The Matrix, Dark City, and the American religious desire

by Liberty Miller
originally @ http://members.aol.com/lyberty5/matrixpaper.html

"The Matrix" has been doing remarkably good sales in the month and a half since its release, in part due to a stylish advertising strategy, but also largely due to "word-of-mouth". Notably, it has found approval with critics who dislike both science-fiction movies and Keanu Reeves (the star of the film). Among young viewers, it has already achieved a cult-like status (as observed in chat rooms and message boards on the internet). What lies behind the appeal of this film?

Primarily, the film "borrows" from many popular stories and films that came before it, and integrates intelligent science-fiction with the action genre, slick special effects, and a very self-aware fashion consciousness.

This pastiche of works that have come before it help make the film enjoyable; watching it one is vaguely reminded of other works one has enjoyed. Influences on the film include innumerable science-fiction stories; movies like "The Crow", "Terminator" (and a little "Star Wars"); Hong Kong cinema (every action sequence in the movie is virtually identical to one Hong Kong film or another); and graphic novels /comic books like "Mage" and "The Invisables". But perhaps the seemingly greatest influence on "The Matrix" is the movie "Dark City", as the story elements are so similiar that it is hard to believe the shared elements are entirely coincidental...

A primary element of both these films are the deliberate religious overtones used by the writers. Both films revolve around the hero as "The One", the messiah who has come to "save the world" by delivering mankind from its servitude; a slavery which, incidentally, the masses are entirely unaware of.

My thesis is that "The Matrix" reflects current American society through not only its slick violence-as-entertainment but also though its use of religious themes, especially the modern religion of "self-determination" and "mind-over-matter", and its use in opposition to the hidden conspiracy that is keeping us slaves without our knowledge.

In modern American society there has been a large scale rejection of traditional religion. But there is an undeniable desire for some sort of religious orientation in our lives, or at least some sense of the sacred. We can clearly see this gap being filled, be it with "New Age" type philosophies, science-as-religion, or interest in exotic (e.g. Buddhist) or ancient (e.g. neo-paganism) religions, to name a few examples. In particular, there has developed a particular American religion of selfish-willpower: a variety of lecturers and authors have a large paying audience of Americans eager to hear how they can fashion their lives and their worlds (esp. their incomes) through will alone (e.g. Scientology, Depak Chopra, etc.), using techniques such as "creative-visualization".

This absence of faith also is reflected in a common sense of emptiness found in our affluent consumer society. This sense of "something-is-wrong", combined with a general skepticism brought on by being constantly lied to by those in power (i.e. businesses and politicians, thorough advertisers and "the news"), can be seen reflected in the conspiracy mentality found in a large part of our escapist entertainment. A particularly telling example is the popular television series "The X-Files", which deals with the conspiracy of our being controlled by secret (especially government) forces which seek to enslave us to aliens.

In "The Matrix" and "Dark City", the hero is an individual who discovers the power within himself to shape reality as he sees fit. Though cast in the role of The Savior of mankind, these omnipotent powers come not from some divine being, but through their own humanity. The implication is that any of us could have these powers, if only we "believe in ourselves" enough. The casting of man-as-god appeals to what Erich Fromm calls "the immature desire for omnipotence"; the primal fantasy within us all of being able to control our lives, the lives of all around us, and indeed nature itself.

It is no coincidence that these fantasies are often portrayed in a technological context, as it is technology that has increasing given us more control over our world. However, the "conspiracy" element also reflects our dichotomous feelings about technology; we fear we have lost (or will soon lose) control over these forces we have created. Nuclear weapons were the primary example of this fear a decade ago, the concern over our unintentional impact on the environment is a more common fear today. "The Matrix" cleverly plays upon this fear, creating a story of how the artificial intelligence we created to further "set us free" instead enslaved us. This is a very modern concern, as many of us realize how we have become consumer slaves to pay for all of our modern conveniences, which were supposed to give us more "freedom" and control. Additionally, the movie brings up the theory that the human race is remarkably like a virus, multiplying at a rate not usually found in nature, using up all resources as we spread over a wider and wider area, like a cancer (a theory which, by the way, I developed myself in high school).

The Films



Written by Larry and Andy Wachowski

A science-fiction/ action movie

primary stylistic influences: Hong Kong cinema, "Aliens"

quote: "Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."



Directed by Alex Proyas

Screenplay by Alex Proyas ,

Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer

Story by Alex Proyas

A neo-film-noir movie

primary stylistic influence : the French film "The City of Lost Children"

quote: "What's happening inspector?"; "I'm not sure I know anymore."


  • The Messenger:

The character who comes to the hero to warn him of his predicament and give him clues. This character has previously "woken to the truth" before the hero.

Dark City Detective Walenski; a former policeman who has "cracked"

The Matrix Trinity; a former fellow hacker

  • The Prophet / Teacher / Guru:

The character who has been waiting for The Messiah (the hero). Reveals to the hero the hidden truth and teaches him to use his untapped power.

Dark City Dr. Shreber; the scientist who is a

double-agent for the controlling aliens

The Matrix Morpheus; the seemingly mythical figure

who reveals to a select few "the truth"

(Lawrence Fishburn, no doubt under direction from the writers, in an interview compared his character to John the Baptist)

  • The Love Interest

A relatively underdeveloped character who provides an impetus for the hero to overcome the adversaries.

Dark City Jennifer Connely's character(Mrs. Murdock)

The Matrix Trinity; Neo comes back from the dead as

the omnipotent messiah after her

declaration of love

  • The Enemy

Has enslaved humanity (the names of the respective movies are the names of the respective "prisons") and forced it to live in an artificial world of their creation. Needs humanity to "stay asleep". Has ultra-human powers. Dislikes sunlight. Wears black. Has "Agents" who seek out the hero and attempt to kill him. One main enemy character is required for The Showdown with the hero at the end of the movie.

Dark City The "aliens"; Mr. Quick, Mr. Book, etc.

The Matrix The artificial-intelligence life-forms;

Agent Smith, Agent Brown, etc.

  • The Promised Land

Dark City Shell Beach; the only place out of The City, artificially remembered

The Matrix Zion; the last human city in the world

  • The Hero

The hero is searching for himself and for the hidden truth. Awakes from the imposed dream of artificial memories. Has ultra-human powers due to evolution, i.e. has god-like powers but these powers come from their own humanity. The savior of humanity ("The One").

Dark City John Murdock;

notable element: as seen in other modern private-eye movies, the P-I is split into two characters: Inspector Bumstead and John Murdock. Both are searching for the same person (as Murdock cannot remember who he is) and, later, the same Truth.

The Matrix Thomas Anderson / Neo;

notable element: Neo (the new man; bringer of the new way) is born into the real world from a womb-like chamber, grabbed by a harsh "doctor", and comes out of a birthing chute…

" Does Star Wars relate in any way? "
Just saw Phantom Menace yesterday. Now George lucas is doing it too. The boy in the movie is perhaps "The One who was prophesied, who will bring balance to the Force." Additionally, he makes this boy a "virgin-birth" (!). (Are there any other religions or myths beside Christianity with virgin births?)
I almost think he was desperate to keep milking his movies as "universally themed" (he probably read Joseph Campbell's take on the first Star Wars movie), so he felt compelled to give it religious similarities...
But again, the religious aspect is superficial: The Force is less a tool for spiritual enlightenment than it is a weapon for manipulating others and fighting your enemies...
And apparently Lucas wanted to define mysticism as something with a scientific element that we don't yet understand, so he introduced the idea that microscopic beings are responsible for The Force..

Update: Platinum version of DVD released; bonuses, explination [read review]




(c) copyright Liberty Miller

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Reflections on the Matrix
Reflections on Dark City