“Philosophical movies … ugh! Even the name sounds boring.” That’s what many people think of movies that discuss philosophy.
Unlike action movies or comedy movies or romantic movies, philosophical movies are not considered an attraction for mainstream audiences. Most of the time they become a modest success or a disastrous financial failure. Even a cult sci-fi movie like Blade Runner didn’t give a stellar performance at the box office when it was released, and it’s sequel (Blade Runner 2049) unfortunately wasn’t a success either.
Yet, just like Blade Runner, many of those movies become beloved classics with time. So even if they are deemed “boring” by many audience members, they are cherished by their fans.
There is one notable exception though: the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 movie The Matrix. It was a box office success and its great special effects made it earn 4 Academy Awards. But how is that possible? Aren’t all philosophical movies supposed to be boring? Well… no.
The reason why many people have prejudices against philosophical movies is that the concept itself sounds like a contradiction: movie is a visual medium that is supposed to entertain a huge audience; philosophy nowadays is an academic subject that is supposed to be taught to students who are interested in it.
It’s possible to combine those two wildly different things using those 4 tools.
The Matrix was inspired by Plato’s Allegory of the cave and the plot of both stories are quite similar.
A few men have been kept prisoners in a cave since they were born, their chains don’t allow them to move or even turn their heads, so the only thing they see is the wall of the cave in front of them. Behind the men there is a fire, people pass by holding different objects with different shapes and each of those objects casts a shadow on the wall that the prisoners can see.
Those men, not knowing anything except those walls and those shadows, think that this is the whole world. They give names to the shadows and believe that the fire of the cave is actually the sun.
In The Matrix something similar happens: Neo lives his life inside the Matrix thinking that it is reality. His world follows logic and rules, the objects he uses have names and functions. He has never seen anything else, so he thinks that there is nothing else.
Plato’s theory goes on saying that if one of the men in the cave is freed, he’d have a hard time adjusting to the real world or even accepting that this new world is “more real” than the one the one that he’s known since now.
The same happens to Neo. When he wakes up in the real world he is scared and confused, he doesn’t know if what is happening is real or if he can trust the people around him.
Basically, according to Plato, what we believe to be knowledge is just the perception of our senses. The prisoners in the cave can tell the difference between the one shadow and another using their sight, or recognize the voice of a fellow prisoner through their hearing. But their senses are confined inside the cave, so they can only know what they can perceive.
Neo has the illusion that he is using his senses, but this is just a construction of the Matrix. Therefore, like the prisoners, he only knows what he can perceive.
Neo doesn’t talk very much in the first act of the movie, but each line he says reveal a little bit of his character. This one for example:
“This… this isn’t real?”
Tells us that he is just like Plato’s man in the cave. Disoriented, incredulous and maybe even scared to find out that he has been living a lie all his life.
Morpheus as a character has a role similar to the philosopher in Plato’s allegory. He has been “awakened” a long time ago and his duty is to instruct and guide the people to the new reality.
“What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see. Than real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
With this line, Morpheus is basically explaining part of Plato’s philosophy. We perceive through our senses but the mind is the one that gives a name to the perception. For example, you can judge if something is soft or hard by touching it.
Because of this, we don’t have a “real” perception of the world. Our senses could be dull or our mind could be ill, so we can’t really be sure that we know the world we live in. Neo has never realized that his life was an illusion because the Matrix has used Neo’s senses and mind to keep him trapped.
Neo: “Why do my eyes hurt?”
Morpheus: “You’ve never used them before.”
With this line, the writers link Neo to the man in Plato’s cave, since both had problems seeing after that they were released from their prisons.
“Being the one is just like being in love. No one can tell you you’re in love, you just know it.”
Another theory regarding Plato’s cave questions whether or not we are all the same: if we all have the same 5 senses, are we all equal? Not exactly. According to Plato, our perception is not the same as our judgment. For example, a doctor has 5 senses just like you, but he probably knows more about your body than you do.
The same principle applies to the Oracle. She knows more about Neo, his past, his present and his future than he does. That’s why she tells him what he needs to hear
This ties in with the internal rules of the Matrix world. One doesn’t need to possess a particular physical ability to be able to do a certain thing, he just needs to believe he can. Like Morpheus said before:
“Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?”
Our senses send impulses to the brain, but it’s our mind the one that is really in control. Our eyes tell us that the color we are seeing is brown, our hands tell us that the material we are touching is solid, our memory tells us that this material is wood: our mind will determine that this object is a wooden table.
The same way Neo needs to understand that the ones flying towards him are not bullets, but strings of code and the agents that are attacking him are not real people. Everything he sees is not physical, simply a computer program. But, in order to fully understand this and use his ability, he must first believe that he is the one.
If you had to watch only the first 10 minutes of the movie, what would you know about the Matrix? Nothing. Neo mentions it a couple of times, but it’s not explained what it is or how it works or how Neo knows about it.
When he wakes up in the real world for the first time, does he know what’s going on? Do we know what’s going on? No. We are as confused as he is.
This allows the writer to “hook” the audience into the story. If the audience is told everything right away, the writer would have then to fill almost 2 hours with empty scenes that don’t say anything new.
The writers of the movie combine a mystery that manages to hook the audience with an experience that makes them feel what it would be like to be the man in the cave. Just like Neo, we are surprised and skeptic of the idea that the world as we know it is a lie. and just like him, we have a hard time understanding that believing something is the same as being able to do something.
We adjust to the new rules: the movie’s awesome special effects seem hard to follow at first, but by the end, our eyes have adjusted. Likewise, the eyes of the man in the cave have to adapt to movement and light.
We suspend our disbelief (click here to find out what suspension of disbelief is) and accept the fact that normal physics don’t apply to our main characters once they are inside the Matrix. Just as the man has to realize that his body is capable of movement now that he is not chained anymore.
Mystery is nothing but the writer withholding information from the audience (here’s the full explanation with the pilot of Breaking ad as an example). It’s a simple and well-known storytelling trick to capture the audience’s attention and mask exposition as a revelation.
Unfortunately, the writers of some philosophical movies focus too much on the message of the movie or the philosophy itself, the result is a first act loaded with exposition while the rest of the story lacks any kind of excitement.
Probably the most useful tool for the writer is the possibility to create a diverse cast of characters with different ideas and opinions. Philosophy is not an exact science. Once a theory is presented there is plenty of room for discussion, contradiction, new ideas, and different opinions.
A filmmaker can’t point the camera to himself and make an argument in favor or in contrast to the theme of the movie. What he can do is create characters that for him. Characters with different opinions and different ways of seeing the world will create conflict, and conflict will make the story entertaining.
In The Matrix we have 3 characters who have wildly different opinions about “the chosen one”:
Morpheus, who is so convinced to be right that even the Oracle’s words couldn’t persuade him. He has freed many other humans and revealed them the real world. He strongly believes that it is his duty to find “the one” and he is willing to sacrifice everything for it.
Cypher’s ideas are in direct contrast with Morpheus. He feels cheated by his father figure because if he knew what would have happened after taking the red pill, we would have never accepted. He has lost hope, and he would rather enjoy the rest of his life rather than suffer and fight for what he believes is a lost cause.
Trinity is the middle ground. Unlike Morpheus, she doesn’t blindly believe that Neo is the one. And unlike Cypher, she hasn’t given up on humanity. Her arc revolves around believing that Neo really is the man of the prophecy.
The writer has to present those characters and their opinions to the audience. After that, he has to prove one of them wrong through their actions.
When Cypher complains about being tricked into taking the red pill, he is right. Morpheus didn’t really give him a choice because he never told him what the red pill actually was. But instead of confronting him and the rest of the crew he decided to betray them in order to pursue a (fake) life of pleasure. Cypher’s opinion is not wrong, but his actions proved that a man who is weak enough to lose hope can become selfish.
The Matrix proved that philosophical movies can bring a mainstream audience closer to philosophy. It invites them to think, to discover and to open their mind to new possibilities both inside the story world and inside their world. This is the reason why philosophical movies are beloved by their fans despite being snubbed by many others, they are the perfect combination of imagination and reality.