“There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” ~ Morpheus
Back in 1999, in the times of Y2K and a global millennium angst, The Matrix was one of the last movies that gave me a feeling of profound sublimity, this sense of being inspired and taken away to a place where my doubt in the lore of reality was vindicated.
The blockbuster struck the nerves of all generations at once as it played on the archetypal desire to be part of something that reaches beyond our everyday selves, and on the omnipresent feeling that there’s something wrong with Reality. In other words, everyone of us could be the main character Neo.
“The Matrix combines punk sensibility with philosophical insights, kung fu mysticism, conspiracy theory, occultism, mass destruction chic, psychedelic dream imagery and effects, paranoid awareness, and, last but not least, a messianic message of redemption. As such, it is now…the holy book of our times.”¹
Neo, aka Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a young computer programmer without relationship and friends. He spends his nights making some bucks on the side as a hacker for dubious clients, and the loner is burdened by a mystical question: What is the Matrix?
In this rather bleak period of his life, Neo gets picked up by a group literally out of his world, and after a violent interlude with seemingly covert agents, this group takes him to a man called Morpheus, who is confronting Neo with an impossible choice.
This scene, connecting the first two acts of the story, has become a legendary piece of cinema as it established an icon of pop culture: the red pill and the blue pill. The dialogue also delivers a challenge that still stands (probably more today than in 1999: Do we have a choice in the face of the so-called Singularity and somewhat domineering transhumanists?
“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. All I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.” ~ Morpheus
The room where Neo is offered the ultimate revelation, feels as end-of-the-world as it did when The Matrix hit the screens, a vintage lounge with classicist Art Deco, decaying and with the aura of a long gone world that hailed riches, beauty and decadence as pinnacle of the real world.
In this Film Noir setting, the dialogue between Morpheus and Neo seems at first like an initiation, the kind we imagine secret societies would use recruiting new adepts.
You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, that’s not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
The conversation — quite literally — mirrors the age-old debate over free will on an emotional level. Neo’s struggle is palpable, he is on the edge of his seat all the time, the disillusioned skeptic throughout. He doesn’t know what we know; that Morpheus believes Neo is “The One”, the reincarnation of a mythical hero who is capable of freeing mankind.
Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Do you want to know what it is?
The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
Eventually, Morpheus offers Neo to take him out of the digital dream world he is living in and into the real world — if he chooses the red pill.
Today, more than a decade after The Matrix was made, and in a world that is rapidly becoming ever more complex and inscrutable, the choice Neo has to make also appears like a decision on fate itself. In 1999, the Internet was still in its infancy, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet, and the 2012 prophecies with their subliminal effects on society were just about to strike roots.
In other words, the scene, especially Morpheus’ and Neo’s dialogue, might play out differently today. The Matrix and its opposite are now entangled in a rather disturbing sense, as we are perpetually presented with countless choices — and countless truths. In a way, Neo’s question “What truth?” has become meaningless.
Many people feel, in a practical and every-day sense, that there’s something profoundly wrong with the world, and more and more people can actually put their finger on it. There’s a divide between what we are told about the world and what we experience, so we seem to have less and less to base our choices on.
“That we have no actual say in our decisions, that free will is but our fondest and most violently defended illusion, that we are in truth but a minuscule component of some vast mechanism, some greater working which we can barely even imagine from our present perspective; this likewise has been fed to us by religions, from childhood to age.”¹
Yet, we are never presented with only one or two choices, something not only The Matrix original, but its two sequels have alluded to as well. There always seems to be a way out, even if this way leads nowhere.
“Actually Neo has four choices, not merely two: he can take the red pill or the blue pill, or he can choose to take neither pill or both pills. This model of more choices than meet the eye holds throughout the Matrix franchise.”²
The question is not merely whether we are able to make informed decisions though. Even if we were told the truth and nothing but the truth and could make up our own minds, The Matrix, and the red-pill-blue-pill scene in particular, did not reflect on the fact that any truth’s subjective nature can make it impossible to decide when faced with choices.
The film touches on this predicament only twice. First with Neo’s question, after he “converted” to the real world, if he could go back, and a second time when another character, Cypher, betrays his companions so he can go back to the Matrix in order to enjoy the illusion of a happy life. Apart from that, the film seems to take sides with the ones who take the red pill as they don’t want to provide sustenance for the machines that created the Matrix.
“Once we become aware of it, we are outraged by our exploitation. Perhaps, too, this is a justification for the choice that Morpheus offers, and for his struggle. It might be better if he could inform individuals such as Neo more fully before they made their choice … but how could he? No one would believe it.”²
Today, the lack of knowledge on the side of Morpheus’ candidates, like Neo, doesn’t seem to be completely plausible any more. The red-pill-blue-pill choice wouldn’t be based on what we know or are being told, as we are ever so much aware that there is always a catch, another side, something we are not told or cannot be told.
The question would be to choose or not to choose at all, and maybe to face the many truths and alternatives “out there” in the first place, and not, what more and more people do, build their private matrix that defends against the onslaught of an extremely fragmented and menacing reality. In a way, we have a red pill and a blue pill before us all the time.
On this note, this scene has become a kind of writing on the wall, and the film itself a must-watch, again: We know we live in a kind of matrix, and any observer perceptive enough can see “the other side”, and eventually the path out of this trap. I think sooner or later everyone has to make this personal choice — whether or not to go there. Personally, I’d take the red pill.
Original release: March 31st, 1999
Running time: 136 minutes
Writers and directors: The Wachowskis
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving
Red Pill/Blue Pill: 00:24:21 to 00:28:38
(1) Horsley, J Matrix Warrior: Being The One (2003), Gollancz
(2) Kapell, M/Doty W.G. Jacking in to the Matrix Franchise: Cultural Reception and Interpretation (2004), Continuum International