Table of Contents

The Matrix Trilogy: 
Salvation Through Creative Mythology

Brittany Alsot

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Technology rapidly advances today in directions previously only contemplated in science fiction. Humans are producing powerful machines in the image of themselves and imbuing them with human characteristics. The consequences of such an ongoing endeavor are still mere speculation. Larry and Andy Wachowski's technoculture film trilogy The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions offers a perspective on how the world might be if the machines eventually conquered their human creators. The Matrix trilogy would suggest that the ability of the human race to overcome a world based on simulated machine control hinges on defining and retaining the qualities which, inherently fallible as they may be, are unique to humanity: love, belief, nostalgia, myth, and creativity. The maintenance of a human identity limned by these attributes is the only glimmer of hope presented in the Wachowskis' largely pessimistic vision presented in The Matrix world.
    Before commencing this reading of The Matrix, it is useful to provide a brief summary of some of the postmodern philosophy and history that informs it. According to Baudrillard in his essay, “The Precession of Simulacra,” reality is defined by the possibility of “coextensivity” or multiple planes of reality and simulation, meaning that one would be able to recognize both a thing that is real and a thing that is simulated (2). As an illustration, he opens the essay with Borges' analogy of an empire's cartographers drawing up an extremely detailed map, which completely and precisely covers the territory it sought to represent, although the simulation slowly degrades into shreds. Baudrillard argues that in the postmodern world, there is no reality, that it is the territory, which has eroded, leaving only the map, the simulation, and nothing for it to refer to. Thus, the simulation is substituted for reality. Furthermore, because the collapse of the distinction means that there is no imaginative (simulation) level, one cannot conceive of another possibility from the surface reality offered, and no leap can be made in the thought process within the simulation to recognize the lack of distinction. In semiotics, which Baudrillard equates with his simulation theory, this translates into a “liquidation of all referentials” (2). As another postmodern theorist, Frederic Jameson, points out: “a signifier that has lost its signified has thereby been transformed into an image” (31). The postmodern world is, by definition, merely an image.
    Likewise, a series of images is precisely what a film is. A look to the nature of cinema as art and as a cultural artifact provides a context for an appreciation of the place The Matrix trilogy occupies in the postmodern world. Even before postmodern thinkers considered simulation and the postmodern condition, Walter Benjamin introduced in his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the distressing aspects of representation. He likened the acceptance of reproductions in art to a potent conspiracy group and raised film to the status of its “most powerful agent” (221). Film is fundamentally designed to thrive off of reproductions. As Benjamin points out, it would make no sense to ask a photographer for the negatives when the desired art is in the development and reproduction of the image (224). Moreover, a film is only considered successful if it is replicated and shown in many cinemas. In this way, the replication of the image by 35mm film is expected by everyone involved in the making and viewing of the film. The audience is also aware that what is being portrayed on the screen is not only a reproduction, but a simulation of reality, that these are not actual, real-time events involving real people. The popularity and ubiquity of film is an example of the general move towards the acceptance of a simulation in place of reality. As such, it is the art form in the best position to critique this triumph of simulation and idolization of technology. The Matrix takes this role literally, creating another layer of simulation within the film through its highly stylized representation of a future world where humans live within a simulation controlled by machines. Alternatively, film is in a position to use cultural information and technology to craft a mythology relevant to current times, rather than merely critique prevalent theory, which The Matrix trilogy arguably does.
    The story of the world the Wachowskis created begins with humans' rapid development of technology. Obviously as technology became more advanced, its iterations became smaller, less visible, and so potentially more insidious in the infiltration of humans' daily lives. Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” takes a page from Baudrillard's book: “Miniaturization has changed our experience of mechanism... Microelectronics is the technical basis of simulacra; that is, of copies without originals. Microelectronics mediates the translations of labour into robotics and world processing, sex into genetic engineering and reproductive technologies, and mind into artificial intelligence and decision procedures” (165). Via this process (or haunting descent), humans started creating machines that would serve them, or simply make life more efficient and pleasant. It's not much of a leap to imagine the ease with which microtechnology decreased in size to the point of being directly implantable within the human brain. When the machines eventually revolted, they used this technology to control humans by placing them in pods from which their body heat could be extracted as power while their minds continued existing in a simulated reality. Agent Smith explains to Morpheus in The Matrix that the machines created the Matrix in the image of “the peak of your civilization [the year 1999]. I say your civilization because as soon as we started thinking for you, it really became our civilization.” Imagine the shock of discovering that the current modern world is actually a representation of the past made by machines with unthinkable prowess over humans. To get a small-scale sense of what this might be like, Baudrillard in “History: A Retro Scenario” describes a similar situation, calling up the “[s]tupification when one discovers that [The Last Picture Show] is a 1970s film, perfect retro, purged, pure, the hyperrealist restitution of 1950s cinema” (45).  Beyond the useless pondering of how the machines were able to create such a perfect simulation, the question of how humans cope with a history defined by machine control remains (or lingers). But a human newly exposed to the existence of the Matrix as a measure of control must first deal with the separation between simulation and reality before any metaphysical issues can arise.
    Humans freed from the simulated world of the Matrix must expand their semiotic dimensions to differentiate between the levels of the simulation and the real. Where in the Matrix they were–perhaps more restlessly than blissfully–unimaginative in their conception of the world, once unplugged they face the vital task of reentering the Matrix and recognizing it as only a simulation that does not necessarily have consequences for their physical bodies laying on a ship in the real world. This is no easy task considering how easily humans accept the simulation of the Matrix to the point that they are inextricably bound to it and could go insane if presented with “reality.” Since humans in the current world continue to choose a lifestyle that prefers the simulation to reality, Baudrillard does not see any need for the revelation of the reality that may or may not lie beneath the map of simulation. Perhaps a reality does not exist for Baudrillard, but for the rebels in The Matrix, there is a world outside the Matrix, which they believe is reality and is worth defending in order to liberate humans from the simulation.
    The real world itself–at least life on the rebel ships–is certainly not a comfortable one.  The pleasurable life modern humans have been seeking is realized in a Baudrillardian acceptance of simulation, making the Matrix seem ideal. It results in a rather symbiotic relationship with the machines; the latter providing a pleasurable existence for the former in exchange for the use of their body energy.  This follows the same lines as a thought experiment in philosophy, introduced by Robert Nozick in 1974, where the choice is presented to the subjects to be hooked up to “the experience machine,” which would stimulate the brain to make them think and feel, in much the same way as the Matrix, that they are actually partaking of pre-programmed daily activities. Most people, however, would not choose the simulation, which raises the question of what is so special about having a “real” human experience (qtd. in Grau 310-11). Moreover, what defines any uniquely human qualities?
    First, an examination of some qualities that could differentiate humans from machines. William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, a strong influence on The Matrix, suggests that anger and violence are signs of humanity as his hero, Case, finds a building hatred motivates him more than anything ever has. Instead of creating a pact with their subjugators, humans in The Matrix pit themselves against machines, inevitably leading to violence.  However, violence, and rebellion for that matter, can be ruled out as uniquely human qualities since the machines take violent measures against both the human city and human rebels jacked into the Matrix. On the contrary, it is the humans who have to rise to the machine's level of physical and technological prowess in order to compete in the war. Anger, on the other hand, is an emotion, which is something machines are only capable of simulating. The program Agent Smith confesses to becoming imprinted with human qualities after Neo entered and destroyed him. Rather than numbly following the guidelines for his program, Smith has a vendetta against Neo, which he pursues passionately until Neo is destroyed. Considering that Neo's motivation to sacrifice himself for the salvation of the human race is a philanthropic rather than egotistical one, mere emotion cannot be the whole key to human identity.
    Neo's sacrifice is motivated by what he learns at the end of The Matrix Reloaded: what the humans thought was the real world is still a simulation. Although physically more real than the Matrix, it is just another layer of control set up by the machines. In spite of its conception as a perfect simulation of human reality, the Architect goes on to explain, the Matrix has an inherent anomaly, of which Neo is the sixth iteration. The anomaly of the One allows the system to function properly by ending the cycle of the Matrix, destroying the last human city, and then repopulating it with selected individuals from the reloaded Matrix. In this way, the population of people outside the Matrix never threatens the machines' complete control over the Earth. The One is not a savior, then, but rather he is no more than another part of the system.
    However, Neo breaks the mold by following his love for Trinity rather than the general love for humanity, the latter of which is the doorway to continuing the cycle of machine control. This is not an argument about the classification of love as something more than an emotion, but it is clear from the repercussions of Neo's decision that the machines cannot account for the strong connection that love forges between two people. It is Trinity's love for Neo that not only resurrects him in The Matrix but actually makes him the One. In Reloaded, Neo's love defies the Matrix system in order to save Trinity and restore her to life. By any logical machine standards, Trinity's Sleeping Beauty kiss at the end of The Matrix should not have been able to revive Neo after Agent Smith shot him to death, nor should Neo have been able to resist the plight of humanity when he reached the Source in Reloaded. Persephone taunts Trinity in Reloaded about her love, purring, “I envy you. But such a thing is not meant to last.” The machine mind may not be able to understand the fallibility and fatality of Trinity and Neo's love, but for these two humans it is all the more potent and desperate because of this irrational nature, and it is literally their life force on multiple occasions. This force is closely tied with belief. Neo and Trinity's resurrecting belief is not in a higher power, but in each other and in their human love, however fallible.
    Morpheus, for his part, maintains a nearly religious belief in Neo as the One. In fact, the Oracle informs Neo that, like many strongly religious people, Morpheus “believes it so blindly that he's going to sacrifice his life to save yours.” In the world of The Matrix, humanity's hope hinges on the existence of something beyond the simulation. The machines actually recognize this and allow humans to maintain that illusion by having a small group “escape” the simulation and create a “real” world in Zion each time the Matrix is reloaded. However, even this world turns out to be a truly Baudrillardian simulacra.  “One can live with the idea of distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the image didn't conceal anything at all, and that these images were in essence not images, such as an original model would have made them, but perfect simulacra” (Baudrillard 5). Machines, though, would not understand this “metaphysical despair” because, in spite of any consciousness they may possess, they do not have an origin to mourn when it is revealed as false. Thus, nostalgia, even one that longs for a reality which never existed, is a purely human sentiment.
    Philosopher Kevin Warwick notes, “It is a strange dichotomy of human existence that, as a species, we are driven by progress–it is central to our being–yet at the same time, for many there is a fruitless desire to step back into a world gone by, a dream world” (200). Nostalgia directs its yearning towards tradition, towards the mythology that informs cultural thought. Film, as a storytelling vehicle, occupies an important place in the narrative tradition of humanity. As a kind of technologically advanced version of oral storytelling, it has the potential to create and propagate great myths for the current times. “Myth,” Naomi Iizuka asserts, “is a story we tell. So is history. So is science. The story determines our perception of reality. Which is to say: The story determines our reality” (19).  The Wachowskis, in particular, are very aware of the power of storytelling in film. In The Matrix trilogy, they created a relevant internal mythology based on compelling religious, mythological, philosophical, and technological themes.1  For example, notice the many references to the great literary mythology of an elaborate simulated world in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Additionally, much of modern philosophical thought is represented in these films, resulting in a heavy emphasis on dialogue since so much needs to be explained about the history and mythology of the world the Wachowskis created.
    Machines undoubtedly are aware of their history, but the telling of that history cannot hold as much importance for them as it does to humans, who constantly recount it and thereby turn it into something mythical. Origin myths are particularly universal, giving humans a sense of where they have come from. It is these stories that humans are told and tell about their history which inform the way they live their lives. When the stories turn out to be about simulation, “nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (Baudrillard 6). Part of nostalgia is a hope or longing for a place that is better than the present situation. This is, in a sense, seeing the world as a simulation, with the expectation that there is another, more pleasant, and certainly more real world beyond this one. Many religions foster this perspective, focusing attention on the rewards that will be reaped in the afterlife, once this earthly life is suffered. Christianity will be focused on here, as Christian imagery and references abound in The Matrix trilogy, corroborating the importance placed on belief and mythology. After all, mythology contains an element of belief. In storytelling, the listener must suspend some of their logic to allow for the cultural meaning of the myth to reach them. Religion serves the dual purpose of providing a mythology and rewarding belief in the story it tells with deliverance from this simulated world. 
    In the films, Morpheus' hovercraft is called the Nebuchadnezzar in reference to the Biblical king of Babylon who needed Daniel's God-given interpretation to save him from the terror of a dream involving the image of a powerful figure made of metal (The New King James Version, Dan 2). The allegory here is clear, but King Nebuchadnezzar is also credited by popular legend with constructing the mythical hanging gardens of Babylon as a simulation to assuage his wife's nostalgia for her home landscape. Christianity seems to be an ideal source of allegory for the Wachowskis, considering much of the Bible focuses on stories promising salvation from enslavement. In the case of The Matrix, the salvation is of course intended to be from simulation. Jesus is the ultimate Christian representation, his life standing for the will of God and his crucifixion for the sins of humanity. Neo is presented as a Christ figure, following a path of resurrection to become the savior of mankind, casting Morpheus in the role of John the Baptist and Cypher in the role of Judas. In this context, Trinity's name is an obvious reference to the holy trinity, though slightly usurped by the character being female.  Furthermore, according to the Bible, humans were created in the image of God, just as humans created machines in the image of themselves, creating a cycle of simulation veiled in religious intention.
    Without a tradition in mythology and belief, however, machines cannot measure up to the depth of the human experience. This perhaps explains why the first, “perfect” Matrix was a failure: the machines did not understand that the human experience is not about flawless symmetry. Ever systematically problem-solving, the machines compensated by developing a program “whose mind was less bound by the constraints of perfection,” which they called intuitive. In truth, the Oracle was little more than another layer of control to facilitate the path of the anomaly towards reloading the Matrix. Ironically, the Oracle plays a role in the mythology of some rebels like Morpheus who rely on her “intuition” to forge their path towards liberation from the machines. However, considering the bounds of artificial intelligence, something inexplicable happens when the Oracle makes the choice to sacrifice herself (first to the Merovingian, then to Smith) in order to aid Neo in saving Zion. This suggests a theory, which will be furthered later, that the Oracle qualifies as a being with different capacities from other machines and programs. Clearly, human life–mythology and belief in particular–are inherently illogical. “Myths contain truths about the known (and unknown) universe. But they're ultimately fabrications. By definition, they condense, omit, distort in the retelling[...]They say: This is the story I want you to believe” (Iizuka 18). Where logic fails, myths take over.
    Returning to the issue raised earlier of the humans' predicament in The Matrix of coping with an identity that is historically defined by machine control. In order to begin to face this task, the first place to look may not be to myths and stories, but rather to the most obvious physical qualifier: the body. Although relatively weak, the human form, because of its delicacy, is supple and sensual in a way that machines are not. Adding to this re-discovery of the human body is the literal newness of being in the flesh for those recently unplugged from the Matrix. The machines made the body a nearly useless appendage for humans living in the Matrix, but the Zionites recognize its basis in mythology and its role as a tool for the construction of both identity and community. Iizuka responds to this idea:

How do we comprehend the most human parts of ourselves–the fleshiest parts, the sex, the guts, the human hearts? ... How do we make sense of our appetites and longings, the fact of catastrophe, the abrupt disappearance, the inevitable ending? Because this is about the human body. It has always been about the human body. In [...] myth, we recall the flesh, the sweat, the timbre of a human voice. The silence and the breathing. The human body moors us to the real, reminds us what's at stake (79).
In Zion, they revel in purely physical celebrations of the human form, such as the overtly tribal pre-war ceremony in Reloaded.  There is a pride inherent in Tank for being a “genuine child of Zion,” in being born fully into his human form.
     Evidently, emerging into the real world from machine control, humans occupy a space they do not know how to define traditionally. This is “to dwell ‘in the beyond’,” which is, according to Homi K. Bhabha, “to be part of a revisionary time” when intervention is possible (142). Bhabha explains it as space for the creation of identity. While humans have to look to their myths and beliefs for guidance, they must also struggle to create a sense of identity, which is wholly human in the face of an identity historically shaped by the presence of machine power. This involves embracing both the aforementioned human qualities, along with the physical body, and, of utmost significance, the process of creation itself.
    Machines, of course, create: they spawn other machines and develop programs to run the Matrix. This does not qualify them as creative beings. They are concerned with the order of things, as exampled by the attempt to delete exiled programs that no longer have a purpose, but not with the act of creation for its own sake, as in art. More things beyond art could qualify as a creative endeavor, or rather many things could be considered art: storytelling, mythmaking, dancing, and even filmmaking.
    The creation of a film as a piece of art, as a storytelling vehicle, or merely as an expression of beauty is part of the accomplishment of the Wachowskis. Through the creation of their own mythology that embraces other relevant modes of cultural expression like animation and video games, they call into question the myths of the viewers. The Matrix trilogy offers the possibility that this world is, indeed, a simulation, but then it raises the bar by asking, what if the alternative were not the dreamed-of paradise, but a world still based on simulation? What would there be to hold on to? What would make such a life worthwhile? The answer, according to the Wachowskis, is the expression of humanity. Clearly, humanity's expression of itself is often through some form of simulation, such as storytelling, and therefore simulation and simulacra are necessary. Humans have then arguably trapped themselves with images. However, this simulation is an acceptable part of humanity, as long as it is recognized for what it is, without creating dependence on the simulation by continuing this crazed progress towards perfection in machine-like fashion. Although creative endeavors are a form of simulation, they are fallible like their human creators, while machines supposedly are not. This raises the question of how an imperfect being like humans can create perfection. The answer is they cannot; but they try. Whereas the purpose of the artificial intelligence spawned by the original human-borne AI is to strive towards perfection, human purpose should not be towards perfection, automation, and ultimate efficiency, but rather towards creation.
    Along with love, the Wachowskis hold the resuscitation of imagination and creativity as the ultimate manifestation of unique human qualities.  As a culmination of this ideal, a program introduced in Revolutions was created inside the Matrix without a purpose by mechanical standards. In spite of her non-human status, Sati ties together all of the most important human qualities of love, creativity, and mythology. She was created by her parents out of love, a love so strong that they risk their existence to smuggle her out of the Matrix, where she finds refuge with a similarly creative-minded program, the Oracle. These two represent the possibility for other beings besides humans to embody the full potential of human qualities, which allows them to transcend the simulation of the Matrix. Sati's family is named in reference to Indian religious mythology: Sati is a Hindu goddess who threw herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband; her father is Rama Kandra, whose name is a corruption of an incarnation of another Hindu god, Vishnu, the sustainer of the Universe; Kamala, her mother, is possibly named after a Hindu goddess (Encyclopedia Mythica), but more likely refers to the character in Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, who teaches Siddhartha about love. At the end of Revolutions, Sati's true purpose is revealed: to create beauty. The sunrise she creates is the ending image of the trilogy, suggesting the power of creativity to overcome and heal.
    Sati also represents the Buddhist ideal of mindfulness. Venerable Henepola Gunaratana explains the concept in Mindfulness in Plain English:
Mindfulness is the English translation of the Pali word 'Sati.' Sati is an activity[...] Words are devised by the symbolic levels of the mind and they describe those realities with which symbolic thinking deals. Mindfulness (Sati) is pre-symbolic. It is not shackled to logic [...] The actual experience lies beyond the words and above the symbols.
The reference used by the Wachowskis is not inclusive of the entire definition of mindfulness.  Even with a brief introduction to the idea, though, it's easy to see how a program that does not fit into the semiotic logic of the machines would baffle them. Sati's freedom from the restraints of pure logic is arguably what allows her creativity to flourish.  It is precisely this creativity, closely tied to nostalgia and mythology, that the machines have stifled in humans. Through the elevated importance of this character, the Wachowskis seek to use their films in part to raise the vital attribute of creativity into the cultural awareness.
    Combining their full awareness of film's capacity to use images to create mythologies with their knowledge of philosophy, religion, and technoculture, the Wachowskis convey their message in a compelling manner. Their emphasis on love in the face of science fiction genre expectations, in conjunction with unabashedly admiring the beauty of the human form and creativity, are a testament to the importance the Wachowskis place on these qualities. Neo, by making the ultimate human choice of love, does not allow the cycle of human enslavement to continue. In the end, the machines even show a certain respect for the accomplishment of Neo's full embodiment of humanity by reverently carrying away his corpse. A beginning of a truce is formulated after the One's death, proving the power humanity still possesses.2  In the films, the Wachowskis embrace the idea of simulation as a necessary part of life, warning that in this current technoculture age, sacrificing human qualities to the advancement of machine technology could doom humans to a forced dependency on the simulations that they created. The way out of the simulation, no matter how many layers there are, is through the expression of uniquely human qualities. The Matrix trilogy, as a mythology in the form of film, seeks to serve as a reminder to its viewers of the importance of cultural human identity.

Works Cited
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Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
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Warwick, Kevin. “The Matrix – Our Future?” Grau. 198-207.

 1     In addition to the references explored here, the Wachowskis made use of many more, including but not limited to Arthurian, Greek, and Egyptian mythology as well as the philosophies of Plato and Descartes. 

 2     However, the Matrix cannot be dismantled any time in the near future because it would destroy both the humans and the machines.