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May 17, 2003


The following are some thoughts after seeing "Reloaded" a second time. I've tried to recall the major plot scenes and explain their significance as I understand it. Yes, there are spoilers. If you haven't seen it, don't click for "more."

First, I think one of the best things we learn from "Reloaded" is that the messianic plot is a red herring. As Neo says after his talk w/the Architect: "The One was never meant to end anything. It was just another system of control." Take that, Mr. Thank God. (No offense to believers among us; regardless of wether its a system of control, religion certainly serves important functions in many societies and lives.)

Another thing I learned from this film is that most reviews of it are worthless. Very few people can say many smart things about a movie after seeing it only once. All you get are first impressions, and w/a move like "Reloaded," it's hard to trust those.

The major scenes in terms of plot are:

Neo and the Counsellor on the engineering level of Zion: The counsellor says that this is how people are: We don't care how things work, so long as they work. This is what makes the matrix possible; as Cipher said in the first film, "ignorance is bliss." Hence, the Counsellor seems to suggest that even in Zion people are half asleep. The counsellor also asks, "What is control?" His point seems to be that the struggle w/which Neo should be concerned is not that of man vs. machine (it wasn't in the first film, either, despite what reviewers said); Neo must realize that there is a man/machine symbiosis at work. Perhaps. But the Counsellor is definitely playing on the threads about choice and human agency that come up again in the scene w/the Merovingian (and elsewhere). These themes are also important to his examples of things he doesn't understand, such as the water filtration system in Zion. The Counsellor says he doesn't understand the means, but he does understand the ends of these things. (To use the Merovingian's terms, he has the why.) The Counsellor hopes he'll learn the end (or goal/purpose) of Neo's power, even if he never understands its means. Thus, "Reloaded" is a quest film: Neo's quest for purpose. (What's it all for!?)

Morpheus' speech to the people of Zion: He's not afraid because he remembers where he's come from. Hence, Morpheus is lecturing about the importance of history. This echoes Frederic Jameson's "prime directive" to "always historicize." (However, since Morpheus' vision is later questioned—he believed in the prophecy, and that seems like it was a mistake—this scene might be meant in a Baudrillardian, post-historical, post-Marxist sense. Yes, history is important, but even that is not enough anymore.)

Link and Zee: A plot hole appears in the scene w/Link and Zee as Zee explains why she fears the Neb—it took two of her brothers, Tank and Dozer. We know what happened to Dozer from the first film: Cipher killed him. But what happened to Tank? Perhaps this is explained by the animated short, "Final Flight of the Osiris," which also supposedly explains how Neo gets a certain letter. "Osiris" apparently premiered in March before screenings of a movie called "Dreamcatcher." (This fairly detailed review doesn't mention anything about Tank.) Did anyone see it?

The Oracle: We learn that she is a program. (Does this ruin the metaphor of taking the red pill? In other words, does it mean that taking the red pill is just breaking through to a different layer of deception and control? I think Yes, but that doesn't ruin the metaphor because the red pill level is more enlightened (and therefore more empowered) than the blue pill level.) She tells us that people have to work together to get anything done (hence, the Nietzschean superman thing is out). And we also learn that all the world's anomalies (ghosts, angels, vampires, werewolves, etc.) are the system trying to assimilate programs gone awry. Agent Smith is such a program. (Real world parallel: Think how corporations use things like MTV to co-opt and commodify counter culture. In the '90s we got "alternative" music and that seemed rebellious and a little anarchic until it got into heavy rotation on MTV and "alternative" bands started selling millions of records: "alternative" was a program gone awry, but it was quickly assimilated. The counterculture of the 1960s is another vivid example—it threatened the status quo for a while, but was quickly co-opted and commodified—Flower Power is packaged and sold by Nike and Coca Cola. Now we have "tenured radicals" and other baby boomer demographics to which the system targets specific messages and commodities. I'm sure you could cite many more examples of this.) Finally, the Oracle tells us what all men with power want: More power. (Is she suggesting that power always leads to nihilism?)

Agent Smith: The scene where Neo battles a hundred Agent Smiths serves at least two purposes. First, it's a cool action scene. Yay. But more important, it explains what's happened to Smith: He's unplugged, no longer an agent of the system, but now without purpose because as he says, there is no purpose other than slavery to the system—there's no escape. He has become a nihilist—the archetypal nihilist, in fact. He has no reason for doing anything, except to satisfy his desire to do it. It's all about me, me, me, and me, too. But just as the messianic plot is a red herring, so too, is Agent Smith's nihilism—it doesn't get him anywhere or do anyone any good. The people he converts to his nihilism (by turning them into copies of himself) also only cause trouble. It's also important to note that Agent Smith tries to make a connection between himself and Neo, and in a way they are similar: Like Smith, Neo sees no definite purpose to his actions. The difference is that Neo still hopes and searches for purpose, while Smith has given up.

Lock and the Counsel: This scene (featuring two big lines by Cornel West) suggests that Zion is duplicating the control of the matrix. Lock says he wishes he could understand the counsel's choice, but the counsel says he does not need to understand to obey. This is true of the matrix, as well. An interesting side note: Niobe identifies herself as Captain of the Logos. She's Captain of the Word. This signals the film's concern w/language, or as Foucault would say, discourse.

The Merovingian: (What does it mean?) At the beginning of the scene, Neo says there's something strange about the code of the building and everything—it doesn't look right. Although he doesn't know it, this is because the code is old: They've entered an old, outdated, or early version of the Matrix here. The Merovingian is a program gone awry and he's somehow kept a bunch of old programs with him. Notably, all the old code characters have European accents—it's the "old world," after all. (Note also that the way the Merovingian praises French kind of gives the finger to all those "freedom fries" French-bashing Americans who see the film, doesn't it?) The Merovingian says many important things, one of which is that choice is an illusion created by people with power, for those without power. He also explains that "Why" is power. This is Foucauldian in that Foucault deconstructed the cliche that "knowledge is power" by showing that knowledge is not an absolute, but rather a social construct. A certain piece of information is only considered "knowledge" because we agree that it is. Therefore, it is not enough to know Fact A, we must also know why Fact A is important, otherwise our knowing has no power attached to it. This is the dilemma of Morpheus, Neo and Trinity: They know that they're supposed to be doing things, but they don't know why; therefore, they are powerless. (Tangent: Think for a moment about the "War on Terror"—it's action w/out reason, it has no why—it does not understand what it's fighting or what its ultimate goal is. Not effective. I haven't read it yet, but I'll bet that's what Baudrillard says in this book.) So perhaps the Merovingian is another caution against nihilism—our actions must be reasonable. I don't know what to say about all the cause and effect stuff in this scene, except that perhaps it has something to do w/a critique of teleological thinking. Anyone?

The Architect: The architect debunks the messianic plot and explains more about the origin of the matrix and the fact that it required a woman (another program, actually, who may or may not have been the Oracle) to figure out how to make it palatable to humans. As L. explains it via poststructuralism: The original matrix relied upon coercive power—it forced everyone to do as it required. The revised matrix includes the illusion of choice, so it functions via productive power—it produces cooperative subjects by giving them the illusion that they're producing themselves by making a choice (that isn't actually a choice). (But if this is the case, then doesn't that mean Zion is also a program? Yes, I think so, which explains how/why Neo is able to stop the sentinels near the end of "Reloaded." We'll see.)

[Aside: The concepts of coercive vs. productive power are also helpful in understanding why terrorism (and specifically 9-11) doesn't work. L. could explain this better than I can, but I'll take a stab at it: The people who crashed the planes into the WTC and the Pentagon were using spectacle and physical force to try to change the system of western capitalism with which they find fault. We immediately recognized the spectacle; however, the western world rejected this violence—we rejected "the program" because it didn't offer us a choice. Instead, the system (western capitalism) assimilated the violence of 9-11 by giving it a new meaning ("they hate us because we're free") and using it to justify wars against the system's enemies. And the system of western capitalism does this by flooding us with the illusion of choice: "Should I buy the white one or the pink one?" "Should I vote for tweedle-dee or tweedle-dum?"]

The Architect also explains the "remainder," the 1% who won't accept the program even when given the choice. These people instead choose Zion (once they learn about it). Again, this seems to be a false choice; Zion seems to be just another program, another facet of the matrix. Still, the concept of the remainder gives us an explanation for why some people are searching ("It's the question that drives you.You know the question, just as I did."), while others are perfectly content to live in the matrix. L. helpfully pointed out the similarities between "Reloaded"'s use of the remainder and the way Baudrillard writes about it in Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard writes:

Who can say if the remainder of the social is the residue of the nonsocialized, or if it is not the social itself that is the remainder, the gigantic waste product ... of what else? Of a process, which even if it were to completely disappear and had no name except the social would nevertheless only be its remainder. The residue can be completely at the level of the real. When a system has absorbed everything, when one has added everything up, when nothing remains, the entire sum turns to the remainder and becomes the remainder. (144)

Does this give us some clue about "Revolutions"? Perhaps. But it does seem that we are reaching a point like this in our own world. Note the degradation of the public sphere—education, health care, all social services—as budgets get slashed. We think instrumentally in terms of profit and loss; social services don't fit into that equation very well, and so are peripheral, a remainder. In fact all of the social world—our interactions w/family and friends, our entertainment, any "free" time we have—is a remainder. The system is work, productivity, profit, the economy, etc. Everything else is just left over, extraneous matter that the system would eliminate if it could figure out how to do so. (If you doubt this, ask yourself if your employer would eliminate coffee breaks and lunch hours if he/she could get away with it. All the employers I've ever had certainly would.)

Finally, the Architect sets up a choice for Neo—either be the savior of humanity, or choose love and be responsible for the death of all humans. But even as he poses these options, the Architect seems to know what Neo will do, meaning that this again seems like only an illusion of choice. This is one of the major questions for "Revolutions": Did Neo just do exactly as expected/programmed? Or did he somehow surprise the system? The Architect also notes that hope is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of humans. It's the greatest strength because, no matter how bad things get, we keep hoping they'll get better and that we can contribute to that improvement. Hope is our greatest weakness because it acts as a screen for so much of the "evil" in the world—we see bad things happening but refuse to believe they can be as bad as they seem because our hope clouds our judgment. ("Gee, it sure looks like this war on Iraq is going to be a bad thing, but I hope I'm wrong; I guess I'll just trust my government and hope that it's doing the right thing.")

After the Architect: Neo explains that the One was never meant to end anything. (Note: As many people have noted, "Neo" is an anagram of "one," but that, too, seems like a red herring. "Neo" is also a prefix meaning "recent or new," and in "Revolutions" we see that Neo is not "the one," but he is nevertheless something new. Neo-poststructural, perhaps?)

Morpheus is shocked to learn that "the prophecy" may have been a lie. Morpheus is a teleological thinker—he uses "ultimate purpose or design as a means of explaining phenomena." This has served him well up to this point, just as it served humanity well until the 20th century. However, for many people the death of god meant the end of teleologies and grand narratives. Yet, that leaves the question: What do we put in their place? That is a question Morpheus will have to deal w/in "Revolutions"—how is he going to understand his world if the framework he's always depended on is suddenly proven invalid?

So what does "Revolutions" hold? If, we follow L.'s reading, the two films have thus far stuck closely to poststructuralist lines; however, the problem w/poststructuralism is that it hasn't really figured out what to do now that god is dead and there's no getting outside of power. The trailer for "Revolutions" (which comes on after about 6-8 minutes of credits, if you stick around patiently) doesn't offer too many clues, but it does seem to bring it down to a battle between Neo and "him." This will be less than satisfying for many reasons, but I'll reserve judgment until I see it in November. (It will be out the 5th or the 7th. I'm thinking 7th since the 5th is a Wednesday.)

One more thing about the reviews and the bullk of the discussion I've seen about both Matrix films: There's lots of talk about philosophy and religious "mumbo jumbo," but very few people (outside of academia) talk about Foucault, Baudrillard, or any of the other huge linguists, cultural critics, and critical theorists who inform these films (for example, Saussure and Derrida are two thinkers without whom these films simply wouldn't be possible). Nonetheless, as important as religion and philosophy are to these films, they ultimately seem to serve as background to these other, more obscure structures of thought. The fact that so few people talk about linguistics, structuralism, poststructuralism, etc., is evidence of the problem of the Humanities in the 21st century—no one understands what academics in these fields are doing, and too few academics take the time or make the effort to bring their ideas to a wider audience. This is one of the great accomplishments of the Matrix films: They attempt to translate complex and obscure ideas into something millions of movie-goers can access. Millions of people want to see these movies, and they do see them, and think about them, and talk about them. The experience—the viewing and thinking and talking—may not change much for the vast majority of them, but at least the Wachowski brothers are trying.

My friend J. also pointed out that it's somewhat ironic that someone decided to attach the "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" trailer to "Reloaded." As the terminator himself says in that trailer, he is an obsolete technology. I mean, the Matrix films do the struggle between man and machines so much better than terminator ever did. Except for the fact that the trailer is being shown w/"Reloaded," there's no reason sci-fi/cyberpunk stories have to fit together, but I suppose the terminator series could be something like a precursor of "The Matrix"—the battles that took place before the machines gained the ability to capture and "program" humans. The terminator series appears to function on a metaphor of coercive, or modern, power (force and violence), while the matrix series is concerned with productive, or postmodern, power (the control comes from within the subject being controlled). Yubbledew also functions on a coercive metaphor, while his advisers (e.g., Karl Rove) seem to understand productive power quite well. But I'll leave that to another day...

Posted 10:51 AM | Comments (3) | ai movies


Books on which The Matrix was based, according to "The Matrix Revisted" dvd:

Laurence Fishburn on "The Matrix":

I've said to a lot of people that a movie this smart—it's amazing that it got made because it is so smart.

Posted 10:49 AM | ai books ai movies

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