Science Corner: Talking The Matrix with Mike Beidler (Pt 1)

Photo of Cornel West in character in The Matrix

I love that the Wachowskis didn’t just put philosopher Cornel West’s ideas in their films, they put the man himself in the films too. (Image © Warner Brothers)

Welcome back to the Emerging Scholars Network Sci-Fi Film Festival! We took a little hiatus, but we’re back to our conversations on various classic and current science fiction movies. Feel free to watch along and join the conversation. This week’s film is another 20-year-old classic from 1999: The Matrix. I’m joined once again by retired U.S. Navy commander (thanks for your service) and American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) & BioLogos affiliate Mike Beidler. Mike previously joined us to discuss The Phantom Menace, a movie that failed to live up to galactic expectations; by contrast, The Matrix came out of nowhere and blew everyone away.

Andy Walsh: How did you first come across The Matrix? It’s hard to imagine in the current age of online trailers and social media buzz, but I’m pretty sure I went to see the film in theaters based solely on a friend’s recommendation. Given the underground hacker culture of the movie’s opening, that wound up being somewhat fitting. I was also fairly ignorant of cyberpunk or anime. Did you go in having any prior familiarity with the stories from which the Wachowskis drew inspiration?

Mike Beidler: Believe it or not, I don’t recall what prompted me to go see The Matrix back in 1999. I can only imagine that it was visual effects designer John Gaeta’s Bullet Time photography and the film’s wire fu stunt work featured in the first Matrix trailer that drew me in. After The Wachowski Brothers blew the first wave of cinema-goers’ minds, I suspect the buzz only increased my interest in the film. When my old college roommate and I saw the film together, I don’t think either one of us was prepared for the blatant theological and philosophical foundations upon which The Wachowskis built their Neo-verse. With The Matrix‘s messianic themes, Exodus motifs, and liberal appropriation of biblical names and concepts like Nebuchadnezzar and Zion, I left the moviehouse convinced that the co-writers/directors were, at the core, heavily influenced by Christian thought and heady philosophical literature. Even though I wasn’t familiar with some of the more obvious (yet obscure) references, such as French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, I knew that The Wachowskis had done their homework, inviting those of us who were theologically and/or philosophically inclined to entertain multiple viewings to take it all in.

What kinds of mytho-literary or philosophical allusions did you catch the first time around?

AW: As you say, the Biblical allusions were hard to miss, as were other referential names like Morpheus, although I’m not sure if it is a direct reference to Greek mythology or if the intermediate Sandman connection is also intended. I have to think, given the ubiquity of Sandman reverence in comic book circles, the Wachowskis must have at least known it would be an association. I would have been a poor undergrad if I couldn’t have spotted the connection to Plato’s cave allegory, but in an equally sophomoric fashion my philosophy awareness didn’t go much deeper at the time. And, of course, since Neo follows a woman with a white rabbit tattoo, and the dialogue later references rabbit holes, Alice in Wonderland is low-hanging referential fruit. Although one gets the sense the Wachowskis, like Disney, are more interested in the fantastical nature of the story than its mathematical pedagogy and satire, unless I’m missing something.

The film also expresses a clear interest in questions of identity. Does the Wachowskis’ story and the transitions they have gone through change your reading of the film and its identity themes?

MB: I can’t say that the Wachowskis’ decades-long transgender journey changes how I understand the film. I believe The Matrix‘s conversation about identity transcends Lana and Lilly’s struggles. It does, however, change what I view may be one of many motivations behind writing the film, and it certainly changes how I view what The Matrix might now mean for them on a personal (vice creative) level. I know many musicians who wrote songs that meant one thing when they originally wrote them and now, decades later, have taken on entirely new shades of meaning once “real life” influenced their paradigms, values, and outlook.

AW: Yes, I think it is fair to say that the stories we tell about our stories change as we change. For me, the observation that prescription estrogen in the 1990s was most commonly a red pill is an interesting granular detail specific to the male-to-female transition, amidst a number of other issues of identity, feeling trapped and being feared that could apply to a variety of experiences. I don’t think it proves anything, of course; it just adds some texture to that particular reading.

I like what you said earlier about the filmmakers doing their homework. I know some people criticized the film and the sequels for referencing a lot of philosophy but not deeply engaging with it. I do think it’s fair to say The Matrix is more broad than deep in its ambitions, but how many other action blockbusters are even that literate? And how many philosophical treatises have action choreography by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping? Sure, I suppose The Good Place has set a new standard for depth of philosophical engagement in entertainment with wide popular appeal. But I’d rather appreciate The Matrix for bringing Baudrillard, Cornel West, and others to wider awareness rather than critiquing it for doing so merely at the 101 level. Do you think that’s a fair assessment, or is there harm in way The Matrix engages with academic topics that I’m missing?

Paulo Freire 1977

Paulo Freire is not in The Matrix, but he is in this blog post so he gets a photo too. (Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov)

MB: I don’t think that things are always simple with The Wachowskis. I suspect they found, in The Matrix‘s broad strokes, an opportunity to combine their love of the fantastic with their desire to challenge the status quo, whether it be found in themselves or society at large. I would even go so far as to say that The Matrix skirts quite close to being critical pedagogy. For example, Brazilian educator Paolo Freire (1921-1997) founded his philosophico-educational model of “critical pedagogy” to teach others how to emancipate themselves from oppression by awakening their critical consciousness, which would lead inevitably to radical change through one’s vocal critique of the status quo and subsequent political engagement. I find these threads running through The Matrix. Your observation that, in the ’90s, one could find prescription estrogen in red pill form is one of those threads. Let’s look briefly at The Matrix through the lens of critical pedagogy: Once Neo (= The Wachowskis) took the red pill and the pill’s trace program began to locate Neo in the real world, Neo glances over at his broken visage in a shattered mirror. As the trace program ran, the mirror began to restore itself along with Neo’s self-image. Taking the red pill (= gender transition) served as the initial act to free Neo’s mind (= The Wachowskis’ sexual identity). Surely, this subtle analogy wasn’t meant to remain a private concept for The Wachowskis, especially given their outspoken advocacy in the LGBTQ discussion.

More-broad-than-deep is a perfect description of the film’s philosophical content, but I think to engage deeper would have done a disservice to Neo’s tale. To force a more thorough pedagogical approach would have, I think, had negative repercussions on the storyline and character development. As we saw with George Lucas’ original Star Wars, his sleeve-worn influences of Frank Herbert’s Dune novel (1965), Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), H. G. Well’s Things to Come (1936), and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) didn’t go too deep either, but Lucas struck a perfect balance and turned those influences into something entirely new. But that “entirely new” thing served as (white) rabbit trails for others, should they desire, to follow and, hopefully, discover and enjoy those very same influences. I know my love for some musicians’ work has led me to seek out the influences they too enjoyed, leading me into greater appreciation for both the “originals” and the “derivatives,” all the while not lessening the derivatives’ impact and recognizing it as something truly new albeit familiar. The Matrix made me want to dig further into the gems I knew lay just under the surface, and I’d like to think I’m a better (educated) person for it.

AW: I can see the connection to Freire; your summary of critical pedagogy is practically a plot summary of The Matrix, or at least the first act. But this got me wondering how one relates to such models and narratives when one is not oppressed? Oppression is real, to be sure, and I can see where an awakening of this sort can be a necessary early step in an emancipation process. And I think many of us can feel restricted or frustrated in some aspect of our lives, making a narrative of disruption and fulfillment very appealing. But not everyone who is frustrated or disappointed is actually oppressed. Some of us actually are the status quo. Some of our frustration may be the loss of that status. How do we approach a story like The Matrix from that perspective? Is there still a need for a critical awakening of a different sort, perhaps one of empathy?

MB: You bring up a very interesting phenomenon that I’ve observed often in my own evangelical upbringing: the martyrdom complex. Early on in my adult Christian walk, I often viewed every rejection of my attempts to witness to others and defend the Bible and/or Jesus from liberal or higher critical thought as not a failure on my part but rather just one more instance of concerted anti-Christian oppression. I think you’re absolutely right that we can easily misinterpret our feelings of religious frustration and disappointment as real persecution or oppression, and I’ve seen reactions of friends and family move in three general directions: (1) stop witnessing and hide their light under a bushel (cf. Matthew 5:15), (2) develop their martyrdom complex by pursuing increased confrontation with and judgment of the broader culture (contra the prophet Daniel, aka Belteshazzar) and even other Christian denominations, or (3) simultaneously self-reflect on their own potential flaws in logic or approach, pursue deeper relationships with those who rejected their witness, and love them regardless. I’ve gone through all three phases during my adult life and, as you might suspect, I’ve settled quite comfortably on the latter. (I think we can find an analog of these same methods of dealing with frustration and disappointment in the world of politics.)

I believe this latter approach can only come about through what you call a “critical awakening” — a “theological red pill,” if you will. As the more empathetic path, it results ultimately in the kind of improved relationships the Apostle Paul urged us to seek (Romans 12:18 and Hebrews 12:14; cf. 1 Peter 3:15). In terms of The Matrix saga, one could argue that Neo, in Matrix Revolutions, takes his critical awakening to the next level and seeks to defeat the real enemy (Agent Smith) by making peace with the Deux ex Machina. Reversing our (apparent) losses and/or moving beyond the status quo in a positive manner requires this.

AW: With your observation that engaging more deeply with philosophy would take away from telling Neo’s story, I think you’re getting to the tension intrinsic to pop culture. If there is a deeper culture which is original and richer, why waste one’s time with shallow derivatives? At least part of the answer is that no one is born knowing what those originals are, or even that they exist and should be sought. Connections need to be made with what is already known and familiar, and that which is broadly familiar is likely to fall under the banner of “pop.”

To put it in terms of The Matrix, one could ask why Morpheus and the other Zion activists don’t just go around and unplug everyone. Morpheus addresses this pretty directly: they know (presumably through experience) that not everyone can process the transition, especially if it is too abrupt. Hence the need to prepare Neo from inside the Matrix first, and also to lead him through a series of exercises after his disconnect as well. There is an action element to those exercises, such as the dojo training, but Neo is not only being taught martial arts skills. He is also being taught a new way of thinking and a new way of relating to the world. In a sense, this is the-play-within-the-play, where the Wachowskis underline for us that their action/martial arts adventure is not just about the action.

MB: You hit the nail on the head, Andy. But I don’t really see The Matrix as an exercise in entertaining the audience using shallow derivatives. I see the movie as a clever method of being a mile wide and an inch deep for the purpose of leading an unsuspecting audience toward more sophisticated thinking and, with any luck, into richer, deeper philosophical waters. Most of the modern pop culture tends not to do that.

Graphical DNA helix overlayed with descending columns of green text

One of the enduring influences of The Matrix: descending columns of green characters means… advanced science? But hey, we’re talking The Matrix and evolution, so… (Image by TheDigitalArtist)

The standard process of Zion’s preparing humans to enter the real world mirrors my own scientifico-theological journey from young-earth creationism (a la Ken Ham) to evolutionary creationism (a la Francis Collins) over a period of years. Due to the complexity of our paradigms, many of which give us considerable comfort, these kinds of transitions typically don’t occur overnight, even if they might feel like it. People and circumstances have sown their seeds (for good and bad) into the field of our experiences over long periods of time, and the resulting fruit may take some time to flower. For example, let’s say for the sake of argument that Francis Collins is right that evolution was/is the means by which God created/creates. Depending on how intricately one’s hermeneutic regarding Genesis is intertwined with his or her beliefs in God and Jesus, a follower of Ken Ham’s young-earth creationist paradigm might find his or her faith shattered once exposed to incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. For me, there were a number of steps required to get me from point A to point B safely—that is, with my faith strengthened and enhanced. For others, however, there is considerable danger in the transition, and I would prefer in some cases that they retain their alignment with Ken Ham’s hermeneutic if only to save their faith in God.

Next week, Mike and I will continue chatting about The Matrix on the topics of identity in vocation and Christ figures in fiction. I hope you’ll join us; we’ll save a seat for you!

Mike Beidler is a retired U.S. Navy commander whose combination of military aviation experience and Star Wars fandom pedigree launched him, beginning in the mid-’90s, into a decades-long relationship with numerous Star Wars authors. His direct contributions to the Star Wars universe include work on Tom Veitch’s Dark Empire saga, A. C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy, and John Whitman’s Galaxy of Fear series. He has, in a galaxy far, far away, worked as a forensic specialist for a Hutt crime-lord, studied with the B’omarr monks of Tatooine, and hunted down a bounty or two. He has also written about Star Wars and Blade Runner for Sequart Organization. In this galaxy, however, he lives in northern Virginia with his wife and three children and takes advantage of his daily 45-minute commute to/from the Pentagon to read theology and science fiction. Mike is President of the Washington DC chapter of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a contributing writer to BioLogos, and a member of the both the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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