There Is No Spoon:
The Matrix

Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow Pictures, 1999


Like another great movie of 1999, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix contains a very surprising plot twist. Anyone who has not seen the movie and who wishes to be surprised should see it before reading this review and analysis. The DVD version, with multiple commentaries, a documentary on the film, and other extensive footage of the production, is warmly recommended.

The central philosophical interest of The Matrix lies in its exploitation of the classic fear of René Descartes:  What if all of life is actually just a dream? Armchair philosophical speculation is turned into terrifying reality in this movie. But there is more. If the "Cartesian fear" applies to one level of reality, why not to the one that is, we think, subsequently revealed to be genuinely and ultimately "real"? Beyond Descartes is still Platonism and Buddhism, echoes of which we find in this movie.

The Matrix is classic science fiction, one of the box office giants of 1999, a powerful movie and a disturbing one in many ways. Besides the mind-bending revelations about reality, the level of violence is significant, and might appear gratuitous to some, especially when the "lobby" shootout may now remind viewers of the horrific Columbine High shootings. But the violence is surreal and relatively sanatized. There is nothing like the gore of the true high school massacre movie, Carrie (1976); nor are we quite at the level of the climactic shootout in The Crow (1994), but The Matrix is definitely in that aesthetic category -- and was intended to be, with the most slow motion falling shell casings since Rambo (1985) [note]. Most of the action, however, is not shooting at all but sophisticated martial arts, for which the actors themselves trained intensively with professionals from Chinese martial arts movies. This is becoming a trend, as George Lucas also wished to dispense with stuntmen and have the actors do the fighting themselves in The Phantom Menace. While The Matrix is of greatest philosophical interest for other reasons, it cannot be denied that it is very definitely both a science fiction and a martial arts/action movie and that much of its emotional and aesthetic punch comes from the violence. The explosive beginning of the film, with "Trinity," played by Carrie-Anne Moss, running up walls, taking out five armed policemen with her hands and feet (in no more than twenty seconds), and leaping between buildings like Superman (or Superwoman), sets the stunning physical tone for the whole. That she also appears to vanish into thin air deepens the initial mystery about what is going on.

Keanu [Hawaiian, ke="the," anu="cool"] Reeves, as "Thomas Anderson" or the computer hacker "Neo," the Messianic "One," although laden with Christian imagry, and actually called "Jesus Christ" by one character, here gets to play the Buddha again -- as he did in The Little Buddha (1994). The Buddha is the one who "woke up," as Reeves literally does, discovering that he has been a comatose prisoner, kept in a vat, his entire life, with the world he thought he was living in, where he had a boring computer programming job, fed to him as a virtual reality computer simulation through a probe directly into this brain. He is rescued from this by a person the authorities regard as an international terrorist, "Morpheus," played by Laurence Fishburne. Unplugged and flushed from his vat, Neo is taken up by Morpheus and his associates into a ship that travels through caves deep beneath the surface of a scorched and mostly lifeless earth -- now ruled by computer intelligences who grow human beings merely to function as sources of power, keeping them docile with the virtual reality world, the "Matrix," that is fed into their brains.

Wait a minute... "Caves"? To anyone familiar with Plato, this sounds suspicious. The theory in Plato's Republic divides reality into four levels with the device of the Divided Line and the imagery of the Allegory of the Cave:  We are all like prisoners tied up on the floor of a Cave. But usually we don't even see the Cave itself -- all we can see are shadows on the wall. Thus, Neo is such a bound prisoner, looking at the shadows of the Matrix. If Plato's prisoner is released, however, he can get up and look around. He sees the cave, sees a fire burning in the back, and so now can know that the reality he formerly esteemed is produced by the fire throwing shadows from puppets that are paraded in front of it. Plato doesn't say who has been parading these puppets. Neo learns that it is the sentient computers. He sees how, because of this, he has been manipulated rather like a puppet himself. At first it is hard to believe, and the depth of the revelation makes him physically ill, but he cannot deny it.

Another aspect of The Matrix with Platonic overtones is the frequent appearance of reflected images. We often see Neo reflected in the sunglasses of Morpheus, or in various metalic surfaces. A common theme in Plato is how we mostly deal with images in life. The shadows on the wall of the Cave are images of the puppets, which themselves are images of the Forms. Plato is famously unhappy with art, which creates images, not of the Forms themselves, but of the other things that are already images. Art based on the Cave's shadows is no less than three steps removed from reality. The world in the Matrix is itself a reflected, shadow reality, dismally, biliously (all the colors have a green tinge) reproducing the "real world."

Now, The Matrix contains no overt references to Plato, but it does suggest the question that is raised by following the Platonic analogy. The Cave, after all, was not ultimate reality for Plato. The freed prisoner leaves the Cave and discovers the genuine reality outside, the World of Forms, capped by the Form of the Good. Is it possible that the "real world" to which Neo awakes is itself a virtual reality computer simulation also? This would be a interesting twist for The Matrix II, but there is no hint of it here. Instead, by other clues The Matrix leads us to wonder whether, even if the "real world" is the real world, the real world might not actually be so "real" after all.

Morpheus teaches Neo that, once one is aware that the Matrix is a computer similation, one can begin to manipulate it. Morpheus, Trinity, and others in the "Resistance" have developed this ability, which is why Trinity could dodge bullets, run up walls, and jump impossible distances -- her vanishing into thin air, of course, was simply the result of her virtual self being removed from the Matrix. What Morpheus is really looking for, however, is someone, "The One," who can manipulate the Matrix at will to produce any result, i.e. make bullets stop in mid air or defeat the "Agents," who are invincible "sentient programs" whose job is to kill people like Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo (who cannot survive even a "virtual" death) and destroy the Resistance. The climax of the movie, of course, is when Neo develops this ability, is revealed as The One, defeats the Agents, and can begin the liberation of humanity.

On the way to that ending, however, plenty happens. After his initial training, Neo is taken to the "Oracle," an old lady (played by Gloria Foster) who seems to be able to see the future. While waiting to see her, however, we have an important scene. Neo is left in a room with a group of children, who appear to be adepts doing impossible things. One is also reading a book in Chinese. One young boy, who is dressed and groomed rather like Mahâtmâ Gandhi, is calmly sitting, in a Lotus position, making spoons bend through telekenesis. The extraordinary thing about the world of The Matrix is that we have no difficulty understanding how this is possible. Paranormal abilities are no longer miraculous when we know that they are just computer simulations. But Neo, living in this world, of course, has a little more difficulty grasping exactly how to do it. So the boy explains with perhaps the most important line of the movie, "There is no spoon." Now, that is not exactly something that Plato would say. It might be Bishop Berkeley, but there is nothing in The Matrix to suggest a mere empiricist scepticism. What perhaps more weighty tradition would enable us to make such a statement about the "real" world?

That would be Buddhism. The spoon is "empty." It has "no self nature," no essence or enduring reality. It exists only relative to everything else ("relative existence" and "dependent origination"). This is what the boy says:  Neo can make the spoon bend by bending himself. While there do not seem to be overt references to Buddhism in The Matrix, it is hard not to think of it because of (1) the martial arts context, (2) the book in Chinese, (3) the code we see of the Matrix itself is not numerical but vaguely, or actually, like Chinese characters or the Japanese kana syllabary, (4) the fact that Neo "woke up" -- what Buddha means, (5) the fact that Keanu Reeves actually did play the Buddha once, (6) the Gandhi or Buddha-like child, and (7) characteristically paradoxical statements that could be made on the basis of Buddhist doctrine, like "There is no spoon." The importance of this statement is reinforced when Neo deliberately repeats it, as he and Trinity proceed in their task of freeing Morpheus after his capture by the Agents.

But this opens up a prospect:  Could everything that Neo learns about the Matrix actually be true of our very own "real" world? This is no less than what Buddhism teaches. The Buddha is supposed to have acquired supernatural powers, just like Neo's, when he achieved Enlightenment. The movie, therefore, need not be just a science fiction story about human slavery to sentient machines, but an allegory of human slavery to Sam.sâra, the illusory world of birth, death, and suffering. Plato would not say "There is no spoon." The prisoner leaving the Cave could see the Spoon Itself, the eternal and unchanging Form of the Spoon. Only a Buddhist could say about all of reality what the boy says about the spoon:  We leave the Cave to discover that behind the spoon there is Emptiness.

This would all be intriguing enough, but there is more. The Oracle represents an element in the movie that has nothing to do with Buddhism. She is not an adept at martial arts but instead draws Neo's attention to a Latin motto on the wall of her kitchen, "Know Thyself" (Temet Nosce). Of course, "Know Thyself" was not originally in Latin, but in Greek (Gnôthi Seauton). It was one of the Delphic Precepts, along with "Nothing In Excess" (Mêden Agan), or the mottos of the Oracle at Delphi, where a priestess, the Pythia, was possessed by Apollo and foretold the future. The Oracle is thus a function, not of Buddhism, but of Classical Western religion (the elevator up to the Oracle's apartment seems to have the Greek letter Ômega written on the wall, complete with circumflex accent and iota subscript). What our Oracle does, as we see, is to tell Neo what he "needed to hear," as Morpheus puts it. Neo makes decisions, based on what she has said, that enable him to rescue Morpheus and then to achieve the abilities of The One.

Why don't the machines have an Oracle? Why, for that matter, don't the Agents have the same abilities as The One? It is, after all, their computer. So why can't they manipulate the Matrix just any way that they like? The implication here, and a very un-Buddhist implication at that, is that there is more to human beings than to the "sentient programs" and the Artificial Intelligence world. The Oracle tells Neo, "You have a good soul." But there is no soul, no self in Buddhism (the doctrine of anâtman or anatta), for this would be an essence or a self nature. When we see the code of the Matrix in one scene, indeed, what looks just like the Chinese character for "self" is very conspicuous. "Know Thyself" is a somewhat paradoxical instruction in Buddhism. If Neo has any kind of soul, and the machines do not, this explains the unique human abilities, and it puts us in a religious universe with rather more than what Buddhism tries to account for. And none of this is readily explained by the virtual reality nature of the Matrix.

Much more overt in The Matrix than the Platonic or even Buddhist overtones are the Christian ones. Neo actually is addressed early in the movie as "my own personal Jesus Christ." It turns out that his ordinary life name is Thomas Anderson -- Thomas the Doubting Apostle. The Oracle tells him that he is not The One, but then says in "your next life, maybe." Well, Neo dies (flatline and all) and then is Resurrected. We have already been given to understand that there is reincarnation, since Morpheus is looking for someone who has actually lived before; but Neo is now reborn, without doubts, still in the same body, as The One. "Neo," indeed, is from Greek neos, "young" or "new."

But besides Neo we have Trinity, named after the entire Christian Godhead. It is she who effects the Resurrection of Neo. As far as she knows, he is really dead, like all the others we have seen killed in the Matrix and die in the real world. But she loves him, and now simply believes, with the help of the Oracle, that he cannot be dead. We have seen Trinity as a very reserved, perhaps sceptical person. But we have already had glimpses and clues about her real feeings and beliefs. Now, with a kiss of pure faith, she breaths life, like the Holy Spirit, back into Neo. He is reborn. Trinity thus becomes the Mother of God -- like the Virgin Mary. Now, Mary was not a member of the original Trinity, but C.G. Jung thought she should be counted as the fourth in the Godhead. Trinity, indeed, seems to combine the Holy Spirit with Mary. We already have, indeed, a Father, namely Morpheus, who has not only been acting like a father but is then called that explicitly by Tank (Marcus Chong). So we end up with a Trinity indeed: Father (Morpheus), Son (Neo), and Holy Spirit/Mother (Trinity).

What are we to make of this? Is The Matrix a Christian movie? That seems unlikely. Keanu Reeves is not playing the real Jesus Christ. What it is, to be sure, is a powerful aesthetic synthesis of Greek, Buddhist, and Christian elements which clearly takes them all seriously. It is, indeed, unusual to take Christianity seriously without accepting all of it, or to reject the premise of the divinity of Jesus without reducing it to a secular and moralistic allegory in which everyone is the Son (or Child) of God. The comparison with Buddhism, again, may be instructive. In principal, especially in the later stages of the history of Buddhism, anyone can become a Buddha, but most have not, and will not for a very long time yet. The achievement of the Buddha was rare and stupendous. He was not just a philosopher, but the "Blessed One," the Tathâgata or the "Thus Come" One, whose relics were objects of veneration. Even as the Mahâyâna began to see everyone as perhaps already Buddhas, we also get the idea that there is an eternal cosmic Buddha, Mahâvairocana, of whom we are all a part.

A Christian equivalent to this would be a Christ who is relatively, but not entirely, unique. Not the one and only Son of God, but a rare thing, a Savior, who has a special and powerful spiritual function. A similar notion actually occurs in the Baha'i Faith, where periodic "Manifestations" (including Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Muhammad) mediate between God and humanity, with a Christianizing sense that these are God-like to us while still human to God; or in Hinduism, where the supreme Godhead of Vishnu periodically takes on Incarnations (Avatars), like Rama, Krishna, and even the Buddha to aid humanity.

The Matrix suggests a religion, like Buddhism, in which ultimate reality is bracketed or incomprehensible, but where there is also a divine and miraculous quality to human life that can produce Christ-like Saviors of extraordinary achievement and power. As in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, when many religions developed offering the promise of salvation and immortality, we are in a period of this same kind of religious exploration, with themes from all of world religion to draw on and cross-fertilize. In an indirect artistic and unconscious way, The Matrix suggests some of the kind of thing that people may be looking for.

While notably powerful for its action and its religious/philosophical themes, The Matrix suffers a bit in the science department. The fundamental idea in the movie that human beings end up being used as batteries by the sentient machines, which explains Switch (Belinda McClory) calling Neo a "coppertop" -- Morpheus later displays the familar "coppertop" Duracell battery to Neo (a practice called "product placement") -- will not stand a moment's examination. Human bodies are not batteries, they are fires. Very slow fires, to be sure, but ones that must be constantly stoked, with what we call "food." The food we get, animal or plant, ultimately contains energy usually derived from the sun. Morpheus' explanation that the machines "liquify the dead" and feed this to the living implies a kind of perpetual motion machine. There are only two known sources of energy for living things on earth, (1) the sun and (2) geothermal venting. The only other source of energy intrinsic to the earth is (3) nuclear. Beyond that we are in (4) fossil fuels, which simply store (like batteries, actually) old solar (or perhaps geothermal) energy. If the machines fed humans oil and liquified coal, this would make more sense, but it would also be very inefficient:  the oil and coal would be better burned directly for energy.

This fundamental flaw in the scientific basis of The Matrix is serious, but it still makes for a good story. As with many good stories, we just must suspend our disbelief. It does make a good premise for the situation of humans used for industrial purposes but kept in a state where they think they are living ordinary lives.

There are other loose ends in the physics and technology of The Matrix. We never do learn why members of the Resistance need a "hard line," rather than just a cell phone, to "get out" of the Matrix, when it seems like both ultimately just consist of the same binary numbers as anything else in a computer program. Also, at the beginning of the movie, it is not obvious why Trinity needs to be in the Matrix at all to be monitoring Neo. That can be done from the ship, where the code of the Matrix, which can be read by those familiar with it, is on constant display. That code itself poses a problem. A computer program simultaneously processing the perceptions of billions of people could only very selectively be displayed on three small computer screens, but everyone acts like they're seeing the whole thing.

Another problem is how it is that solar energy has been cut off. Morpheus simply says that we were able to "scorch the sky," which doesn't really explain anything. What we see in the sky are just clouds, but clouds imply rain, which is something that doesn't seem to fall anymore on the desert of the earth. A nuclear winter would come the closest to what the story requires, but that would call for a rather featureless and dark sky, more like smog than like thunderstorms. But that would not be very dramatic cinematographically. It also wouldn't last as long as the timeframe of the story. So some liberties have been taken.

While Morpheus tells Neo that his muscles have atrophied and that his eyes hurt because he has never used them before, the real life case would be far more dramatic and permanent. Eyes and muscles would all have atrophied to the point where they would have been ruined and useless. Of course, it is the muscles that generate the heat and electricity that supposedly power the powerplant, so we might speculate that the muscules are artificially stimulated with the connections that we see to maintain their function. But then they might not have atrophied at all, contrary to what Morpheus says. The eyes, however, are clearly unstimulated, and this would have rendered Neo permanently blind, not just sensitive.

Another scene displays a grave misunderstanding of the mechanism of evolution. Agent Smith is interogating the captured Morpheus and tells him that humans are not really mammals. "Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops an equilibrium with the surrounding evironment," he says, while humans consume all the resources wherever they are and then move on. This makes them a virus. But there is no creature in nature that "instinctivly develops an equilibrium with the surrounding eviroment." A population of any living thing expands until, indeed, it overburdens its food sources, its environment, and then the population dies back. This is the insight that Darwin got from Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). The least hardy and adapted of the population will die first, which gave Darwin the mechanism of "natural selection." Agent Smith has been reading, not biology texts, but environmentalist tracts. Since humans have occupied most of the earth for thousands of years, and Western civilization has reexpanded to transform the human culture of most of it in the last five hundred years, the idea that humans somehow "move on" doesn't seem to refer to any actual events. The image presented rests on a fantasy that an area of land is stripped of anything useful (like a strip mine), which means it must then simply be abandoned. This is something that really almost never occurs. Even a strip mine can be recovered for some productive use. Since nature can devastate land more thoroughly than any human activity, as in catastrophic volcanic eruptions, or asteroid impacts, it would be extraordinary if removing some trace minerals from a location permanently ruined it. In general, the idea of exhausting "natural resources" is bogus. This was demonstrated by Julian Simon, who bet environmentalist and doomster Paul Ehrlich that after ten years a basket of commodities, of Ehrlich's own choosing, would cost less. Ehrlich took the bet and lost. Since Ehrlich had previously predicted that starvation would be widespread in the 1980's, it is hard to see how anyone would take him seriously any more. However, when Bjørn Lomborg reexamined and defended Simon's thesis in The Skeptical Environmentalist, the enviromentalist and sympathic scientific establishment threw a fit, personally attacking Lomborg with various spurious, irrelevant, and ad hominem arguments. But Lomborg, and Simon, were right.

As with a lot of science fiction movies, we cannot push the science too hard without finding problems; but The Matrix does present a fairly coherent picture that is suitable for its story.

Although one of the most successful movies of 1999, The Matrix is a complex work, in plot, aesthetics, and meaning, and some critics found it more than a little confusing. A good example of that was the March 29, 1999 Daily Variety review by Todd McCarthy, which begins:

It's Special Effects 10, Screenplay 0 for "The Matrix," an eye-popping but incoherent extravaganza of morphing and superhuman martial arts.

The screenplay, in fact, is clever and effective. The story begins, in a sense, in medias res, in the middle of things, with statements, references, and events that will only make sense in light of what we learn later. This may be confusing, but it is also a classic and subtle device. Otherwise, the plot is fairly straightforward:  Neo is rescued, trained, tested, and proven. There is nothing "incoherent" about this. And, apart from the narrative human element, there is, as we have seen, a considerable subtext of important philosophical and religious issues. Perhaps on just one sitting, Mr. McCarthy was too distracted by the special effects and the martial arts to pay enough attention to everything else. There is, indeed, much to pay attention to in The Matrix.

McCarthy's attitude towards the deeper issues comes out next:

Ultra-cool visuals that truly deliver something new to the sci-fi action lexicon will make this time-jumping thriller a must-see among genre fans, especially guys in their teens and 20s, for whom the script's pretentious mumbo-jumbo of undergraduate mythology, religious mysticism and technobabble could even be a plus rather than a dramatic liability.

"Pretentious"? When movies don't even try to tackle such issues, they are faulted as shallow, but when The Matrix takes Meditations on First Philosophy by the horns, it is "pretentious"? Give me a break. The Matrix very deftly is able to address its philosophical and religous themes without breaking out of its science fiction context. The device of the Matrix itself enables the movie to talk about the technology, while leaving the philosophy and the religion as an implication. This is a very great achievement.

Economically made in Australia for about $60 million....

The Australian context may contribute to the sub-text of The Matrix. Australia is the land of Walkabout (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and The Last Wave (1977), all evocactive movies about kinds of alternative realities. In The Matrix itself, as Neo and Morpheus enter a building to see the Oracle, there is a very old, bearded Aborigine man sitting in the lobby, looking like he has just stepped out of The Last Wave. This may be a deliberate reminder of the Australian "dreamtime" as we enter the realm of the Oracle's paranormal powers.

Andy and Larry Wachowski...were grafting on surplus ideas during that time rather than subtracting and synthesizing. Not only is it a good half-hour too long, but there are so many elements here -- Christian motifs and mysticism, half-baked Eastern philosophy, Lewis Carroll refs, ambiguous oracular prophecies, the co-existence of two realities, pod-grown babies, time travel, creatures capable of rebirth and, all importantly, the expectation of the arrival of the Chosen One -- as to prove utterly indigestible.

The Matrix, indeed, is rather sparing in its overt references, most of which are to Alice in Wonderland rather than to the themes discussed above. "There is no spoon" is the closest it really comes to "half-baked Eastern philosophy." The Matrix is a rich synthesis that works at many levels. There is no good reason why McCarthy should find this "indigestible." He doesn't really have to think about it at all. The movie is so strong aesthetically that one could, as William Hurt says in The Big Chill (1983), just "let art flow over you." Perhaps McCarthy was irritated by the juxtaposition of Greek, Buddhist, and Christian themes; but then this is the most striking and intriguing thing about the vision presented in the movie. And if he thought that there was "time travel" in the movie, then he actually just wasn't paying attention.

But Morpheus inhabits a different universe, one situated some 2000 years in the future....

Well, yes and no... and no. McCarthy may not want to give away the central plot device in the review, but there is only one overt "real world" universe in The Matrix. But to say "2000 years in the future" is, again, not to have been paying attention. Morpheus tells Neo that, while he may believe it is the year 1999, it is really more like 2199. That is 200, not 2000, years; and of course the "1999" of the Matrix is a fiction and a deception.

...travels through this oceanic Other World with a lonely band of followers in a techno-heavy Nautilus-like sub.

Not an ocean; not a sub. When the hull is breached, no water comes in. The caves are empty. The Nebuchadnezzar is a "hovercraft" with, evidently, an anti-gravity technology like that of several of the machines that we see.

The young man agrees to be refitted to cybertronic specifications in a gruesomely spectacular sequence in which his natural body parts are replaced or reinforced by metal and synthetic material.

No. Neo is already like that. McCarthy has gotten this all backwards. Morpheus actually has a lot of the stuff taken out, not put in. All that is left is an intravenous tube and the socket to plug Neo's brain into the computer. And none of this has anything to do with "reinforcing" his "natural body parts." That was the Six Million Dollar Man, not The Matrix. In the Matrix, it is Neo's mind, not his body, that has the strength.

He emerges from all the morphing with the name Neo as well as a plug in the back of his head through which he can instantly be uploaded with vast amounts of knowledge.

Already Neo. Already with plug.

Thus reconstituted, Neo is ready to do battle with the forces that made the world what it has become.

The real "reconstitution" was simply to restore physical health and mobility to his hitherto unused body. But he would not then be ready to face the Agents without training in how to manipulate the Matrix, either a little, like Trinity, or a lot, like The One.

These errors might be forgiven if McCarthy is merely trying avoid giving away too much of the story, but he does go on to mention the basic point:

...the Matrix, a power field controlled by humanoid computers that have created a "virtual" real world fed by laboratory-controlled human energy.

That pretty much tips off the reader. In the movie, what the Matrix really is is not explained until Neo has been rescued and is well enough to face the truth.

A full hour in, the script is still entirely devoted to exposition...

No, the movie is mostly action, with a couple of talkative moments, for about 40 minutes. Then the nature of the Matrix is revealed to Neo. At about 46 minutes, Neo's training begins, and the action starts again. To say that the script is "still almost entirely devoted to exposition" for an hour is absurd and deceptive.

Even at that point, there remains the hope that some kind of focused story will finally get on track, but it never really happens.

It is hard to see how this could be written with a straight face.

Instead, things settle into a muddle of showdowns resulting in deaths and resurrections that confoundingly answer few questions and follow no rules, not even those specified by the film itself.

The basic plot line of the last part of the movie is about the betrayal of the Resistance by Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), foreshadowed from the beginning, and then the capture and rescue of Morpheus. This does indeed lead to a "showdown" between Neo and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving as an increasingly frustrated and so increasingly human sentient program), but we have already been given to understand that this will be Neo's ultimate test. That it comes at this moment is adventitious, but it is an opportunity that does follow seamlessly and logically from the events, like Meade stumbling into Lee at Gettysburg. There is no "muddle," and only one death and resurrection -- the climactic moment for Neo. What internal rules of the film this all violates is mysterious.

All this is frustrating and ultimately wearying, given that any number of the story strands could have been developed to profitable effect with sufficient rigor and concentration.

The plot really only has two parts: (1) the setup, which is the rescue and training of Neo, and (2) the payoff, which is the confrontation of Neo with Agent Smith occasioned by the betrayal and capture of Morpheus and then his rescue by Neo and Trinity. Whatever it is that McCarthy wanted explained or developed, he doesn't say.

As it is, one gives up making any sense of it...

This may have called for paying a little more attention to the movie, perhaps with a second viewing, than McCarthy may have been willing to devote. The simple errors he makes in describing the story, detailed above, may indicate a level of distraction that is not the movie's fault.

...and settles for what the picture undeniably wields in spades, which is a smorgasbord of effects that in some cases goes beyond what the sensation-seeking sci-fi audience has ever seen before.

Indeed, the effects are stunning.

The obviously obsessive attention that has been devoted to the visuals has paid off from top to bottom. The sinuous visual style the Wachowskis and cinematographer Bill Pope displayed to arresting effect in "Bound" is magnified many times here, and the gleaming skyscrapers of the big city (Sydney) are dramatically contrasted in Owen Paterson's production design with the murky, threatening future of the bold crusaders.

McCarthy cannot praise without faint damnation:  "obsessive"? There are some technological innovations here, extraordinarily realized, that are aesthetic breakthroughs. It's all on the screen.

McCarthy's similarly sour review of The Phantom Menace left him equally off base with one of the year's other great successful movies -- and one of the most successful of all time. Perhaps his problem is with the genre, which may not be science fiction as such, but science fiction with mythic or philosophical and religious themes. He clearly doesn't want to be bothered.

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Copyright (c) 1999, 2002 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Matrix, Note

In the lobby shootout, lest some sympathy be felt for the officers that Neo and Trinity kill, it should be remembered that the guards and SWAT team members are goons. They are obedient thugs of a police state, like IRS, DEA, or ATF agents, dressed in the now familiar black Ninja outfits with the German-looking helmets. We have seen half a dozen of them, or their like, earlier in the movie mercilessly beating Morpheus. They are themselves engaged, as then, in the violent commission of crime. Neo and Trinty are thus fighting in self-defense, trying to rescue Morpheus from torture, even if they seem to be initiating the attack.

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