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The End of Humanism | The Nation

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The End of Humanism

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Like a guest at a potlatch, laughing to see his host's worldly goods go up in flames, I roared at The Matrix--roared and at the same time was humbled, knowing Warner Bros. had such magnificence to burn. What I witnessed was not a movie but a ceremony of power, a celebration of waste, a demonstration that my daily cares loom over me only because I am like unto a beetle, and they are my dung.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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So I was told, in plain words, by the gods and heroes who reign over The Matrix. But first, what is "the Matrix" (to quote the Web site: www.whatisthematrix.com)? Here, words are meant to fail. According to a line in the screenplay--which by a curious coincidence also figures in the trailer--"No one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it." Maybe you do. But in case your mother warned you not to jump off a bridge just because someone told you to, here is an explanation:

The world as we know it is merely a computer simulation, wired into our neurons by evil beings. All the world's an Oakland; there's no there anywhere. The motive for this deception, and the nature of the reality beyond the simulation known as the Matrix, need not concern us here. It is enough to know that the weavers of cyber-Maya are inhuman, and only half a dozen people have penetrated their secret. The other 6 or 8 billion of us are just dozing in the void. At best, we're idiots; at worst, threats to the well-being of the half-dozen gods and heroes, who scarcely feel regret when they twist off our heads, kick our spleens into our throats or riddle our "illusory" bodies with "virtual" bullets.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. As one of the cyberheroes says, speaking to a virtual nonentity like me, "We know why you live alone and stay up all night at your computer." This remark hints at sympathy, or at least pity, coming as it does from a woman in dark glasses and a slick black bodysuit that fits like a paint job. She calls herself Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and wears her hair short and wet, and you can tell that she'd feel superior to a guy who spends his days typing in a cubicle and his nights as she's described. "You have no life" would be the readiest translation of her comment. In other circumstances--say, a Jonathan Demme movie--she would appear for the sake of rescuing her guy from white-collar servitude and sexless anomie. But Trinity does not drop in to redeem a drone from his daily round; for 6 or 8 billion of us, no redemption is possible. Her mission is to contact the one drone who is exceptional--who is, in fact, The One. He is destined to become the cyber-Jesus--and though you may once have known him as Keanu Reeves, he will henceforth be called Neo.

Whoosh! Bang! Off zooms Neo to meet his John the Baptist, otherwise known as Morpheus, though you might call him Laurence Fishburne. He, too, wears really cool shades--pince-nez!--and does something extreme with his hair (like, shave it all off), and his leather coat trails to the floor. Morpheus has dedicated his entire life to searching for Neo and proclaiming his coming reign. This entitles him to say things like "Free your mind," and "The body cannot live without the mind," and "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path," and (at the climax, to the singing of a heavenly choir) "He is The One." But I'm getting ahead of myself. First Neo must get his own dark glasses and leather coat and train in kung fu.

If The Matrix did not originate as the tag line for a trailer, then it surely got its start as a video-game scenario. For half the film, Neo and Morpheus are not so much characters as figures in a computer graphic, who are made to rise from the floor, hang in space and rotate with a slight telltale jerkiness. Watch them, and you can already see millions of kids furiously pressing buttons in front of their monitors, while millions of parents pay credit-card bills. If The Nation kept a video-game reviewer on its masthead (some drone who would live alone and sit up all night at the computer, in exchange for Navaskyan wages), then we might dispense with the advertisement and go straight to the product. But since this magazine, like the entertainment industry, goes on pretending that films are primary and licensed merchandise merely the spinoff, I will continue. Besides, you ought to know about the guns.

"What do you need?" asks one of the lesser heroes, when Neo and Trinity prepare to re-enter the Matrix for a daring rescue attempt. "Guns," replies Neo. "Lots of guns." And there they are, appearing out of nowhere with the magic of computer graphics: racks and racks of automatic weapons. Cyber-Jesus packs; cyber-Buddha has compassion for all sentient beings and the firepower to back it up. Of course, since this world is an illusion, Neo should be able to rise above such methods. Even kung fu would ultimately be too crude. On the other hand, what's a leather-coated god without his piece? The Matrix may ask us to think beyond the limits of our ordinary world, but it doesn't venture that far into the unknown.

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