I love the first Matrix movie, but I’ve been bothered by the second and third Matrix installments for years now. I really wanted to like them, much like I really wanted to like Chapters 1-3 of Star Wars.* However, I didn’t piece together what bothered me about them until today. It has to do with lacking the theme of overcoming a hard-held belief, the theme that was so central to the first Matrix.
Many people hold beliefs that defy logic, which is innocuous most of the time, like the belief in a flat Earth, which is hilarious, and doesn’t particularly hurt anybody. However, some beliefs directly endanger others, and at times those beliefs are used as an excuse for why people behave like reprehensible monsters. On a grand scale, the belief that one skin color is somehow better than another has caused the deaths of generations of human beings. On a smaller scale, the recent killing in Santa Barbara because a man believed that somehow women owed him sex allegedly drove him to commit multiple homicide. Whether or not this plays out to be the whole story doesn’t matter, the point is we easily believe this is true because we’ve seen it time and time again.
In The Matrix, Morpheus manages to free Neo from the prison of his own mind, literally overturning everything Neo thought he knew about the world. This analogy extends to any belief system that anyone has cast off, ever. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the right of white men to control the U.S. government, Manifest Destiny, homophobia, etc.
For me, one Matrix was the Christian church, which I severed ties with in my early twenties, but I expect everyone has something they believed in at one time that today they wish had never been a part of their lives. An abusive lover. A horrible job. I doubt anyone’s life is so perfect they can’t think of an example right now.
So, to me, Morpheus is the real hero of the Matrix movies, because he seems to be the only person who actually manages to help free any of the people embedded in the Matrix. Yet he is hated by some of his friends, hunted, and generally unappreciated by the government he works for.
Neo, for his part, never frees another person, and only manages to run around having fights in the second and third movies. To his credit, he is trying to free everyone at the very end (I think), but I still don’t really know what happened there, so I didn’t find it fulfilling. Besides, he wasn’t working with anyone who actually wanted to get free, he was trying to do it to them, which is so very different, and not the way I hoped the story would play out at all.
That theme, of helping someone overcome a belief they know is wrong, a belief they struggled against unconsciously all their lives, was lost, and it is something I believe we need to hold onto as a society. Even though we sometimes grate at its creaky functioning, the U.S. government is designed to allow us to overturn our previously held beliefs by rewriting laws, by encouraging a change in representation, by allowing our constitution to be updated as required. It’s part of what makes us a free society.
So today, I write this in thanks and great respect for those who died for the freedom to change our beliefs, and in memory of those who worked to change our beliefs to become a more equitable society. On Memorial Day, 2014.
* Go J.J. Abrams! You can do it! I believe in you.