The Matrix Revolution and the Irrationality of God

( [email protected] ) Nov 11, 2003 11:18 AM EST

THERE ARE TWO kinds of movie heroes. The first is an Indiana-Jones type who, no matter what the odds, always finds the perfect tool, strategy, or bon mot to get himself through an ordeal. We rarely, if ever, worry for his safety. He lets us live a fantasy of being dashing, self-assured, and utterly confident in our destiny.

The second is a Luke Skywalker-type, the everyman who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rises to the challenge. He makes mistakes; he wonders if he knows what he's doing. His journey is the much more emotional of the two, because we find ourselves asking: What would I do in that situation?

In the first two installments of "The Matrix", Neo is a Luke Skywalker kind of hero. As he's called upon to escape out an office window, we're right there with him in his incredulity. As he's told he's a prophesied savior, we feel the uncomfortable weight on his shoulders. In the second film he is more powerful, to be sure, but we empathize with his conflict over whether to follow the path everyone has told him to take or following the one his gut tells him to.

In "The Matrix Revolutions," Neo slips into the Indiana-Jones mold (only without the necessary sense of humor). He makes his biggest decision of the film while sitting in silence, with the audience unaware of what options he's even weighing. He heads out without a plan, trusting only in the screenwriters' sense of story arc to ensure he makes it there alive. He battles Mr. Smith with no clear agenda in mind, but as the audience we know that somehow he'll win. In other words, we're left simply to watch agog as Neo does his stuff -- which is an adrenaline ride to be sure, but not much more.

It's not just the awkward narrative jump that bugs me, though. I think it bothers me because Neo has always been a kind of Christ figure in these movies. And I like films that reveal to me the human side of Jesus, which let me understand the struggles and emotions he must have gone through coming to terms with his destiny as our Messiah. I grew up with films where Jesus stood very rigidly and recited Bible verses to people (the "Vulcan Jesus," as Robert Jewett puts it), where he always knew where to stand and what to say because he knew the whole story as was just acting out his part as written. But that is not the way I experience my life, and if Jesus was as truly human as he was truly God, then he must have truly wept at Lazarus's passing, been truly honored as his feet were anointed, been truly tempted in the wilderness. "The Matrix" was a film that helped enrich my conception of a human being living with saviorhood looming over him. But by the time we get to "Revolutions", Neo stoically heads off on his preordained path with virtually no emotion; the script told him what to do and so he's doing it. He's become a different kind of hero.

Does it really matter, though, how I envision God? Is it at all important that I identify with him instead of simply boggling at his greatness? I think so. I think it makes a huge difference to one's Christian faith.

I believe in a God who is passionate, daring, loving, joyous, fierce, and alive. Against all that is right and fair, he has invited me into his presence and has unguarded his heart before me. He shocks me with his irrational passion for humanity. He honors me by asking me to adopt it. He is a Luke Skywalker kind of God, who entices me to come along on his journey.

The alternative is a more sane God, a God whose perfection permits him only a reasonable measure of emotion. He is a standard-bearer, an icon of truth, justice, and love for us to look up to. Out of duty to his creation, he tries his best to improve our behavior, but primarily he longs for the day he will usher in a new world, without sin, where he can bear to be near us. He asks us, like Indiana Jones, to sit back and await his mighty deeds.

That second kind of God is the kind I grew up with. Even though the whole crux of the Gospel message is that God loves human beings more than his own standards, and that he put himself through death in order to break the hold those standards had on him, the image of God as measuring stick persists. Even though Christians are given the gift of God's own Spirit, I was told to insulate myself in church activities and wait out my life on earth rather than risk bringing that Spirit into the world. This changed for me only when I began to understand the irrationality of God, when I started to believe that he loves us to an unreasonable degree. I still struggle to grasp it completely. But I have to say I am much more in awe of this passion-fueled God than I ever was of the stolid one.

So I found it particularly disappointing that, paired with Neo's increasing remoteness, "The Matrix Revolutions" makes Neo a more blatant Christ figure than ever before. The Wachowski brothers, who had been careful to mix elements of Jesus, Buddha and the mythological "hero of a thousand faces" into the character of Neo, go as far as to show a cross of light burst from Neo's chest during a scene where he's stretched in a crucifix position. I imagine that many Christians will find this strengthened parallel to be exciting. But to me it was representative of the biggest flaw in the film: so many characters, events, and places are reduced to only symbolic purposes. The characters we cared about in the first movie all but disappear -- Morpheus literally takes a back seat in the film, and Trinity has little to do but stand by her man. Instead we get new characters who are mere placeholders for the concepts of love, youth, beauty, and courage. The Wachowski brothers seem to be involved mainly in universe-building, in expanding the palette of places and people in their fiction, as if to fill out a deck of role-playing cards. Their main story -- the one about overcoming our human resistance to belief, to prophecy and destiny -- fades away. Its all too simple: just do what the script says.

Steve Lansingh is the editor of Film Forum. For more information, visit: