I was brought here by The Question. It’s the question that’s been playing in my head on a loop ever since I first started studying film. It’s the question I, as a movie buff, have been asked more than any other: “What do you think of The Matrix?”.
Really. This actually happens.
Whenever someone hears that I’m a film major, they’ll ask me about my favorite film or director, what kind of movies I’d like to make, and what I think of The Matrix. Sometimes they’ll ask about Christopher Nolan movies, of which I have seen very few, but usually it’s The Matrix. But do you know what the answer to The Question is?
It’s a perfectly fine movie. It’s creative, visually impressive, and kinda fun. So why does everyone care so much what the movie buffs think of it?
I can only assume it’s because the average moviegoers think there’s much more to this film than they can grasp in one viewing. They see a certain depth to it – an intellectual, philosophical quality – and they think that we film students hold the key to seeing just how brilliant it is. Once the average viewer realizes that Neo’s life parallels that of Jesus Christ, he/she can’t help but wonder what other messages and analogies the movie contains that are only visible to those in the know.
Well, I have good news: I do know the key to understanding everything that this film is about … but, believe it or not, I didn’t learn this from studying film. I learned it because I study philosophy. Every philosophy student should know where I’m going with this.
Do you want to know what this movie is really about? Do you want me to spoil it for you? If not, you can just click the ‘X’ for this tab and go back to browsing the rest of the web, and you’ll continue to see The Matrix as the same work of genius you’ve always thought it was. But, if you want to know the truth, click the line below. A warning: once you know the truth, there’s no going back.
Well, this is exciting. Much like in this movie, however, you’re about to be let down by just how unspectacular my answer is. Are you ready? Here it is:
This movie is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The entire premise to this film has existed for hundreds upon hundreds of years, ever since Plato penned his masterpiece, The Republic. Once you’ve taken a single philosophy class that touches on Plato, you’ve seen all you need to see in The Matrix, and you can skip the movie.
Of course, some people like it for its other plot elements or its visual effects, but I think this aspect of the movie is often over-appreciated. Obviously its visual style has been very influential on most blockbusters that have followed, but I have to ask, is that a good thing? Now every movie is monochromatic and CG-heavy to the point of being ugly. Movies are just ugly now. That’s because of this movie. Sure, the effects are impressive for the time, and the story is not only captivating and philosophical, but one that has been borrowed from for every major Hollywood film (much like the visual style, as I just mentioned).
These aspects of the film are also easy to ruin, however, once I remind you that many of the strongest elements of this movie (particularly in terms of plot, philosophy, and visuals) had already been done in Dark City. And ya know what? Dark City did it better. In Dark City, the story similarly follows a special savior who realizes he’s living in an artificial world, not in reality, but this is used as a vehicle to explore very interesting questions about human identity. According to 17th century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, your identity is directly tied to your memories of your life – if you had different memories, you would be a different person – and this film cleverly argues against that philosophy in an entertaining manner. The depth of the philosophy of The Matrix, by contrast, is simply asking the question “Hey, what if a lot of stuff isn’t real?” Guess which of these films I’m more inclined to praise.
That being said, The Matrix is entertaining on its own terms. It taps into something at the heart of the human soul – the desire to escape one’s dreary life, and the desire to be “The One.” This film satisfies these needs, and it also offers some of the great visual spectacles of the modern era of film. So yes, there’s a lot to like here, but not a lot to love. I’m particularly not a fan of all the horrific elements in the film designed to make me squirm – I they needlessly subjected me to discomfort – but the film makes up for its flaws (mostly) with its “cultural utility.” This is to say that it’s a very useful film to have in our culture because it gives us good analogies and quotes to apply to various situations. It’s helpful to have “the red pill” and “the blue pill” when we want to describe dilemmas, or having the general plot to the movie whenever we want to explain Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to someone. I think that’s why it’s always been so popular.
So, if you love this movie, that’s understandable. Just make sure you also watch Dark City, and please stop asking us movie buffs about it, because this movie just isn’t worth our time. It’s no Casablanca.