By Ines Dubouis
The first time I watched the critically-acclaimed and most “filmbro-esque” movie known to man, The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowskis, I was initially disappointed by the romantic turn of events. Having an all-consuming, life-changing kiss saving the entire plot is much too easy of a solution in my opinion. Though, moving past the poorly timed gesture, the movie seems to present a thought-provoking underpinning and evidence, consciously or not, of a way the general public has been exposed to the intricate theories of philosophy – all of which are not usually expected from a Hollywood blockbuster. Indeed, philosophy, a vastly considered elitist, unaccessible academic discipline, can occasionally be closely intertwined with the most popular media we know.
Cinema, as we’ve come to realize, is much more than a futile source of entertainment. It develops our empathy and open-mindedness and for a few hours, allows us to escape and experience a different life, generating a way to live in someone else’s shoes. On some occasions, some films are as powerful as to truly shatter your conceptions of life – which is precisely what good philosophical movies aim to do. It may also be worthy to consider that this desire to leave the audience’s jaw agape is a quality major studios also search for in an effort to create a pipeline to huge box office revenues, worldwide celebrity, and a fair shot during award season. Therefore, it goes without saying that using philosophical metaphors to educate and sensibilize society isn’t on Warner Brothers’ priority list.
The Matrix is the archetype of an existential-crisis-inducing movie. The Truman Show by Peter Weir also has similar effects. For those who might need a refresher, Neo, the protagonist portrayed by Keanu Reeves, who is an average 9-to-5 computer programmer is chosen to finally discover the explanation behind what has been troubling him for some time. This is where the famous blue-pill/red-pill scene comes along. Fortunately and expectedly, Neo chooses to find out about the cold hard truth – swallowing the red pill – instead of living as if nothing had happened. Consequently, our protagonist discovers that we all live in a simulated, dark, and slimy version of his world, in fake bodies as in reality, in our true form, we live in the underworld where our bodies are used as energy sources by The Machines, the antagonists. In short, everything we think we know is false and fabricated in order for us to obey and be more easily controlled by the big corporations.
Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave describes exactly that. Plato, one of the greatest and most prominent Greek philosophers, evokes a situation where prisoners, born and raised in the cave, are chained by their legs and by their necks, thus forced to only be able to look at what’s in front of them. They are forced to watch shadows gliding across the cave wall. The prisoners see the shadows of cows or of vases pass by and are made to believe that those shadows are of those said objects. However, in truth, these are only shapes or statues of a cow or a vase. Forged by “shadowcasters” that are meant to represent politicians and major corporations who simply want to serve their own interests, the shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Though if they simply turn around and face the light, everything the prisoners know to be true would come crashing down.
This questions every fact we have deemed as true. For example, we see a table and consider it to be what its name entails – a multi-purpose flat surface with legs. Though, according to Plato’s allegory, a table is a metaphysical concept, making what we value a table, simply an incorrect representation or hasty deduction based on past experiences.
This is what Morpheus rightly states;“How do you define “real”? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then “real” is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
Neo would then represent a prisoner trying to bring down the shadow illusion and expose the shadowcasters of their trickery. The rest of the Matrix is basically the science-fiction version of what would happen if a rebellion started against the shadowcasters.
Even though much of the audience wouldn’t immediately think of Platonism after viewing this movie, the effect on the general audience is unchanged: bring to light the discipline’s key concepts to a wider public. Not only is it genuinely satisfying to see a Hollywood movie with a tightly constructed and somewhat rational scenario, I believe it is also quite enjoyable to see a film that integrates philosophical themes and questions in a medium that is widely accessible in an intelligent manner to make people reflect and ponder. They might step out of that movie theater understanding the world a bit better, with a new perception of their reality, and perhaps a different outlook on life and how to lead it. Indeed, Oxford Languages defines philosophy as “a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behavior” – meaning studying the discipline may have an impact on individuals’ future.
Twenty-three years later, The Matrix goes down in cinematic history being one of the most watched movies of all time, with three sequels, one released a year ago, keeping its relevance and attraction in today’s hyperactive society. Making subjects typically seen as more “scholarly ” accessible to everyone through more popular mediums helps introduce new notions to people who might not have encountered them before. Whether it influences and encourages contemplation or just keeps people entertained for a solid few hours, the place of philosophy in cinema will, hopefully, be more and more apparent for many years to come.