October 1999: The Matrix is the Star Wars of the 90s

"Nobody can be told exactly what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself."

"You must learn the ways of the Force, if you are to come with me to Alderaan."

One character is played by one of Hollywood's strongest black actors; the other, by one of the elder statesmen of film. But Morpheus and Obi-Wan Kenobi have a lot in common.

Those similarities take place in the larger context of two hit films, both of which have been huge commercial successes that readily assume their places in popular culture. The Matrix and Star Wars both resonate with audiences for specific reasons, in ways that similarly-themed movies with less universal appeal do not. (For example, Dark City is similar in both style and theme to The Matrix, but wasn't nearly as successful at the box office. There are reasons for this. Reasons besides Keanu Reeves, I mean.)

Even I, your indie-film lovin', microbrew-drinkin', caffeinated pop-culture snob from Seattle, think that The Matrix is a great movie. It's not especially revolutionary in terms of presentation or storytelling, although the special effects are great, but it is well written, slickly produced, and often devilishly clever. It's also got the same core element going for it that Star Wars did in 1977: it's a classic hero tale, the kind that appeals to the aspiring adventurer in all of us. Even me, who just back in August explained to all of you why I felt like I'd outgrown Star Wars.

The hero tale generally follows a very linear path, one whose route was handily traced by Joseph Campbell in his classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Although Campbell is somewhat outdated (his outlook was positively Freudian) and his work tended to ignore rather than discuss cultural distinctions in mythology, his book is still valuable, both because it can tell us about hero tales and because it has influenced their twentieth century retellings. (George Lucas, for one, was heavily influenced by Campbell, and it's likely that the makers of The Matrix borrowed from him as well.)

The Elements of Heroism

Both stories begin by drawing their heroes into situations those heroes never expected; in fact, at the outset, neither Neo in The Matrix, nor Luke in Star Wars, has any idea what's going on. Neo, after waking up one day to a peculiar message on his computer, is approached in a nightclub by a mysterious, PVC-clad woman who hints that the world is stranger and more dangerous than he knows. Luke buys a couple of droids who, mere hours earlier, crash-landed on his home planet with information that can save the galaxy. This device of the potential hero being either sought out or roped into peculiar circumstances is a common one in heroic tales; frequently, the would-be hero is swept up into something that he initially appears to have nothing to do with.

And almost every time, the hero initially resists, even though what's coming to him is what he's waited for all his life. (The Matrix even makes this explicit; several times, Neo is told that he's right to think that the world is not what it seems.) However, something always happens to convince the hero to change his mind. In The Matrix, Neo goes back to work-and later finds himself edging around a window ledge at the direction of a mysterious voice on a cell phone. (By the way, when he drops the phone, watch closely. Yep. See how it falls more slowly than normal for just a second? Neo can already affect the Matrix; he just doesn't know it.) Unable to take the risk of plunging to his death, he instead allows himself to be taken into custody-where he finds a powerful incentive to believe what Trinity and Morpheus have been telling him all along. Similarly, Luke Skywalker initially refuses to go to Alderaan (and, it's implied, learn to be a Jedi) until he has no choice: his family is dead and there's nothing left for him on Tatooine.

A hero can't be a hero without an initiator, and that's where Trinity and Princess Leia come in. The fact that both of these characters are female is not entirely a coincidence-initiators, seers, visionaries, and oracles in mythology are almost always women or female in some sense. Even the Greek Oracle at Delphi was originally sacred to a goddess before Apollo came along. It's Trinity who first approaches Neo in the nightclub, and it's Leia who is the catalyst for Luke's adventure: if she hadn't been flying over Tatooine trying to contact Kenobi, Luke's family never would have died. This is also why the Oracle in The Matrix is female. Her closest relative in Star Wars is Yoda; although Yoda is not (we assume) female, he is just as mysterious to Luke as Leia is. Since the hero is almost always male and almost always young, women are generally a mystery to him, something as other and incomprehensible as (though often more attractive than) a small green alien on a swamp planet.

Nor can a hero be a hero without a mentor. Morpheus in The Matrix and Kenobi in Star Wars serve as teachers and guides, those who assist the hero in realizing his potential. Both movies contain many references to vision, potential, and an expanded point of view: Luke takes his "first step into a larger world." Neo goes through a dramatic (if extremely obvious) re-birth process; at the end of having his atrophied body reconditioned, he wonders why his eyes hurt. "You've never used them before," Morpheus tells him. This comment has several meanings, for Neo's first use of his physical eyes comes with his understanding of the way the world really is. This sort of thing happens all the time in mythology, and wisdom is often related to eyes or vision: in Norse myth, Odin gives up one of his eyes in exchange for knowledge.

At the same time, the nascent hero is cautioned not to accept everything he sees at face value. "What is real?" Morpheus asks, while Kenobi warns, "Your eyes can deceive you; don't trust them." The hero does well to take note of such cautions, for he, by nature of being the hero, is able to break the rules everyone else is bound by. Neo learns to hack the Matrix, bending its enforced reality to his will, and eventually comes to do it better than anyone else; by the end of the film, as Morpheus predicts, he doesn't need to dodge bullets…because he can simply stop them. Likewise, Luke is able to accomplish a task at which others have failed; after two veteran pilots attempt to blow up the Death Star and are shot down, Luke succeeds, by trusting in a talent no one else has-except the enemy. (Which is also true of The Matrix; not only do the Agents have the same skills Neo has, but at least one of them is capable of emotional responses that border on human.)

Now the hero has acquired a quest and the knowledge he needs to fulfill it. However, the lesson of the hero-tale is that these things are useless if the hero doesn't believe in himself. In The Matrix, the Oracle tells Neo that he isn't "The One," meaning the guy who's going to save humanity from an existence as a bunch of deluded batteries. It's implied, though, that this is because despite all evidence to the contrary, Neo doesn't believe it himself. As soon as he believes he's the One . . . he is. Similarly, it takes Luke awhile to believe that this Force stuff works, and initially he still uses his targeting computer to aim at the Death Star's weak spot. Ultimately, though, he makes the leap of faith. And since this is a hero-tale, not a tragedy, he succeeds.

Elements of Distinction

Of course, the two movies aren't identical. Although they share a theme regarding the dangers of technology, The Matrix is by design much closer to our own world. Although Morpheus, Trinity, Neo and the others are waging a war against AI run rampant, the creators of that AI were their own ancestors: a classic example of Pogo's "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Star Wars is decidedly less complex, and doesn't bother to give us much backstory; the Rebels are good and the Empire's bad, and that's just the way it is.

Also, while Star Wars has arguably influenced the way an entire generation thinks about morality, ethics, and religion (don't believe me? Talk to some of these people online sometime; I fully expect a Church of Yoda to exist somewhere), The Matrix is far more explicit in terms of the kind of worldview it advocates. If you pay attention to the script, it becomes obvious that the writers have studied William Gibson's Neuromancer and Buddhism with equal intensity. (Trivia: William Gibson was also the author of "Johnny Mnemonic," a novella that was made into the movie starring . . . Keanu Reeves. Fortunately, Reeves's performance this time around isn't nearly as annoying, because the presence of Laurence Fishburne, hot SPFX, and Carrie-Ann Moss in a PVC tank top make up for it.)

The first thing anyone says to Neo in The Matrix is in a message that comes to him via his computer: "Wake up, Neo." It so happens that the character is sleeping at the time, but this can also be interpreted as a reference to the fact that Neo, like most people in the Matrix, is unaware of the virtual reality that surrounds him. He needs to "wake up" to the real world and lose his illusions. The historical Buddha is said to have done the same thing; "Buddha" literally means "awakened one." Plenty of similar references are sprinkled throughout the film, particularly during Morpheus's lectures on the nature of the Matrix and of reality.

By the way, those of you who've read Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic will recognize Morpheus's name. There was indeed a god by that name in classical mythology, who was the god of dreams; or, literally, one who "called up shapes" to be viewed or experienced by the sleeper. The Matrix is full of symbolic names like this; the significance of names like Neo, Trinity, and Cipher is left as an exercise for the reader. For that matter, names in Star Wars have meaning as well; "Skywalker" is an epithet for Loki, though Luke isn't nearly as malicious as Loki is in Norse myth. The resemblance between "Darth Vader" and "Dark Father" has been noted on several occasions as well.

But these symbols are, by and large, less specific in Star Wars than in The Matrix. Of course, the writers of The Matrix had the advantage of the legacy of Star Wars to build on, as well as countless other legends and stories. Neither is an especially original film; if Star Wars is derivative of everything from Flash Gordon to the films of Akira Kurosawa, The Matrix is informed by sources as diverse as the aforementioned Neuromancer to Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. Examining these influences highlights an important difference between the two films: Star Wars looks back, while The Matrix looks to the future.

Finally, it's worth noting that in comparison to The Matrix, this year's The Phantom Menace was actually a pretty poor study of a prophetic figure. Though both Neo and Anakin are the subject of prophecy, The Matrix uses the opportunity to say some pretty interesting things about fate, faith, and belief. The Phantom Menace had . . . well, The Phantom Menace had Darth Maul. And a pod race. In many ways, The Matrix is the movie The Phantom Menace should have been; not in terms of style, but in terms of substance. Yeah, The Matrix has lots of action, flash, sunglasses, and people in shiny black clothes. It's also a surprisingly deep film for a Hollywood blockbuster.

There's one last thing The Matrix and Star Wars have in common; word has it that two sequels to The Matrix are on the way.