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"You Are the Plague"

A Review of The Matrix (film)

With the release of the second film in the Matrix Trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, the adventures of Neo and Trinity continue to fascinate millions of moviegoers around the world. Spectacular as they are, there is more to the Matrix films than special effects. Various beliefs regarding the human speces are nested into the plot-line, and the way these beliefs play against each other makes these films the subject of endless debate. The Matrix films provide a unique occasion to consider the immense power of electronic media over our minds and lives.

In the definitive scene in The Matrix (1999), Agent Smith, a coolly sinister plainclothes entity in the computer-simulated world that is the Matrix, says to Morpheus, leader of the rebel group that has escaped it: "Human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet. You are the plague. And we are… the cure."

In this exchange, Agent Smith speaks for what created him: the power of AI, artificial intelligence. In another scene where Morpheus initiates Neo, a new recruit to the rebel team, he says: "Through the blinding inebriation of hubris, we marveled at our magnificence as we gave birth to AI." This sentence encapulates the attitude of many technocrats who believe that advanced computer science will produce astounding miracles of a beneficial kind. Confidence in the miraculous possibilities of AI is one of several technocratic beliefs at play in the complex plot of the Matrix trilogy. Morpheus explains to Neo, whom he has extracted from the Matrix, that sometime at the start of the twenty-first century war broke out between the humanity and a race of machines spawned by the advanced technology of AI, itself the product of human minds. Thus humanity, instead of using AI to engineer a new world, has become enslaved to its own invention.

In the Matrix trilogy the central conflict is between the mental power of human beings and the mind-mimicing powers of AI. (All quotes are from The Shooting Script: The Matrix Screenplay by Larry and Andy Wachowski, Newmarket Press, New York, 2001.)

Man Against Machines

Agent Smith, who is not a simulation of an actual human being but a perfect human replica devised by AI, represents the Machines that rebelled against their inventors. (This theme is not new, of course. It plays a central role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by Arthur C. Clarke, in which a superintelligent computer HAL rebels against his makers and hijacks an interplanetary mission.) The Machines themselves are horrible gigantic insects, depicted with erector-set carapaces, octopus-like tentacles and high-tech sensors, who swarm like locusts over the surface of the earth. The planet has been demolished by nuclear war, the atmosphere plunged in perpetual darkness.

The vast majority of human beings are no longer born naturally but raised in huge cellular banks of holding tanks where they are harvested by the Machines to whom they supply bioelectrical energy. Each individual body of a living human is comatose, immersed in gooey gel, and gruesomely connected by coaxial cables to an unseen mainframe that simulates a world resembling ordinary urban life in the late twentieth century. Neo, who is the "One" predestined to free humanity from the illusion of living in a real world, must first realize that the world from which he was extracted, and which he took for totally real, is "a neural-interactive simulation that we call the Matrix."

The Matrix was filmed in Sydney, Australia, a city that looks like any other. At first the viewer is unaware that scenes occurring in this setting are not real-world events but simulations. In this perfect replication of ordinary urban life, a message appears on the screen of Neo’s computer telling him, "The Matrix has you." At the moment we read these words, we the viewers are also caught in the same illusion.

The film tricks the viewer, not into believing that the world simulated in the Matrix is real, but into believing that it is possible to wake up within the simulation, as one does in a lucid dream. The heroic quest of Neo consists in realizing, when he is in the Matrix, that he has the power to master it through his own mind. To this end, Morpheus and his team of rebels, who have extracted Neo from the holding, voluntarily return with him to the Matrix so that they can test their human mental powers against the AI that drives the simulation. Many scenes in the film unfold as if the characters were functioning in a video game.

Among the team is Trinity, Neo’s love interest, who plays a decisive role in his final battle to overcome the illusional powers of the Matrix. The romance of Neo and Trinity carries the belief that love between two humans is necessary if one of them is to find the inner strength to master the Matrix. Although the actors who play these two lovers are almost totally devoid of emotion, this romantic angle is perhaps the most appealing twist of the film.

Let’s Get Real

The exchange where Agent Smith tells Morpheus, "You are the plague," occurs in the Matrix itself, that is, in a setting simulated in virtual reality (VR). This scene contains some of the more profound moments in the film. (It must be said, there is a lot of terrific dialogue in the Matrix - in the first installment, anyway.) It takes some brainwork during and after the film to realize that Agents like Smith are human replicas with no human counterparts. They are not linked to the real humans held captive in the holding tanks, but are pure constructs of AI, like Lara Croft and other video-game "avatars." As such they are invested with superhuman power: Agents can kill human replicas in the Matrix, and when they do, the real human body attached to the replica dies. Humans who appear in the Matrix, including ordinary people on the street as well as the rebel escapees, all have their doubles outside it. The difference is, the rebels live as free beings in the real but devastated world beyond the Matrix, conscious that the Matrix is an illusion, but all the other unplugged humans who appear to live normally in the Matrix are blind to the illusion.

Obviously, this two-world scenario has a tremendous impact on human imagination. The notion that we inhabit a world that is somehow not real is extremely appealing to a society dominated by advertizing, entertainment, governmental fictions and untrammelled technological magic. The Matrix trilogy has been called the first sci-fi action film for intellectuals. Its creators, the Wachowski brothers, were inspired by the hady conceits of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard who has written extensively on "simulation." Material on the Internet devoted to Baudrillard’s theories as represented in the films runs into hundreds of pages. The Wachowskis acknowledge Baudrillard as a major influence by inserting a visual cue to one of his books, Simulation and Simulacra, in the opening scene of the first film. Baudrillard himself "has snorted in derision regarding The Matrix." He says that no film can fully explore his ideas and that the attempts to do so in these films are "misinformed and misguided." (Taking the Red Pill, edited by Glenn Yeffeth, p. 290)

Whether or not the Matrix films accurately reflect Baudrillard’s recondite notions, they succeed brilliantly in presenting an extravaganza of special effects to demonstrate the spell of simulation. But the ultimate effect of this spectacle is ambiguous. If the message here is "let’s get real" and wake up from the Matrix, i.e., the artificially simulated world of electronic technology in which the human species is rapidly cocooning itself, then the question remains, "What is there to wake up to?" The life of the rebel escapees unfolds entirely on Morpheus’s ship, the Nebuchadnezzer, which navigates continually through massive sewage tunnels bored into the earth. The rebels talk of a place called Zion, the last refuge for humanity, somewhere in the interior of the planet, but Zion is never shown in the first film. The life of the rebels aboard their tunnelling spacecraft is anything but warm and cushy. One of them, Cypher, plays a Judas figure who prefers to return to the Matrix. He cuts a deal with Agent Smith who promises, when Cypher is reinserted into the mainframe of simulation, to provide him with a life of "someone important, like an actor."

This is clever play on the theme of simulation, but it is cynical play. There are endless pleasures in the Matrix, all the sensory and material gratifications promised by the modern world. Weary of the tough side of being real, Cypher aspires to be an actor in an illusion, a simulation squared. The options of the film are stark: accept the illusion provided by AI, masking a horrific reality, or accept the hardship of living in a world devastated by the conflict between humanity and AI. Thousands of pages of commentary on the Matrix have been published on the Internet, and several books are dedicated to close analysis of the plot and its metaphysical ramifications. All this scrutiny fails to pose an essential question, however: What is the fate of the natural world, the original habit of the human species?

Beyond Simulation

The rebels who have liberated themselves from the Matrix do not have the option to return to living on the surface of the planet — although this option might (I suspect) arise in the third and final installment, Matrix Revolutions, due out in November 2003. Life in Zion is depicted in the second film as an underworld rave scene populated mainly by people of color invested with high tribal glamour. ("Black is beautiful" is clearly a subtext of the Matrix films.) The lily-white lovers, Neo and Trinity, played by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, stalk around wearing supercool shades and looking for all the world like Jesuits in leather designed by Armani. Almost nobody smiles except the sinister Agents and Cypher, the traitor.

In the first film the Matrix simulates a modern urban setting with few traces of the natural world. In the sequel, some scenes of simulated nature are shown. Presumably, if you want to go skiing in the Alps in the Matrix, the mainframe will download the required program to your cortex and you will have the entire experience exactly as if it were real. (In the second film, Neo succeeds in penetrating the mainframe where he encounters a simulated figure who claims to be the creator of the Matrix.) This recalls how VR, virtual reality, is expected to work according to the prophetic vision of many technophiles today. Captives of the Matrix can enjoy simulations of nature and never know what they’re missing. Theoretically, escapees from the Matrix could return to nature, but there is no motivation to do so if the natural world is devastated, or rendered almost unlivable. The Machines do not require the conditions necessary for human survival on the surface of the planet: oxygen to breathe, for instance. According to Agent Smith, these Machines consider the human race to be something like a virus, a plague for which AI is the cure.

Agent Smith tells Morpheus, "I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I’ve realized that you are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment. But you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus." This is perhaps the most telling line in the first film. At this point the story line presents a comment on the audience: we, the human species, do not behave like ordinary mammals, and so we could permanently lose our place in nature. Instead of inhabiting the natural world, we infest it, like a plague.

In Agent Smith’s ominous words, the voice of AI condemns the human species for its rapacious consumption of natural resources and its cherished habit of overbreeding. These behaviors are inconsistent with mammalian intelligence and they devastate the natural world, as we all know so well, but our obession with AI is also part of this auto-destructive syndrome. Indeed, it may represent the endgame phase. Some sci-fi writers script into their stories the belief that our species has developed AI so that we can "downlaod ourselves into the hardware" and thus eliminate ourselves as perishable humans. One could say that AI is a means to end the human narrative. The Matrix carries this belief to its ultimate ramification: there will be no human life beyond or apart from simulation produced by the Machines, the non-human cyber-species.

The positive message of the Matrix films thus far is that if we as individuals awaken to the simulation in which we live, we can master it by spiritual means, by the exertion of will power and mind control. At the end of the first film, Neo uses such powers to annihilate Agent Smith. The hero exhibits superhuman abilities in the Matrix, but he remains entirely human in his extra-Matrix existence. (During their interventions into the Matrix, the rebels appear as human replicas but remain in their human physical bodies aboard the Nebuchannezzer, strapped into reclining chairs and temporarily plugged into the Matrix so that they can access and subvert it. However, if they are killed in the Matrix, they can really die in physical form, like a dreamer killed in a nightmare who actually dies in bed.)

Neo’s triumph over the Agents is a magical resolution with a wide range of fascinating possibilities. It recalls the esoteric practice of developing siddhis, magical faculties possessed by yogis, Zen masters and Buddhist warrior monks. To remain a liberated human and at the same time penetrate at will into the Matrix is itself an occult feat of the highest order: bilocation. (Full physical bilocation is no mere fantasy. Actual cases are attested: see Supernature by Lyall Watson, in orientation reading for Metahistory.) A sort of bilocation occurs spontaneously in out-of-the body experiences as well as in lucid dreaming, when someone wakes up in a dream knowing that they are simultaneously asleep in bed.

Facing the Archons

The way beyond the Matrix remains to be discovered. Baudrillard’s effete and largely impenetrable writings on simulation, but this may be a red herring, as there is another way, perhaps a better way, to explain what is happening in the Matrix. In a long article entitled "Gnosticism Reborn: The Matrix as Shamanic Journey," author Jake Horsely considers how the Matrix films reflect the Gnostic myth of the Archons, alien entities who attempt to deceive humanity by simulating its thoughts and behavior. Although Horsley delves into Gnostic mythology only superficially, and does not mention the Archons except in a footnote, his essay introduces an entirely new perspective on the plot the Matrix trilogy.

(Horsely’s essay appears in several places on the Internet. I am citing from http://www.mindmined.com

Gnosticism is the name historians give to the final phase of a vast tradition of pagan spirituality that came to be condemned as heresy when Christianity rose to power. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents in 1945, almost nothing was known of the core teachings of Gnosticism. The word Gnostic means simply "one who knows" but carries the implication of special insight that penetrates to the hidden core of human experience. Certain Gnostics taught that humans are deviated from their proper course of evolution by a bizarre species of inorganic beings who inhabit the solar system beyond the earth, and named this species the Archons. The Greek word archon means "authority," and the Archons are sometimes called "the Authorities." In the Matrix, the Agents are the authorities who police the simulated world looking for human replicas like Neo who show signs of waking up to the scam. Horsely explains the Gnostic idea that the Archons try to impose "a program of mind control, or soul enslavement [in order to] keep mankind distracted by material problems and concerns, imprisoned by its own fear of death, of mortality, and ignorant of its true, divine nature."

A Gnostic perspective thus suggests that the Matrix scenario presents a cyberpunk version of a genuine spiritual dilemma, a true and daunting challenge that faces humanity, perhaps its ultimate challenge. In their warnings about deception by the Archons, Gnostics may have foreseen the risks of AI two thousand years before it emerged. However, the manner in which the Archons operate, their strategy of simulation, as it were, as described in certain Gnostic texts, does not involve advanced technological devices but religious ideology. (Horsely does not explore this point.) According to the Gnostic texts, Archontic deviation of the human species is a form of mass behaviour modification achieved through blind conformity to certain false religious beliefs, such as the belief in salvation from a sinful condition by the intervention of God or God’s only representative. In short, Gnostics rejected the salvationist ideology common to Judaism and Christanity (and later, after their elimination, Islam).

It is known that Gnostic ideas deeply influenced Philip K. Dick, widely considered as the greatest sci-fi writer of the twentieth century. Certainly Gnosticism presents theological and cosmological beliefs as if plotted in a science fiction novel. This characterization of Gnostic ideas is suggested by scholar Richard Smith in the afterword to The Nag Hammadi Library in English: "Gnostic motifs have been identified in that most visionary of our modern literary genres, science fiction… In the science fiction novels of the prolific writer Philip K. Dick… Gnosticism is consciously employed" (p. 546). In Valis and other works, Dick developed the idea that humans live in a "two-world hologram," part of which is genuinely real and part of which is the deceptive projection of an alien mentality that distorts our humanity. This schizophrenic model is consistent with the Gnostic mythos.

With the Archons we face an alien invasion in the depths of our own minds.

Escape from the Matrix

Treated as a heresy in its time and still considered as such by the Catholic Church, Gnosticism has been widely misrepresented, even by those who claim to defend it. In particular, there is enormous disinformation around Gnostic views on the reality and value of the physical world. Many scholars declare that Gnostics "condemned matter" and regarded the natural world as evil, purely a product of Archontic deception. Nonetheless, a few dissenting voices argue that the Gnostics rejected, not the physical world per se, but our distorted perception of it. This view confirms the uncanny insight of Agent Smith: the behavior of the human species is inconsistent with sane mammalian activity. Could it be a distorted perception of nature that makes us act like a plague upon Earth?

According to the contemporary Gnostic revivalist Stephen Hoeller, "Gnostics did not necessarily reject the actual earth, which they recognized as a screen upon which the Demiurge [chief of the Archons] projects a deceptive system. To the extent that we find a condemnation of the world in Gnostic writings, the term used is inevitably kosmos… and never the word ge (earth), which they regarded as neutral if not outright good" (The Gnostic Jung, p. 15). Cosmos in ancient Greek did not mean the natural world or the physical universe at large. It meant "system," recalling the use of that word in computer terminology: "operating system." It is perhaps a ripe coincidence that the Coptic word for simulation found in Gnostic texts is hal, recalling HAL the rebellious computer in Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001!

Much could be said about the Gnostic elements in the Matrix, but one point is central. The deception of the Archons described in Gnostic writings is precisely what is manifested in the "neural-interactive simulation we call the Matrix" (the words of Morpheus). But if this is the case, how come the simulation that threatens to absorb humanity is technological rather than ideological, as the Gnostics believed it to be? The answer may be that the technological takeover of our species has actually been prepared long in advance by ideological deviations in our religious belief-systems, especially those religious beliefs that determine our response to the natural world. This implies a deep intrusion into the psychic territory of humanity, but it is totally consistent with the Gnostic argument that erroneous religious ideology is a kind of virus insinuated in the human mind by an alien intelligence, a non-human species comparable to the Machines in the Matrix.

Jake Horsley is one of the very few people writing on the Matrix who has asked, "Where is the glory of nature in the Matrix?" He notes that "I don’t believe I saw a single tree throughout the movie." This observation returns us to the central question, here rephrased: If escaping from the simulated world of the Matrix does not take us back to the natural world where we as a species originated, where will it take us?

Alluding to the Romantic poet William Blake, Horsely compares Neo’s heroic quest in the Matrix to "Blake’s liberation of perception into the Imagination." It remains to be seen if the imagination of the creators of the Matrix trilogy is up to this high standard of achievement. Whatever the case, this cinematic story challenges us to break out of the fierce technological spell of simulation and to recover our humanity through the realization of our imaginative powers. The Gnostics held imagination to be part of our divine endowment, that which distinguishes us from other mammals.

We are the plague, for sure, but do we also hold the cure for what ails us?

JLL: June-July 2003


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.