“The problem is choice” – Neo

“But the choice between the blue and the red pill is not really a choice between illusion and reality…I want a third pill. So what is the third pill? Definitely not a transcendental pill that allows some sort of fake, fast-food, religious experience, but a pill that would allow me to see not the reality behind the illusion but the reality of the illusion itself.” – Slavoj Zizek

When I saw “The Matrix: Reloaded” as a freshman in high school, I hated it. I was right. I am not here to defend the movie itself. The “Matrix” sequels are truly god-awful: stupid scripts, mediocre acting, and worst of all, lame fucking fight scenes and ugly effects. And back in 2003, the Architect’s speech at the climax of “Reloaded” was emblematic of all that was shitty about the franchise. Every negative review mentioned that turgid, overwritten speech as the nadir of a movie that collapsed under the weight of its own pretensions. A moment that was meant to totally blow our minds and cement the genius of the Wachowskis ended up a punchline. But the thing is, it’s not that bad a scene. Well, it’s bad from a filmic perspective. But it’s an excellent primer on Neo-Marxist understandings of power and resistance.

Let’s review what happens in the movie: Neo fights some folks, Trinity does some hacking (which I’m told is very realistic), they find the Keymaster (the franchise loves stupid names), and Neo arrives at “The Core,” a place from which he can suppose liberate humanity from the machines. Instead he finds The Architect, the program that wrote The Matrix. The Architect explains that the entire resistance is part of the machines’ plan and that Neo’s function as The One is to choose a few individuals to rebuild Zion, which is on the brink of destruction.

This is all done in some of the most obfuscating language ever committed to celluloid, so the casual viewer may be excused if she doesn’t really understand why the persistence of the human resistance is part of The Matrix. She would not be helped by Neo, who actually misinterprets what The Architect says. “The problem is choice,” he says. But it isn’t. The problem is rather a sort of natural human rebelliousness and skepticism, which leads a growing segment of the population to question the nature of their perceived reality, with unpredictable, destabilizing results. The Machines need Zion, the resistance, and the One as a sort of safety valve, a mechanism that allows discontent to escape the system rather than build up and undermine it. What’s cool about this scene is how fundamentally accurate it is.

In The Matrix, as in our society, what we perceive to be a “natural” state of affairs is actually a scenario of symbolic fictions that conceals and reifies a structure of domination (in The Matrix, reality is structured by robots, whereas here it is structured by Capital, but the differences are not so extreme). Now, looking back on the first “Matrix” last weekend, I was interested by the ways in which it wasn’t at all radical: it suggested that it would be possible to “free your mind,” to perceive the structures of domination, to elevate yourself above “normal” people who remain trapped in an illusion. This is the ideology of countless counter-revolutionary movements: religious mysticism, libertarianism, Leninist Vanguardism, Randian Objectivism, and many anarchists. These ideologies offer ready-made answers to pretty much all of life’s questions and promise to make their adherents enlightened beings who can impose their will on the remaining unenlightened “sheeple.”

This sort of movement always fails, either by relying on individual (or small-scale) solutions to major collective problems or by reinstituting the same structures of domination with a new name attached. In “The Matrix,” the resistance seems like this romantic band of libertarians, more interested in freeing their own minds than in structural reform. The Architect scene in “Reloaded” reveals that that’s what they really are, and indeed that the impotent, escapist opposition and a mystical belief in mental liberation is integral to preserving mechanic hegemony. In the end, true liberation would not be achieved through exit into an “authentic” reality, but by exercising democratic control over The Matrix itself, just as workers should seize the means of production rather than destroy them. What would a democratic Matrix look like? The fact that no one can answer that question is precisely the point. “The Matrix: Reloaded” demonstrates how social change cannot be work of a messiah, and that the restructuring of reality must be a participatory process.

Not that that makes it worth watching.