Write An Essay On Your Favourite Film…Done And Done!

Oh day of days! There I was, sitting in a film seminar and looking over the latest list of questions from which we could write our next essay on. And there it was. An essay question about The Matrix.

At the time, The Matrix was my favourite movie and I knew that it would be impossible to fail if I wrote about it. And I wasn’t wrong. I don’t recall my actual grade but it was a good one; definitely one of the top five essays I wrote. Having seen the film a bajillion times and owning the Ultimate Matrix box set, I was more than prepared to do this bitch.

If you’re going to read the essay, it would help if you knew a little bit about the text I was comparing it to which is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Am I gonna hook you up with a link to it? Yes, yes I am.

Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Truth Before Beauty: Appearance and Reality Within The Matrix

How useful is it to consider the Matrix in the light of the myth of the cave? Please take into account of the differing opinion of those writers whose essays are included in the reading for weeks two and three of the course.

The Matrix(1999) is by no means a philosophical text in and of itself. It is made up of several ideas melded together, none of which are original to the film. It draws upon the ideas of Kant, Nozick, Baudrillard, Nietzsche as well as thought experiments like Rene Descartes’ story of the evil genius/deceiver and the story I’ll be focusing on; Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave found in the central books of Plato’s Republic (360 BC). While critics and theorists recognise that the films’ philosophical standpoints are wholly unoriginal, we are able to accept it as a whole and complete text because we can relate to its contemporary context and the relatable application of technology. The question that now needs to be considered in reference to the film and the story is that, if we are content to read the film as a sufficient representation of the philosophical texts it refers to, then, what does the Allegory really bring to the table? If one text asks the original questions but the subsequent text asks them better, does the original have any merit? With this in mind I’m going to look back at one of the texts that the Matrix folds into its structure to see what we can learn from comparisons of the two texts when separated. The Matrix vs. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

The Matrix is predominantly based around two pre-existing texts: the Allegory and the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Thematically these two texts are similar; one man has a truth and tries to share it with others but is ultimately rejected by them. While the main character of the film, Neo, clearly follows the journey of Jesus, the film’s philosophical drive stems from the Allegory. Plato’s story features Socrates, his real life mentor, explaining a hypothetical situation in which there are people in an underground cave that have been bound there from infancy; they cannot move from their position and their only view is of shadowy images projected onto a wall from a fire behind them. Their captors remain out of sight and use various different tools to create the images e.g. vases, statues etc. This is a thought experiment that has become a template over which the writers and directors of The Matrix, Larry and Andy Wachowski, have laid contemporary technological concerns and recycled philosophy. The Allegory is in many ways incomplete from a storytelling point of view; there are many things that are left unexplained and were they to be addressed by Plato, his point may not have been made. The story leaves one with more questions than answers which is befitting of the storyteller Socrates as he maintained throughout his life that he knew nothing and while he was able to ask many questions he was unable to provide any answers.

Questions left unasked let alone unanswered are not just metaphysical ones like what is real? But concrete ones such as how does the freed man become free? If he is set free by someone else, who is this person and why do they free him? What makes him accept this new reality as the actual reality of the world; if he knew his senses had been fooled once then why trust them again? When he revisits the cave why does he not attempt to contact his captors, the creators of the shadows? These questions, or gaping plot-holes, are addressed to a greater degree in the film. Because the film is not simply a hollow thought experiment, it has the ability to create the most logical answers that correspond with the Allegory as well as the Jesus/saviour trajectory of the freed man which in the film’s narrative is Neo.

When Neo is liberated from the matrix there are aesthetic differences that tell the audience that the reality we are watching has changed. The actual real world within the film has a cold, more naturalistic tone in lighting whilst the cave-like reality of the matrix has a green tinge to it. So immediately we can recognise two visually separate worlds thus making it easy for the audience to separate realities and this parallels the light of the world and the darkness of the cave in the Allegory. The character of Neo, as a subjective participant in the matrix, has to be shown ways in which he can, not only tell the matrix from the real world, but also how he can accept that the reality that he is now being presented with is legitimate. When he is in the real world he has plugs all over his body and a shaved head but in the matrix he has no plugs and a full head of hair. This is a very convincing factor for Neo when determining his reality; his physical appearance changes dramatically. Plato’s freed man has no such indicators and Plato provides us with no real proof that the freed man is able to determine one reality as truth and another as a lie. And so in this instance we are given more of an answer by the film and the Allegory proves to be of little use when it comes to critical reasoning.

I am, I admit, fascinated by the lack of explanations in Plato’s story; a lot of blind acceptance is needed to absorb the message of the story. In the Allegory, Plato simply states that one man is freed from the cave with no explanation of how or why. It may a small, avoidable detail in the story but the question of how and why he was freed in turn brings up more questions, such as, what has more effect on our reality, the external world and its architects or the constructs of our own mind? Revelation vs. human instinct? In Neo’s situation we are told that whilst he is plugged into the virtual world of the matrix, he has a nagging feeling that his world isn’t quite right. Morpheus, Neo’s liberator, famously describes Neo’s condition as suffering from a ‘splinter in your mind, driving you mad.’ He is not just released into the real world like the freed man; Neo has an active, conscious role in the discovery of the truth. Admittedly the film has two sequels and so has a wider narrative structure in which to explore the answers to the importance of one man’s involvement, yet still this means that what the film has to say is more relevant to us than the Allegory because the film is able to expand on its themes and questions.

While the film doesn’t go into specifics, much like Plato’s story, we are at least told that Neo has some say in what he does about the situation. The blue pill or the red pill? The splinter effect or the truth? The freed man is just freed. He has no conflicting feelings or doubts about his actions, he simply recognises that he has been a consumer of appearance. This basic form of the questioning of reality may have satisfied the generation it was originally intended for, but modern theorists require much more. We need explanations, motives and logic. We demand answers instead of just more elaborate questions. In this way the Allegory is irrelevant in comparison to the film as it cannot deliver answers to its own questions.

Another feature of the Allegory that goes unquestioned is, when the freed man returns to the cave possessing the true nature of reality and of the cave, why does he not confront his captors? I imagine that anyone who was confined to a cave for their whole life would have a few choice words for the people who put them there. But not the freed man. Now, either Plato simply forgot about these kinds of plot-holes that were so big you could fall through them or he knew that explaining every little thing about a hypothetical situation tends to diminish its reason. I suspect that latter is true. Even so, a question hangs over the nature of the captors. Why did they imprison people? Why show only shadows? Was it a captor that eventually freed the man? The captors in The Matrix are represented as Agents; programs within the system designed to maintain order and to stop freed people from infiltrating the system. Morpheus explains to Neo everything he, and the audience, need to know about the nature of matrix, the relationship between Agents and freed minds and why people were imprisoned in the matrix in the first place. We are provided with all the answers we could possibly need. We also get to see interaction between our freed man, Neo, and his captors, the Agents, with one particular Agent becoming the main antagonist; Agent Smith. Instead of Neo being like the freed man of the Allegory and trying to convince fellow prisoners of the truth, he is instead on a mission to bring down the matrix thus freeing the other prisoners whether they want him to or not. The struggle between Neo and Agent Smith mirrors the struggle against authority by people governed by a system as well as a constant desire for humanity to overcome oppression of any kind. Our status as people in the 21st century gives us a historical viewpoint of continually watching different groups of people overthrowing the systems and people who oppress them and this kind of resonance would not have been noticed by the original readers of Plato’s work. The Matrix seems to have been able to transcend the template of the Allegory and has can give us not only philosophical but historical context to the ideas being put forth.

In confronting his captors, does Neo forget his own struggle to come to terms with the truth? Imagine billions of people suddenly being liberated, there would be chaos and it’s more than likely that they would react in the same way that the remaining prisoners do in the Allegory. They would be much happier in their false reality rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the sunlight.

Concerning mass liberation Slavoj Zizek incorrectly perceived the ending of the film and wrote about it in The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Irwin, 2002; 240). Zizek incorrectly states that the ending of the film concerns Neo addressing the people who are still trapped within the matrix. This is untrue; Neo is actually addressing the captors, the Agents. He is warning them that he has the truth and that he is eventually going to expose them. This is the moment when we learn that Neo has accepted that he is destined to bring about the end of the matrix.

In the Allegory the freed man is able to talk easily to the remaining prisoners most likely because there are only a few of them. This is perhaps why Neo has to confront the captors in order to destroy the matrix because there are so many prisoners that he couldn’t possibly converse with all of them about the nature of reality. It’s easier to simply pull the plug on the operation and worry about it later. Here’s where the Allegory finally wins a point; the remaining prisoners are given a choice. Whilst Neo is given ample choices during the course of the film this is the only choice being offered in the Allegory. The prisoners decide that after being told that there is another truth out there to not explore it. This means that within this one template story we get to see two paths. One is that of the man who finds a truth and follows it and the other path is that of the prisoner who are told the truth and ignore it. We don’t get that in the film; we get Cypher changing his mind once he has been liberated but it’s not the same thing. We have people in the story actually, well not physically, turning their backs on the truth and immediately preferring appearance over reality. This seems to be one of the few things the Allegory brings to the table over the film.

In both the Allegory and The Matrix there is a transition period for the freed characters. They experience similar things on their journey to the truth such as the freed man hurting his eyes by looking at sunlight and firelight. So too does Neo experience pain at the sight of light:

‘Why do my eyes hurt?’
‘Because you’ve never used them before.’

Neo is guided through his transition from the matrix to the real world by several model characters; Morpheus and the Oracle – the mystical Negroes, Trinity – the ‘true love’ and Cypher – the Judas/betrayer. The film uses these characters to flesh out Neo’s experience of the real world whereas the freed man seems to have to go through the outside world alone. These characters are also answers to another question that can be drawn from the Allegory; has anyone else ever escaped from the cave and what were their experiences like afterwards? Cypher is the best character to answer this question as he represents someone who has been freed and who regrets taking the red pill. Though not directly, Cypher symbolizes the people still bound inside the cave who reject the freed man and the truth he brings. The remaining prisoners don’t want the truth; they are satisfied with the reality they are presented with. Cypher wants again to be in blissful ignorance and to reject the truth because it doesn’t satisfy him in the same way that it does Morpheus or Trinity. Film allows a character the chance to speak and to show or explain their motives and so the audience can comprehend Cypher’s predicament and are able to fully understand why he does what he does. A hypothetical situation like the Allegory does not afford its audience that same luxury. We must determine the remaining prisoners’ motives and feelings for ourselves. In the story the character of Socrates gives a trivial explanation of why they would reject the freed man’s truth: that they would think he was a fool and that the truth wasn’t worth ruining their reality for. This reasoning overlooks the simple fact that while the prisoners have been tied up in darkness someone has been able to walk around, see another world and journey back. The prisoners dismiss these factors? They aren’t in the slightest bit curious as to what that would be like? They ask the man no questions about the other reality? As I said before, had Plato gotten into minute details such as these his point would have been most likely lost in the telling. Again this is where the film wins in relevance and meaning over the story, the smallest details are included and our own curiosity is satisfied. Time and time again the film creates its own versions of the questions abandoned by Plato and comes up with the answers. This indicates that the Allegory is not particularly enlightening in comparison and is fairly useless when reading the film. While the Allegory is a primary focus for the themes of the film, there are also many other philosophical ideas employed, and while they are not the focus of this particular essay, they do exist. The Matrix is a more rounded view of the problems put forth by Plato but is able to explore them at other levels because of its multiple sources of philosophical input and this makes it a more useful text than the Allegory of the Cave when it comes to understanding appearance and reality.

Bibliography

Ewing, A.C. (1989) The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy, New York and
London; Routledge

Flazon, C. (2006) ‘Philosophy and the Matrix’ in Díaz-Diocaretz, M. & Herbrechter,
S. (eds) The Matrix in Theory, Amsterdam and New York; Rodopi

Gracia, J.J.E. and Sanford, J.J. (2006) ‘The Metaphysics of the Matrix’ in Irwin, W.
The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Chicago, LA,
Salla and Illinois; Open Court

Griswold Jnr, C.L. (2006) ‘Happiness and Cypher’s Choice: Is Ignorance Bliss?’ in
Irwin, W. The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Chicago, LA, Salla and Illinois; Open Court

Hegarty, P. (2004) Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory, New York and London;
Continuum

Irwin, W. (2002) ‘Computers, Caves and Oracles: Neo and Socrates’ in Irwin, W. The
Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Chicago, LA,
Salla and Illinois; Open Court

Jarvie, I. (1987) ‘Plato and the Cave’ in Philosophy of the Film: Epistomology,
Ontology, and Aesthetics, New York and London; Routledge

Lawrence, M. (2004) Like a Splinter in Your Mind, New York and London; Blackwell
Publishing

Lutzka, S. (2006) ‘Simulacra, Simulation and The Matrix’ in Díaz-Diocaretz, M. &
Herbrechter, S (eds) The Matrix in Theory, Amsterdam and New York;
Rodopi

Plato (2004) ‘The Cave’ in Partenie, C. (ed) Plato: Selected Myths, London; Oxford
(first published 360 BC)

Singer, I. (1998) ‘Appearance and Reality’ in Singer, I. Reality Transformed: Film as
Meaning and Technique, Mass. And London; The MIT Press and Cambridge

Zizek, S. (2002) ‘The Matrix, or, Two Sides of Perversion’ in Irwin, W. The
Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Chicago, LA,
Salla and Illinois; Open Court

Filmography

The Hard Problem: The Science Behind The Fiction, 2004, DVD, Oreck. J, USA, Warner Bros. Entertainment

The Matrix, 1999, DVD, Wachowski, L. & A, USA, Groucho II Film Partnership

The Matrix Reloaded, 2003, DVD, Wachowski, L. & A, USA, Warner Bros. Pictures

The Matrix Revolutions, 2003, DVD, Wachowski, L. & A, USA, Warner Bros. Pictures

Return to Source: Philosophy and The Matrix, 2004, DVD, Oreck. J, USA, Warner Bros. Entertainment

The Truman Show, 1998, DVD, Weir. P, USA, Paramount pictures

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