TCS Daily

Conspiracies of Life

By James Pinkerton - May 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Seeking wisdom about the popularity of "The Matrix," I went to the obvious source for the inside skinny: the clerk at my local Hollywood Video store. "Easy," the dude said. "It's all about conspiracies. People love conspiracy theories." He was right, of course, about the first movie, and also about the sequel, "Matrix Reloaded," which opened yesterday. And thereby hangs an unfortunate tale about the state of things in the United States - a place where uncovering hidden secrets within is deemed to be more important than discovering unexplored places in the great beyond.

What's the essence of a conspiracy theory? The idea that something's happening beyond one's knowledge or control. And when the Bigs - Big Government, Big Business, Big Computing - get involved, people start to worry. Perhaps the most famous American book on conspiracy theories was The Paranoid Style in American Politics, written by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter in 1964. That work was nominally a critique of what Hofstadter called "crackpot" politics from the Mayflower to McCarthyism, but in fact it was ultimately an attack on Barry Goldwater and other contemporary conservatives whom Hofstadter didn't care for. Such a book, of course, also proved to Rightists another conspiracy theory - that Ivy League ivory tower professors were out to get them.

But the "Matrix" movies transcend left and right; they argue that everything, including what we think of as "reality," is a fake, all generated by computers. As one character, called, simply, "Oracle" - sorry, Microsoft - tells Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, "We can never see past the choices we don't understand." That's true enough, if not very helpful. Still, such debunked thoughts are likely to resonate with the young, who are often prematurely cynical, much like the famous "phony-phobic" Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

In another scene, Neo says to the bad French guy - is there any other kind these days? - "You know why we're here." To which the Frenchman replies, in his insufferable way, "Yes, but do you? You think you do, but you do not." That's deep, homme.

Indeed, the idea that the comforts and pleasures of the world are illusory has deep roots in philosophy and religion. At one time or another, confronting mortality, many have an "Evita moment," as when Andrew Lloyd Webber's Argentinean dying diva sings, "And as for fortune, and as for fame. . . They are illusions." Both "Matrix" movies play that thought up. Although the first flick was subtle, the second is about as subtle as a shovel. In the first, one sees a shot of Jean Baudrillard's book Simulacra and Simulations. In the second, the emphasis shifts to the secret hideaway for humans fleeing the Matrix-making computers, a subterranean realm called "Zion." It's kinda hard not to see symbolism in that.

And thus the big problem of the Wachowski Brothers' movies: everything is not only backward-looking in time, but also inward-looking in space, as characters seek to unravel the conspiracy as they would peel an onion. They have liberated themselves by digging deeper. And what do the humans do when they burrow down deep? Take a guess. Hint: it involves nudity.

As Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, observes, "In a sequence that passes so far into the mystically absurd that it is almost witty," the character Morpheus - the original Morpheus was the Greek god of dreams, son of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep - "leads the inhabitants of Zion in a torchlit orgy, presumably meant to show the machines what humans can do that they can't." So, my fellow early-21st-century humans, that's what we have to look forward to in the 22nd century: we can prove that we're different from the computers and their 'bot creations by having lots of sex. And this is what we were given brains for?

At the risk of taking the flicks too seriously, such inwardness continues a doleful decades-long trend that can be summed up as too much navel-gazing, not enough stargazing. Since space program peaked in 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the direction of the human imagination has been mostly inward. First, there were drugs, as college kids and flower children tuned in, turned on, and dropped out - out of sight. The musical "Hair" urged audiences to go "walking in space" - via drugs, not via a Saturn lifter. Then came Earth Day and the mushrooming of the environmental movement and its close companion, the New Age, all of which enshrined Luddism as desired policy. A perfect book for the times was J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, which combined various crypto-pagan strands into a celebration of mystical folkways. The Hobbits were so down to earth that they lived underground; that's a neo-Cro-Magnon concept that has composted down into real-world architecture, such as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and Bill Gates's house in the other Washington. Tolkien, wherever he is, might take some satisfaction; he's got the richest man in the world living, Bilbo Baggins-like, in a hole in the ground. And of course, the computer and the Internet, cool as they might be, are one giant inward trip. Who has needed to go anywhere since the advent of e-mail, Netscape, Explorer and soon, full-blown virtual reality?

The movies up the ante all the more, arguing as they do that reality itself is the illusion. It's impossible to know for sure who's real; most of the bad guys, for example, are described as rogue computer programs. And "Reloaded" is the second installment of a trilogy; for all we know, everyone could be found out as a figment of HAL's imagination in the final installment.

Given this recessive state of popular culture, it's no wonder that mobility and transportation, as concepts and as realities, have stagnated. Vehicles of any kind - land, space, air - don't go much faster or farther than they did 40 years ago. Indeed, instead of progress, there's been regress: NASA is shriveling before our eyes; the supersonic Concorde has been mothballed.

For perspective, it's worth pausing over another influential sci-fi movie, 1982's "Blade Runner." The Ridley Scott-directed picture was profoundly pessimistic about the future, but it nonetheless presumed that flying cars would be common by 2019. But today, just 16 years before that date, little in the public discourse suggests any interest in such vehicles. Moreover, it's likely that fear of trial lawyers and terrorists - those are, believe it or not, different things - will be enough to snuff out any remaining embers of enthusiasm. In other words, the idea that mobility is important has been lost, seemingly, like tears in rain. How will we get to the Offworld of Blade-Runner imagining? We won't, not at this rate, anyway. And so maybe we'll never see things that even the doomed 'droid, Roy Batty, could see: attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. Those moments won't be lost in time; they might never be found.

So what's the real takeaway from the "Matrix" movies? If everything is fake, if nothing really matters, then why not do what Freddy Mercury did in the song "Bohemian Rhapsody," when he slipped into murderous nihilism? "Mama, just killed a man/Put a gun against his head/pulled my trigger, now he's dead." In the Matrix movies, zillions of "men" get killed, but few of them are real. It's like a videogame - the state-of-the-art simulacrum for our time - in which the goal is to chopsocky and otherwise kill as many baddies as possible. Is it a coincidence that just three weeks after the first movie was released on March 31, 1999 - its advertisements touting characters decked in black leather, strapped with heavy metal - two boys walked into Columbine High School and slaughtered 13, and then turned their guns on themselves?

Defenders of the first movie say that such cine-violence is cathartic, not imitation-inspiring. And besides, popular culture offered the Columbine killers plenty of other mean-struttin' gun-totin' role models to choose from, everything from Westerns to the 1995 film "The Basketball Diaries" to any number of videogames; one of the killers' e-mail handles was "Rebdoom," as in "Doom."

Of course, censors will never get anywhere in this society, with its multiplicity of portals. Indeed, if there's one place where the conspiracy debunker industry goes into overdrive, it's in nailing the censorious - ask Bill Bennett.

So, in the final real, as well as the final reel, it's up to each of us to do the right thing as individuals. And we might yet take some inspiration from Neo. The hero of "The Matrix" might never get from inner space to outer space, but he at least confronts the falsity of the system, like the hero of Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. Both Neo and the Savage forego the easy life of dumbing-down/blessing-out drugs to exalt, instead, in the hard life of the heroic.

There's no guarantee that the human race will survive, of course, if we stay here, in one place, forsaking space. After all, the next wave of Terminators is coming - T-3 opens on July 2 - and those shape-shifting metalloids are, well, unstoppable. But the humans will put up a valiant fight. And that's a conspiracy of sorts - a conspiracy of life, a conspiracy of hope, a conspiracy of struggle. And if there were ever to be similar conspiracies of brains and vision, the human story might yet have a happy ending, played out on more than one planet.

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