Life, God, prophecy according to 'The Matrix'
Film sequel aims kung-fu kick at deep questions of soul, spiritBy Tom Kisken, firstname.lastname@example.org
May 24, 2003
As Sean Filzen stepped into eye-jarring sunlight outside a Ventura theater, his mind lingered inside, laboring to grasp the philosophical stitchery of "The Matrix Reloaded."
"Life is choice," said the 20-year-old, ponytailed photographer, paraphrasing a mantra almost as prevalent as the blockbuster's in-your-face-Isaac-Newton fight scenes. "That could mean a lot of things. What choices are you going to make?"
Shifting as quickly as the movie, he spoke of how love separates humans from animals, then raced on to Darwinism, good vs. evil, the power of faith and his theory that mass media comprises sort of a matrix that can control people's thoughts and actions.
"If you send the right person into that movie," Filzen said, "it's going to like trip you out."
How do people distinguish what's real from the illusory? Is God fallible? How does the savior go about saving? Can you choose reality?
Questions flow from "Reloaded" like evil, cloned agents. The efficacy of answers is part of a debate kung-fuing its way out of theaters and into philosophy lectures and theological discussions. On one side are people who contend the movie and its prequel, "The Matrix," push audiences to consider their significance to the world around them. Others suggest the sci-fi forays into spirituality and philosophy are about as substantive as Junior Mints.
In between are the people who don't care. They may be many. Ask 15-year-old Jeff Willett about spiritual themes and he responds with a look reserved for those who just do not get it.
The movie, which grossed more than $134 million in its first four days, is not about faith, he said. It's about "computers and stuff blowing up."
But that filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski intend deeper meanings seems as obvious as the use of biblical names like Trinity, Zion and Nebuchadnezzar. A Princeton philosophy professor is cast in a cameo. The plot is driven by a savior known as The One.
Characters battling against a synthetic reality -- the computer-created universe that is the matrix -- are forever talking about providence, choice and control.
"Most people would say the only things that are real are physical," said Craig Detweiler, co-director of a faith-in-arts project called Reel Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. " 'The Matrix' flips that entirely and suggests that those things that are physical and real are what we should question. The spiritual reality behind things is equal if not more important."
Detweiler went to "Reloaded" on opening night in West Los Angeles. Though the movie ended at 1:30 a.m., people were reaching for cell phones to wake up friends and philosophize about what they had seen.
The buzz extended into the men's room where Detweiler saw a man in his early 20s washing his hands. He had a notebook, in which to scribble thoughts from the movie, and a Bible, both placed on the counter just out of water's reach.
Detweiler, also a fan of the God-centered "Bruce Almighty," contends people want films to nudge them into checking and rechecking the way they define their role in the world.
"I think movies at their best ask life's biggest questions," he said. "Sometimes movies at their worst try too hard to answer them."
Some filmgoers take shots at what they perceive as answers offered by "Reloaded." They say the movie suggests life is a never-ending battle in which peace is as much an illusion as the matrix. They say the message is that people can escape their personal prisons by vanquishing everything and anything that opposes them.
Violence isn't the only issue. One pastor said he planned on taking a group of congregants to the movie but worried they would be offended by sex scenes, including the savior Neo exploring something other than spirituality with a character named Trinity.
Ted Baehr of Camarillo is disturbed by the movie's inference that the world around us may not be real, calling it contrary to Christianity. He accuses the film of wearing spirituality on its sleeve, espousing philosophies that sound interesting but don't translate into action.
Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, lobbies Hollywood to produce fare that expresses redemptive values and annually organizes an awards event dubbed the Christian Oscars. His MovieGuide magazine labeled "Reloaded" as "dehumanized, overhyped rehash."
It never commits to a concrete worldview, Baehr said, instead dangling ambiguity in threads of Christianity, Buddhism and humanism.
"There are many movies that are doing it better," he said, referring to meaning-of-life explorations and listing films ranging from "Spider-Man" to the family-focused "Evelyn." "There are a lot of movies that are exploring these issues from a Judeo-Christian perspective."
Others say films shouldn't affirm views but challenge them. Greg Garrett, a film and fiction-writing professor from Baylor University, said "Reloaded" offers give-and-take among different beliefs.
"I think Neo is Christ," he said. "But Neo is also Buddha and Neo is Superman. It's not a worldview that is either-or but sort of and-and."
Garrett and his partner, the Rev. Chris Seay, have written "The Gospel Reloaded" about the movie series; it will be published in June. They also are working on a book about spiritual themes in the HBO series "Six Feet Under."
Accept it or not. People's faith is impacted by pop culture, Garrett said, conceding the influence can go too far, as with the thousands of people who in an apparent joke listed their religion as Jedi in population surveys.
"I think you can take it as seriously as you want to," he said of "Reloaded." "If all you want to do is see the kung fu and walk out, then you've seen a fairly intelligent movie."
Others, like Jeff Albert of Agoura Hills, plunk down their money to "see if they got the spiritual angle right."
He is a member of a Baha'i faith community that believes global peace is inevitable. So the blizzard of automatic weapons, knives and combat wasn't exactly reaffirming.
"We're still such a violence-driven society," he said. "To get even a spiritual message across, we have to do it in a warrior mentality to attract young male viewers."
But Albert was intrigued by the suggestion that reality can have different dimensions. It supports his belief in a spiritual kingdom that people enter upon leaving their physical beings.
At least one Ventura County pastor has included the original movie in youth group discussions. Philosophy professor Bill Bersley will likely make references to the sequel in his class at California Lutheran University -- that is, if he can figure it all out.
Bersley has seen "Reloaded" once and says he'll have to schedule three or four follow-ups to decipher curveballs involving matrices within the matrix, Neo's standing as a mortal human and the blurring of lines between what can be controlled and what cannot.
"Does anyone have control over anything?" he asked.
Others use the movie to find or underline personal truths. Tuck Ross, a graphic designer from Simi Valley, keeps thinking about Morpheus, the messenger of prophecy played by Laurence Fishburne. At one point he is told not everyone believes as he does.
"My beliefs don't require that they do," Morpheus responds.
The line resonates with Ross.
"What I believe is not based on what other people think of what I believe," he said, "but on what I know to be true."
©Copyright 2003, Ventura County Star (CA, USA)
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