Red pill, blue pill

Do you believe you’re fighting for something – for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love?

Responding to the trilogy

We had four years to watch and rewatch The Matrix, even getting to the point of stepping through sections frame by frame to study the detail. Four years to ponder over the questions which The Matrix raised, to discuss significance, argue over meanings and debate possible outcomes. Four years of anxious waiting for the continuation of this extraordinary story. But once The Matrix Reloaded came out, the reviews weren’t exactly breathless with excitement. Disappointment was in the air. But Reloaded was the middle instalment of a trilogy after all – it’s easy for it to be the poor relation with neither opening fanfare nor grand finale. The end was still to come. For the Wachowskis, perhaps, worse was still to come.

Initial response to the concluding film of the Matrix trilogy was also negative. Fans who spent those years wrestling with the big questions from The Matrix only to find that Reloaded raised even more, were sometimes disappointed that few answers were apparently forthcoming in The Matrix Revolutions. This comments is typical of many posted on one of the thousands of web pages devoted to these films:1

Matrix Revolutions makes no sense whatsoever . . . it doesn’t have any good action, it’s too emotional and explains absolutely nothing. It is a very disappointing ending to the trilogy.

The critics weren’t impressed either. Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Daily News accused them of2 being ‘largely devoid of the kind of wonder and storytelling that hooked us the first time.’ ‘A lot of Revolutions, in fact, is naggingly opaque,’ claimed Rene Rodriguez in the Miami Herald. ‘The razor-sharp logic and exhilarating imagination of the first film has been replaced, in the two sequels, by a pile of quasi-religious symbolism and mythological claptrap that adds up to a whole lot of nothing.3 Peter Travers agreed in Rolling Stone: ‘At the risk of understatement, The Matrix Revolutions sucks. It’s not that the final chapter in the trilogy doesn’t have stunts and visual wizardry to drop your jaw. It’s just that it all adds up to a supersize nothing: ‘the big bubkis’, to lift a bit of Yiddish from the script.’4

Cosmo Landesman in The Sunday Times accused Reloaded of being ‘just another undistinguished blockbuster, built on special effects, all bang-bang brawn and no brains,’ before going on to write that ‘Revolutions is worse . . . [it] never addresses or resolves the philosophical questions posed at the beginning of the trilogy.’

Like most reviews of each part of the Matrix trilogy, these critics have, to my mind, failed to understand what’s really going on. It’s not that The Matrix Revolutions isn’t without problems, but that the key questions which The Matrix raised are still central to the Wachowski’s vision. Back in 1999, it was relatively easy to pick up on at least some questions that the brothers were addressing: What is real? What does it mean to be human? Are we free? But many questions only surfaced after watching the film three or four times – when you finally begin to understand what’s going on.

After four years it seems that the critics (and some fans) have got bored of the questions. Apparently all they want is some nice, neat – but extremely cool and action-packed – answers to the riddles. They’ve forgotten that if part one of this story needed serious thought, perhaps part three does too. Those critics who say that The Matrix could be watched simply as a action movie fell at the first hurdle of the real course that the Brothers had set. The Wachowskis conceived of this story as a trilogy from the outset –not an ‘original’ with two sequels as afterthoughts. They should be considered together.

Some critics seem to have forgotten this. Rene Rodriguez again: ‘Revolutions conclusively proves that the Wachowskis had little substantial to add to the premise of the 1999 original – our reality is an artificial construct designed by the machines that have enslaved us – when they decided to spin out The Matrix into a trilogy.’5

A trilogy can be examined in terms of its parts (as we’ve done in Part One) but can only really be understood as a whole (as we’ve attempted to do in Part Two). ‘The Brothers’ are still telling the same story and tackling the same questions – some of the most important we can consider. The Wachowski’s angle on them from beginning to end deserves to be thought through very carefully.

Unity in diversity

As we’ve already seen, there are many different answers out there to The Matrix’s big questions, and the Brothers have cleverly woven many of them into their entire story. Andy and Larry Wachowski wanted to tell a big, powerful story. Far from giving us a mishmash of unconnected philosophical and religious morsels, they have deliberately integrated elements of the most potent stories from human culture into the story that they wanted to tell. Steve Couch referred in chapter 2 to Joseph Campbell’s idea of the monomyth – the idea that all hero myths follow the same basic pattern.6 This may well have shaped the Wachowskis’ story telling7 and given them the freedom to incorporate elements from elsewhere.

Campbell later claimed that all myths basically communicate the ideas of a strand of Hinduism – a worldview which seems to have no problem absorbing just about every other religious perspective. Campbell expressed it as, ‘All religions are true, but none are literal.’ The films can therefore include elements from many different religions without worrying about being particularly consistent with any one of them. There’s no real surprise in the fact that, although the Christian elements remain to the fore (the Wachowski brothers know their North American culture after all), at the end of the saga it is the Hindu perspective which comes to dominate. The combination of monomyth and Hinduism, together with postmodern philosophy incorporates everything else. Rather like Agent Smith, then!

Everything becomes integrated into one main story – the story of Neo and his quest to find out the truth about the Matrix, to find genuine freedom, and to find peace by finding out who he really is.

Searching for reality, truth and meaning

The nature of the Matrix world

One of the most discussed questions has been, ‘What is real? How do you define ‘real’?’ In answering his own question, Morpheus limited his (and our) focus to what we perceive to be physical reality: ‘If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.’ While some of the deeper questions may have eluded us on our first viewing, not many people will have left the cinema without asking themselves, ‘Could we be in the Matrix? How do we know that the world is real?’

At one level we don’t know. If all our information comes from within the system of our physical world, we can’t tell if it’s genuine or not. But a little thought about the physics of a ‘neural- interactive simulation’ like the Matrix shows that it’s not possible.

Suppose you are in a pod being fed data through the plug in your head. Simulating what you can ‘see’ in one direction isn’t hard – given reasonable processing power the machines can make it look perfect. Compression techniques means they don’t need to fill in every last detail. Not at first, anyway. The problem comes when you move your head. First, the machines must create the physical sensation of moving your head. Then they have to rapidly generate the changing field of view. They don’t know in advance which way you’ll move your head, so the data for all fields of view has to be stored somewhere, ready for use.

What if you focus on something – some skin on your hand perhaps. You look closely at it; and all kinds of extra detail need filling in. You move closer – more detail. You get a magnifying glass – more fields of view, more objects, more physical sensation, more detail. Then out with the microscope – and a scalpel to remove a slither of skin – and down to the lab to put it into an electron microscope. Every last detail right down to the smallest scale we can view needs to be there just in case. And we’ve barely allowed for the physiological and tactile sensations in all of this. We’ve not mentioned sound or smell or taste. We’ve not included all the other thoughts that rush through your brain.

Now repeat that for every other person. The amount of information escalates at a phenomenal rate because the system has to allow for all the possibilities. Compression techniques don’t work when you can zoom in more and more – the data has to be there ready. It’s a problem called combinatorial explosion. The only solution to the problem is to use a ‘real’ world – you need exactly as much data as what we believe to be the real world already contains. If you believe in reality at all, you can be confident that we’re in it – it’s not a computer simulation.

What reality?

The catch is, ‘if you believe in reality at all.’ As we’ve already seen in chapter 7, some postmodern thinkers like Baudrillard deny that it exists – or at least, that we have access to it. Within the context of the films (where we excuse the machines from having to cope with combinatorial explosion!) we can be no more certain that the world of Zion, underground tunnels and machine cities is real than we could be about the Matrix world. How is it that Neo can stop the Sentinels as he could in the Matrix? How can he see the code in this other world (a different type of code in a different colour, but code nonetheless, I suspect)?

As we saw in chapter 7, without reality, without truth, there is no possibility of meaning or purpose or value. Yet we crave these things; we long for reality. Could it be that the ‘splinter in our minds’ points to a greater reality? Freud claimed that belief in God was merely a longing for a father figure projected onto a cosmic plane – there is no God because human beings are really only wanting a father when they talk about God. But isn’t it at least plausible that we long for ‘Ultimate Reality’ because he is there and we really were created to be in a relationship with him? Does thirst imply that ‘water’ is only expressing our longing for refreshment? Or are we thirsty because we need something which really does exist? Maybe it’s the same with God.

Searching for freedom

As Tom Price pointed out in chapter 11, the search for redemption in one form or another is central to all powerful films. This overlaps in various ways with each of the searches on which I am focusing in this chapter. But there is a particularly strong connection with the search for freedom. Redemption means ‘to buy back’ – originally it referred to buying a slave’s freedom.

Everyone wants freedom. Thomas Anderson wanted to be free of the splinter in his mind, but Cypher wanted to return to the Matrix so he could be free to indulge himself. Morpheus instructs Neo to ‘free [his] mind’. The ethos of the rebels is to free people from the Matrix. The inhabitants of Zion want to be free from the threat of attack.

Choice, the issue is choice

However, as Peter Williams explores in chapter 9, much of the trilogy, particularly Reloaded, explores the question of whether people can ever be free, regardless of whether they’re in or out of the Matrix. The Merovingian is fixated with the idea of causality; for him it is the only constant, the only universal. In his mind, there is nothing more than deterministic processes: ‘Where some see coincidence, I see consequence; where some see chance, I see cause.’

Agent Smith evidently finds the concept of freedom somewhat alien. When he meets Neo again in Reloaded, he tells him, ‘We’re not here because we’re free. We’re here because we’re not free. There is no escaping reason; no denying purpose.’ The Architect strongly implies that Neo has no real choice but has been entirely driven by circumstances. Rama Kandra is simply working through his karma: ‘It is a way of saying “What I am here to do.”’

It’s no surprise that computer programs think in this way.But the humans generally don’t see it that way. Neo, in particular, comes to recognise that the issue of choice is central. In The Matrix, he faces a fork in his path again and again – one option opens up new possibilities and takes him towards freedom, the other maintains the control of the Matrix. Follow the white rabbit or sleep. Be a good employee of Meta Cortechs or find a new job. Climb to the gantry or face the agents. Live the life of Thomas Anderson or of Neo the hacker (‘One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not,’ says Agent Smith). Trust Trinity or go down a familiar road. Red pill or blue pill. Stark choices face Neo throughout his journey.

The Oracle turns out to be the one of the few AIs to recognise that choice is real, and offers Neo the choice of trusting her or not. She would appear to be the intuitive program mentioned by the Architect, who realised that humans needed a measure of choice. At the very end of the trilogy, having played her ‘dangerous game’, she has evidently secured a genuine freedom for all humans – they can leave the Matrix if they wish.

Because I choose to

The Wachowskis are arguing passionately for freedom. Apparently, the really important thing about human beings (and, perhaps, any genuinely intelligent AI) is that we can choose. In their final showdown, Agent Smith wrestles with Neo’s determination to keep on fighting: ‘You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?’ Neo’s reply is simple and to the point: ‘Because I choose to.’

It’s the choosing itself which seems to be all-important. It’s a very existential approach: authenticate yourself as a person by choosing – what you choose is immaterial. This fits with the way Andy and Larry Wachowski have incorporated the ideas of so many worldviews within the films. It doesn’t matter which perspective you have on the trilogy – Christian or Gnostic, Hindu or Buddhist – you choose. This is entirely consistent with the postmodern insistence that every view has equal value.

Freedom and pseudo-freedom

People long to be free – to be physically free (no constraints on what we do), intellectually free (making up our own minds) and morally free (making our own decisions about right and wrong). We want to choose.

Humans first embraced this kind of freedom in Genesis 3. It’s the account of the first rebellion against God in which humans fell for the line that God doesn’t have our best interests at heart, and is denying us freedom. Eve and Adam chose to ignore the one constraint from God on what they could do.8 They wanted to choose what to think. They wanted to decide what was good for them.

The tragic irony is that they had extraordinary freedom – to eat from any tree except one. They knew all they needed to know and more – they even had easy access to God who could enlighten them further. They didn’t need to know about good and evil because they lived in the blissful state of only knowing good. And when they exercised their freedom in the one forbidden way, they ended up losing it. Nothing would ever be the same – they threw away their home and their easy existence because they had cut themselves off from the source. By choosing to make up their own minds, they lost their relationship with the source of all truth. By choosing to define their own morality they discovered that they had come to know good and evil – from the inside. They were no longer simply good, but had to contend with the reality of evil within them. They became slaves, locked into their pattern of rebellion against God. They wrecked their relationships with God, with their environment and with each other. Bad choice.

We are free to choose knowing God or rejecting him – but it’s not an arbitrary choice. Choosing a relationship with God opens up a new life to us. Real freedom can only come though a relationship with our creator because that’s what he created us for. Choosing to keep on rebelling against him keeps us locked within the system of life (or rather, death) as we know it. One of these lives has a future; one of them does not.

Searching for peace

Intimately connected with the search for freedom is the search for peace. Peace is the goal of all the rebels, and of the One in particular whose ‘coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war, bring freedom to [the] people.’9 Although we discover in The Matrix Reloaded that the Oracle is a program and possibly part of the system of control, in Revolutions she tells Neo, ‘I want the same thing you do . . . and I’m willing to go as far as you are to get it.’

Peace is so great a prize that most rebels would willingly give their lives for it. It’s more important than freeing people from the Matrix since, as Morpheus tells us in The Matrix, many of those whose bodies are in the pods are too established within their virtual world to be freed. The lives of Matrix denizens are expendable for the sake of defeating the machines. Peace, the rebels believe, cannot be achieved without the Matrix being destroyed.


After heading in that direction for the first two films and most of the third, the final dénouement comes as something of a surprise at first viewing. The Matrix apparently continues. But it’s not the same Matrix – it’s the seventh, a new Matrix after the previous version had been destroyed10. It looks the same but it’s a new world order. The end of the war has come about, not through the defeat of the machines, but through an agreement between them and Neo to abandon hostilities. This has struck some people as a rather lame ending. Hadn’t we expected Neo to single-handedly destroy the machines somehow? It was a naïve expectation, if so. What could he do – pull the plug out? And what would have happened to everyone in the Matrix if he had destroyed the machines? The importance of the conversation between Neo and Councillor Hamann in The Matrix Reloaded takes on fresh significance when you think about what Neo does achieve:


Neo: Hamann:

Neo: Hamann:

Neo: Hamann:

Down here, sometimes I think about all those people still plugged into the Matrix, and when I look at these machines I . . . I can’t help but think that in some way, we are plugged into them.

But we control these machines; they don’t control us.

Of course not. How could they? The idea is pure nonsense. But it does make one wonder just what is control?

If we wanted, we could shut these machines down.

[Of] course! That’s it! You hit it! That’s control, isn’t it? If we wanted, we could smash them to bits! Although, if we did, we’d have to consider what would happen to our lights, our heat, our air—

So we need machines and they need us. Is that your point, Councillor?
No, no point. Old men like me don’t bother making points. There’s no point.

Neo’s interaction with programs perhaps also influenced his approach. He realizes that he can still trust the Oracle even though she’s not human. Perhaps he even trusts her more, since she must understand far more of what’s going on behind the scenes than he ever could. His encounter with Sati and her parents on Mobil Ave. Station is important too. Neo is completely thrown by Rama Kandra’s expression of his love for his daughter. Neo protests that love is a human emotion. ‘No, it is a word,’ Rama Kandra replies. ‘What matters is the connection it implies. I see you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hang on to that connection?’ Neo would, of course, give anything. But if these programs are so fully sentient that connections between individuals matter in this way, they cannot be all bad. How could he destroy these relationships?

So the end of the war comes through achieving some balance or harmony. It suits the machines because they don’t have to expend energy dealing with terrorists. The humans can go along with it because in the seventh Matrix they can choose whether to stay in it or leave. An age of synergy and mutual co-operation could be ahead. It is perhaps the most positive ending there could be.


However, it is interesting that this final harmony is set in the context of Hinduism. The final fight between Neo and Agent Smith takes place while a piece of music, Neodammerung11 (Neo’s twighlight), is playing. The Sanskrit words are taken from the Upanishads. The same words are used in Navras, the music for the closing credits of Matrix Revolutions:

From delusion lead me to Truth. From darkness lead me to Light. From death lead me to immortality.12

He who knows both knowledge and action, with action overcomes death
and with knowledge reaches immortality.13

In him are woven the sky and the earth
and all the regions of the air, and in him
rest the mind and all the powers of life.
Know him as the ONE and leave aside all other words. He is the bridge of immortality.14

Beyond the senses is the mind, and beyond the mind is reason, its essence. Beyond reason is the Spirit in man, and beyond this is the Spirit of the Universe, the evolver of all.15

When the five senses and the mind are still, and reason itself rests in silence, then begins the Path supreme.16

And when he is seen in his immanence and transcendence, then the ties that have bound the heart are unloosened, the doubts of the mind vanish, and the law of Karma works no more.17

Navras also includes the Hindu mantra, aum shanti shanti shanti. Aum is an ancient Sanskrit word which is supposed to be the sound of the universe. The universe in Hinduism is, of course, basically an illusion – the web of Maya. The Upanisads explain that aum represents the world and its parts – including past, present, and future. Shanti means peace, and the mantra is an invocation of peace.These would seem to be providing some interpretive grid for understanding what’s happening in these final scenes.

The resolution to the plot is achieving balance. There are two pairs of great, intractable opposing forces in the Matrix trilogy: humans versus machines, and Neo versus Agent Smith. The latter pair, the Oracle informs Neo, are inextricably linked: ‘He is you, your opposite, your negative – the result of the equations trying to balance themselves out.’ Not for nothing is she wearing yin yang earrings as she announces this – it is the eastern symbol for balance and harmony. Humans and machines achieve balance through harmony; Neo and Agent Smith achieve balance through effectively cancelling each other out. When Neo allows Agent Smith to take him over, he opens the door to Agent Smith destroying himself by absorbing his opposite.


Attractive though this balance is, I wonder if this is enough of a solution to the yearning for peace that characterises human beings. It’s clearly a good thing to try to live in some kind of harmony with others but the mutual destruction of yourself and your negative (if you could ever find it) is not a very practical idea. It’s worth noting again at this point that the Matrix trilogy is attempting to synthesise both eastern and western spirituality and philosophy (again, something Joseph Campbell was keen on). As we have seen already, Hinduism easily accommodates almost any other worldview: ‘Hindus believe that no particular religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others, but that all genuine religious paths are facets of God’s Pure Love and Light, deserving tolerance and understanding.’18 The Hindu approach to harmony, therefore, is, at least partly, to set aside or downplay the differences and tension. It meshes very easily with postmodernism.

But Christians believe that Jesus –uniquely – is God incarnate and is the ultimate revelation of God. When Jesus claimed that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life,’ it was an absolute, exclusive claim. ‘No one,’ he continued, ‘comes to the Father except through me.’19 Either that claim is true or it isn’t. It can’t just be absorbed into a worldview that claims ‘no particular religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others.’ If Jesus’ claim is true, it cuts through that particular Hindu claim – they can’t both be true. If Jesus’ claim is not true, then Christianity cannot even be considered a ‘genuine religious path’. If Jesus is telling the truth, there is no alternative way to knowing peace with God. If Jesus is not telling the truth, he is no way to knowing peace with God. That’s not to say that other religious views, including Hinduism, don’t offer any moral guidance or spiritual insight, but that they cannot be finally true if Christianity is, and vice versa.

Jesus Christ, through his sacrificial death on the cross – dying the death we deserve for our rebellion against God – offers us peace with God. Ultimate peace. The biblical concept is the Hebrew word, shalom – it’s a much bigger concept than we normally think of when we talk about peace. It’s not a balance of opposites or a cessation of hostilities, but a state of all encompassing well-being because we are in a right relationship with the Creator.

Searching for self-understanding

Peace with God – shalom – results, ultimately, in the possibility of peace with others, and with yourself. This is one of the deepest longings of the human heart. It’s the answer to our inward turmoil, the tensions we struggle with, the guilt and shame we privately feel, and the lack of certainty about who we are and what life is all about.

Agent Smith’s characterisations of humans are always graphic and never positive. Having called humanity a virus in The Matrix, in Revolutions he perceives in the blinded Neo something representative of all of us. As he watches him stagger with pain, crashing into the walls, he calls him a ‘blind messiah . . . You’re a symbol for all of your kind, Mr Anderson – helpless, pathetic, just waiting to be put out of your misery.’ Well, there’s some truth there. But Neo, while he may be physically in a mess, is beginning to see things ever clearer. It’s not just that he can see the code of the real world, but that he has been discovering who he really is.

Throughout the Matrix trilogy, Neo has been on a journey to self-knowledge. When he first meets the Oracle, she points to a plaque on her kitchen wall and explains to Neo that, ‘It’s Latin. Means, “Know thyself.”’ She reminds him of it in Matrix Revolutions when Neo quizzes her about why she hadn’t told him all she knew. From his uncertain beginnings as troubled computer hacker Thomas Anderson, through to his complete self-confidence at the end, Neo has been working towards peace with himself.

He’s made progress through some crisis moments and some dawning realisations, but I believe that it is this quest more than any other which is at the heart of the Matrix trilogy. His search for reality and truth, his quest for freedom and peace for Zion, are part of his journey towards discovering who he really is. The search for meaning or purpose is part of this. And it’s a journey that we are on too. Like Neo, we want to feel at peace with ourselves, regardless of circumstances, by knowing who we really are.

All of our attempts at self-discovery, at achieving something, at becoming happy, are all expressions of our inbuilt drive to know shalom. With their inclusion of diverse religious and philosophical ideas, the Wachowskis could be saying that everything is open to us, there’s something for everyone. The important thing is to choose. The trouble is, in a postmodern world where no ground is firm enough to stand on, a random choice just for the sake of choosing, or an attempt to harmonise competing views, will leave you in a world of illusion. Just like the Matrix trilogy, which never finally answers the question of what is real. But real shalom is on offer. Real peace with ourselves comes, ultimately, only in the context of peace with our Creator through the real historical death and resurrection of Jesus, his son.

Back in the first film, Cypher wanted to return to live inside the Matrix. He couldn’t cope with the challenges of life in the ‘real’ world. He wanted nothing more than to live an easy life with nothing troubling him – a life of pleasure and entertainment, of status and wealth. But a life not based on truth. For Trinity and the others, though, ‘It’s the question which drives us.’ The question which Cypher’s choice raised confronts each of us: which is better – to live a comfortable life that is based on a lie, or do whatever it takes to find the truth? We’re back to red pill or blue pill. Where we go from here is a choice I leave to you.

Gjengitt med tillatelse

6 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949 
7 See
8 ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’ Genesis 2:16–17 (NIV)
The Matrix Shooting script
10 In Christianity and Judaism, seven is representative of completeness. According to Hinduism, we are in the seventh cycle of the worlds destruction and recreation.11 Written by Ben Watkins and Don Davis. There is a nod to Wagner’s Götterdammerung here.
12 Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 1.3.28 – all translations from The Upanishads translated by Juan Mascaro (Penguin Classics, 1965)
13 Isa Upanisad 11
14 Mundaka Upanisad 2.2.5 15 Katha Upanisad 6.7
16 Katha Upanisad 6.10
17 Mundaka Upanisad 2.2.8
18 From the Hindu website 
19 John 14:6 (NIV)