JEDDAH, 17 May 2003 — “The Matrix Reloaded”, released this week in the US, is set to break a number of box office records, not a small feat for the first of two sequels of a movie that by Hollywood standards seems slightly left-field. The premise is simple and strange. In a distant future, the machines have taken over. They rely on the energy generated by human beings, who, in order to function properly, must be kept not only alive but happy. In order to keep them happy, the machines jack them into a computer simulation that caters to smell, sight, hearing, touch and sound and is the only reality most of them will ever know. This is the Matrix.
On one level, this simply fleshes out an old philosophical problem. Suppose, the philosophers say, that you are nothing but a brain in a vat, and all reality is an illusion supplied by the evil scientist who put you there. How can you say that you “know” anything? Is it even possible to say that you are “really” a brain in a vat, when all the reality you can know tells you otherwise?
The films fit in with a series of recent movies that questioned the reality around us, from The Truman Show, whose hero was without knowing it the star of an elaborate TV soap, to a rather more disturbing film whose protagonist, a programmer, develops a simulation inhabited by sentient creatures and discovers that he, too, is a sentient creature living in a simulation designed by somebody else, who in turn may have merely inhabited a complex simulation: A matrix within a matrix within a matrix.
During the Cold War, audiences flocked to see films about alien invasions, famously “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, in which aliens came to take over our very identities in our sleep. Or take “The Thing”, John Carpenter’s schlock horror film about a shape-changing creature that could be any one of us at any one time, even your dog.
Such blockbusters are said to reflect the pervasive anxieties of their time. During the Cold War, fear of communist infiltration was real, but it grew into a fear of uniformity within any system, a fear that against our will and without our knowledge we would turn into the perfect cogs that make up the reality we see around us. We would become like “them,” and “they” would be us. It was understood that in the process what we consider our soul would have to be sacrificed.
“The Matrix” and other millennial blockbusters are direct descendants of these earlier films. A fear of computers and their power, and of their potentially vastly superior intelligence, is only a small part of their story. Their huge appeal suggests that they reflect more complex anxieties every bit as pervasive as the fear of infiltration at the height of the Cold War. What then are we all so afraid of?
Virtual reality has given another jolt to a fear that has been with us ever since radio came into our living rooms, the fear of submersion in a reality that is in some fundamental way not true. But that isn’t the half of it. Because not only are we afraid that the virtuality in which we are submerged is false, we tremble that we might in some fundamental way not care.
Just as the spokesman of the body snatchers told us that we would be much happier if we allowed our bodies to be snatched, if we surrendered to the inevitable and just faded into a new form of existence, so it is the genius of “The Matrix” to suggest that the virtuality is infinitely preferable to the drab reality of a fugitive life outside it.
This notion has something in common with recent thinking about schizophrenia. Schizophrenia becomes chronic, some psychologists suggest, because after some time it becomes impossible for the sufferer to admit to himself how much he has lost to his delusions; because in the reality of sane reflection he must necessarily acknowledge that he has wasted years and decades in his illness. It is in some ways infinitely preferable, in other words, to stay mad.
In the real world of the film, Keanu Reeves and his fellow shaven-headed guerrillas eat tasteless gray slop. In the Matrix, steaks are juicy and delicious. Suits are sharp. Cars are shiny. What if anything, the films ask, makes you prefer reality?
Consider this: You can live in a world where your life is structured by the vicissitudes of the seasons; where you must conform to the norms of a thousand-year-old civilization, most of them arbitrary, all of them restrictive; where you are told that two-thirds of the things you feel like doing are evil, forbidden and wrong; where food is scraped from a hard soil and water comes brackish out of very deep wells; where your children are at the mercy of every two-bit despot who can put on a pair of sunglasses; and where the only entertainment of an evening is the cleaning of your antiquated rifle and stories of long-forgotten wars.
Or you can live in a world where within reason you can do what you want; where taxes are low; where entertainment is on tap 24 hours a day; where meals are large and vegetables available all year round; where everyone has a car; where you are not only free but encouraged to consume as much in the way of gadgets as you can equip your well-appointed home with and as much fashion as there are days in the year; where wherever you go you can see the same shiny outlets selling the same shiny things; and where without let or hindrance you can say anything that comes into your head.
Or perhaps you feel you are well on your way to living in such a world already. You feel that very soon there will be no other world for you to go to. Very soon that will be all there is. The Matrix is closing in. You know it’s not real. You know it is somehow, obscurely, not right.
What do you do? Do you try to blast your way out of it?