ON THE AFTERMATH of the high school tragedies in Littleton, Colo. and Taber Alta., media commentators have been searching for reasons why young people turn to acts of violence. Everything from bad parenting to violent video games has been proposed and there’s been a certain amount of attention on the role of movies, particularly the influence of The Matrix. With its violent content, special effects, and most particularly the trench coats worn by the lead characters, some analysts saw a direct connection between the shootings and the movie.
There’s a facile assumption amongst pop psychologists that movies are more violent than any form of entertainment ever seen before by human beings. Perhaps these analysts have never seen Shakespeare’s Macbeth; perhaps they’ve never read some of the more violent parts of the Old Testament (1 Samuel 15: 33, for example). Violence is part of the human condition, an evil that lies beneath the veneer of civilization.
What is fascinating about The Matrix is not its use of guns or its content of violence, but rather the premise that underlies the movie. In this story, a computer hacker, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), has lived a relatively ordinary life – in what he thinks is the year 1999 – until he – as his computer identity Neo – is contacted by the enigmatic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who leads him into the real world. In reality, it is 200 years later and the world has been laid waste and taken over by advanced artificial intelligence machines. The computers have created a false version of 20th-century life – the “matrix” – to keep the human slaves satisfied, while the artificial intelligence machines draw power from the humans. Mr. Anderson, pursued constantly by “agents” (computers who take on human form and infiltrate the matrix), is hailed as the one who will lead humans to overthrow the machines and reclaim the Earth.
It is a vision of the future that The Matrix captures best – an anxiety that many young people speak of when they discuss their lives in the 21st century. When Morpheus shows Neo the world in 2199, the earth is a burned out shadow of its present self, destroyed by ecological disaster and human warfare, with people huddling in caves, struggling to survive. It is a future where the artificial intelligence created by the computers is more powerful than any human intelligence or emotion. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “I have seen the future – it is murder.”
One only need listen to a young person talk about their concerns for environmental disaster or international warfare to understand why The Matrix might be popular among them: not so much for the violence as for the bleak vision of a future.
Into this hopeless situation comes Thomas Anderson, known in the computer reality as Neo. Contacted by forces of good, he is re-born, his illusions about life are shattered and he is given a challenge to discover his true identity and play his part in saving the world. He becomes a Christ-like figure, moving through his own self-doubts, growing in his realization of his mission, being transformed by love, and finally taking his place in the cosmic drama. Sure there is violence – plenty of it – but it takes place within a context of a multidimensional reality, some of it real life, some of it computer generated.
Does a film like this promote violence or does it reflect a hopelessness that lies at the heart of many people’s view of reality and visions for the future? If you like science fiction, cyber-adventures, if you’re a fan of dazzling special effects and you’re open to a little metaphysical puzzling, The Matrix is a movie for you. Directed and written by the Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry) its AA rating should be enough clue that this isn’t a kid’s film, nor is it a movie for anyone easily frightened or upset. But it gives a fascinating insight for Christian theologians and teachers about how many in this culture imagine the future. Can the church find ways to express the hope of God’s reign in ways that motivate and inspire people towards respecting the dignity of every human being? In the wake of Littleton and Taber, pray God that we will.
Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.