So, the Matrix movie(s) and philosophy. Popular, right? Smart stuff. Insightful, powerful, moving, thought-provoking, right?
What could be a problem with it? Everyone likes it in some sense--or at least, some part of it.
Insidious. Evil. Veeeeery deep. One of the finest psy-ops, like It is nefarious, terrible, and targeted at the highest intelligence levels that they bother with here.
(And this one even likes the Matrix. With a budget that high, and source material that rich, even baby-seal-clubbing can be worth buying all three [and I'm one of the ones who likes all three--see later].)
To understand what makes the Matrix trilogy so profoundly evil, we'll look at several things, not always in order:
1) The standard view of why the Matrix is so cool and thought-provoking;
2) The bland, not-actually-radical-at-all affirmation of the status quo offered by this standard view;
3) Where the Matrix actually drew its source material from;
4) How offensive this draw was;
5) What points the Matrix makes;
6) What points the original source material made, and how deeply true and wonderful they were, pre-perversion.
( *** Spoiler warning *** for the Matrix trilogy and all things Ghost in the Shell. *** ) Let's begin.
WHY DOES EVERYONE LIKE THE MATRIX?
Here's on the subject. If you've talked with enough humanities academics about the movie--even the first movie, the first week it came out--this movie will give you flashbacks. Watch it if you feel like seeing a lot of pieces of the movies, punctuated by a lot of lecture-bytes from Berkeley + the east coast. (If you're already familiar with why people think the movies are great, you can skip it.)
Here's a breakdown: from 0:00-15:00, various philosophy professors exult about how great it is to have a popular movie finally addressing major existential questions. Sometime around 16:45, they come to Plato's Cave. With token allusions to Buddhism, the professors work to formulate a philosophical structure building upon Socrates, and trending through other western textbook greats. In the vicinity of 23:00, needing some way to make the choreography philosophical, they make a good metaphor pertaining to channeling (unfortunately connected to chess). Halfway through, they allude to the Animatrix. Around 33:00, look for them getting off (though prematurely) on "raves" and "sex," in a painfully academic way.
Onward to "do we have free will," still clip-heavy...yada yada, ~42:00, still on free will, we acknowledged the Hindu...~48:00, "everything that has a beginning has an end," reminder of Revelations, Armageddon, Big Crunch, Big Freeze (this world is worthless anyway)...51:00, they admit Revelations and are happy about killing off everyone to build bright new minimalls (discover wilderness, kill Native Americans, feel bad about it, then build urban cityscape and resultingly feel good about it)...then we begin mimicking the Wachowskis by using the later movies to throw in a couple Hindu character-programs and some closing arguments.
So yes, people like the Matrix. Just like the latest shooting at the mall makes people interested in gun control, or Dubya made young people interested in voting, the Matrix is heralded by humanities aficionados as having made fish-eyed young westerners cognizant that philosophy exists. Do we have free will? Is the world an illusion?
And those concepts are cool, and ripe for consideration. Being the first major-studio-promoted movie that (1) focused quite so heavily on (2) participation in a computer-generated world (3) in the 1990s (4) in America (5) using live action, the Matrix was indeed groundbreaking to a large group of people. Just like Dubya shocked many Americans by being a warmongering U.S. President (gasp!), or startled many Americans into realizing that the U.S. Government has potentially-inappropriate surveillance programs, the Matrix had an impact, if an undeserved one.
But still--just like Dubya and Snowden--the issues, however centuries-old, were at least actual issues. Dubya was a tyrannical mass murderer, and the U.S.G. is a totalitarian surveillance state. Putting aside the Balkans, the 1990s Iraq sanctions, the Vietnam War, slavery, or the American Indian genocide, we can still fairly find fault with 2003 Dubya. Putting aside the Patriot Act, COINTELPRO, raping slave girls, or quartering King George's soldiers, we can still fairly find fault with 2013 NSA. And yeah, we can get excited about the Matrix, if it's new to us. The issues are there. And don't get offended. Remember, High Arka likes the movies, and is a repeated viewer! So I'm your buddy! :D
WHERE DID THE MATRIX COME FROM?
Like (the investor who spurred American development in artificial breasts, and who created the Barbie doll), the Wachowski siblings were from a wealthy Polish family of Khazar Jewish descent, which departed Europe for America just prior to the Great Wars. Once the family was out of range of the direct impact of they set up in the entertainment business, creating mass culture. Lana and Andy dropped out of college and into paying jobs writing for TV and movies; in a couple years, they were promoted to executive producers.
During their free time, Lana and Andy milled animated Japanese movies for ideas. Soon after they'd viewed 1995's Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood decided that it was a good time to put out movies based on virtual reality worlds. 1999's then 1998's were adapted from earlier works to result in late-twentieth-century releases of artificial-world-motif films. The Wachowskis had been given the green light to manage their own project, so they westernized Ghost in the Shell in order to have a similar release in 1999.
Ripping off Asian plots is nothing new in Hollywood. In the land of reruns, reboots, and what the Wachowskis did was not even an original type of plagiarism. They plagiarized the plagiarizers who had already plagiarized the plagiarizers! After all, right? The Hunger Games was and Inception was stolen from Paprika (again, with a white male lead replacing an Asian female one). Many profanities could be justly uttered, as to this particular decade's Hollywood thefts, and the vast insult it made to art, but we'll focus here only on Matrix.
The elements directly taken from Ghost in the Shell included:
1) Computer hacking being visually represented as three-dimensional fighting between the hacker and the defending agents of the host system;
2) Computer hacking accomplished by inserting male-type external connections into female-type ports built into the backs of human hackers' necks;
3) Computer programs desiring personhood and interacting with people while presenting themselves as people;
4) Human hackers being superior to computer programs based on innate human qualities;
5) Conveying the mood and setting of the surrounding cyberpunk world by using glowing green computer runes scrolling endlessly across black backgrounds or scene shots.
The elements altered to make Ghost in the Shell entirely, completely, totally different from the new, original, creative project The Matrix included:
1) The main character became a white, straight male, rather than a Japanese lesbian;
2) The main character became driven by a monogamous love interest in a white, straight woman, rather than by an inclusive love for the world;
3) The main character became a sheltered, naive Harry Potter, stumbling for the first time ever into a hidden world of external revelations, rather than a real person learning new things about the world she had already spent years living in.
Yeah, all that and more. Complete ripoff. In the ripping off, the Wachowskis did a lot of blundering, sometimes resulting from their attempts to disguise their crime, but more often through their inability to understand the value of the shiny gems they'd stolen. The novelties resulting from their investment were produced more by their stunted comprehension of GITS than by the conscious attempt, on their part, to westernize the world, narrative, and characters.
REPAINTING THE STOLEN HOUSE
To try to create a difference between their project and GITS, they hired a Chinese fight choreographer, turning the fight sequences from karate-based to kung-fu-based. "Computer hacking" sequences in GITS were lush and imaginative; they were often great stylistic renderings of computer systems, in addition to being (wo)man-to-(wo)man fighting. The Wachowskis lost everything but the slugging it out: all of the institutional barriers of the GITS computer systems vanished, replaced by another two seconds of (beautiful) kung fu choreography. When they saw GITS, they were able to appreciate how cool the action was, but not to understand the breadth and extent of the setting, or the profoundness of the Asian artists' iconography. In this, they suffered the American divorce from context, able to perceive ACTION and IMAGE but not REASON or MEANING. (For a rough metaphor, consider rewriting your own version of 1984 without the character of Big Brother personifying one aspect of Oceania's submission to centralized authority.)
In Matrix, the human population has been enslaved by machines that they originally created. Humans are guilty of a wrong (although the Wachowskis took until they'd financed a post-trilogy anime to dramatically over-concede this), but it was a wrong of their predecessors, and they are now slaves, being used unfairly, because of these earlier sins. The Matrix is a lie, a system of battery-slavery, and an abuse of millions of innocents.
In GITS, most humans have installed cyberbrains in place of their own organic gray matter, making them part of a worldwide computer network directly accessible through ports at the backs of their necks. However, GITS shows this to be both a positive and a negative. Shades of gray are present, as in the real world. Instead of humans being able to ascribe guilt to departed ancestors, it is the choice that each human makes--the choice to go with a cyberbrain instead of an organic one, in order to more easily access the services available to cyberbrain-users. Like choosing a smartphone conversation over a hug from a friend, there are advantages or disadvantages. GITS delves deeply into these over dozens of hours, raising (and answering) a vast array of social and political questions about those who make the choice, and those who don't. Benefits, drawbacks, partial benefits, mixed feelings, changes, and points of no-return abound.
Matrix lost that entirely. It stole the computer network and access points, but dumbed it down into a blind parade of punches and gunshots. Violence can be meaningful, honorable, and wonderful in the right context, but in the wrong one, it is the opposite. While paying others to create their opus, the Wachowskis melded GITS with the Terminator series, creating a post-apocalyptic future where survival and freedom could only be had by resisting an externally-imposed system of enslavement caused by machines, and caused only indirectly by the original sin of our predecessors, who naively built those machines. This is a vastly different situation than the real world. Pure fantasy is good, of course, but the Wachowskis did not create pure fantasy. Instead, they rewrote GITS to conform to the public-domain narrative that the American Empire keeps trying to impose upon its citizenry:
ANY PROBLEMS YOU PERCEIVE ARE CAUSED BY AN EXTERNAL FORCE. THE PROBLEM IS NOT WITH YOU, OR WITH OUR SOCIETY, BUT RATHER, IS CAUSED BY OUTSIDE ELEMENTS INTERFERING WITH US. WHILE WE MAY HAVE DONE SOME THINGS WRONG IN THE PAST, AND THE PRESENT IS A RESULT OF THAT, WE STILL MUST FREE OURSELVES.
Sound familiar? That is the narrative of the Native American genocide; of African-American slavery; of social and economic discrimination; of foreign policy and blowback and the war on drugs and the war on terror. It professes to apologize for former wrongs while doing nothing to acknowledge continued wrongs, or the direct connection between prior and present culpability. It divorces the audience from any responsibility for what is wrong with the world right now.
REAL PEOPLE, REAL GOVERNMENTS, REAL ART
Good art--objectively good art--is art of life and light. It makes us better people. It carries truth. The Matrix trilogy is the opposite, because it tries to make us worse. It carries lies.
GITS shows Motoko Kusanagi living on Earth, in a powerful nation, after a great war. She has a job and is reasonably comfortable, financially-speaking. However, she begins to perceive something wrong with the world: her own government; her own politicians; her own co-workers; her own people; her own self... all of these things are part of a great tragedy that is causing unjust harm to others, as well as to the actors themselves. She does many incredibly cool things, including beat up terrorists, jump off and over buildings, enforce the law, spend time with her girlfriend, pilot aircraft, and use prodigious quantities of ammunition. While doing this, though, she perceives a deeper meaning in the world than the sensory experiences that surround her. She takes far less than 10 minutes to learn that a computer network can simulate the real world, because she's supposed to be intelligent.
Kusanagi's travels take her across the planet. She learns that people in her inner circle, both trusted by her personally, and in the highest places of society, can be corrupted--and not necessarily because of external influence, but because of their own fears and shortcomings. Kusanagi visits the high and low places of her own society, and of societies distant. While she travels, she witnesses the plight of the poor; the plight of the disenfranchised, the plight of those who are merely different or socially awkward. She interacts with those treated as un-human, who are clearly human (in a value sense), such as the Tachikoma support units, or the orphaned children of Thai rebels; she interacts with those treated as human, who are clearly not human, such as powerful residual programmed entities that prove themselves no longer sentient, but instead carrying out the will of someone who died decades ago. Kusanagi both defends and attacks the Prime Minister of Japan, and at other times, defends, then assists, both international terrorists and the American Empire. She is a flexible, incredible character, able to learn and adapt. She can see in shades of gray (as an American would put it), and paying deep witness to her quest and growth can help someone become a much better person. It is possible for Kusanagi to lose--and she often does. In fact, her ultimate conclusion would be likened to a loss in materialistic America, for it is a victory of growth and spirit, while a material loss.
(Throughout it all, Kusanagi is strong. She is dynamic and decisive, kicks ass, makes decisions, and has authority. Yet, she is not the overblown neo-feminist fantasy of western cinema. When her cybernetic components have a load-bearing capacity that is less powerful than the load-bearing capacity of a "male" robot she is battling, it is acceptable for her to be fairly defeated, or to be fairly saved by a male friend--perhaps the same one that she saved in the last episode. She is laboring as a real woman, and a real character, rather than as an absurd example of how sisterly affection can overcome the laws of physics. When she wins, it is real: it is something that, unlike the exploits of Katniss, real girls can look to as a model for growth and success, rather than fiercely muttering, "Bitch!" and pulling an inconceivable victory out of your hat.)
The Matrix shows Neo living on Earth, in a powerful nation, after a great war. He has a job and is reasonably comfortable, financially-speaking. However, he begins to perceive something wrong with the world: he and his people are being deceived by machines that are using them as batteries. Neo's inner self has nearly a minute of difficulty overcoming this obstacle, and even throws up. However, he soon finds himself standing wide-eyed in the Hogwarts dining hall, blinking in delight as his fellow students eat recycled protein chains, discuss their magic lessons, and complain about how ignorant Muggles are of the threat posed by Lord Voldemort. Neo does many cool things, including beat up machines, jump off and over buildings, break the law, spend time with his girlfriend, and use prodigious quantities of ammunition. While doing this, he perceives how weird it is that he was faked out about being in a computer simulation. Now that he's in the real world, he understands it.
Neo's travels take him to a city named Zion. He learns that people in his inner circle sometimes disagree over the precise way to work together against their external enemy. Some ship captains want to fight the machines in the real world, while others want to fight them inside the matrix, where an Oracle can tell them what truth is. One traitor even wants to work for the enemy (Cypher, the fifth columnist).
No one is poor in Neo's world. Everyone (except Cypher in the first movie) is a noble human resisting machine encroachment. The only nuances in plot--if you would do the Wachowskis the credit of allowing the plot "nuances"--is whether to believe that the Oracle is right when she predicts that Neo's superhuman powers will save people from the deadly machines. Like a second-grader's view of the U.S. Congress, it's simply a matter of minor policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, all of whom want what is best for their country and their constituents. They disagree because they want to go about helping America in different ways--when they "reach across the aisle" and work together, good things happen!
BETRAYING HOPE: COMMAND AND OBEY
The Matrix trilogy is so vile because it took pieces of GITS' skeleton, dressed them up, and turned them into an affirmation of existing authority. GITS demonstrated, in great detail, the real problems facing humans today. Genocide, starvation, and environmental destruction are a constant presence in GITS, along with the "reformist" politicians, respected corporate leaders, talking heads, soldiers, police, and other figures that create these things. Yet, GITS is futuristic. Its depictions are so complete that it portrays its past (toward Earth's present), its present, and its future, in a coherent, realistic way. It shows the real wrongs that Earth's elites, their followers, and their inactive resisters have done, are doing, and will do.
In stark contrast stands Matrix, which uses the "don't try too hard" metaphor so popular now in Hobbit ("the dwarves delved too greedily and too deep," thereby innocently finding a glowing stone beyond their powers that caused them to be destroyed by a dragon), as well as any other western depiction of A.I. that you'd like. Humankind's sins are attributed either to laziness--we built A.I. because we wanted it to do our work--our naivete--we built A.I., not realizing it might take us over--rather than on the real reasons we do the bad things we do. Matrix teaches us only to believe that things will turn out well because of prophecy, so long as we trust prophecy, follow our leaders, and fight hard. Also, maybe we should be a bit more careful about learning, researching, or doing science. Matrix "challenges" us only in the sense that it asks "is this really happening?" It does not challenge us to question our inner worth, or what things we might have done wrong to produce harmful situations--not because of naivete or laziness, but because of a more sophisticated, grown-up reason for making a bad decision.
Like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Transformers, or any of the comic-book-derived movies being made this epoch, Matrix is a paean to the Earth's current rulers. It ignores the dead, the starving, and the warmongering, and pits human and machine in an accidental, unfortunate, well-meaning battle against each other for survival. The increasingly-less-subtle hints to the world's citizens that World War III must needs be held over fossil fuels is the foreshadowing to new genocides where no one was at "fault," because the horrible Earth cannot provide enough resources for us all (if we fail to take the elite hoards into account, of course). Environmental ravages and current wars are blamed on people of the past, and all the hovership captains and members of the ruling council of Zion are cool, hip, strong, and genuinely interested in the well-being of their people.
I'll close on a personal note: Motoko Kusanagi would beat the everliving shit out of both Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving.