Comprehension is not a requisite for cooperation.

– Councilor West (Cornell West), The Matrix Reloaded (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)

The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) has had an unparalleled response from intellectuals for a recent Hollywood film, and we know of two well-known public intellectuals who have encountered The Matrix. One would be Cornell West, who gives an excellent performance in the sequels as a Zion statesman, and reported lengthy and productive philosophical discussions on and off the set with the reclusive directors, the Wachowski brothers. Another would be Slavoj Zizek, who wrote a rather dismissive appraisal of the first film. While I commend Zizek for being one of the great cinephiles among the upper echelon of today’s intelligentsia, I must say that here he fails to appreciate a breakthrough work.

Zizek opens his essay by describing a fellow filmgoer’s excited exclamation, “so it’s not real!” by remarking, “When I saw The Matrix at a local theater in Slovenia, I had the unique opportunity of sitting close to the ideal spectator of the film – namely, to an idiot” (1). I want to believe that there are a few inconsistencies in this statement, one being the supposition that this particular screening was such a “unique” opportunity, for, however callous this remark is, I’m willing to grant that there actually always is an idiot in a movie theater. But perhaps I am betraying my own perspective here, since, if I consider myself an ideal spectator for the film, the idiot in every movie theater I visit could perhaps always be me (2). Even the film critic must admit the country rube, the “Uncle Josh at the Picture Show”, in all of us (3). But does the idiotic spectator exist just so the international intellectual can maintain a privileged position?

Zizek is immediately suspicious of the film because of the immense intellectual response it has enjoyed. While film studies has not necessarily led the charge here, for further evidence of the film’s high-profile reception among scholars one can point to the academic conference on the film for which Zizek’s paper was originally written, a published anthology with essays primarily from philosophers, or the “Philosophy and the Matrix” section on the film’s official website containing articles by other noted philosophers (4). For Zizek, the film functions as some kind of intellectual Rorschach test, leaving him perturbed by the enthusiasm of both his “Lacanian friends” and the “Frankfurt School partisans”, not to mention “New Agers”, then trickling down ultimately to discussions of Plato’s cave metaphor. But the film’s appropriation by various disciplines should in fact be the reason one should love the film (and its paratexts), for this film, to borrow a phrase from Marx in one of his more philosophical moments, is “a ruthless criticism of everything” (5). If The Matrix depicts the topography of modern life, it also offers a topography (i.e. a matrix) of the critical modes of thought that have been brought to bear upon that space. Of course, some Marxist scholars argue that all schools of thought can be subsumed by Marxism as the fundamental methodology for analysing the post-Industrial Revolution world. I won’t try to argue that point here, nor can I presently find the space to map all the various readings of the film in an attempt to make them all seem compatible or co-dependent in some fashion. But I do want to proceed by using a key Marxist term in order to describe The Matrix as an image of “totality”.

Surely it is not so difficult to allow a Marxist interpretation of The Matrix. To go over the basics quickly: the machine society gets its power (or “value”, rather) from the kinetic energy produced by the human mind. In order to keep the mind at work, with the mind or body having no chance to revolt, humans spend their lives unknowingly in the virtual reality of the matrix (6). So the matrix is the ideological apparatus, the artifice of reification – the superstructure, seen from the outside to be the evidence of the alienation of man’s labour-power. The matrix code perhaps facilitates the means of accelerating circulation and consumption. The human bodies in stasis in the real world are the market, where the extraction of surplus value has approached perfection. The machines simply buy the labour-power of the human race with the dead remains of other workers. As Georg Lukacs points out, commodity exchange is the ultimate form of metabolic change (7); or as Marx wrote in Capital, vol. 2: “the dead matter was an advance over living labor power…even before the entrance of the worker into the process of production, his own labor is estranged from him” (8).

But, what is a matrix? Thinking of the image of the infant feeding off the putrefied remains of the dead, we might think of the word’s archaic meaning, a womb. This connotation I’ll address later. First, we encounter the word’s frequent use in film studies, whether to describe a moment of interdisciplinarity or to describe the coalition of different media and attractions in defining the topos of modernity. A matrix is a network, a total system – yet not quite complete, as Lukacs reminds us in approaching the totality of capital, and as we further appreciate in The Matrix Reloaded. In this second film, Neo is described as an anomaly in the matrix, and the machine world, while a more efficient collective, is not a perfect hierarchical system, as demonstrated by the “exiles” in the matrix (the Oracle, the Keymaker, the Merovingian, etc.). But the film’s ambition is the imagination of the social totality. The handy Dictionary of Marxist Thought offers this (partial) definition of the term:

Social totality in Marxist theory is a structured and historically determined overall complex. It exists in and through those manifold mediations and transitions through which its specific parts or complexes – i.e., the ‘partial totalities’ – are linked to each other in a constantly shifting and changing, dynamic set of interrelations and reciprocal determinations (9).

Figure 1

So, to put it in rather non-dialectical terms, we are dealing here with “the big picture”. And like those other ambitious projects that attempted to describe the totality of modern life – for example: Capital, Benjamin’s Arcades Project (10), or Sergei Eisenstein’s film version of Capital (11) – the text of The Matrix remains incomplete [Fig. 1]. Of course the first film demanded the sequels – The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003) – but the text grows beyond just the three films and spills into various media. Nine anime short films have been produced, some offering a glimpse into the “Zion Archive”, containing remnants of human history immediately preceding the creation of the matrix. A collection of original comics by established artists in the field features various narrative strands of the world of the film. The videogame, Enter the Matrix (its title an obvious acknowledgment of the film’s debt to Bruce Lee), was produced by the directors themselves (who wrote an extensive storyline using primary actors like Jada Pinkett and Hugo Weaving), and includes additional film footage. The film’s official website holds a wealth of original content, and an online virtual reality space is currently being developed. This virtual reality space – in which players will log on to (of course) the matrix – will take place in a time after the end of the third film. I think this new hypertext-like story should highlight that the tagline of The Matrix Revolutions, “everything that has a beginning has an end” – and perhaps the sense of messianic closure of the film itself – is something of a red herring. Like Capital for Marx or The Arcades Project for Benjamin, perhaps The Matrix will be the life’s work of the Wachowski brothers, never really finding an end.

An image of the system at work in its concrete machinations is not unprecedented in film history, so let me present my preferred examples. Such an imagination is the concern of some of early cinema’s description of city life, for the city streets, its passages, are the primary sites of wonder and bewilderment at the social grid. One filmmaker in particular made a life’s project of exploring the both liberating and conspiratorial forces of the city system at work: Fritz Lang. Films like the Mabuse series (12), Metropolis (1927), or The Big Heat (1953) contain some of the most representative examples of the destiny machine constructed in the architecture of the modern city, both as a site of surveillance as well as anonymity. Tom Gunning’s rich analysis of the filmmaker is predicated on the image of what he calls Lang’s “Destiny Machine…a system by which events are interrelated and characters’ destinies become interlocked…his plots trac[ing] the attempts by different characters to control or at least work in concert with a system that operates separately from their own desires and according to its own mechanical logic.” (13) In The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, the question of destiny becomes more and more persistent, Neo bombarded both by the Oracle and the Architect’s insistence that the logic of the matrix continues to guide his actions as well as Morpheus’ fanaticism over the prophecy of the revolution Neo will bring.

Figures 2 and 3

Gunning notes that Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) “takes place in world of total design” (14). The geometrical order reigning over the diegesis is exemplified in the throne room [Fig. 2], and this image leads us to another auteur often compared to Lang, more specifically to Lang’s expressionist period and sense of the macabre: the horror filmmaker Dario Argento. In the first of Argento’s unfinished Mothers’ trilogy, Suspiria (1977), a similar image of geometric order is found in a hotel lobby (15) [Fig. 3]. An uncanny feeling comes over the main character/victim upon entering here, and indeed a conspiracy is taking place. She will need to explore the hidden passages and rooms of the massive dance academy before discovering the inner sanctum of Mater Suspiriorum. The mapping of a system reaches more explicit visual representation in the next film in the trilogy, Inferno (1980). Again the main character finds hidden floors and passages, here in an Upper East Side apartment building, but before he faces Mater Tenebrarum, he must pass through the apartment of the building’s architect (and author of The Three Mothers).

Figure 4

The matrix of intertextuality could be traced further, but instead I would like to proceed with a discussion of a specific film form in The Matrix, the cinematographic effect the filmmakers named “bullet time”. This effect, now seen in other films, as well as commercials and music videos, allows dynamic camera movement around events taking place in slow motion, with the filmmakers controlling the speed and position of the action. So, for example, while a camera is still panning around Trinity, she hovers in the air, then suddenly unleashes a rapid fury of kicks and punches. Meanwhile, this is to be perceived diegetically as happening at an impossibly rapid pace – when we see the Agents (or Neo) move, they are moving at a rate faster than 24 frames per second, so we see multiple residual images of their movement. While computer graphics are used in this process, for the basic effect, the filmmakers recreated an apparatus similar to one used for a predecessor of motion pictures, Eadward Muybridge’s motion studies. But instead of Muybridge’s cameras set to record a two-dimensional plane, for The Matrix, multiple still cameras circumscribe the action [Fig. 4]. Of course it was Muybridge’s incapability to record movement in a three-dimensional space that led Etienne-Jules Marey to develop his own apparatus, its name resonating with the procedure of the present discussion: his camera-gun.

For the first sequel, the directors demanded a more ambitious expansion on the principles of bullet-time photography. For the scene that on set was termed “The Burly Brawl” (named after another unfinished project, Barton Fink’s unrealised film), the same orchestration of time and space was required for a hyperbolic depiction of one of the classic martial arts scenes, a lone fighter surrounded by a circle of enemies. But here Neo has to fight hundreds of Agent Smiths who are constantly replicating themselves. Special Effects supervisor John Gaetes decided to create “virtual cinematography”, in which the camera could move through space (and through people and objects) without the burden of blocking a set and without a real camera actually attempting such a move (16). To do this, again a pre-digital cinema technique provided the basis: photogrammetry, overlapping aerial photographs used to measure space, a technique used primarily for making maps. This “photogrammetric cinema” saw its first use in The Campanile Movie (Paul Debevec et al, 1997) a project by graduate students in physics and computer science at University of California-Berkeley intended to demonstrate accurate, detailed architectural modeling by using only a handful of photographs.

Time and space (not to mention my poor calculus grades in high school) don’t allow a full explanation of the mathematics involved in how this process works (17). Suffice it to say, in the sequels, actor’s movements and various facial expressions were mapped, photographed from multiple angles, and then interpolated to create the most advanced digital rendering of real people yet seen on screen. What interests me here are the techniques of aerial photography and mapping techniques used in this process, for one can appreciate that the most sublime elements of the film are not the result simply of expert choreography, but also a result of the system’s apparatus itself – that is, mapping.

The opening credit sequence in The Matrix Reloaded shows the universe rendered in (matrix) code, and gradually we can perceive that this is in fact an aerial image, from a sweeping perspective above a city vista. Then in the first scene (as in the first film, an action scene for Trinity) we are presented with the first in what will be a number of aerial views in the film.

The image of the social totality has often been remarked to be more difficult to perceive from street level than from above. As (the former architect) Siegfried Kracauer remarked, in “The Mass Ornament”:

Although the masses give rise to the [mass] ornament, they are not involved in thinking it through. As linear as it may be, there is no line that extends from the small sections of the mass to the entire figure. The ornament resembles aerial photographs of landscapes and cities in that it does not emerge out of the interior of the given conditions, but rather appears above them. Actors likewise never grasp the stage setting in its totality, yet they consciously take part in its construction; and even in the case of ballet dancers, the figure is still subject to the influence of its performers (18).

Fredric Jameson has a similar remark in his discussion of “cognitive mapping”, in the essay “Remapping Taipei”, when he writes, “the social totality can be sensed, as it were, from the outside, like a skin at which the Other somehow looks, but which we ourselves will never see” (19).

Appropriately enough then, that in the sequels, Neo, the one who has achieved the greatest consciousness of the superstructure, now acquires the ability to fly.

It is also notable in this context that the invention of photography was quickly followed by the attempt to use the new device to map land from above. First with hot-air balloons, then “rocket-cameras”, and then the airplane (the first motion picture taken from an airplane was made for Pathe on the Wright Brothers’ plane, but doesn’t survive) – which is the standard technique for photogrammetry today – and finally surveillance satellites.

Figure 5

A number of aerial views in all three Matrix films reinforce the cartographic nature of the film while indulging in the spectacle of the map, of the image of the total system, a pleasure we can place under the heading of what the geographer Tuan Yi-fu called “topophilia” – a term which describes “affective bond between people and place or setting”, and the values of human perception of spatiality (20). Giuliana Bruno employs the term in her book Atlas of Emotions to describe “that form of cinematic discourse that exposes the labor of intimate geography” (21). To further consider topophilia in The Matrix we might consider the sensations of its opposite, that is, what George Miller Beard labeled “topophobia”, the anxiety unique to urban living expressed especially in claustrophobia and agoraphobia (22). And one can quickly recognise Vertigo (1955) in the opening scene of the first film, echoing Hitchcock’s film [Fig. 5]. The views from dizzying heights range from perspectives of fear in the first film (Neo’s phone conversation with Morpheus on a window ledge or his first “jump” attempt) to confidence and control in Neo’s flights in the second and third film. A short comparison of the narratives of Vertigo and the Matrix films may be useful here. In Vertigo, things repeat themselves, producing a cyclical return like the film’s emblematic image in the credit sequence. The partial knowledge of the future and the attempt to create it fails to prevent progress, or rather, another fall from the bell tower. In The Matrix Reloaded, the Architect claims that Neo had five predecessors, that Zion has been destroyed and rebuilt five times, and the film begins and ends with Trinity’s fall. One could imagine Vertigo being a similar story if it was shown backwards, and with the Oracle egging on Neo by insisting the future is already decided, we could be reminded of the narrator looking over the shoulder of the main character in a tale told backwards, Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow, producing, Amis writes, a “vertigo effect” (23). The vertiginous experience of moving through space becomes an issue of free will (in the wirework for martial arts scenes in The Matrix, who is pulling the strings?).

Figure 6

A key symptom for the early diagnosis of vertigo according to Charcot is the sensation of falling, and the narrative of The Matrix can allow one to turn to Cathy Caruth’s assessment of Paul de Man’s frequent telling of the story of a fall – both a figurative and a literal falling (24). In responding to skeptics of post-structuralism’s direction for literary theory, critical of theory’s abstraction and disappearance of historical reference, de Man differentiates reference and natural law, and “[t]hose who resist theory in the name of perceptual reality” resist the gravity of a fall. For de Man, Isaac Newton’s work presented a critical turning point for philosophy, for while gravity was a law, explained by the mathematical sciences, as a concept for philosophy, it is an invisible presence that makes no (rational) sense. And, as Morpheus reminds Neo during his body’s first attempt at self-knowledge and independence from empirical laws (that is, his first attempt at kung fu), “do you think that’s real air that you’re breathing?” The fall creates a sublime sense of formlessness, as the reference point of one’s center of gravity is lost. This is evident in the space of the matrix – if that is not air you are breathing, what is it that is making up the space between objects? (25) The space of the matrix takes on a fluid property: note the ripples in the air created by bullets, the slow glide upwards of bodies during fight sequences, the waves created when Neo takes to flight or in the reflective surface of the Westin Bonaventure-like building after the helicopter explosion (26). In this sense, the matrix is a womb – remember most live their lives suspended in the pods filled with fluid. And Metropolis or Inferno, cited above, present similar moments. [Fig. 6]

There are many dramatic falls in the Matrix films. There are also instances of what de Man called “an upward fall.” He writes, “To the eventuality of the fall corresponds the possibility of an equally involuntary ascent…the feeling of being ‘carried away’ by an act of pure imagination, a feeling of levitation that is familiar to readers of Keats and Wordsworth”, and, one might add, to the visions of Trinity and Neo in the second film. “The possibility of falling and of despondency that follows such moments of flight, is much more tragic and definitive than the mere fatigue of someone who climbs down, by his own devices, into the lower world of everyday cares” (27). The fall that opens and closes The Matrix Reloaded puts time into the body of Trinity – seen on a horizontal plane in perpetual duration, depth, distance, and direction no longer make any sense. A similar exercise can be found in Bruce Nauman’s Bouncing into a Corner series (1968), or in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicholas Roeg, 1976), David Bowie’s character (named Newton, of course!), who suffers from vertigo and hopes to eventually fall from Earth, is asked where he came from. But he doesn’t respond by pointing upward to the heavens; instead he points at the eclipse of the horizon – the end of the Earth perhaps. The trauma of the fall, especially as an accident or departure, is of particular relevance of Caruth’s discussion of Freud’s work on trauma. The Caruth outlines Freud’s notion of history as a history of trauma experienced in departure and return, and Trinity’s fall is predicated on various returns. It is, of course, a return to the opening scene of The Matrix Reloaded (as well as that of The Matrix itself), as Neo has repeated dreams of her death; it is also a foreshadowing of her death in the hovercraft that falls from the sky. Neo has, near the end of the second film, been told by the architect that the history of the matrix is a traumatic one of history repeating itself, Zion being destroyed over and over again. As the human race has been exiled underground to the city of Zion, an anime short of the Zion archive reveals that, before the war between man and machine, the machine race had been exiled to the land that man had forgotten – seen from high above, it appears to be Israel. And this pivotal scene of Trinity’s fall in the second film marks Neo’s return to the matrix, a departure that, the Architect warns him, will cause the collapse of the matrix and the death of human civilisation itself. Yet the knowledge that nothing can truly be repeated is cause for mourning as well – Neo is too late to stop the bullet from entering Trinity’s body, but he does “return the favour”, of bringing Trinity back to life. In The Matrix, especially in the bullet-time sequences, we are reminded of film’s reliance upon persistence of vision, that the perception of movement and the passage of time is created with the succession of images that at first glance might be repetitive but are slightly different. Interviewed about his tenure as editor of Cahiers du Cinema and the magazine’s reappraisals of celebrated auteurs, Serge Daney remarked, “Criticism is always that: an eternal return to a fundamental pleasure… There is a dimension to cinephilia which psychoanalysis knows well under the name of ‘mourning work’: something is dead, something of which traces, shadows remains.” (28)


  1. Slavoj Zizek, “The Matrix: Or, the Two Sides of Perversion”, in Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, 2nd edition, Routledge, New York, 2001.
  2. I note that I was the only person to identify The Matrix Reloaded as one of the best films of the year in the compilation of such lists in Senses of Cinema, no. 30, January–March 2004.
  3. I am referring here to Uncle Josh at the Motion Picture Show (Edwin S. Porter & Thomas Edison, 1902).
  4. “Inside the Matrix” Symposium, Zurich, 1999; William Irwin, ed., Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Open Court, 2002.
  5. Karl Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything”, Robert Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, W. W. Norton, New York, 1978.
  6. Not unlike how Georg Lukacs describes the mind-numbing working day in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”, History and Class Consciousness, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1971.
  7. Lukacs, 1971, p. 84.
  8. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 2, Vintage, New York, 1977.
  9. Tom Bottomore, “Totality”, in The Dictionary of Marxist Philosophy, ed. Bottomore, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991, p. 537.
  10. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999. Theodor Adorno once wrote, “Is the Arcades Benjamin’s attempt at being a professional student? It was by nature incomplete, by orientation in need of more reading. Ultimately, it is an exercise of reading and collecting notes. It must be worked on in the library – as if only at the Bibliotechque Nationale does the work exists/function.” Theodor Adorno and Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Nicholas Walker, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 107.
  11. For information on this never realised film project, see Annette Michelson, “Reading Eisenstein Reading Capital”, October, no. 2, Summer 1976.
  12. Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (Fritz Lang, 1922) to The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1960).
  13. Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, British Film Institute, London, 2000.
  14. Gunning, 2000, p. 36.
  15. Another site of constant circulation and transit, explored in Siegfried Kracauer, “The Hotel Lobby”, The Mass Ornament and Other Weimar Essays, ed. Thomas Y. Levin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1995.
  16. An excellent overview of the special effects work can be found in Steve Silberman, “Matrix²”, Wired Magazine, vol 11. no. 5. May 2003.
  17. For a detailed account, see Paul Ernest Debevec, Modeling and Rendering Architecture from Photographs, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1996.
  18. Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament” in The Mass Ornament, p. 77. In the context of The Matrix, one might add to the “case of ballet dancers”, the case of martial artists.
  19. Fredric Jameson, “Remapping Taipei” in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1992, p. 114.
  20. Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, p. 4.
  21. Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotions: Journeys in Art, Architectures, and Film, Verso, New York, 2002, p. 354.
  22. As discussed in Anthony Vidler, “Psychopathologies of Modern Space: Metropolitan Fear and Agoraphobia to Estrangement”, Michael Roth, ed., Rediscovering History: Culture, Politics, and the Psyche, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1994.
  23. Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow, Vintage, New York, 1991.
  24. Cathy Caruth, “The Falling Body and the Impact of Reference”, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996.
  25. As Benjamin noted in The Arcades Project of the houses of Le Corbusier: “The air passes right through them! The air becomes a constitutive factor!”
  26. Remember Bruce Lee once described martial arts as “land swimming”.
  27. Paul de Man, “Ludwig Binswanger and the Sublimation of the Self”, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, New York, 1971.
  28. Serge Daney, “Les Cahiers du Cinéma 1968-1977”, interview conducted and trans. by Bill Krohn, The Thousand Eyes, Bleeker Street Cinema, New York, 1977. Thanks to Steve Erickson for making this material available online on his website.

About The Author

Charles Leary is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University.

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