The Matrix Reloaded: An Ancient Myth Revisited

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I believe that one of the roles of film in today’s society is the same as that of myth in ancient societies. Both seek to explain in everyday terms the meanings and mysteries of life and death. Every film in some way does this, but those such as The Matrix and its recent sequel The Matrix: Reloaded stand apart from the rest. In the Journal of Religion and Film (October 2000), James Ford states, “It is impossible to know what narratives will become the foundation myths of our culture. But epic films like The Matrix are the modern day equivalent of The Iliad-Odyssey, the epic of Gilgamesh…” I know it may seem presumptuous to give such honor to a film that has not yet stood the test of time; however, I do think The Matrix saga addresses in an important way the ancient Christian heresy known as gnosticism.

Writing for a popular website, Robin L. Zebrowski has compared the ideas presented in The Matrix to the ancient gnostic belief that “the creator of our not the creator God of the great monotheistic traditions popular today. Instead, there was originally both a male and a female deity. The Mother, Sophia (“wisdom”), wanted to produce another creation, but did so on her own rather than with her partner. The resulting Demiurge was an abomination....[who became]...the creator of our world. He trapped the Spirit in matter, and mankind has been trying to escape, to get back to the true God, ever since.” Such a belief system led to an emphasis on knowledge (“wisdom”) over matter, with the result that matter (and thus flesh) was regarded as evil and in need of being overcome.

Today’s society, though, has no room for meddling deities, and so in the movie it is the machine called The Matrix that blinds the world and its inhabitants to true reality. Through knowledge, Neo, the protagonist, frees his mind and escapes the clutches of the machine. He begins to understand himself as the prophesied one who has been sent as a messiah to end the reign of the matrix and to free humanity from its clutches. Even though the god is different—machine instead of deity—the message in the context of gnosticism is still the same. Life is illusory, brief, and inconsequential and through special knowledge alone can be overcome.

There are obvious dangers, in the context of bioethics, in viewing our humanity as illusional and our flesh and blood as irrelevant. The danger of gnosticism—and an underlying message of The Matrix—is to see our life in the flesh as irrelevant and to believe that real knowledge will enable us to get beyond our trapped humanity. In The Matrix, only a few have the privilege of freeing their minds from the constraints of the machines. The rest of those caught in the Matrix are deluded, irrelevant, and even dispensable.

Is not ultimate knowledge in our society bound up in the power of science and technology? In fact, we are urged to harness the power of science and its knowledge as a means of getting beyond the constraints of being only human. We ought to strive to live longer (maybe forever), we ought to control our progeny by ultimately perfecting them, and we ought to eradicate the weaknesses of our humanity at all costs. In a day and age where flesh and blood are regarded as having comparatively little intrinsic value, it’s not surprising that the sacrifice or exploitation of human life is increasingly being justified for the sake of the above pursuits.