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Why the Matrix annoys the hell out of me, pt. 29

Once again I must ask: What the heck is the big deal with The Matrix?

I recognize that it’s a gorgeous film; I love the movie’s special effects. The fight scenes are so balletic they out-Peckinpah Sam Peckinpah. The design and aesthetic are the best riff on the ruined-yet-sumptuous-futurama since Bladerunner.

Yet what galls me is how the critics constantly bray on about how deep the movie is. Salon nods deferentially to the sequel’s “dense and intense geekdom — the level of Philip K. Dick references and Jean Baudrillard quotations and the apocryphal teachings of a noted Jewish heretic prophet born in Bethlehem 2,000-odd years back — all has changed, changed utterly.” The Village Voice warmly approves of the first movie’s “heady cocktail of gnostic Zen”. Newsweek gushes about the director’s “brainy” vision, and the “philosophical riddles” with which they challenge viewers. And in a recent Entertainment Weekly profile, one of the brother directors boasts about how the cast members used to ask “okay, so which German philosopher will we need to read to understand this scene?”

Oh, please.

Complex? Brainy? Philosophically challenging? What in god’s name are people talking about? The movie’s central conceit is incredibly, dementedly simple: The world’s a big illusion. This idea dates back so many thousands of years that it is more at risk of being hackneyed than revolutionary. Socrates based his philosophy on it, Christians based a religion on it, Chaucer wraps up Troilus and Cressida with it, Boethius toyed with it — and almost every major science-fiction writer in history has kicked it around like a hackey sack.

Which is what made the first movie such so excrutiatingly boring, in between the lovely and fantastic fight scenes. The directors put in easily 45 minutes of explanatory dialogue outlining this “world is an illusion” stuff — most notably that distended, bloated speech by Morpheus, which was delivered with less grace than a Powerpoint presentation.

Yet in reality, the idea is so painfully simple that it could have been compressed easily into, say, two or three lines of dialogue:

Morpheus: Dig this — the world is a massive illusion, created by machines to keep humans docile. You’re actually a body floating in a jar.

Neo: That would explain a lot.

Morpheus: Cool. Now let’s go kick some robot ass.

… and honestly, the movie would have been 44 minutes shorter, and a lot better.

But no, the critics continue to insist that The Matrix and its sequel are somehow intellectually challenging, deep, resonant, exciting, inscrutable, woof woof, meow meow. And it occurred to me the other day that this is probably because most mainstream critics have never read a single page of good science fiction. (More worryingly, they may never have read a single page of good philosophy, either.) They really do find the movies deep. This is genuinely their first interaction with a literature of existentially weird ideas.

At any rate, I was thus totally relieved to open the New York Times today and find a superbly acerbic piece by Frank Rich about The Matrix. I urge you to read the entire piece, from which I quote:

The genius of the P.R. strategy was its exploitation of the original film’s geeky cult status as a thinking kid’s kung fu extravaganza. “The Matrix Reloaded” would not be just another bloated Hollywood sequel but instead would have the philosophical heft to fuel a new generation of metaphysical Web sites. And so every puff piece about the film has emphasized that its creators, the siblings Andy and Larry Wachowski, do not give interviews — as if behaving like Thomas Pynchon would give their movie the gravitas of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” To second the motion, along came Cornel West, the Princeton professor who has a cameo in “The Matrix Reloaded” and is not at all shy about meeting the press. He told Time (for its cover story) that “the brothers are very into epic poetry and philosophy, into Schopenhauer and William James” and that “Larry Wachowski knows more about Hermann Hesse than most German scholars.” This does not explain why the movie’s multicultural orgy scene looks like a Club Med luau run amok, but maybe the inspiration for that was Kahlil Gibran.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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