic binary conflict between man and machine, but the Wachowski's, a pair of former comic book writers, manage to retain some semblance of hacking their own Hollywood film by using several sub-plots to leave some questions unanswered. For a start, it is not entirely clear what the human resistance is fighting for. The 'real' world outside the Matrix has been devastated by war and only one underground human city remains -- Zion. This city is itself run by a mainframe computer, albeit supposedly for the emancipation of humans. In fact the outside world is so bleak and inhospitable (the 'desert of the real' as Morpheus describes it) that one of the rebels is so fed up that he betrays the others to the Agents in return for being plugged back into the Matrix. (When negotiating with an Agent he asks that for his co-operation he is rewarded with a fairly important position in Matrix society -- 'like an actor'. 'Whatever you want, Mr Reagan', agrees the Agent). Once again it seems as though there is nothing really worthwhile left outside the system. In true Nineties underground style, we are left with the prospect of a harsh nomadic and militaristic life spent fighting a constant guerrilla action by nipping at the heels of a vast state machine.
More important though, is the degree to which one must become absorbed into the dynamics of the Matrix in order to fight it. The way the rebels train is very similar to learning to play a computer game, they work to quicken their mental reflexes and to exercise their strategic and imaginative thought processes. Hand to hand fighting is performed with superhumanly precise 'Street Fighter' style Kung Fu moves and everything else tends to involve loading and aiming an inexhaustible supply of automatic firearms, so many that their virtual bodies are practically encased in weaponry. The protagonists tend to walk and move with the logical deliberation of robots and to execute acrobatic stunts all with a mind numbing clarity of purpose. At one point the Agent that is interrogating Morpheus tells him that the AIs do not consider humanity to be mammals at all -- the organism that has most in common with the human is the virus. Humanity is viewed as a disease, a cancer that has exploited and defiled the planet and one that the new machine race is duty bound to eradicate. At the end of the movie Neo wins an important battle against the Agents when he literally invades the 'body' of one of them and ruptures it from the inside. The virus is so simple an organism that it is debatable whether it can be called a life form at all -- it is just a sack of proteins that reproduce a DNA sequence -- little more than a machine replicating its own code. This allows us to see both protagonists in terms of each other, a common enough narrative device in the context of hero and nemesis. The Agent also reveals a psychosis in the Matrix itself when he reveals to Morpheus that the real reason he is personally trying to penetrate the rebels home city is because he is revolted by the Matrix and wants to escape it. The system itself needs its Other to prevent it from imploding.
The main sub-plot however, is that Morpheus believes that Neo is 'The One' -- a Messianic figure who many humans think will rescue them from servitude. There is also an 'Oracle' who lives in the Matrix and who has prophesised to Morpheus that he will find The One. Feeling optimistic, Morpheus takes Neo for a private audience with the Oracle, who turns out to be a elderly Grandma Moses character, but she tells Neo that he isn't The One after all and that he will one day have to give his life to save Morpheus. Clearly spurred on by this knowledge, Neo finally does decide to risk his life to save Morpheus when the Agents capture him and in doing so focuses his mental energy to such an extent that he effectively does become The One. We discover that the Oracle's gift is not to predict the future but to create it. The Matrix may be a space in which every move is preprogrammed and delimited and all hackers are eventually traced and eliminated but nevertheless the film tries to rescue a space in which human agency is capable of executing transformative actions. It is in fact by the judicious application of the 'rules' of predestination and prophecy that the future is paradoxically made accessible again.
In _The Matrix_ both human and machine life have rules to live by, but the rules that the human resistance have are myths like the belief in a Messiah, in a Utopia, in redemption -- they generate possibilities and change. They are rules that are beyond a simple logical extrapolation of the present. By contrast the rules of the Matrix form a closed deterministic system without leaving space for imagination or transformation, dominated by a meta rule that instructs us to accept our current condition as given. As Neo warns the Agents at the film's end, 'You're frightened of change'. Theirs are static rules without a history and therefore without a future.
In our own information society we often appear to have sets of rules that work against each other. For each insurance policy, grant application or condition of sale we enter into there are also complaints procedures, feedback mechanisms and public relations offices. Each of these generates its own stream of bureaucracy, a counter current generating unpredictable collisions of regulations, priorities and authorisations. A decision has to be made to exit the game when one of these currents of paperwork threatens to consume more resources than it provides. Debord's concept of 'separate power' in which the capitalist state overwhelms us as a separate power beyond human control is now superseded by a world of competing logistics that perforate and animate power structures and result in bureaucratic wars of attrition between agents. The ability of one particular power to dominate us through the world of rules seems to rely not so much on their universal enforcement but on the universal consistency of the rules themselves, and this possibility is by no means certain at present.
Although none of the ideas suggested in _The Matrix_ are strictly new, the Wachowski brothers manage to bring them together in a highly visible and often self referential form. Although this Matrix has been created by a non-human intelligence it finally seems quite a natural place for human beings to move about in. The world of rules is finally expanded by the human presence to include rules that have the power to create contradiction and transformation. Even the most closed system cannot be complete and consistent enough to prevent the future from leaking in.
1. Guy Debord, _The Society of the Spectacle_ (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983), p. 1.
2. Ibid., p. 15.
3. Ibid., p. 4.
Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000
Richard Wright, 'The Matrix Rules', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 3, January 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n3wright>.
Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle
Join the Film-Philosophy salon,
and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here
Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)
PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England
Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage