Who unplugged The Matrix?

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Nov. 7 2003 2:07 PM

Unplugging The Matrix

Why the sci-fi franchise went south.

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But what it doesn't provide—and what, until the sequels, I didn't think it pretended to provide—was philosophical insight. It seemed fitting that, by way of signaling their philosophical influences in the original, the Wachowskis had Neo pulling from a shelf not Plato's Republic nor Descartes' Meditations, Western philosophy's signal treatments of the appearance/reality problem, but Simulacra and Simulations by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard is the French postmodernist who comes closest to the stony spirit (and the philosophical sophistication) of the freshman dorm: "Dude, what if this all isn't, like, really reality, but instead it's, like, a simulation of reality?" (And, yes, Neo's copy of Simulacra was itself merely a hollowed-out hiding place, the appearance, so to speak, of a Simulacra. Sigh.)

But in the sequels the Wachowskis drop the enduring but pleasingly simple appearance/reality problem, which is where the Matrix's realbuzz comes from. They instead treat Morpheus' incoherent and New Agey murmurings about Fate as the central issue, which is a real buzz-kill. First, it leads to a series of numbing litanies on human agency. Reloaded airs out four distinct theories of causality and action: Neo's insistence on free will, Morpheus' benign fatalism, the Architect's malign fatalism, and the Mervingian's scientific determinism.

This is boring enough, but worse is that, with Fate displacing Reality as the central pseudo-philosophical issue, the Matrix loses its central place in The Matrix. Though Neo and his crew continue to nose around the nooks and crannies of the Matrix's program, both sequels ignore the fate of people still trapped. We no longer get to participate in the giddy, awful process of enlightenment and emancipation, and the fragile semblance of logic that drew from the original's tidy dualism totally collapses. (Reloaded signals its abandonment of even the pretense of coherence when Neo, head bowed and hand extended in the stance of a Pentecostal faith healer, stops several real-world machines in their tracks. By this time, the audience's response is, "Ah, what the hell. Why not?")

The Fate we're supposed to care about is, alas, that of gloomy Zion, where Jada Pinkett Smith sets the tone with her scowl. Much of the action in Zion consists of legislative hearings held by ponderous middle-aged counselors dressed not in snazzy leather but in canvas smocks. (Cornel West, the poster boy for dreary academism, plays one of them.) This lends the proceedings a neo-medieval vibe that is totally out of keeping with the original Matrix but weirdly, grimly familiar from other sci-fi franchises. The Wachowski brothers, moved by some inscrutable nerd-muse, apparently decided that the one glaring flaw of the original Matrix, besides the whole superfluous Matrix thing, was that it didn't feel enough like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Matt Feeney is a writer in Oakland. You can email him and follow him on Twitter.

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