“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.

  • Mark Wickens

    Ayn Rand does not talk about “elevat[ing] yourself above ‘normal’ people,” “freeing your mind,” or perceiving “structures of domination.” Objectivism does not offer “ready-made” answers to anything, and it does not promise to allow you to impose your will on anyone.

  • AD

    rob i love you for writing this.

  • Gabe Lezra



    Also, Randian Objectivism, which isn’t really a philosophy–come on, it’s just self-centered nihilism with a different, cutesy name–has absolutely everything to do with all of this. “The problem is choice” might as well have been ripped straight out of “Atlas Shrugged”–poor people, gays, blacks, all need to choose to be better.

  • Someone who understands Objectivism more than Gabe Lezra

    Poor people need to choose to be better (i.e. be productive to support their continued existence) but what part of Objectivism supports the view that gays or blacks are lesser people? The answer is: none. Racism is collectivism, which is the complete opposite of what Objectivism is (and being black is not a choice in any rational sense.) Likewise, “gay” doesn’t equate to “worse”, because there is nothing immoral about being gay — where is the force? Where is the victim?

    Gabe Lezra: you simply, obviously, don’t understand Objectivism. You shouldn’t profess knowledge about things that you don’t understand.

  • Jacob Galt

    Great article, it was well written and easily digested.

    Except for the part about Rand.

    I’ll just say a short piece about what objectivism actually advocates, to add some much needed balance.

    Rand argued that *each* person is a hero. Not just the rich, not just the poor – she meant all of us. On this point there seems little room for argument, unless you haven’t read her work.

    From this it follows that since we’re not just ‘sheeple’, we do not accept sacrifice of our lives for anything we don’t elect for ourselves. If there was ever a philosopher that was ‘anti-sheeple,’ it was Rand.

    Objectivism holds that rationality is the highest virtue, and that each person deserves rights based on the irrefutable fact that they exist. Rand was not an elitist at all, she argued for the right of all people to exist as free agents – and she offered a proper grounding for her claim of universal independence.

    That being said, I bet she was a riot between the sheets.

  • Knee Grow

    Your op-ed is filled with the same inane trivial bullshit that weighed down the architect’s speech.

    Your attempt at writing by referencing “isms” which the average reader has no understanding of (“…countless counter-revolutionary movements: religious mysticism, libertarianism, Leninist Vanguardism, Randian Objectivism…”) and throwing in that jab at the end (which, might I add, is typical for the haughty “Editor-In-Chief” aspiring journalist) surmises my thoughts for me and attests to your incompetency as a critic.

    [insert lame insult about the topic of my speech here]

  • Jeff Ryerson

    “Every negative review mentioned that turgid, overwritten speech as the nadir of a movie that collapsed under the weight of its own pretensions.”

    “But it’s an excellent primer on Neo-Marxist understandings of power and resistance.”

    These are two sentences in the same paragraph.