In The Matrix directed by Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, existentialism and determinism are explored leading one to question what reality truly is through the use of various thematic techniques. Existentialists is the believe that an individual determines their own development through acts of free will whereas determinists believe that all events are determined by causes external to free will or fate. The main character Neo is presented with these conflicting beliefs when he becomes aware that what he believes is reality is merely an illusion, an alternate reality created by a computer program where laws of nature do not apply. As Neo becomes more aware of the glitches in The Matrix, Morpheus approaches Neo and presents him with a choice from which there is no turning back; “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
Fate vs. free will is presented through use of various narrative elements including the plot, themes, and symbolism. As the plot unfolds Morpheus presents Neo with the choice to take the red pill and exit The Matrix but gain free will and experience true reality or to take the blue pill and live comfortably in The Matrix where fate and illusion rule his life. When Neo chooses the red pill, the illusion he has come to know as reality is destroyed and replaced with a crushing truth but the free will to act for himself. Neo realizes that the setting of The Matrix is rather idyllic, a tall city with clean streets and individuals working their nine to five jobs, but although it may seem perfect, it is simply an illusion. When Neo takes the red pill, Neo realizes that The Matrix is simply a computer program where individuals have no free will but instead a predetermined fate. The red pill symbolizes existentialism and the ability for individuals to make choices for themselves and determine their own fates but also the painful truth of reality. On the other hand, the blue pill symbolizes determinism, the theory that ignorance is bliss. This embodies the illusion that is The Matrix. Similar to a computer program, The Matrix has laws and processes which it is programmed to follow, the world is pre-constructed and all actions are predetermined; any choice an individual believes they have is merely an illusion. Morpheus argues that this illusion feels so real that it is similar to a dream that you are “so sure [is] real…you [are] unable to wake from that dream.” Morpheus argues that because the dream feels so vivid, one would be unable to know the difference between the dream world and the real world arguing that The Matrix is so well programmed that individuals are unable to realize that it is simply an illusion.
The Matrix’s laws are enforced by agents which act as viruses, multiplying and destroying anything and anyone which defy the laws of The Matrix. The agents are all dressed in identical costumes, expensive suits with reflective sunglasses that block the agent’s eyes. This costume helps identify the agents as viruses which are all identical, unidentifiable, adaptive, and full of stealth. The agents are able to morph from other individuals and move in ways which defy natural laws of time and space showing that The Matrix is an illusion; a computer program in which natural laws do not apply. Although the agents are the viruses, the agents are programmed to view real humans as viruses because humans have free will which allows them to defy the laws of The Matrix. The humans in The Matrix are identified by their costumes which are unlike any other individual making them stand out as unique. Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity are all dressed in black costumes. The color black is closely associated with sneaky behavior and often identifies an individual as being one of the “bad guys”. Although from the audience’s perspective Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity as the “good guys”, to The Matrix and its agents, Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity are the ones defying the program and acting as viruses to structure.
Although Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity are villains to the structure of The Matrix, in fight scenes the camera angles used help depict them as the heros. They are often shot from a lower angle making them appear bigger, more powerful, and godlike. In the opening fight scene Trinity is suspended in air and shot using the “bullet time” effect which gives the audience the ability to stop time and see the event from multiple points of view all at once. This allows one to question whether the scene being shown is reality or instead an illusion due to loss of a true time line. At the end of the fight scene Trinity reaches her escape when she jumps from the top of one building to another . In this shot the camera angle views Trinity from above and the shot itself is slowed down which helps convey how impossible the jump is and to show that Trinity either possess’ powers which defy natural laws of reality or that the reality she appears to be in is instead an illusion. It is later revealed that this is simply an illusion and that real humans are able to defy natural laws of space and time because in a computer program, natural laws do not apply.
The ability to question whether The Matrix is a reality or an illusion is strengthened through the use of continuous reflective objects in The Matrix because these objects distort the image being shown. Buildings throughout the city in The Matrix are mirrored as well as the agents glasses. In one particular scene when Neo is on his way to see the Oracle, Neo sees a boy who is holding a spoon and it appears to bend without any physical force. The boy tells Neo not try to bend the spoon, because there is no spoon, but instead to realize the truth and see “that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only [himself].” The camera angle in this scene is focused on the spoon and the distorted view of Neo’s face in the reflection of the spoon. This adds to the idea that the spoon is not real, that it is only an illusion, and that in The Matrix anything is possible because natural laws do not apply. In addition to abstract camera angles and reflections and distortions throughout the film, suspenseful and quickened music helps to add intensity to fight scenes and turning points in the movie. Towards the end of the film, Neo is at a subway station about to be zapped out of The Matrix but a homeless man morphs into an agent who has set out to kill Neo. As Neo and the agent begin to fight, quickened music adds to the suspenseful effect making the audience become anxious to see how the fight will turn out. This music also adds mystery to various scenes which is at the very core of The Matrix for The Matrix itself is a mystery.
The Matrix is a place where the natural laws of space and time do not exists because The Matrix is a mere illusion of reality but not reality itself. The Matrix encourages one to question existentialism and determinism by pressing questions about what reality truly is and whether one has free will or whether one is simply following a path of predetermined fate. The Matrix is simply a dream world which is appears to be real because one believes it is so. These ideas are shown through the use of symbolism when Neo must choose to take either the red pill which will make him exit The Matrix and experience an undesirable reality or to take the blue pill where Neo is able to stay in The Matrix, where ignorance is bliss. Costumes, camera angles, reflective shots, and suspenseful music also add to the central theme and help the audience question what is real and what is a mere illusion. This film not only makes one question what is real within the film but also encourages one to question whether the real world we live in is a type of matrix where an individual ‘s complacency to societal norms is a mere illusion in itself.
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