“There Is No Spoon!” How The Matrix Impacted Pop Culture and Revolutionized Science-Fiction Movies
It is an experience many people have certainly had at least once in their lives. You go about your day- cooking dinner, driving to work, eating breakfast, getting dressed, riding the bus- and then suddenly the world just seems “off”! The usual emotional depth and spontaneity are lacking, and it’s like viewing everything through a veil or a pane of glass. Time, space, people, things, ideas…they’re all jumbled and disoriented…like a strange dream. I’ve experienced it several times in my own life (some occasions were far more intense than others). Stress, caffeine, drugs, or even just the right type of personality will do it. This syndrome is formally known as “derealization,” and it’s quite unpleasant… even downright terrifying!
Back in March 1999, though, one of Hollywood’s biggest science-fiction films explored this phenomenon. Not the syndrome/disorder itself but the experience and its potential implications! The film in question was The Matrix, The Wachowski Brothers’ cyber-punk action-thriller, which challenged our notions of time, reality, free-will, technology, and society.
In the original film, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves)- programmer by day, software hacker by night (known as “Neo”)- discovers a mysterious message about “the matrix” on his computer. A team of suited men- led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving)- track him down. Meanwhile, several shade-sporting, trench-coat-wearing “terrorists,” including Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), do so as well.
Anderson assumes that the suited men (who also wear shades) are FBI agents arresting him for all his illegal nighttime activities. They offer him a deal to drop all the charges in exchange for turning in Morpheus, but he declines and invokes his fifth amendment right. They fuse his mouth shut, pin him down, and force a robotic “bug” into his bellybutton. He wakes up as though it were a dream. On a rainy night, Morpheus, Trinity, and the other “terrorists” pick him up in their limo, drive Neo to their headquarters, and discard the “bug” (tracking device) along the highway.
At their headquarters Morpheus introduces Neo to the “Matrix” by asking him a profound question (one that arguably inspired Christopher Nolan when he produced Inception 11 years later): “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” He then offers him the red or blue pill (if he takes the red pill, they’ll introduce him to “The Matrix,” but if he takes the blue pill, he’ll wake up in his former life with no memory of what has occurred). Neo takes the red pill, and he disappears through a tunnel into a liquid-filled pod. He emerges from his pod and sees millions of other pods across a dark dystopian landscape.
Neo then boards Morpheus’s flying ship, The Nebuchadnezzar, and meets the rest of the crew, including Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), Tank (Marcus Chong), Dozer (Anthony Ray Parker), Apoc (Julian Arahanga), and Mouse (Matt Doran). Morpheus then explains the Matrix to Neo. In the late 20th century, humanity warred with intelligent machines. Humanity blocked out the sun as a source of energy for them, so the machines enslaved people and harvested them for bio-electric energy. The machines then created a collective simulated reality modeled on the world of 1999. Those who escaped (or literally “unplugged”) took refuge in Zion, an underground city, or joined Morpheus and his crew in their war against the machines. The crew’s mission became to fight the “agents” (including Smith) and free humanity.
Morpheus and his crew train Neo, plugging him into various alternate simulations where he learns to “free his mind.” They teach him kung-fu and other physical combat skills. Morpheus challenges him to leap between buildings and defy other traditional laws of physics. “What are you saying- that I can dodge bullets?” he famously asks Morpheus in one scene. “No, I’m telling you then when you’re ready, you won’t need to!” Morpheus replies.
Numerous influences and inspirations immediately come to mind when discussing The Matrix. The first one is undoubtedly James Cameron’s Terminator series (namely, the original released in 1984 and its 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day). Humanity creates machinery that is too intelligent for them to handle and the machinery (Sky Net, in the case of The Terminator) attempts to destroy people. Time travel and rebellion are involved, and one character becomes the “chosen one” to free humanity.
The other major influence is the simulation theory that has gained a lot of traction in the past few decades. Several philosophers throughout history have posed the “skeptical hypothesis.” Indian philosophers believed in the Buddhist concept of “Maya” (“illusion”). Ancient Greek philosophers Anaxarchus and Monimus likened reality to a dream, fit of madness, or scene-painting1, and Zhuangzi wrote the following in his “Butterfly Dream”:
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.
— Zhuangzi, chapter 2 (Watson translation)2
Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, though, notably popularized the “simulation hypothesis,” and remarked it upon as such:
One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race…[His conclusion] It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears.3
Long story short, a recourse to digital physics isn’t necessary. Human societies with technology that is sufficiently advanced enough can recreate the “qualia” of simulated consciousness, which is equivalent and/or comparable to naturally occurring human consciousness.3
Opponents of his hypothesis argue that the epistemology of knowing whether we’re in a simulation or not isn’t great. A pop-up ad appearing on our phones or computers, or a virtual message written across the night sky saying: “You are in a simulation,” would still constitute weak evidence. Moreover, Bostrom’s theory runs up against the “anthropic principle,” which presupposes that human consciousness is the only type of consciousness that can assess reality.
The Matrix draws from and alludes to numerous other literary, philosophical, and religious sources. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Grant Morris’s The Invisibles are two examples, as is the entire cyberpunk genre. In William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer, a washed-up hacker encounters a powerful artificially intelligent entity. Then there are films like 2001: A Spacey Odyssey, Metropolis, Dark City, and The Truman Show that inspired The Matrix as well.
Free will is a major philosophical theme. In one scene, Neo visits the Oracle (Gloria Foster) who warns Neo of a very severe, zero-sum decision he will be forced to make. He has the foreknowledge that this will occur. What will he do? Can he do anything to change it? Can he forge his own destiny?
Numerous philosophers throughout history, including Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke, have addressed free will. Do we have free will? Can we make decisions that are fully our own? Some argue that we cannot. They appeal to a school of thought known as determinism. If we are biological creatures driven solely by evolution- and our neural circuitry produces thoughts and motivations before we even consciously recognize them- how can we argue we’re the ones driving the train? Compatibilists, on the other hand, argue that- despite our biological limits- we are free to choose and make voluntarily decisions. 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was once such compatibilist. He argued that if a person desires to act in a certain way, but it is also possible for the person to do otherwise (and the person pursues their original decision), that constitutes free will.
“…no liberty can be inferred to the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to doe [sic],” Hobbe writes.4
The key philosopher whose ideas The Matrix incorporates is 16th French thinker Rene Descartes. He is ultimately famous for his assertion that “I think therefore I am.” He arrived at this conclusion in his 1641 treatise, Meditations on First Philosophy (Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstrator). This treatise is broken into 6 parts (or “meditations”). Each addresses a different layer “[which] can be called into doubt.” Descartes floats the possibility in his First Meditation that our universe is one in which we are all dreaming. How in that universe, though, can we distinguish what is real from what is fantastical? This is where the concept of the “evil demon” emerges…the notion that some malevolent entity may be tricking us for sinister and/or sadistic reasons. In The Matrix, the computer system is that “evil demon,” and the agents are its representatives.
In the 1980s, American philosopher Hilary Putnam presented the famous “brain in a vat” thought experiment. Imagine a person. They have no physical body except his/her brain, and it floats inside a giant liquid container. All the person’s sensations, smells, sights, sounds, feelings, perceptions of time, pressure, temperature, and movement, memories, thoughts, dreams, and fantasies, though, are as vivid as they can be. Is there any way that person could discover the truth?
In Ancient Greece, Plato speculated on something similar when he created the “Allegory of the Cave.” People live their whole lives in a cave. Their only impressions of reality are the shadows that appear on the walls. Do they know the truth behind those shadows (how the light produces them)? His point was that people don’t and likely wouldn’t believe someone who said they did. The “forms” as Plato labeled them are those alleged realities that exist behind our normal perceptions. For Plato, people cannot know the true essence of an object through his/her senses. They can only detect its apparent qualities.
Lastly, as you may have guessed from Neo’s messianic status, his emergence from his liquid pod, and the names Trinity, Zion, and Nebuchadnezzar, The Matrix alludes rather directly to Christianity. The whole “young self-sacrificing male equals Christ” trope is arguably quite cliched, but it is certainly the case in this film.
On a technical level, The Matrix is one of the most influential films of all time. The characters- both the rebels and the Matrix representatives- defy reality. They engage in rapid-fire, gravity-defying kung-fu…leap into and soar through the air…hop between skyscrapers…run along walls and ceilings, and, most importantly…dodge bullets!
The most memorable sequence in The Matrix is the *(in)famous lobby scene. Neo and Trinity arrive in trench coats, sunglasses, and boots (all black). They calmly pass through a metal detector. The alarms wail. The security guards ask them to remove all metal items, key, wallets, etc. Neo quietly and compliantly does so. He sets down his duffel bag and reveals all his handguns, knives, pistols, shotguns, and automatic weaponry. The guard reacts with shock/horror. The percussive score suddenly fades, and a thunderous pause occurs. Neo rams the guard’s chest with his palm, and from there it all explodes. The guns go off and several guards are dead before they hit the ground. One guard who’s taken cover behind a marble column clutches his receiver and calls desperately for backup. Numerous helmeted troopers arrive on the scene. They order Neo and Trinity to “freeze.”
*This sequence is widely regarded as infamous because the “cool trench coats and guns” appeal allegedly influenced Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (the Columbine High School mass shooters who murdered thirteen people and took their own lives on April 20, 1999).
The fight sequence then continues in earnest. The next few minutes are a total blur of bullets, bodies, and crumbling infrastructure. Neo and Trinity block, judo-chop, and fire their way through the lobby, and then they gracefully board the elevator to their next spot. Cool, “slick,” cyber-punk music plays in the background.
The two then make a daring rescue via helicopter in which another fusillade takes place. Window glass undulates and shatters, fireballs erupt, and bullet casings fall to the earth like raindrops. The crew then lands on a rooftop where the real pies-de-resistance occurs. BOOM. BOOM. The agents unload their guns, and we enter a different dimension. Time slows down. We are in a liquid medium of sorts. The shot rotates 360 degrees (Neo at the center of it). Our protagonist twists, turns, bends, ducks, and then arches backward so his spine is parallel to the rooftop. The bullets whiz over and past him like angry hornets.
How did the directors, producers, and cinematographers do it? How does “bullet time” work? A camera path is set up in front of a blue or green screen. The camera path is pre-designed- using a CGI visualization as its guide. The cameras then record simultaneously or consecutively (at very close intervals). The action continues to unfold in extreme slow motion as the viewpoint shifts.
The cinematographers for The Matrix also used sophisticated interpolation software to add or delete frames and heighten the shot’s fluid movements. The film’s producers employed “universal capture,” a machine vision-guided system, to create volumetric photography. Volumetric photography occurs when the subject can be viewed from any angle, but CGI constructs can still spatially reintegrate or recompose the shot based on its depth and/or configuration. The scenes in which the characters fly and fight or pause mid-air (e.g., Neo and Morpheus training, Smith and Neo struggling in the subway station) integrated “wire-fu.” “Wire-fu,” as you may have guessed, is a portmanteau of “wirework” and “kung-fu.” The producers use basic stagecraft techniques- harnesses, lines, and pulleys- and then shoot the action in front of a green/blue screen. A year after The Matrix employed this technique, Ang Lee’s Oscar-nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did so as well.
The Matrix has had several sequels, including Reloaded (2003), Revolutions (2003), and Resurrections (2021). Nothing tops the original though. The Matrix has deeply permeated pop culture. Dozens of films since have incorporated the movie’s style of action/cinematography, as well as its philosophical themes. In recent years, though, it has had a great deal of social significance.
The Matrix is a very macho movie. It’s got guns, explosions, cool sunglasses and fight scenes, and Keanu Reeves. And…it’s got a bunch of rebels “sticking it to the man”! I get it. I’m a millennial. I was 11 years old when The Matrix was released, I loved the film, and thought it was the coolest thing ever. But we know that “sticking it to the man” has obvious adolescent appeal. And yet, nowadays, fully grown adults cling to the whole “badass, anarchic” philosophy even in places where it isn’t warranted.
You don’t have to dig too deep into social media to find the proof. People constantly crusade against the “corrupt media” or any of the other “powers that be.” Everything is an alleged Orwellian conspiracy to “brainwash and enslave” the “bovine masses.” Some people, I don’t doubt, really do make a good point. Others, though, let’s be honest, don’t care about the truth. Being “above the herd” is what really matters. Why? Because feeling that you’re “smarter” or “wiser” than everyone else is very empowering, and the feeling that one possesses rare knowledge that others don’t is also very empowering!
Overall, though, The Matrix has very positively impacted both the movie industry and pop culture. It gracefully melded metaphysics and philosophy with action-packed, cinematic innovation. When it originally hit theaters 24 years ago, it blew people away! We all wanted to soar through the air and “free our minds.”
 Sextus Empiricus Against the Logicians 1.88
 Watson, Burton; Graham, A. C. (1999). “The Way of Laozi and Zhuangzi — Transformation and Transcendence in the Zhuangzi“. In de Bary, Wm. Theodore; Bloom, Irene (eds.). Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 95–111
 Bostrom, Nick (2003). “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”. Philosophical Quarterly. 53 (211): 243–255.
 Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan Chapter XXI.: “Of the liberty of subjects” (1968 edition). London: Penguin Books.