Virtual Savior: The Postmodern Messiah in The Matrix Essay
“Virtual Savior: The Postmodern Messiah in The Matrix”
For seemingly as long as the human species has existed, it has had its gods. The tale is one that has evolved greatly over time, and has taken on many different faces and forms, but has remained at its core essentially the same: a tale of morality. A tale of interpreting human nature. A tale of something so great and powerful it is largely beyond human understanding. A tale of creation and salvation. A tale of redemption. As long as humans have lived, they have had faith. It is the one thing that has held the fascination of men over time immemorial. We have incorporated various representations of our respective dogmata into all aspects of our society—our paintings, art, music, writings, teachings, buildings—there is no limit to the reach of religious interjection in human culture, and we see evidence of this as far back as we see evidence of civilization.
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THE MESSIANIC PARABLE
In many ways, our (and by “our” I mean the generally accepted dominant culture in a given place at a given time) religious beliefs inform our own popular culture, and thus in turn our popular culture imitates our religious beliefs. Currently, Christianity is the dominant religion in Western civilization, with the primary figure of Christianity (most particularly in Catholicism, which is the reigning sect of Christianity) being, well, Christ. Therefore it follows largely without saying that much of our popular culture—our art, films, music, literature, etc.—presents various incarnations of the Christ story and figure. “The most widely imitated biblical life story…is that of Jesus…Jesus figures are identified by experiences or actions similar to those associated with Jesus in the gospels.” Much like the ancient Greeks and Romans, who consistently wrote the gods into their own stories as physically present characters and supplicated themselves before their gods for even the simplest of acts, we have an ever-present all-encompassing fascination with the character of Christ, and explore this character within the realm of our popular culture at every given opportunity. With the dawn of the silver screen, society was granted a whole new way in which to glorify and/or deconstruct the Christ story. “Jesus has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows for centuries; since the invention of moving pictures in the 1890s, he has also been a perennial subject in films and television.”
The downfall of film in presenting the Christ story is that it is simply far too vast to be properly encompassed within 120 minutes (though this hasn’t deterred filmmakers from trying). Due to the inability to effectively present the Christ story without angering some, disappointing others, inciting near-riots (the uproar raised over the most recent The Passion of the Christ being no small example of this), etc., a different approach has been taken in film (though not exclusive to film) which allows a certain amount of creative freedom otherwise unavailable in the Christ story: the Messianic parable. “What has proven more successful is the Messianic Figure: a formula in which the central character is a non-conformist or unlikely redeemer who transforms lives and ultimately undergoes martyrdom.” We see examples of the Messianic parable permeating all of our popular culture; from our comic book superheroes to our conflicted self-sacrificing warriors, from Batman to Buff the Vampire Slayer, we are told the story of the Savior over and over again…and it never fails to hold our fascination.
THE RELUCTANT SAVIOR
The character of Neo in The Matrix is a sci-fi Messiah - Virtual Savior: The Postmodern Messiah in The Matrix Essay introduction. The Matrix is an artifact of the postmodern cyberpunk sci-fi genre. The future is a dystopic wasteland; humans are grown in pods; their energy is harvested to give power to their masters, the machines; and the human psyche is kept at bay by being trapped within a computer-simulated artificial reality which they all believe to be real. And, in keeping with true cyberpunk esthetic, it is through the very technology that controls them that the humans are able to free themselves. Thomas Anderson, alias Neo, is a computer hacker living in the simulated world of the matrix. He is discovered by other “hackers”—namely, Morpheus and Trinity, who target him as a candidate for the red pill, the pill that frees the human mind from the virtual control of the machines. Neo is “born again” into the “real” world—the world that exists outside of the matrix, where human beings are kept in pods and the last human city is under threat of attack by the sentinels (scouting machines that exist to seek and destroy any wayward human activity). In his training as a new member of the freed humans, Neo also learns about a prophesy regarding “The One”—the man who would free the human race from the matrix and from the machines, who would save the future of all mankind. Morpheus has very strong faith that Neo is The One, though Neo is reluctant to consider this as a possibility.
Neo is a reluctant hero, an anti-hero of sorts. He is faced with a situation that appears absolutely dire that he barely even understands, and is told that the entire fate of the human race could potentially rest with him. “In cinema, the hero/heroine is usually depicted as the one who delivers salvation, enacts positive change, and brings relief from suffering or oppression…The anti-hero is often a reluctant saviour – the one that we follow and adore in spite of his own fallibility and his fundamentally flawed human nature. He or she is someone who resembles ourselves, reminding us not only of the ambiguous morality of existence but also the possibility of redemptive change and transcendence.” Neo is presented as a character that is just simply average—he is a human being, like any other human being. He is accessible to an audience because he seems so heartbreakingly normal. His life was simple and fairly average; his greatest achievement were his computer hacking skills—hardly the stuff saviors are made of. “Jesus still remains on the silver screen; not as a prophet and teacher from Nazareth, but rather as an unlikely redeemer in a prison, a mental hospital, a class room, or inside the home of an abused child.” Our cyberpunk savior doesn’t need to walk around performing miracles and claiming to be the son of God; what humanity needs in the thrust of postmodernity is a savior who is one of their own.
Neo finds himself in a situation which happened inadvertently; he truly did not understand the world he was entering, and the threats that world is facing. He is told repeatedly by Morpheus that he is The One, that he will save Zion, the last human city, and destroy the matrix. Not only is Neo hesitant to believe this, but he even outright refuses to accept it as a possibility. He is so convinced of his own fallibility that he cannot accept others’ faith in him. Yet they continue to believe. Morpheus is Neo’s first “disciple,” and Trinity follows suit. Eventually increasingly more people begin to believe in the prophesy, in him, and Neo must face his own “destiny”—though he does not fully believe, he believes in those who do. “The New Testament Gospels narrate a story of the disciples’ relationship with a human man, Jesus – their belief that he is the promised Messiah, and their expectation that he will inaugurate an earthly kingdom. The Gospel of Mark, particularly, stresses the theme of the disciples’ ignorance and delusion.” Morpheus is so obsessed with the idea that Neo is The One, so consumed by it, that he in many ways appears to be delusional. However, it is his (as well as Trinity’s) unwavering faith in Neo that ultimately gives Neo the strength to believe in himself. He is the conflicted Messiah, the one who shows the very human characteristic of self-doubt, but who ultimately has faith.
THE POSTMODERN MESSIAH
Neo lives in a world that is false, completely constructed by machines to keep the humans placated and offer them the semblance of free will—something which the machines were intelligent enough to know the humans needed. He is called on by those who have been “freed,” and after agreeing to accept the “Truth” finds himself in a techno-dystopia, being called “The One” who is prophesized to save them all. What he had formerly understood as being “real,” and being the “Truth,” was nothing more than a simulacrum of reality, but one that is so convincing that the overwhelming majority of humans never learn to question it. “It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” The film has a strongly postmodern sensibility about it, focusing on the idea of having multiple layers of reality, none of which can truly be known as “real” (for example: is their “reality” of Zion just another layer of fabricated reality created by the machines to account for human rebellion?) and displaying the cyberpunk weariness towards the increasing power and pervasiveness of technology. But though it barks postmodern, it ultimately rejects the postmodern prescription of the world, by introducing the idea of the Savior who can bring the world together again, piece by piece, reinstating stability and knowable, accessible Truth.
Neo is a savior in a world which is merely a replica, living in an alternate ugly reality which could potentially be nothing more than another replica, at a time when humanity (both in the film and in the audience viewing the film) has found itself at odds with its own sense of social authenticity. “This is precisely because they predicted this omnipotence of simulacra, the faculty simulacra have of effacing God from the conscience of man, and the destructive, annihilating truth that they allow to appear—that deep down God never existed, that only the simulacrum ever existed, even that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum.” Art imitates life imitates art, and the presence of the Messiah paradigm is critical to both here. In the current social climate, the world has collapsed in on itself. Time and space have shrunk to the point that they no longer hold any meaning. The great advancements of technology and the subsequent pervasiveness of its use in our lives has robbed us of individuality, and has surrendered too much of our own power (to corporations…to machines). In this newly postmodern world, there is no center, no “Truth,” and this is a difficult idea for people to grasp. And so they grasp on what they “know,” what they believe: their faith. “Film makers have characteristically fallen into the pit of localization. They present the Christ-event with the assumption that the Gospel stories were written exclusively for today…The failure of the Jesus epic has produced an alternative manifestation: the Messianic figure in film. Christology has managed to move into genres outside of the biblical spectacular.” Now more than ever, society needs a hero, a savior, something to believe in and someone they can believe will rescue them all from the postmodern meaninglessness. Now more than ever, a Messianic Figure such as Neo is needed—one who is similar to them, but who can save them. “Biblical scholars explore how the original gospel writers shaped their narratives to respond to the needs of particular communities and historians examine how later tellers project their own issues of faith onto Jesus.” The Matrix is an example of how a text is shaped to present a Messianic Figure in a way that “responds to the needs of particular communities” that is situated in a context that the communities will understand and be able to relate to. The world within the matrix is a world that looks exactly like our own, but is a lie. In many ways, this is how society is beginning to feel. The real world is grim and bleak and hopeless, devoid of meaning—echoing the human crisis of aimlessness and purposelessness in a postmodern world without truth. This grim world needs a savior—and so does our own.
The Matrix is a response to the loss of stability, the loss of centeredness, the loss of absolute objective “Truths”—one of which is the “Truth” of God, and thus of salvation. This film, though positioned within a postmodern genre and created as a postmodern artifact, is in fact a postmodern artifact which mourns its own loss; it echoes the human crisis of the instability of postmodernity, and offers hope that, even despite the current state of things, “Truth” can still be regained and this postmodern flux can be rejected. “Reality…becomes a human construct that is shaped by each individual’s dominant social group. There exists no center, nor one lone, encompassing objective reality…No one has a claim to absolute truth.” The very nature of postmodern theory shakes the very foundation of faith, and the natural human response to this is resistance. Once again, faith has been around far too long for a couple of French philosophers to come along and destroy it for everyone. “This idea that there are myths we live by, myths that must not be disturbed at any cost, is always in conflict with our ideal of truth-seeking and truth-telling, sometimes with lamentable results.” It would seem that the whole idea of faith is in direct conflict with the compulsory human desire for absolute truth, yet the consequences of confronting this logical inconsistency are indeed catastrophic to the human psyche. People need their faith, “Truth” or not—they have the faith that it is the truth, and that is the very foundation of their faith. The Matrix presents the human struggle with the concept of “Truth” coupled with the intense desire to have faith, two things that are greatly at odds with each other. These characters live in a postmodern industrial wasteland of a world, which they were brought into only as a result of their desire for “Truth” after living in the much more appealing “false” world of the matrix, and now all they want to believe is that a Messianic Figure will come and save them from, well, the “truth” of their “real” world. The film The Matrix presents itself to its viewers as a postmodern artifact reflecting a postmodern dystopia and rejecting its eventuality, giving rise once again to hope and stability, and encouraging the ideas of faith and salvation.
The Matrix is a postmodern Messianic parable, a term which seems completely contradictory, yet effectively describes the film. The release of the film coincides with a time when society is at odds with itself, where truth itself is in question and people feel a sense of meaninglessness. This is a side-effect of postmodern society. The film is an aesthetically postmodern film, which even displays postmodern ideas, yet it is ultimately a film about the power of faith. It is a Messianic parable, at a time when people feel the need for a Messiah perhaps more than ever before. It is also proof positive that life imitates art imitates life, and so is a Messianic parable told in a way that is accessible for the viewers of today. The need for such a tale of salvation upholds the idea that one of the basic desires of human nature is to have faith, and to have something or someone to have faith in. There is evidence of this need throughout human history, and even in a world that has gone postmodern—a body of theory that rejects the very idea of Truth and thus of God—this need is still just as present as before. The Matrix rejects the postmodern ideals of rejecting the ideas of Truth and God and creates a Messiah out of an average man…thus making it okay again for average men to believe in salvation.
Though these particular points of interest do not work into the flow of the preceding analysis, they are still interesting points worth making. In keeping with its strong postmodern origins, The Matrix is a hodge-podge homage to—or pastiche of—a number of mythological and religious archetypes, a kind of cut-and-paste crash course in the history of human beliefs and philosophy highlighting the “Greatest Hits of Human Thought.” This is most obvious in the naming conventions used, which are probably the most heavy-handed nods to myth and religion to be found in the film. Neo, or “new” (Greek in origin), is the “new” member of the group of real-world rebels fighting for the freedom of man against machine. His “newness” denotes a kind of novelty; not only is he newly born into the arms of Zion and its citizens, but he is also the “new” Savior of the human race—i.e., the underlying connotation being that of a second coming of Christ. The term “Zion” being used as the name for the last standing city of humans is clearly no mistake: Zion (Hebrew in origin) represents Israel, specifically Jerusalem—also known as the Holy Land—and is metaphorically referred to as “the Promised Land,” or the land in which God exists alongside his chosen people. Zion in The Matrix would certainly be said Promised Land if Neo is indeed the “new” Savior, i.e. Son of God, i.e., God Himself—if one believes in the Catholic Holy Trinity. Which brings us to the character Trinity. Her name could denote the “Holy Trinity” between herself, Neo, and Morpheus. Though there are others who fight with them, these three are the true force of the fight (as seen in the epic rescue sequence conducted by Neo and Trinity to save Morpheus), and it is Trinity’s and Morpheus’s faith in Neo which helps him find his strength, making this particular trinity especially necessary. Morpheus’s name is also Greek in origin, and means the god of sleep, the king of dreams. In myth, Morpheus has the power to take human form in dreams—here there is a parallel being drawn between this mythological god and the Matrix Morpheus, who is able to present himself in dream form to Neo, who is essentially “asleep” (while still in the matrix). These overtly obvious naming conventions, as situated within the framework of the sci-fi/cyberpunk genre, further position The Matrix as a postmodern Messianic text.
Above, we see Neo battling one of the Agents, the computerized artificial life forms that ensure order within the world of the matrix. The Agents are more powerful than the humans, even those whose minds have been freed, but being the prophesied “One” Neo is able to fight on equal ground with the Agent in a way no human had yet been able to do.
To the left we see Neo and Trinity in the “real” world. Neo is nearly dead after his heroic battle with Agent Smith, and Trinity is whispering to him that she has faith in him, she believes. Neo, whose mind remains in the matrix, hears her, regains power to destroy the Agent, and lives.
Above we see Neo moving in what has been called “bullet time”—he is able to move so fast within the framework of the matrix that he is able to see the bullets and dodge them as he is being shot at. This again supports the idea that he is “The One,” because only the Agents were able to move this quickly; no human before him has been able to.
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 This is, of course, an impossible claim to substantiate. There is archeological evidence of religion dating as far back as the Cro-Magnon era, about 25,000 years ago, though human civilization and language has existed far longer than that. However, this isn’t to say that there couldn’t have been “something like religion…exist[ing] from the early days of language…or even before that” (Dennett 102). Suffice it to say, the idea that religion has existed throughout human history is a general, sweeping claim to make, but there is enough evidence of religion present in the bulk of the civilizations for which we have archeological findings for to support the idea that modern man has always known some form of higher worship.
 Reinhartz, Adele. “Scripture on the Silver Screen.” Journal of Religion and Film. V.3, no. 1. April 1999. Online. Available: http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/scripture.htm. 14 March 2007. 
 Chattaway, Peter T. 2000. “Jesus at the Movies.” Books and Culture 6/2 (March/April, 2000) 10-14. 
 McEver, Matthew. “The Messianic Figure in Film: Christology Beyond the Biblical Epic.” Journal of Religion and Film. V. 2, no. 2. October 1998. Online. Available: http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/McEverMessiah.htm. 14 March 2007. 
 Fitch, John III. “Archetypes on the American Screen: Heroes and Anti-Heroes.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. V. 7. Summer 2004. Online. Available: http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art7-archetypes.html. 14 March 2007.
 McEver, Matthew. “The Messianic Figure in Film: Christology Beyond the Biblical Epic.” Journal of Religion and Film. V. 2, no. 2. October 1998. Online. Available: http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/McEverMessiah.htm. 14 March 2007.
 Bowman, Donna. “The Gnostic Illusion: Problematic Realized Eschatology in The Matrix Reloaded.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. V.4. Summer 2003. Online. Available: http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art4-matrixreloaded.html. 14 March 2007. 
 Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of the Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. p. 2.
 “ “ p. 4.
 Powell, Jim. Postmodernism for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1998.
 McEver, Matthew. “The Messianic Figure in Film: Christology Beyond the Biblical Epic.” Journal of Religion and Film. V. 2, no. 2. October 1998. Online. Available: http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/McEverMessiah.htm. 14 March 2007. [8-9]
 Mahan, Jeffrey H. “Celluloid Savior: Jesus in the Movies.” Journal of Religion and Film. V.6, no. 1. April 2002. Online. Available: http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/celluloid.htm. 14 March 2007. 
 Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 3rd Ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003. p. 98.
 Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. p. 203.
 Ovid. Metamorphosis. New York: Signet Classics, 2001.