Everywhere And Nowhere

Film still for Everywhere And Nowhere

With its spin-off game and DVD animations, The Matrix has the edge on Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, for none of them offers a coherent conceptualising of the world, argues Jonathan Romney.

There's a process described by Jorge Luis Borges - we might call it 'reality leakage' - by which fictions come to infiltrate, and even supplant, the fabric of the real world. In Borges' story 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' apocryphal facts about an imaginary universe expand from an obscure encyclopedia entry until they infuse the known world, which ends up on the verge of becoming indistinguishable from the fictional Tlön. It could never happen, of course; or perhaps not to that degree. Yet we are increasingly used to such leakages of fiction into the real. A small but disturbing example is the way happenings in the enclosed, quasi-fictional universe of television reality gameshows have come to be regarded as authentic world events: the antics of non- or semi-celebrities sitting in a locked house or eating grubs in a jungle have become headline material, achieving a level of importance that, for many news outlets, is as great as the outbreak of Sars or the destruction of museums in Iraq.

If Big Brother was never designed with the express aim of displacing reality, other projects have a more explicit ambition of engulfing or consuming the world, Tlön-like. The Wachowski Brothers' Matrix project has expanded from the original 1999 film into a multimedia phenomenon that, at the very least, sets out to conquer the world financially. Alongside The Matrix Reloaded, the first of two new Matrix episodes (the third, Matrix Revolutions, will be released in November), Warner Bros. has just released a video game and an ambitious DVD package of animations. The project spins the original premise of The Matrix into a nexus of interlocking fictions which, taken together, lead the consumer down a choice of diverging narrative paths. The potential outcome, in theory at least, is that the project will cultivate a public so steeped in Matrixology that not only will it lose all interest in seeing the next Star Wars and X-Men episodes, but will grow to view the world itself through a Matrixian optic. Indeed, this may already be the case among some disturbed fans: in a number of recent US murder cases, including last year's Washington sniper attacks, it was claimed, either by perpetrators or by their attorneys, that the killers believed themselves to be living in, i.e. to be innocent victims of, the Matrix, the hallucinatory world through which machines keep humans enslaved.

The explanation for The Matrix's unusually wide popularity, and the intense seriousness with which it is taken, is that it offers its viewers, rational or otherwise, a coherent way of conceptualising the world. This is what makes it different from other recent lucrative screen mythologies such as those informing the Star Wars series, Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy, even the Harry Potter films. All of those create more or less hermetic mythologies, relating to fantasy universes, none of them bearing much relation to the real world or to what you might call real-world philosophy except in terms of a conventional good-versus-evil schema. You can theorise all you like about the Force and the Dark Side, but it won't get you far in thinking about the world itself.

Matrixology, however, takes you somewhere else, which is where the series has been cleverly angled by the Wachowskis and by the marketing department at Warner Bros. In the most extravagant example yet of an attempt to extend a science-fiction film's demographic target beyond the usual fan base, the Matrix films have been intensively sold as fertile ground for philosophising. The series' premise is that the world as we perceive it is mere appearance, a digitally created hallucination piped into human minds by a malevolent order of parasitic machines. The idea that reality is not reality at all - and that we can't even see that we're being duped - is a common theme of science fiction, associated especially with the comprehensively paranoid Philip K. Dick, while the motif of a digitally generated reality as autonomously real as the tangible world has been extensively reworked by William Gibson. It has also been a common theme in cinema over the past few years. In The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) a man's entire life proves to be a reality show staged for the world's amusement. The hero of Alejandro Amenábar's Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes, 1997), remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky (2001), discovers that much of his experience has been an artificial virtual-reality afterlife. Perhaps closest to The Matrix's notion of collective hallucination is Alex Proyas' underrated Dark City (1998), in which, while humanity sleeps at night, the world is modified by aliens who literally shift the scenery, as if between acts of a play.

The Matrix's potency lies partly in the fact that it's a coherent summum of such ideas, and partly in its presentation of some of the slickest, most whizz-bang action sequences ever staged. (Reloaded's freeway battle is already legendary as a Busby Berkeley extravaganza among car chases.) But the series' appeal for its highbrow constituency lies in its knowing, not to say overt, philosophical allusions: most notoriously, the moment in the first film when hacker-messiah Neo (Keanu Reeves) grabs a copy of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. In the same film, the philosophical basis of the Matrix as illusion is explicitly discussed in the scene where turncoat Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), bribed with a meal in a fancy (and non-existent) restaurant, admits that he knows the steak in front of him is not real, but savours it anyway: "After nine years, you know what I realise? Ignorance is bliss."

Such ideas relate to what is termed the 'brain-in-a-vat' question, a philosophical hypothesis which posits that, for all we can know, everything experienced by the thinking subject may be an illusion fed to a disembodied brain - a theme wittily explored in Robert Lepage's Possible Worlds (2000), the hero of which turns out to be a lump of grey matter suspended in a jar. The question of whether we choose to accept hallucination once we know it is hallucination - the dilemma posed by Cypher's steak - is a variant on this theme, known to philosophers as the 'experience machine' problem.

The Matrix may not necessarily be philosophically more complex than other sci-fi brain teasers - than Blade Runner, say - but it brandishes its furrowed-brow aspirations more fiercely and has even turned them into an unlikely promotional tool. Not only has there been a mass of philosophical discussion published (e.g. the recent anthology Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in "The Matrix"), but such discussion is even used in marketing the films. The official website whatisthematrix.com features an extensive philosophy section containing closely argued essays relating the film to Plato's cave, or to the traditions of Gnosticism and Buddhism, with contributors including Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus and British professor of cybernetics Kevin Warwick. This is no fanboy bulletin-board wittering, but heavyweight exegesis presented under the Warner Bros. logo.

While such theorising concentrates on the way The Matrix metaphorically represents the world, the marketing of the phenomenon aims more hard-headedly to conquer the world, as totally as the Wachowskis' fictional machines have conquered it. Warners has designated 2003 'The Year of the Matrix', with a sales push that takes in the second and third films in the series, shot back-to-back on a reputed budget of more than $300 million; a computer game Enter the Matrix that includes footage not seen in the films; and, perhaps most ambitiously from an artistic point of view, The Animatrix, a DVD of nine animation shorts made largely by Japanese anime specialists which extend the Matrix myth into new and sometimes surprising territory.

In one sense the self-importance of the project is ill-timed. Warners may consider this 'The Year of the Matrix', but for most of us in the real world 2003 will be remembered for a similarly confident but rather more problematic American initiative. At the project's London press launch in March, one was struck by how much the rhetoric of the trailers invoked a dream of total mastery. We learned how the stars of the film and the game, many highly trained in martial arts for their roles, had spent six months with digital motion-capture logging their body movements: all this, coupled with the awesome fictional armoury that filled the screen, embodied a militaristic fantasy of control, a control hard-won for the film's makers but which consumers could plug into as instantly as Neo in the first film plugs into his virtual warrior expertise ("I know kung-fu!"). In the real world, meanwhile, such ideal techno-mastery seemed a questionable fiction, given the unpredictable and bloody daily progress of the war in Iraq.

Nevertheless, you had to marvel at the chutzpah of a project that encourages fans not only to watch the films but to buy all the ancillary product in order to get the whole story. Supposedly, you don't need to watch the Animatrix shorts or play the game to understand the feature films; these supplementary texts, it is claimed, provide bonus information that makes the films a richer, deeper experience. But without the additional material The Matrix Reloaded doesn't entirely make sense. Early in the film we learn that the underground city of Zion - where rebel humanity holds out against the machines - faces attack by the monstrous steel-tentacled Sentinels which police the real world. The news has been sent by the doomed craft Osiris, but we can't quite understand that unless we see The Final Flight of the Osiris, the prequel to Reloaded (released theatrically with Lawrence Kasdan's derided Dreamcatcher). Similarly, on arrival in Zion, Neo is greeted by an eager youth who is delighted to see him again. Are we supposed to remember this 'Kid' from the first film? No, because he has his own story in The Animatrix. Another of the more mystifying events of Reloaded is the sketchily evoked destruction of a power plant by rebel Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), who otherwise barely features. What seems a baffling ellipsis is explained by the fact that Niobe's mission is one of the central scenarios of the Enter the Matrix game.

This elliptical quality - the sense of a text riddled with holes, never entirely accessible to the casual viewer - gives Reloaded a strange, intertextual status, an unfinished feel at odds with the closure we expect from Hollywood sci-fi. This fragmentation is analogous with that of other digital-age phenomena, notably the forking-path structure of hypertext internet fiction. But a closer equivalent - similarly dictated by marketing incentives - is the Marvel Comics tradition of running stories across different titles, obliging Spider-Man fans to buy that month's edition of The Fantastic Four.

At the very least, the Wachowskis should be congratulated for inviting other film-makers to elaborate on their themes. While the Wachowskis act as producers on the overall Animatrix package, and script three of its narratives, they also let go of the reins to allow the various writers and animators to invent their own spin-offs from the main Matrix myth, in markedly different registers. Thus while the two-part Wachowski-scripted The Second Renaissance (directed by Mahiro Maeda) provides the apocalyptic backstory to the series, and Kid's Story and the tech-noir A Detective Story (both directed by Shinichiro Watanabe) feature cameos by the films' central characters Neo and Trinity, other Animatrix shorts create autonomous universes that owe little to the Wachowskis' template.

The most distinctively Japanese of the films in both setting and style, Beyond (written and directed by Kouji Morimoto) is about a group of kids exploring a haunted house - in reality, a Tarkovskian 'Zone' where the rules of time and space do not apply because the place is an anomalous glitch in the digital fabric of the Matrix. Drawn in crisply modernist clean lines, this magical vignette is in a minor key compared to the futuristic exoticism of the other films, and elaborates its hallucinatory reality without slavish reference to the Matrix myth. Another distinctive contribution, mapping out a visual realm the Wachowskis surely never imagined, is Peter Chung's Matriculated, which imagines how a robot might experience an artificially generated reality. Chung's CGI effects are at once retro and hyper-modern: in an eroticised universe evoking Barbarella and 1960s psychedelic art, cyborg characters strut and morph through a labyrinth of colours half way between stained glass and boiled sweet.

As for the more mimetic The Final Flight of the Osiris, its synthespian players represent a major advance on the CGI humans of Sony's historically significant but barely watchable Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), the game-derived feature on which Osiris director Andy Jones also worked: they have believable, complex expressions and movements, and the film convincingly simulates the textures and tones of black and Asian flesh. Indeed, Osiris is a plausible step towards digital soft porn, its male-female swordfight achieving a level of teasing fetishism (a silk sleeve sliding with a gentle whoosh off smooth skin, the heroine's skirt flapping above G-stringed buttocks) that leaves Lara Croft way behind.

The Matrix world-domination project may, for the moment, be finite, but you can only wonder whether, given a sufficiently enthusiastic reception, it will continue to grow. Although it was beaten to the American No. 1 spot in its second week by - humiliatingly - Bruce Almighty, a comedy in which Jim Carrey becomes God, Reloaded has been a runaway international success, becoming the first movie to earn more than $100 million in a single weekend. The Matrix project seems, potentially at least, infinitely expandable, dependent neither on the Wachowskis themselves nor, strictly speaking, on their creations. Matrix stories don't have to involve particular characters nor be set in a particular world, but need only be inspired by a malleable central premise, the dichotomy of reality and computer-induced illusion.

Extending across 'multiple media platforms' - as the sales talk puts it - the Matrix project seems emblematic of Hollywood's spirit of conquest in the age of globalisation. Curiously, though, it has an art-sector counterpart in another current work - Peter Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases. Greenaway's cross-platform Gesamtkunstwerk is intended to comprise three feature films, 16 40-minute television programmes, a website, books and no less than 92 DVDs, one for each of the suitcases protagonist Tulse Luper fills on his travels around the world and the 20th century.

Like the Wachowskis' project, Greenaway's too aspires to swallow up the entire world, in the sense that anything that exists can theoretically be absorbed into its overall mythology. Just as, for the Wachowskis, everything we experience is theoretically a product of the Matrix, so for Greenaway the whole world is fodder for his, and Luper's, encyclopedic voracity. Suitcases also outdoes the Matrix project in threatening to fill the real world with material so copious that only the most obsessive fan - Greenaway's notes posit the advent of "an ideal audience" - would dream of tackling it in its entirety.

You wonder whether Matrix fans in the real world have anything like the single-minded devotion required of Greenaway's "ideal" Luperite. Yet some people do take The Matrix very seriously. In Kid's Story, the most disturbing Animatrix short, Neo urges a lonely teenager to free himself from the false world of appearance. The Kid realises that his high school is a trap, his teacher a jailer; he escapes the System by leaping to his death. At his funeral we hear a voice of adult authority commenting on the Kid's belief: "It's called denying reality. It's, y'know, just a self-defence mechanism for these kind of kids." But the story ends with the Kid, released into an afterlife-like reality, telling Neo, "You saved me." The animated Neo, voiced by Keanu Reeves, replies, "I didn't save you, Kid, you saved yourself." In green letters on the Kid's computer screen we read: "You are not alone."

Kid's Story takes us to the opposite end of the series' demographic from the community of philosophers who comprise its highbrow audience, and to a perhaps more representative constituency. The audience addressed by Kid's Story is the population of vulnerable schoolkids who feel the world really is a conspiracy against them, and want to believe there's a kindred soul out there who has also recognised the falsity of it all. The Wachowskis, who wrote this episode, are either sentimental or cynical - not only targeting the Harvard crowd, but also making sure they capture the Holden Caulfield/Kurt Cobain audience. This is Matrixology on its most banal level, flattering the paranoia of the isolated and disenfranchised.

One measure of the potency of the Wachowskis' fictional scheme is that it appeals both to the hyper-rational and to those whose rationality has failed them - like the killers in the United States who supposedly invoked the film as an explanation for their actions. The Matrix's model of reality can offer at once a hypothesis for the philosophical or an alibi for the disturbed; on one hand a revolutionary 'Fight the Power' argument, on the other a reassuring, reactionary myth for insecure solipsists.

The most glaring paradox of the Matrix project, of course, is that while it proposes a fictional programme for liberating ourselves from a dominating system - implicitly global capitalism and the entertainment complex - there isn't a single commercially available piece of the puzzle that doesn't somewhere bear the inscription '© Warner Bros.' Perversely, the people who have taken the Wachowskis' fiction most literally, citing it as an alibi for their emotional disturbance, have personalised The Matrix, wrested it from the authority of the corporation. It's a testament to the power of a myth - to its overwhelming, all-embracing elasticity - that it can be interpreted in many ways, some of which would no doubt give the Wachowskis, and their philosopher exegetes, sleepless nights.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012