Narrative Themes in Modern Media: The Social Themes of the Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix Trilogy is arguably one of the greatest science fiction trilogies ever made. Set in the future, The Matrix Trilogy explores a dystopian world where humans and self-aware machines are at war with one another with the majority of humanity imprisoned in an artificial, digitally simulated world called The Matrix. Although these movies contain some of the greatest action sequences in all of film, the premise of the trilogies allowed the movies to explore deeply philosophical themes surrounding humanity, annihilation, choice and self-determination, and society.
Through the interplay between different characters, interweaving storylines, and the tension between factions The Matrix Trilogy shines a light on new ways to think of the problems we face as individuals, as a society, and as humanity. Though these films never arrive to a complete conclusion or a complete understanding of these ideas, they almost certainly provide us with a new way of thinking about these challenges and in some cases perhaps even offers us some hope for the future.
The Matrix: Annihilation and the End of Existence
Although the premise of The Matrix describes a future where humanity struggles in a losing war of subjugation by machines, the true existential threat that humanity faces in the film is the threat of human annihilation.
Yes, life is essential to the human condition, but self-determination, agency, purpose, and protecting ideals can be upheld in how we choose to live and how we choose to die. Moreover, although bondage robs us of innumerable essential elements of humanity; life, purpose, and agency can be preserved in how we approach that bondage. Though the war presents the threat of death and subjugation presents threat of bondage, utter annihilation precedes and precludes death and bondage because human annihilation is the complete destruction of human existence, its preconditions, and all of its endeavors.
Although war between the machines and humanity and subjugation within the Matrix provide a backdrop for the films, the true existential threat presented in the films is Agent Smith — a force that seeks to destroy through domination of others and the embodiment of human annihilation.
Humanity and Destruction
Agent Smith as the embodiment of human annihilation is evidenced in his view and classification of humanity. Agent Smith reduces humanity to its most base ingredients and classifies humanity as a pathologic disease. In doing so, Agent Smith justifies human death and destruction while simultaneously furthering human annihilation by discarding the essential elements that define the essence, ideal, and spirit of humanity. To illustrate this, Agent Smith’s classification of humans justifies his domination of Morpheus while simultaneously discarding the fact that Morpheus choose to be captured to save Neo and his comrades.
And it is through Agent Smith’s interactions and motivations that we can better understand what human annihilation entails. Whether these include life, self-determination, agency, society, purpose, ideals, or all of the innumerable requirements that define and give rise to humanity, the threat of human annihilation is the threat of complete and simultaneous obliteration of all of these.
Again, through the lens of Agent Smith’s actions, we see that mere destruction is insufficient to achieve annihilation. For Smith, it isn’t enough to merely kill Neo as he even states he had already done so previously to no effect. To achieve annihilation, Smith must deprive Neo of purpose.
And it is here again that Agent Smith demonstrates destruction of life falls short of total annihilation. Whether sacrifice for a greater good, gracefully and graciously bowing out, fighting for beliefs or dying for love, people demonstrate a sense of purpose both in how they choose to live and how they choose to die. Being deprived of life does not necessarily deny humanity access to its other essential characteristics such as purpose and self-determination.
However, Agent Smith as the embodiment of human annihilation seeks not only to deny humans of life but to deny humans of humanity itself. Agent Smith does not merely kill others, but erases their existence and overwrites himself in its place. In depriving purpose, life, and agency from all, Agent Smith exists to propagate further annihilation, and obliterating anything that is not Agent Smith.
A Threat to All
The threat of annihilation is the threat of complete and simultaneous obliteration of existence, its preconditions, and its endeavors. As Agent Smith threatens both the human world and the machine world, annihilation threatens all of existence. Annihilation will continue and propagate itself until complete oblivion and obliteration are achieved.
The End of Life
Again, note Agent Smith’s language when Agent Smith articulates his understanding of the purpose of life. Agent Smith does not say that the purpose of life is to die; he says that the purpose of life is to end. The threat of Agent Smith goes beyond the threat of death; Agent Smith threatens existence itself.
Agent Smith is annihilation itself. It is death, it is darkness, and it is unceasing until there is nothing. This is why Agent Smith as the embodiment of human annihilation represents humanity’s existential threat: Agent Smith is threatening the end of existence.
The Matrix: The Individual and Self-Determination
In the face of Agent Smith, in the face of the end of existence, what recourse do we have to avert our own annihilation? In the face of obliteration and extinction, how can we prevent our descent into nothingness? In the face of inevitability, is humanity powerless to the course of fate?
In this scene, when asked by Morpheus Neo rejects the idea of fate and asserts his self-determination in controlling his own life. It is at this juncture that we must examine Neo, who embodies the individual’s pursuit of self-determination. And it is in the struggle between Neo and Agent Smith that we see humanity’s pursuit of self-determination collide against human annihilation.
Freedom from Bondage
Throughout human history, the individual’s pursuit of self-determination has been best exemplified in the pursuit of freedom from bondage. Whether from slavery, imprisonment, or circumstance, the pursuit of self-determination has entailed the pursuit of freedom. And though we struggle with achieving self-determination, we easily identify when we are being held in bondage.
Similarly, Neo though ignorant of the Matrix, at some level knows he is not free and is held in bondage. And it is in this pursuit of achieving freedom from bondage and escaping the matrix that Neo begins his journey towards self-determination.
Bondage prevents self-determination because it is inherently destructive to a person’s humanity. Bondage reduces a person from an individual to an instrument. Human self-determination posits the individual as an end in itself while bondage reduces the individual to a means to an end. In this reduction of the individual, bondage attempts to strip away essential elements of humanity from the individual.
But bondage does not destroy these elements within the individual and freedom from bondage is the attempt and pursuit of retaining those essential elements. In The Matrix, Neo and much of humanity has been reduced to a power source from the machines, but that does not mean that those individuals cannot be enlarged and restored of their full human qualities when freed from bondage.
Once freed, the individual pursuit of self-determination can continue, but as Neo seeks to free other humans from the hold of the Matrix, the freed individual must seek to free others from bondage. The existence of bondage represents the threat of bondage and will always hinder the individual’s pursuit of self-determination.
Self-Determination and Choice
In his pursuit of self-determination, Neo assumes a role in what he believes will end the war between humans and machines. However, in the course of playing this role, in pursuing self-determination, Neo arrives at an important dilemma that all individuals and all of humanity faces in self-determination.
The problem inherent in human self-determination is choice.
In explaining the origin of the dreamlike world of the Matrix, the Architect highlights the dilemma that choice plays in the pursuit of self-determination. Whether it be a utopian paradise or a grotesque nightmare, humanity as a whole will reject a reality that is forced upon them. But allowed to choose, even a choice that individuals are barely conscious of making, and some will accept illusion for reality. Some will accept the illusion of freedom for actual freedom, and in doing so, they choose to abdicate their pursuit of self-determination.
It is important to note that even Neo was under this illusion of freedom after being freed from the Matrix. Neo assumed that the role he played would end the war between humans and machines but in reality, the conclusion of the role he played would have perpetuated the war. Rather than confront the true threat of Agent Smith, Neo’s pursuit of self-determination lead him to abdicate his pursuit to play a false role. This highlights the dilemma we face between choice and self-determination — we all fall under the illusion that we are free when we are unable to see the barriers erected around us.
But therein lies the dilemma of choice and self-determination. They are inextricable from each other. Self-determination requires choice, and making choices requires self-determination. Similarly, abandoning one leads to abandonment of the other.
Earlier in the trilogy, Neo encounters the phrase nosce te ipsum, which is Latin for know thyself. In Neo’s pursuit of self-determination, he struggles to understand the choices that he has made while simultaneously being unaware that he has made a choice. How much does choice express self-determination? And how much of our own self-determination goes into making our choices?
In a similar way, we must understand the why of our choices and implicit to that is to know thyself. Are we always aware of the impact of the choices we make? Are we always aware that we have made a choice? And what does this mean for the possibility of self-determination? It is a dilemma that all individuals pursuing self-determination struggle with and a dilemma we must continue to and constantly struggle with.
Self-Determination and Annihilation
It is in this struggle and in this dilemma that human self-determination and human annihilation collide — do we determine our own outcomes or are we observers to fate?
Neo, the embodiment of the pursuit of self-determination, continues to fight Agent Smith, the embodiment of human annihilation, because he chooses to. Self-determination needs no other reason or justification, it is an end in and of itself. We choose self-determination and that is all that is necessary to continue to struggle against annihilation.
Perhaps annihilation is inevitable and humanity is impotent in affecting fate and avoiding doom. But we can choose self-determination and choose to struggle against that annihilation, regardless of the outcome.
Neo, the embodiment of the pursuit of self-determination, allows himself to be erased and overwritten by Agent Smith, the embodiment of human annihilation. Neo allows himself to be annihilated. But he determined his own end, annihilation occurred on his terms, the decision to end his existence in annihilation was in itself an expression of his own self-determination. In the face of annihilation, Neo asserted self-determination in choosing what end he would meet and how annihilation would come.
Though it is unclear how Neo defeats Agent Smith, the symbolic interpretation of self-determination and annihilation are undeniable. Neo’s assertion of self-determination in choosing the end of his own existence denies the inevitability of annihilation by Agent Smith. Agent Smith, the agent of inevitability, initially resisted attacking Neo until Neo invited and allowed Agent Smith’s attack. Annihilation did not extinguish self-determination, self-determination accepted annihilation. And if self-determination can accept annihilation, choice allows for self-determination to reject annihilation. Humanity’s collective self-determination and its rejection of annihilation is what we see at the demise of Agent Smith and the restoration human individuals.
I am of the belief that in the face of human annihilation, human self-determination will prevail. All things must come to an end, but we can determine what that end is. As long as a single individual continues to assert their own self-determination, humanity can prevail over annihilation. And when a single individual asserts their own self-determination, it can restore the right to self-determination to other individuals and the rest of humanity.
The Matrix: A Free Society and a Free World
Just as Neo was guided, defended, and assisted on the journey to his final confrontation against Agent Smith, the collision of self-determination and annihilation do not occur in a vacuum. I think it is important to examine the society and environment that aided Neo on his journey to better understand how we can avoid annihilation in our time and in our world.
Mutual Trust, Recognition, and Cooperation
It is important to note that in defeating Agent Smith, Neo not only defended humanity but defended machines as well. And what is remarkable is that Neo ended the war between humanity and machines not by fulfilling a fated role or being guided by destiny but by audacious self-determination to broker peace with the machines in defeating Agent Smith. Rather than follow a false prophecy that would have perpetuated the war, Neo followed his own volition to chart his own path to end the war. And the war was ended not by defeating and conquering the machines, but by mutual agreement and understanding between humanity and the machines. Though gripped in war, Neo aimed for mutual co-existence between humanity and machine when faced with mutual annihilation. Mutual preservation can be the only alternative to mutual destruction. Humans relied on machines and machines relied on humans for survival.
But mutual co-existence and cooperation is only possible when both acknowledge the dignity, agency, and self-determination of the other. This is only possible when we allow for the recognition of the other. That our adversaries are able to feel the same connections to each other that we attain through emotion is an example of this recognition.
But even after mutual recognition and cooperation, we are still left with the issue of trust. We can never know with certainty the intentions, motivations, and priorities of those beyond ourselves. In establishing trust, ultimately a decision must be made, and we either choose to believe or disbelieve without fully knowing the outcomes of doing so — outcomes that can be damning and disastrous.
But ultimately, what choice do we have? If mutual annihilation can only be averted by mutual cooperation, recognition, and trust, to choose to not trust the other is tantamount to choosing mutual annihilation. Perhaps the choice isn’t to trust or not trust the other, but instead choosing between survival and annihilation. And if the choice is survival, then trust necessarily follows because annihilation otherwise follows.
“I am interested in one thing … the future. And believe me, I know the only way to get there is together.” -The Oracle
Our fate is a shared fate and our struggle is a shared struggle, and without mutual trust, recognition, and cooperation, our future will fail.
The Matrix: A Brighter Future
Imagining New Possibilities
As a young boy when these films were released, The Matrix Trilogy sparked my imagination for what was possible for the future of technology. Dazzled by the aesthetics of the film and enthralled by the cyberpunk themes of the film I was filled with excitement about where humanity would find itself in relation to technology, machines, and AI.
As a young man returning to these films, I find that these films still spark my imagination but for new reasons. They spark my imagination for the future of humanity, of individuals, of agency, of society, and how we confront the challenges of living in an increasingly abstract modern world.
None can predict the future, and it is impossible to determine the eventual outcome of our actions. Success is not guaranteed and the possibility of failure is always present. But it is in our nature to be free, and it is in our nature to determine our own outcomes. We write the endings to our own stories. Only together can we all be free from bondage because a threat to self-determination to anyone is a threat to self-determination to everyone. We all must choose self-determination — both for ourselves and each other. Humanity has always striven towards that elusive goal of self-determination, and I choose to believe in this endeavor, both now and into the future; for myself and for all of us. -GP