Part of the Chapter 14 of the series Myths and Dragons
The Matrix series of movies says a lot about our present-day mythology. Here are three points.
When the main character, Neo, the messiah character and hero of the story, goes to see the Oracle, she tells him that being “the one” is a lot like being in love. True equations can be read in either direction, and so we should be able to read this as saying:
being in love is a lot like being “the one”.
This means the story of Neo is in fact a lot like the story of anyone that has shared the common experience of being in love.
Neo’s a funny character. He doesn’t always have things figured out. He isn’t really a leader and he isn’t always that smart when it comes to dealing with people. The movie-makers received some criticism for casting Keanu Reeves as Neo. Keanu Reeves doesn’t have a reputation for playing college professors, if you know what I mean. But the series isn’t about “the smartest one”; it’s about “the one”.
The movie series isn’t about being right. It’s about getting our relationships right and managing things like love that can take over our motivations. If the movie can tell us anything, it’s that we need to get our relationships right, ourselves right, before we can have a good relationship with the world.
At the end of the first movie, Neo is killed after deciding to save a friend. However, he goes through a resurrection when another character, Trinity, declares that she loves him. So this story, like practically every story, isn’t really about some fictional character. It’s about the audience watching it. The movie is trying to say something about how we look at our relationships, how we act when we are in love.
The third movie begins with Neo in a place of limbo after realizing the potential extent of his powers. The love of his life, Trinity, and two friends, Morpheus and Seraph, go to a character named the Merovingian in order to negotiate Neo’s release from limbo. Negotiations break down, the Merovingian demands the near impossible, and Trinity becomes desperate.
TRINITY: I don’t have time for this s$#@!
She attacks, every blow breaking some kind of bone.
Seraph and Morpheus scramble at the surrounding guards, barely able to stop them from shooting her as she cuts a path between her and the Merovingian. Trinity snatches a guard’s gun and jams it against the Merovingian’s head. Everyone freezes.
TRINITY: You want a deal? How about this? You give me Neo, or we all die, right here, right now.
MEROVINGIAN: Interesting deal. You are really ready to die for this man?
TRINITY: Believe it.
PERSEPHONE: She’ll do it. If she has to she’ll kill every one of us. She’s in love.
Love is an incredible motivation. Stories help us with sorting out our motivations. (See this post for more on a mythological understanding of motivation). It’s really quite amazing what someone might do because of love. We can be reborn, change our attitude towards things, and take up responsibility for someone else. But we can also turn to acts of desperation and violence. Love isn’t the answer. Love is an answer. And it has consequences.
At the end of the series, Neo has a choice to make while battling his enemy, Smith. In a sense the two fighters balance each other out. They could fight indefinitely. But then change wouldn’t really occur. In the end, Neo chooses to be a sacrifice for those he loves, something he finds more important than himself.
But remember, this story isn’t about Neo or what he’s done for those he loves. It’s about being the one.
In the second movie, Neo faces a test from a character by the name of Seraph while searching for the Oracle. Here is a video of that test.
NEO: You could have just asked.
SERAPH: No. You do not truly know someone until you fight them.
It is a very different fight scene from others in the series. It isn’t so much a contest to win but a display of ability and technique. It’s almost like a ritual dance between the two.
The default attitude today is still one of competition or challenge – matching skill and knowledge against skill and knowledge. This is the frame we go to, often without thinking about it, for matters of politics (left vs. right), academics (argument through evidence and reason) or business (fight for market dominance).
It’s part of who we are. But we can choose to be violent and destructive about it, or we can choose to test each other and learn from the exchange. We can manage our aggression through practice and discipline. And, we can construct our relationships through mutually beneficial challenge. We can also fight our own urges to dominate or be right and instead find another path – peace.
After the test, Neo feels compelled to ask Seraph a question:
NEO: What are you?
SERAPH: I protect that which matters most.
Seraph then leads Neo to talk to the Oracle. The Oracle is a program in the Matrix and helps the characters of the movies with their choices. She especially helps them with understanding the choices they will make.
Later in the second movie Neo faces a character called the Architect, a man with a well-trimmed white beard and a well-tailored suit. He is the one that made the Matrix, and we learn that he is obsessed with balancing equations – creating order through systems of control. That’s his purpose. The Matrix has a flaw, and although the Architect would rather get rid of it, it’s needed all the same. That flaw is the human ability to choose. This doesn’t mean it cannot be managed. In fact, Neo’s very existence is part of a system that allows the mistake to function as part of the Matrix; a reset to the system if the flaw gets out of control.
This flaw is a sore point for the Architect. He would prefer it if things were orderly, predictable and balanced.
It is the Oracle’s job to unbalance the system. Without it, there would be no change and the system would not function. And any system with a beginning has to have an end.
After Neo has sacrificed himself in the third movie and ended the war between humans and machines, the Architect goes to the Oracle.
ARCHITECT: You played a very dangerous game.
ORACLE: Change always is.
ARCHITECT: If it were up to me, it wouldn’t have ended this way.
ORACLE: Then I’m grateful it wasn’t up to you.
ARCHITECT: Just how long do you think this peace will last?
ORACLE: As long as it can.
Ultimately, it is not the Architect that earns our allegiance or worship. It is not the Architect that helps Neo with his final choice. The Architect, like most cultures we have constructed, is just part of a system of control within yet another system of control. He’s good at his job, but cannot escape the necessity of change. Even he himself seems to admit he isn’t the one in charge. He may construct the Matrix and balance it but we do not owe him any more loyalty for that job than is necessary.
It is the one that unbalances it that we face up to and learn from.
It’s not our job to be saved and let someone else live for us. When it’s time to play our role, we as individuals have to be “the one”.
What do you think?
- – -
Thanks to The Matrix 101 for some ideas,
And of course, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.