By Will Griggs
This is the beginning of a five-part series analyzing the films of the Matrix universe to understand the cultural relevance of this pop culture behemoth. Part 1 introduces the concept of religion in film.
Many theories on the subtext of The Matrix franchise share similar aspects: Neo is a representation of Jesus Christ or Buddha[i]; Morpheus is a prophet, tasked with tutoring the Messiah[ii], and that the original Matrix film can be seen as a Passion play[iii]. These commonalities show there are many religious insinuations within the Matrix universe, but none of the critics can agree on the role, or even the existence, of God in the storylines. Richard R. Jones argues the Christian “’God’ is conspicuously absent” of the story[iv], while Paul Fontana asserts “God isn’t absent from The Matrix.”[v] I disagree with Jones and I believe Fontana does not go far enough; not only is the Christian God visible in The Matrix universe, but there are many other gods as well. I assert The Matrix blends theologies and shows many coexisting religions, while focusing on the story of the Christian Rapture, to illustrate a world where even if all beliefs do not live in harmony they can coexist and rely on each other.
Religion in Movies
Religion has a long relationship with cinema. The first blockbuster films were the religious epics of Cecil B DeMille, such as The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). These titles were so popular with the public, they spawned the first successful remakes—The Ten Commandments (1956) and King of Kings (1961). Popularity of these films relied on the audience being able to make a connection between their personal faith and what they saw on the screen. The faith-based film industry continues to this day with films from the successful Left Behind film series from Cloud Ten Pictures and Namesake Entertainment.
Another sub-genre of movies dealing with religion is the spiritual horror film. Although this sub-genre has a long history in the margins, the 1960s and 70s saw an explosion of successful films dealing with the dark side of religion: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). These films play on the audience’s fascination with the unknown, evil side of religion; the side dealing with temptation, immorality and death.
A third sub-genre involving religion is one including films questioning the nature of religion, spirituality or faith and how the world deals with them. Although The Matrix falls into this category it is not alone. The Seventh Seal (1957), The Word (1978), and The Da Vinci Code (2006). These films use other disciplines—cryptography, computer programming, skepticism and existentialist philosophy and publishing—as backdrops and plot devices to expound upon their theories.
The primary commonality these sub-genres share is the historical context in which they were released. Although the majority of these films were released in four distinct eras—the post-WWI/roaring 20s, the post-WWII/early Cold War, the end of the Vietnam War and the turn of the millennium—these eras share a revival of spiritual questioning among the public, when people were questioning authority, themselves and their religious beliefs. The Matrix was released in 1999 amid a plethora of other films from these genres: End of Days (1999) and Stigmata (1999), to name but two. The release of The Matrix into this era gave the audience an outlet for the questions of religion it was already coming to grips with. While End of Days and Stigmata touched on ideas already in the mainstream—the rise of the anti-Christ and the Gnostic gospels, respectively—The Matrix seamlessly blended multiple religions to make different ideas more palatable to the predominantly Judeo-Christian American public. This exposed a large audience to foreign ideas that really were not too different from what they already knew. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were released in the post-9/11 atmosphere, when the world was questioning how such seemingly disparate religions could possibly coexist. The era after the tragic events on 9/11 also involved a public drive to discover more about the other major religions in the world, even through cinema, such as The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam (2005). As it turns out, the Wachowski siblings were prescient in their choice of material.
Next week, Part 2 will delve into how the Matrix specifically uses religious symbolism and scripture to structure its framework.
[i] James F. McGrath, "Neo: Messianic Superhero of The Matrix," in The Gospel According to
Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture, ed. B.J. Oropeza (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005), 257.
[ii] Richard R. Jones, "Religion, Community, and Revitalization: Why Cinematic Myth Resonates" in Jacking in to the Matrix Franchise: Cultural Reception and Interpretation, ed. Matthew Kapell and William G. Doty (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004), 53.
[iii] Paul Fontana, "Finding God in The Matrix," in Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and
Religion in The Matrix, ed. Glenn Yeffeth (Texas: Benbella Books, 2003), 163.
[iv] Jones, 49.
[v] Fontana, 161.