One summer afternoon in the year 2000 I was standing on a cobbled-together deck, looking across the roofscape of some city or another. I held a glass of white wine, luminous in the afternoon sun, condensation beading down the side. We were discussing The Matrix. I found that I was alone in my conclusion that it was the worst kind of garbage: the kind that purports to be Important Art. I was not optimistic about the possibility that rumored sequels might address the flaws of the original.
In fact, the sequel—I consider Reloaded and Revolutions to be a single, bloated sequel rather than the fleshing out of a trilogy—was worse than I could possibly have expected. Despite the fact that there are no actual insurrections in the movie, Revolutions is most aptly named: the story does seem to go round and round and round without ever getting anywhere.
Reviewers, critics, and bloggers have thoroughly examined the extensive flaws of the series: the narrative blunders, the plot holes, the absence of character motivation, the pointlessness of many scenes and subplots, the tedium of the Zion battle, the ultimate banality of the philosopy, the deterioration of acting, and so on and so forth.
But the sequels did do something new, and something interesting.
Would the Real Jesus Christ Please Stand Up?
In The Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers hammered home the savior imagery in just about every scene that showed Neo. The first character who speaks to him (a minor hoodlum) says: "You're my savior, man, my own personal Jesus Christ." (M,0:08:40) The film depicts a salvation figure coming to terms with his destiny. At the end he dies, and returns to life to vanquish the forces of evil.
It's not strict allegory—the Wachowski Brothers are clearly not trying to create a work of Christian apologetics—but the metaphorical intent is undisputable. It's worth considering some of the important departures from Christian source material, the Oracle tells Neo: "You got the gift." (M,1:15:20). He has the gift, but there is no giver. Neo is not a messenger from God; indeed, within the context of The Matrix as a standalone story, there is no God. In fact, Neo is not a messenger from anyone: he has no message, he has nothing to teach. Neo may or may not have some special powers, but he does not have faith. In fact, it is this quest for faith, Neo's yearning to understand himself, that makes the story so compelling. But the moment of enlightenment, such as it is, comes not from any sort of epiphany or experience of spiritual transcendence, it comes from that good old Hollywood cliche, true love. This, most certainly, is not a parallel to Jesus, who had a very different understanding of love indeed. (Not to mention, Jesus managed to accomplish his mission without slaughtering thousands of innocent bystanders. It took his so-called followers centuries to build up to that kind of destruction.)
In the sequel, however, we do not find Neo sitting at the right hand of God. In fact, he doesn't seem particularly omnipotent. What he has done, however, is destabilize the Matrix with that little stunt he pulled at the end of the first film. Neo, who was never a particularly good savior figure—in fact, he never came across as much of a human being at all—does not really play Jesus in the sequel. It's someone else's turn now.
I'm not sure the Wachowski Brothers were aware of this, however: in the final scene, where Neo merges with Agent Smith to "balance the equations" there is a nice little CGI crucifixion to reiterate the salvation theme. But, despite just about every character blathering endlessly about choice, purpose, why, and destiny, it was never Neo who called the shots. Poor Neo shuffled through all six hours of film without ever understanding what he was doing, what he was supposed to do, why he was doing, or what his alleged "choices" actually meant. Without having some grasp of the consequences of choice, however, it's pretty hard to even call it that. In Reloaded, the Oracle and then the Architect feed Neo scraps of cryptic dialog that are almost unintelligible on their own, and come from sources which cannot be trusted anyway. Without any reliable information to act on, we cannot say that Neo is making choices. Even in The Matrix, Neo seems to be the pawn, rather than the player:
"I can't explain to you why it's not [suicide]. I can't explain to you why it's not. Morpheus believed something and he was ready to give his life for what he believed. And I understand that now. And that's why I have to go... because I believe in something... I believe I can bring him back." (M,1:36:18)
We don't know why he believes this; neither does he. Throughout the series, Neo glides like an automaton from one fight scene to the next. Like an avatar in a video game, Neo fights each fight, but he never acts, thinks, or chooses for himself. His "sacrifice" at the end of Revolutions is the result not of his own will, but of the ineluctable action of causality. The Oracle, The Architect, The Merovingian, Agent Smith, and even Morpheus all make the same observation: it is fate.
The Merovingian actually makes another interesting point. Although colorful, the Merovingian's purpose in the larger plot is unclear. He seems to exist solely as an obstacle that Neo and company must occasionally try to get around. In the end, he turns out to be a figure of no consequence. But he has one important observation that helps identify the true Jesus figure of the sequel.
(Merovingian) "You are here because you were sent here. You were told to come here. And then you obeyed... There is only one constant. One universal. It is the only real truth. Causality. Action. Reaction. Cause. And effect."
(Morpheus) "Everything begins with choice."
(Merovingian) "No. Wrong. Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.... Causality. There is no escape from it. We are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the why. Why is what separates us from them, you from me. Why is the only real source of power. Without it, you are powerless. And this is how you come to me, without why." (M.Rel,1:05:47 - 1:08:40)
So, who did Neo "obey"? The Oracle, of course. And she had some things to say about this crucial "Why" also:
(Neo) "If you already know, how can I make a choice?"
(Oracle) "Because you didn't come here to make the choice. You already made it. You're here to understand why you made it. I'd have thought you'd have figured it out by now... We're all here to do what we're all here to do." (M.Rel,0:45:50)
Then without any further information of value, the Oracle sends him on his way. Neo is not quite clever enough to realize what a pawn he actually is. With his Rad Skillz he thinks he's pretty powerful. But the Merovingian puts it in perspective: without understanding what he's doing, without possession of his "Why" he has no power at all.
In the big picture, after all films have finished, we realize that the Oracle has been manipulating Neo, and all events. She has maneuvered circumstances to a very particular crisis. In the tension between causality and choice, only the Oracle seems not only to see what will happen, but also to create what will happen. Prophesies of any kind are always subject to the criticism that the utterance of the prediction helps bring about the consequence. When the Oracle tells Trinity that she will fall in love with the One, perhaps she makes it so. Romantic love is a pretty ephemeral foundation upon which to construct the savior of mankind. In The Matrix this was a real groaner, but in Reloaded it becomes a critical point.
We learn that Neo is not the first, not even the second "One". In the Architect's seemingly endless pontification, the careful viewer manages to learn that Neo is not an accident, but an effect: a necessary effect arising from the same tension between causality and choice. Although the mechanism of this effect is necessarily left vague, Neo represents the world out of balance, and the Architect's desire is that Neo should, as all previous Neos have done, return to the Source, reboot the Matrix, refound a new Zion. Neo, unlike all previous Neos, does not do this. Why? Because he's in love. Why is he in love? Perhaps because of the machinations of the Oracle. It turns out that the Merovingian is right. The "Why" is very important indeed.
So if Neo's little death and resurrection routine at the end of The Matrix and his big sacrifice at the end of Revolutions don't qualify him to be the savior, who is?
The Oracle, of course. Although she is a "program," she is far more human than Neo, or any of the android-like people of Zion (with the possible exception of the Counsellor, who is one of the few saving graces of the whole Zion subplot). And there are other parallels to Christianity that simply make her a better candidate for the Jesus of the Matrix. Consider the words of the Architect himself:
"The answer eluded me because it required a lesser mind or perhaps a mind less bound by the parameters of perfection. Thus the answer was stumbled upon by another, an intuitive program, initially created to investigate certain aspects of the human psyche." (M.Rel,1:53:14)
This sounds a lot like Christian theology: God sent Jesus to experience humanity, and in so doing, to reconcile humanity to God. The Oracle is initially seen in the role of servant. The Oracle does not kill anyone at any time. Her demeanor is one of compassion. These are all the more traditional images of Jesus.
But while Neo does end up selecting a course of action that presumably leads to his own destruction thereby ending the war between machines and humans, it seems to be the Oracle that made this choice. By manipulating the One to make the wrong choice before the Machine God in his Herman Miller Throne, the Oracle has provoked a crisis in the cycle of the Matrix by which only cooperation between machine and humanity can right the balance. Less biblically: she has given humanity a bargaining chip with which to negotiate a truce.
Did the Oracle really manipulate Neo? It seems pretty clear. Consider this exchange, their last:
(Neo) "Why didn't you tell me about the Architect? Why didn't you tell me Zion and the Ones before me? Why didn't you tell me truth?"
(Oracle) "Because it wasn't time for you to know."
(Neo) "Who decided it wasn't time?"
(Oracle) "You know who."(M.Rev,0:26:39)
The implication here is that Neo wasn't ready... but that's not what the Oracle says. We can conclude either that the Wachowski Brothers were simply hiding information from the viewers, or that the Oracle manipulates Neo mostly through the power of suggestion. Even in The Matrix the Oracle molds the lines of causality around Neo by letting him draw his own conclusions.
Coming out of his first encounter with her, Neo has firmly drawn the conclusion that he is not the One. But she never said anything of the sort. She said: "Being the One is like being in love. No one can tell you you're in love. You just know it." (M.1:14:00). Why does the Oracle give him what, in retrospect, can only be a false impression? Why does she bring love into this equation... and not just love, but infatuation? Presumably, if my thesis is correct, to maneuver the two love-birds together so that Neo has the wrong psychological makeup for the Architect's Ultimate Choice. (It is unfortunate that there is never the slightest spark of energy between Neo and Trinity in any of the movies: their passion, if that's what we must call it, is about as compelling as the intimacy between cog and wheel. They are efficient killing machines, and they look good in leather. That's about it. But that complaint is not original, I think.)
If the Oracle is the true Christ figure here, then she must make her own sacrifice. She must have her own death and resurrection. And she does. But first she predicts it:
(Neo) "Where is this going? Where does it end?"
(Oracle) "I don't know."
(Neo) "You don't know or you won't tell me."
(Oracle) "I told you before, no one can see beyond a choice they don't understand, and I mean no one."
(Neo) "What choice?"
(Oracle) "It doesn't matter. It's my choice. I have mine to make, same as you have yours." (M.Rev,0:26:10)
Finally, her tone grows grim and she says: "Everything that has a beginning has an end." (M.Rev,0:29:06)
At this point we understand that when Neo acted to save Trinity at the conclusion of Reloaded—whatever his reasons—whatever his causes, he set events in motion that would lead to the destruction of the Matrix, the destruction of humanity. Why the Architect could not simply intervene and reboot the Matrix himself is not at all clear, but nevermind that, it's just a movie. There has to be some dismissive hand-waving along the way.
The destruction, however, is particularly interesting in light of these words by Smith in The Matrix:
"I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease. A cancer of this planet. A plague. We are the cure." (M,1:50:00)
In the sequel, Smith has become the virus. He is no longer a well-behaved program doing the Architect's bidding like all other Agents. He is not even a quietly crooked Exile like the Merovingian, playing games in the Matrix.
When Agent Smith comes to the Oracle, she sits calmly before him, like Jesus before Pontius Pilate, and she accepts her fate. "Do what you're here to do." (M.Rev,0:34:44).
Smith then replicates himself into her being, seemingly destroying her and coopting her powers. The Oracle's demeanor turns out not to be mere acceptance of her own fate, however. In the final battle between Neo and Smith (could anything be longer and more boring?) Smith finally beats Neo. But the Oracle has set events in motion; she is even still working within Smith, as we see from his stumbling last words: "Wait... I've seen this... this is it, this is the end... you were laying right there... just like that... I stand here, right here... I'm supposed to say something... I say... 'Everything that has a beginning has an end, Neo.'... what? what did I just say? No... this isn't right... this can't be right." (1:51:49)
When the re-unification of Smith and Neo takes place, and the equations are again balanced, the corpse of Smith falls to the ground as the Oracle.
Ultimately, the Architect's plan for rebooting the Matrix has been accomplished, albeit at the last possible moment. But only after humans and machines have been forced into an uneasy truce. The war is over. The Oracle has, by her machinations, by her "death", and proven in her resurrection reconciled Zion to its Architect.
If you are looking for Christ figures in the Matrix, don't look at Keanu Reeves (unless you just want to look at him, which is fine—we all have our weaknesses). Instead, turn to the Oracle.