The Matrix: An Ideological Analysis
by David A. Edwards
Ideological analyses of texts traditionally concentrate on locating ideology in its sense of “the system of ideas at the basis of an economic or political theory”. However the word can also mean “visionary speculation”, or literally, “the science of ideas”. Science fiction, as an artform based around the exploration of ideas, is therefore inherently ideologically based. Science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, extrapolates from existing political, social, or technological trends to understand their implications or logical conclusions. In doing so, sf discovers and exposes the ideologies behind the trends. At the same time, being a work of art, and therefore qualitative and subjective, a science fiction text carries its own ideological agendas. Thus, examples of the genre are doubly suitable for ideological analysis.
At least within the mainstream, sf films have traditionally been less thorough in their exploration of ideas than their literary counterparts. Books allow for more detailed, systematic, and discursive presentation of their contents than can be easily achieved with film. They are also far less restricted by their means of production. Sf filmsplace a high emphasis on visual spectacle, and are generally closer in their content to other genres such as comedy, horror, or action, with sf trappings. The death in 1999 of Stanley Kubrick has deprived the filmgoing world of his proposed next film, a science fiction epic called AI, which might have helped restore to the genre the possibilities opened up by the auterist strengths of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. As it stands, mainstream sf film represents a triumph of style over substance, reaching a nadir in The Phantom Menace.
Into this milieu comes The Matrix, a film which, fittingly for the year 1999, seems to offer a summary of mainstream action and sf filmmaking, and culture in general, at the end of the 20th century. Much of The Matrix resonates with, and is probably influenced by, postmodernist theory, but it is first and foremost a mainstream action film. Its mainstream popularity means that it is well placed to reflect the popular culture of its time.
Though little of The Matrix’s content covers new ground for sf, the film is extremely full of ideas and semiotic meanings. However few of its ideas are developed in depth, and indeed many are presented in a casual or throwaway manner. But this is appropriate given the information-overload of postmodern media and society, which The Matrix reflects. For this reason, to analyse The Matrix in depth may be to miss the point. The reference to the last human city of Zion, for example, does not necessarily mean that the film is intended as a religious parable, only that that interpretation is possible. And the strong characterisation of Trinity is not a major feminist statement – not twenty years after sf heroines Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley.
When the main character Neo takes the pill to awaken him to reality, he touches a mirror, which then becomes fluid and spreads all over him. The Matrix itself is a mirror, greatly concerned with surfaces and appearances, with little to confirm or deny any opinions held about it. Like Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole – a parallel explicitly drawn more than once – the camera then heads into Neo’s screaming mouth, and right down his throat, suggesting in keeping with later plot developments that the world and its meanings are contained within the individual. This same shot, using what I presume to be footage from an endoscopy procedure, was also used in star Keanu Reeves’ previous film Devil’s Advocate, which is only one of many intertextual references in The Matrix. This leads us to the first of the major thematic concerns which I will discuss.
Part 1: Nothing is True
The device of the Matrix as a distraction to prevent the people from discovering their actual cattle-like existence is a contemporary illustration of Karl Marx’s original conception of ideology. Various 20th century thinkers, such as Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, Jean Baudrillard, and Louis Althusser have criticised the promotion of ideology through media. Situationist critic Guy Debord termed the situation “The society of the spectacle”. The use of ideology as a smokescreen is not a new one in science fiction, and often crops up in dystopian sf such as 1984, Brave New World, or Rollerball.
The Matrix is partly an allegory for modern interactive technologies such as the internet – whereas earlier sf dealing with entertainment or ideology as social controls usually presented the audience as passive receivers. In another popular film of 1999, David Fincher’s Fight Club, resistance is against the numerous forms of ideological dissemination, hence the bombing of a computer store or the insertion of pornography into film footage. However virtual reality technologies are interactive, so the major struggle in The Matrix takes place within the ideological apparatus of the Matrix, rather than trying to alter or destroy it from outside. But as a film, an artform lacking direct audience participation, The Matrix makes extensive reference to movie cliches, from the opening rooftop chase recalling Hitchcock’s Vertigo, through various kung-fu and action films, and based on a traditional hero’s quest story structure.
As a mainstream action film, whatever plot or character developments exist have secondary importance to the action scenes. Acknowledging this, and with the virtual reality plot device to justify it, the directors take the action scenes to absurd extremes, and in doing so simultaneously satirise and celebrate the action genre. The Matrix sits alongside such films as Forrest Gump, Last Action Hero, Starship Troopers, and The Fifth Element, in its knowing play with cinematic cliche. This approach is signalled even before the start of the film, with the Warner Bros logo customised in dark green on a stormy background. The fact that what appears to be the year 1999 is actually an unspecified date in the 22nd century is an amusing deflation of pre-millennial self-obsession and apocalyptic worry.
Among the films and genres paid tribute to in The Matrix are James Cameron’s seminal sf/action Terminator series. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s remorseless killer who stole the show despite an odd accent and a lack of acting technique is referenced in the choice of Australian actor Hugo Weaving to play Agent Smith, gleefully hamming it up with an awkward American accent. The characters’ preference for dark glasses and leather clothes also recall the Terminator films, especially the shot of Smith glaring at Neo through one broken lens.
The referencing of other films in The Matrix gives it the opportunity to take on and reinforce or subvert their various ideological components. The finger-twitching High Noon shot in the subway, complete with non-diegetic rattlesnake sound, not only denotes a western showdown but has all its connotations of masculinity, a confrontation which only one will survive, a test of skill, law vs outlaw etc. At the same time it is ironic, and means precisely none of these things, because it is all only a simulation within a simulation.
To take another example, the scene where Neo appears with a minigun from a hovering helicopter clearly sends up the phallic symbolism of guns in action films (and the gun is framed to point diagonally upwards) by blatantly playing to the audience expectations, with the purpose of revealing them. Neo gives Smith the finger early on, ineffectually. Later, the helicopter flying alongside the building, and Neo emerging with a minigun clearly recalls Schwarzenneger in Terminator 2 (“It’s definitely you” says John Connor with a grin in that film). The ineffective phallic finger has become the effective minigun. An opposite approach to the same goal was taken in Men In Black with the tiny but devastating Noisy Cricket gun, while The Fifth Element went deliberately overboard with Zorg’s combination machine-gun/flamethrower/rocket/net/dart-launcher. Fight Clubeven inverted the symbolism by using the phallus itself to represent an offensive gesture.
The fight scenes of The Matrix are executed in an anti-realistic manner, not only in the impossible moves and artful direction, but in the near-bloodless wounds, and the way the extras are instantly felled. The scenes do not portray violence itself, but rather portray violence as it is portrayed in action films. The choreography and use of music even carry a hint of A Clockwork Orange.
In this case the subject matter is treated with irony, as shown in the shot of the devastated building lobby, or the hundreds of bullet cartridges falling from the helicopter. Both shots indicate excess, in a way that is both mocking and gleeful. The Matrix is constantly drawing attention to its own unreality, and indeed this is the very subject matter of the film. The indulgently ironic facial expressions of Neo and Morpheus in the training program attest to this. There is even a shot in the loading program where Morpheus is providing plot information, and directly addresses the camera.
The combination of excessiveness and cinematic references reflect the postmodern western condition of media stimulation, which Baudrillard called the hyperreal. With high-budget special effects-driven films constantly trying to outdo each other, The Matrix represents both a continuation and a critique of this trend. The Matrix wants to have its cake and eat it too, as does Cypher (meaning secret, or zero), the Judas figure in the film, who wants to be rewarded for betrayal and not feel guilt as the original Judas did. When Cypher says “I want to be someone important – like an actor”, this is a clear indication of the importance placed on image in (postmodern western) society.
The Matrix has intriguing synchronicities between its form and its content, down to the choice of soundtrack music by bands with names matching the themes of the film – such as Massive Attack, The Prodigy, and Rage Against the Machine. Another major synchronicity is between the use of computer special effects to achieve the impossible both on screen and in the story. The boundaries between the film and the real world, between fantasy and reality, begin to blur. Or, as Professor O’Blivion puts it in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television”.
The story of The Matrix is set on two levels, the simulated and the real. The two levels are used in a straightforward way to create a binary opposition by which they can be compared and contrasted. This is done in various ways from the subliminal, such as the shallow focus blurring what is outside the car windows, to the obvious. The scene where Cypher meets Agent Smith in (a simulation of) a restaurant (with a warm orange colour balance) is immediately followed by the crew of the ship eating their tasteless daily gruel. Visually the scenes inside the Matrix have a greenish colour balance, reminiscent of a monochrome computer screen, whereas the scenes inside Morpheus’s ship are shown in cold blues, suggesting discomfort.
This binary approach contrasts with, for example, David Cronenberg’s concurrently released eXistenZ, with its final plot twist that having emerged from the game, reality may in fact be only another simulation – while in Videodrome, reality and fantasy blur to the extent where they cannot be told apart. The approach of The Matrix is less enigmatic, though Neo starting off as a computer hacker has a hint of eXistenZ’s Russian-doll approach. Also, the fact that a character killed in the Matrix dies in real life (the approach taken in William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novelNeuromancer) gives the two levels an interdependence.
This interdependence suggests the pagan proverb “as above, so below”; paganism being alluded to in the theme of transcendence, discussed below. It also puts the casual slaughter of numerous security staff into ideological territory no less murky for its not being real. The arguments over the merits and possible effects of film violence are too detailed to discuss here, but it is interesting in this context to note feminist critic Camille Paglia’s opinion that “all screen violence ultimately has to do with a kind of religious ritual – a pagan contemplation – of those forces that are out there”.
The reality/fantasy split is brought up early in the film when Agent Smith observes the double life lived by Anderson/Neo. The Matrix can be read as an allegory of how people project and play roles to the world. The assumption of a hacker’s alias which then becomes more real than the given name – Neo’s anger at being called “Mr Anderson” saves him from being hit by a train – is a role reversal in keeping with the transcendence discussed in the next section. Like Zion, the name of the unseen last human city, the characters’ names give a mythical dimension to the story in a throwaway manner – Neo (ie new man, also an anagram of “one”), Morpheus (god of dreams), Trinity (holy trinity) etc, contrast with repression personified as Smith, the most ordinary-sounding English name. Meanwhile the word “matrix” has multiple meanings, including “a mould”, “a gridlike array of interconnected circuit elements”, and intriguingly “a womb”.
Part 2: Everything is Permitted
The story of humankind, whether on individual or collective levels, can be represented (ideally/supposedly) as one of growth and development. A lot of sf, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Lawnmower Man, or Star Wars, develops this theme. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche articulated the idea that “man is something to be overcome”. Evolution to a higher state of being, which he called the Superman – later the name of a well-known comic book heroto whom The Matrix pays explicit tribute in it’s last shot – was the ultimate goal.
It is significant that The Matrix does not end with the overthrow of the machines, but on an enigmatic (if triumphant) note. The film chronicles the birth of a superhero. And like Clarke Kent/Superman or Bruce Wayne/Batman, Thomas Anderson/Neo has a double identity and life, as Smith observes early in the film. This dual existence is appropriate as it is also a direct reflection of the way people can assume alter egos through the internet, and indeed Neo’s transformation is little more than an improvement of his computer hacking skills. The fetishisation of telephones in The Matrix is a tribute to both Superman and Marshall McLuhan.
The figure of the superhero seems to be an American invention. Like the cowboy or the detective, the superhero is a loner, and reflects supposedly American values of rugged independence and self-determination. In one simulation program Morpheus and Neo are shown walking upstream against heavy pedestrian traffic. The Matrix ends with Neo achieving super-powers, but overthrowing the machines that have taken over the world does not even appear to be on the agenda. Rather, the ideology promoted by The Matrix is one of individual liberty within a society, not radical social transformation.
By contrast, though they too have superhuman powers, the agents represent order or stasis. This is signalled by their identical dress, personifying them as those modern-day hobgoblins, the men-in-black, and by the symmetrical camera framing they are often given, for example when they enter the office to look for Neo. Agent Smith’s hatred of the Matrix represents nihilism, the polar opposite of Neo’s transcendence.
The film’s presentation of the Matrix as equivalent to an ideological smokescreen, has a strong ring of Marxism about it. However Smith’s statement that the original Matrix was a perfect world “where everyone would be happy” (ie a socialist utopia), but that this proved unworkable as people did not believe in it, seems downright reactionary in its suggestion that harmonious cooperation is against human nature. If a political philosophy is being espoused in The Matrix, it is closer to libertarianism than Marxism or the technological paranoia attributed to the Luddites.
An enigma of The Matrix is the suggestion that the Matrix may actually be preferable to the real world, which is in any case horribly polluted. Cypher decides, and so perhaps does Neo, that the ersatz but limitless possibilities of fantasy are preferable to a harsh and banal reality. The attractions of the Matrix are escapism, and that one can have higher goals than mere survival. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, jacking into cyberspace is literally addictive.
Although they keep them as “crops” in Smith’s word, the machines do look after the people, feeding them and providing at least the illusion of a life. At the beginning, Smith has given orders to the police, for their own protection, not to approach Trinity. Neo and Trinity on the other hand casually kill many police as obstacles. This is the moral dark side of the film’s radical individualism. And Smith’s assertion that “humans are a virus” goes unchallenged. The Matrix offers a somewhat more ambiguous exploration of human vs machine conflict than the genocidal war of theTerminator films.
The journey to the superheroic state follows the ancient story outline of the hero’s quest, with mystical overtones that owe a lot to Star Wars. When Morpheus says to Neo “Stop trying to hit me, and hit me”, this sounds a lot like Yoda’s admonishment to Luke Skywalker “Do or do not; there is no try”.
Like Star Wars, The Matrix dresses up ancient myth in (post)modern clothes. Morpheus’s offering Neo a drug to awaken to reality represents ancient shamanism via modern psychedelia, while the shot of each pill reflected in one lens of Morpheus’s glasses makes literal the mystical idea of left and right hand paths. Neo then sees the mirror warping, which has strong psychedelic connotations. The visit to the Oracle, a domestic scene with suggestions of a doctor’s surgery, demonstrates clearly the mythical within the mundane – while the line about getting one of the kids to fix the broken vase humorously suggests the reverse.
High technology, mystical transcendence and heroic journeys, and the mundane all meet up in The Matrix. Trinity’s anti-bug device plugs into the car cigarette lighter, while telephones are literally portals to another world. On the other hand, the interior of Morpheus’s ship is dingy, with elderly fittings and seats missing stuffing. The aesthetic ideology of The Matrix could be described as “TechGnosis” – a word invented by writer Erik Davis for the title of his book on the mystical underpinnings of modern technology and culture – while the transformation to superhero occurs through”direct individual experience of gnosis – a mystical influx of self-knowledge with strong Platonic overtones”.
The Reshaping of Reality
As discussed in the section on Virtual Reality, the plot device of the Matrix as “an interactive computer simulation” is not merely analogous to modern interactive media, particularly the internet and computer games, but an extrapolation from them.
One major feature of sf and fantasy fiction is that the genres are not merely concerned with telling stories, but with creating worlds for them to take place in. As well as inventing characters and narrative, the environment is constructed, often meticulously (extreme examples include Star Trek or the work of JRR Tolkein which come complete with detailed invented languages, cultures, and physical laws) to give meaning to the action. Through the VR device, The Matrix makes this world-building its actual subject matter. The irony in The Matrix is that the real world is strange and terrifying while the fantasy landscape is banal.
Although The Matrix presents an elitist view with a sharp division between the superhuman (in the Matrix) heroes and agents on one hand and the duped masses on the other, the film reflects both the fear and horror of, and the utopian possibilities attributed to, all technology – both of which stem from making human labour unnecessary.
In sf writer Arthur C. Clarke’s words, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In the physical world technology has given humans the power to transcend our own physical limitations and travel fast, communicate across long distance, lift heavy loads, have infallible memory and so on. In cyberspace there are no physical limitations, so tools are not needed. The agents can reprogram the Matrix so that there just happens to be a brick wall over a building exit. Likewise, skills can be quickly downloaded rather than learned over years (the computer screen even lists “drunken boxing” among the fighting styles being loaded into Neo). When Neo asks for “guns – lots of guns”, they are available instantly without having to go to the trouble of making or buying them. Presumably the next step is for the superhero to not need guns at all, and kill enemies simply through willpower and imagination, as he eventually does Agent Smith.
The Matrix is far from unique in dealing with VR or with realities that are mutable for whatever reason. Australian sf writer Greg Egan in Permutation City and Diaspora presents life for human minds as sentient programs inside a computer as attractive, due to the power of being able to alter one’s surroundings at will and to escape the physical – and psychological – limits of having a real body in a real environment. Elsewhere, devices such as time travel are used to rewrite reality, as seen in the Back to the Future or Terminator films. Groundhog Day makes its point by presenting different possibilities for action within repeated scenarios as multiple takes of a film scene.
The film Virtuosity combines VR with time travel in a scene where Russell Crowe’s villain Sid is killed, and then resurrected as a computer program and the fight scene replayed to make him think he has won, and reveal the location of his hostage. The Matrix by contrast has a linear storyline that seems at odds with the reshaping reality theme. Neo says that he dislikes the idea of fate because he wants to be in control of his own life, and it is self-control which allows him to transcend the limitations of the Matrix and become superhuman. However he is able to achieve all this because he is “the one” and is as such merely fulfilling a prophecy. Cypher being prevented from killing the heroes, and Neo being rescued by Trinity’s love are also fated. This suggests that free will is an illusion after all.
That the characters are acting out some kind of divine plan is not so much a theological message as a formulaic script. If there is a God in The Matrix, it is Hollywood script-writing. However it is possible that the presentation, and so unsubtly, of fate as inevitable means ironically the opposite of what it appears to – in other words that because it seems inevitable, fate could be transcended, the way gravity is. But this is outside the scope of the film. The limitations of the conventional narrative make the film structure inherently unsuitable for a serious exploration of what a world without rules could be like.
Neo’s pronouncement at the end that he will show these people a world without limitations or boundaries echoes the utopian visions of supporters of the internet, which as a decentralised, democratic, and participatory medium seems to offer the opportunity to transcend national or other boundaries and allow open exchange of ideas. The Matrix suggests that this freedom must be fought for – but then it has to or there would be nothing on which to base a storyline (no good guys and bad guys). A film without conflict where reality is changeable at will would belong in the realm of the avant-garde, not that of action blockbusters.
The ideology of The Matrix could be summarised as “nothing is true; everything is permitted”. This applies not only to the characters within the story, but to the possibilities for filmmaking opened up by modern special effects. The July 1999 Sight and Sound editorial makes reference to The Matrix, noting its violence and its technical impressiveness. It then points out that “What this digital facility does is to rip up much of the rule book of classical film-making… It’s this sense more than any other that seems to have paralysed proponents of what we might call the humanist auteur tradition – the tradition most likely to contrast with the current nihilism”.
The limitless possibilities suggested by The Matrix ironically serve to reinforce that it is still confined to a two-dimensional non-interactive movie screen. The film comes across as ultimately escapist in nature, only emphasised by Morpheus’s continual reminders that “I can only show you the door; you have to walk through it”. However, as the Sight and Sound review of the film concludes, “It seems clear that the Wachowskis have discovered a gleeful utopia of their own”.
Sight and Sound, July 1999.
TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis. Serpent’s Tail, 1998.
Screen Violence edited by Karl French. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996.
Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction edited by Annette Kuhn. Verso, 1990.
BFI Modern Classics: The Terminator by Sean French. British Film Institute, 1996.
BFI Modern Classics: Blade Runner by Scott Bukatman. British Film Institute, 1997.
Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet H. Murray. The Free Press, 1997.
Reality Isn’t What it Used To Be by Walter Truett Anderson. HarperCollins, 1990.
Science Fiction Studies in Film by Frederik Pohl. Ace, 1981.
Neuromancer by William Gibson (fiction). Voyager, 1985.
Permutation City by Greg Egan (fiction). Millennium, 1994.
 The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition. Edited by Della Thompson. Clarendon Press, 1995
 The Society of the Spectacle, 1967. Cited in TechGnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis. Serpent’s Tail, 1998.
 Simulations, 1983. Cited in Davis.
 Camille Paglia interviewed by Karl French in Screen Violence. Edited by Karl French. Bloomsbury 1996.
 The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition. Edited by Della Thompson. Clarendon Press, 1995
 From Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1885. English translation by R.J Hollingdale. Penguin Books, 1961.
 TechGnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis. Serpent’s Tail, 1998.
 Supposedly the last words of 11th century mystic Hassan i Sabbah. Popularised by late 20th century writers such as Robert Anton Wilson (The Illuminatus Trilogy) and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch).
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