I dreamed I was in the Matrix. Within the dream I was not “The One”. Instead I was only second best. But as the agents bore down upon me I remembered that “second best” still kicks ass. So I kicked their asses.
It won’t surprise you to hear that a few days after having this dream I decided to re-watch the movie. I first saw The Matrix in theaters when it was released in 1999. I was only eleven years old at the time, and let me tell you, it blew my mind. I often hear people talk about how the original release of Star Wars was an amazing experience. I like to think that The Matrix holds a similar place in the minds of my generation. It’s a shame that the sequels robbed the original of much of its magnificence and mystery.
When I first saw the trailer for it back in 1999 my eleven year old mind went into overdrive trying to figure out what the heck it was about. Back then I had no inkling about how to look up a movie online to mine it for spoilers. It might be hard for younger viewers to imagine a time when the central premise of The Matrix was not widely known. From the clues I gathered watching the televised trailers, it appeared as though it was about people with super powers. A man in a drab business suit jumps across rooftops. Another scene shows a policeman transforming into another man. Everywhere there were heroes (or were they the villains?) dressed in strange black leather getups. Most fantastic of all, there was some sort giant insect or monster shooting a laser underground. What was this all about? It resembled Dark City (1998), and also Dreamscape (1984), but the special effects looked about a million times better.
I imagine that the truth about “what the matrix is” has more or less saturated itself into the general fabric of our minds to the point where even those who haven’t “seen it for themselves” know the central premise. In some ways it’s sort of like Soylent Green. The big reveal is already spoiled beyond repair. The upshot in this case is that the Matrix’s reveal isn’t the final line of the movie, which makes it in my mind more than just a conceit.
Besides, The Matrix has no shortage of iconic scenes. The choosing of the pills, red or blue. The bald headed boy pronouncing the insight, “There is no spoon.” The list of quotable, meme-able and memorable moments goes on and on. I won’t lie, I went home after seeing that movie back 1999 and tried my darnedest to bend a spoon. When I am disgruntled I sometimes spout in a good mimicry of Hugo Weaving, “I haaate this place. It’s the smell!” Not to mention Weaving’s other monologue elucidating the true nature of humanity, “You’re not actually mammals.” It’s one of my personal favorite villain-ologues, as it both gives insight into the alien perspective of Agent Smith and points a finger towards our own real world troubles with climate change and industrialization.
When I re-watched it I was struck by how the movie seemed to revolve around faith. I already knew that the film was full of biblical references, that was no surprise. But the dialogue stressed over and over again the importance of believing in oneself. I’m a fairly casual atheist so I was sort of surprised at how strongly the themes of faith resonated with me. Faith, it seemed, was one aspect of humanity the machines were unable to understand. It is after all an extremely human experience. As someone who has always seen the world more scientifically I found myself asking, does Neo’s story of redemption through belief engage me only because it’s dressed up as science fiction?
It seemed like a strange place for religion to find purchase. A hellish future ruled by machines who make the terminators look like cuddly bunnies. The humans that survived, however, managed to attach meaning to their existence and they did so through faith in themselves.
In a way, this is part of The Matrix’s accessibility. We all struggle with questions of destiny. The pursuit of meaning is no simple subject. In Neo’s case he’s been saddled with the daunting task of saving mankind. Throughout the film he insists he’s not the man for the job. He even visits a psychic who confirms this suspicion. “Maybe in another lifetime, kiddo,” she says before sending him on his way. As I watched I became aware of a possibility. Did I dream about this movie on purpose so that I would watch it? Is searching for one’s destiny as foolish as looking for meaning in dreams? Do atheists need faith?
These aren’t questions I know the answer to. But I still like asking them.
My cynical side, on the other hand, felt that The Matrix was really about a man who joins a cult. Neo’s a lost loner with few friends. He’s invited to meet the cult’s leader by a girl he met at a party. He’s then taken for an interview, during which he’s told vaguely that something’s wrong with his life. Honestly it reminded me of the Scientology interviews they did in that episode of South Park. “Do you feel there’s something wrong with the world only you’re not sure what?” Finally he’s told he has to take a pill to join. Did he wash the red tablet down with cool-aid? The subsequent initiation process is brutal, and ultimately, true to form with most cults, he’s unable to see his friends and loved ones after joining. Really, it’s pretty messed up. I’ve ever identified so much with Cypher as I did during my recent re-watch.
But the movie’s action quickly pushed my cynicism to the curb. Besides I wasn’t watching this to feed my snarky side. This movie is as much about an inward journey as it is about guns and Kung Fu. I guess I was hoping for an answer to my dream, just like how Neo looks for answers from the Oracle. But she had none for him, and neither did The Matrix for me. Then again maybe an answer wasn’t what I needed to hear.
I dreamed I was second best. Was that a metaphor? Was the epiphany that “second best is still pretty darn good” applicable to my waking life? Should I, as an atheist, have some faith in myself even though faith in other worldly beings has never intrigued me?
I don’t know, but maybe. Or maybe it’s just a movie.