Why The Matrix Still Matters

Josh Larsen

Twenty years ago this month, The Matrix changed how we thought about action movies. And maybe how we thought in general.

Remembered for its “bullet time” special effects, in which a character is captured in extreme slow motion while the camera swings around them, the movie also inventively redefined reality in a way that anticipated our digital age. Yes, Dark City offered a somewhat similar narrative the year before and Gap’s “Khakis’ Swing” commercials were moving the camera in the same way, but nothing on-screen had quite so skillfully interwoven existential philosophy, filmmaking technique, and whiz-bang action like The Matrix.

A plot refresher for those who haven’t embarked on their 20th anniversary revisit yet: Keanu Reeves plays Neo, a corporate software developer by day and hacker by night. Neo lives an unremarkable life until he is approached by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a mysterious figure from the digital underground. Morpheus spins a wild tale, telling Neo that what he’s experiencing as the daily grind is actual a virtual-reality computer program, designed and administered by artificially intelligent machines that have taken over the planet. In truth, Neo’s body lies in a gooey pod, where it is drawn on as a power source—all while the virtual-reality 1999 (“the matrix”) keeps his mind occupied and compliant.

Immediately upon the movie’s release, audiences picked up on its mixture of Buddhism, Cartesian philosophy, and Christianity. In the years since, its potential meanings have only multiplied. Indeed, now that the brothers who wrote and directed the film both identify as women—Lana and Lilly Wachowski—it’s being reassessed as a stealth meditation on the nature of identity. Upon my own recent rewatch, one of the things that most stood out to me was the way The Matrix serves as a sci-fi parable about being slaves to sin and finding freedom in Christ. The movie has Romans 6 all over it.

Consider the first conversation between Neo and Morpheus, in which they sit in oversized chairs across from each other, a glass of water on the table between them. When Morpheus tells Neo the matrix is “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” he might as well be describing the delusion we experience when mired in our sin. We’re “slaves to impurity,” in the words of the Apostle Paul—acquiescing to our laziest, most selfish impulses—because we’re fallen creatures. But we also wallow in our weakness because that’s how most of the world operates, taking the path of least resistance. The daily grind is a bore, after all, partly because it’s the easy road. As an alternative, Morpheus presents Neo with two pills: a blue one that will allow him to wake up in bed, forgetting what he has learned; and a red one, which will be his first step toward encountering the truth, as difficult as that might be.

Neo chooses the truth, which means his body is literally unplugged from the matrix. A long metal jack is removed from his head and his body is flushed out of its pod into the waste waters below. On the brink of drowning, he is saved by Morpheus and his crew in a hovercraft, who have been awaiting his arrival. It’s a gruesome image but also a depiction of life via death, reminiscent of the rhetorical question Paul asks in Romans 6: “...don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Being born again isn’t easy.

The movie has Romans 6 all over it.

Certainly Neo wouldn’t be blamed for having second thoughts. Morpheus’ ship is a cold, dirty place, cut off from anything that might resemble pleasure. The crew eats the same mush everyday, while spending most of their time hiding in quiet so as to avoid the machine sentinels designed to hunt renegade humans. One crew member, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), has grown weary of years of such asceticism. There’s a poignant scene in which Cypher plugs himself back into the matrix to “eat” a juicy steak. He longs for the days of his delusion, having decided that “ignorance is bliss.”

Perhaps, but bliss is fleeting. In discipline, there is something far greater: freedom. Some of the most famous scenes in The Matrix are the training ones, in which Morpheus instructs Neo how to infiltrate the matrix and bend its rules to his own advantage. Here is where the film’s landmark special effects—and stunt work by fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping—come into play. Neo not only instantly learns kung fu when it’s downloaded into his brain, but also how to float in the air and run along ceilings and walls. (All of this comes in handy when battling the black-suited agents that the machines send into the matrix to kill him.)

In the film’s astonishing climax, Neo even manages to “pause” reality in order to dodge bullets. The action sequences in The Matrix are perhaps the most theologically rich, in that they feature a freedom from the laws of physics that echoes the upside-down nature of the gospel. “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace,” Paul tells us. To quote Neo, “Whoa.”

Neo goes on to become something of a Christ figure—“the One”—but that’s far less interesting to me than seeing him as an everyday stand-in for any one of us. We have all been “born into bondage,” as Morpheus says (good to know he believes in original sin). And this bondage is all too easy to embrace. But if we have the faith to break free, the humility to accept Christ's sacrifice on our behalf, and the discipline to live in grateful service, our reward is rich. Romans 6 ends with this promise: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”

So, which pill will it be?

Topics: Movies