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The Matrix,
and Fight Club
The philosophy behind two movies which took me for a great ride

by Scott Teresi

The Matrix

Warner Brothers has a great section on their official Matrix site collecting a dozen or so writings on the philosophy of The Matrix.

This exciting description of the Matrix itself fits the movie exactly... but it's also describing Plato's Cave.

Imagine a dark, subterranean prison in which humans are bound by their necks to a single place from infancy. Elaborate steps are taken by unseen forces to supply and manipulate the content of the prisoner’s visual experience. This is so effective that the prisoners do not recognize their imprisonment and are satisfied to live their lives in this way. Moreover, the cumulative effects of this imprisonment are so thorough that if freed, the prisoners would be virtually helpless. They could not stand up on their own, their eyes would be overloaded initially with sensory information, and even their minds would refuse to accept what the senses eventually presented them. It is not unreasonable to expect that some prisoners would wish to remain imprisoned even after their minds grasped the horror of their condition. But if a prisoner was dragged out and compelled to understand the relationship between the prison and outside, matters would be different. In time the prisoner would come to have genuine knowledge superior to the succession of representations that made up the whole of experience before. This freed prisoner would understand those representations as imperfect—like pale copies of the full reality now grasped in the mind. Yet if returned to the prison, the freed prisoner would be the object of ridicule, disbelief, and hostility. ...

From: Plato's Cave and The Matrix, by John Partidge

Here's an excerpt on some of the religious connotations of the movie:

At the beginning of The Matrix, a black-clad computer hacker known as Neo falls asleep in front of his computer. A mysterious message appears on the screen: "Wake up, Neo." This succinct phrase encapsulates the plot of the film, as Neo struggles with the problem of being imprisoned in a "material" world that is actually a computer simulation program created in the distant future by Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a means of enslaving humanity, by perpetuating ignorance in the form of an illusory perception called "the Matrix." In part, the film crafts its ultimate view of reality by alluding to numerous religious traditions that advance the idea that the fundamental problem which humanity faces is ignorance and the solution is knowledge or awakening. Two religious traditions on which the film draws heavily are Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism. Although these traditions differ in important ways, they agree in maintaining that the problem of ignorance can be solved through an individual's reorientation of perspective concerning the material realm. ...

From: Wake Up! Gnosticism and Buddhism in The Matrix. By Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel Wagner.

Here's Roger Ebert's take on the philosophy of The Matrix, from his review of the second movie in the series:

Morpheus' extended speeches in the movie "provide not meaning, but the effect of meaning: It sure sounds like those guys are saying some profound things. That will not prevent fanboys from analyzing the philosophy of The Matrix Reloaded in endless Web postings. Part of the fun is becoming an expert in the deep meaning of shallow pop mythology; there is something refreshingly ironic about becoming an authority on the transient extrusions of mass culture, and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) now joins Obi-Wan Kenobi as the Plato of our age.

Fight Club

If you survived that, here's some good light reading on the Fight Club.

Fight Club can be viewed with many interpretations, all of them true. It is a great love story. It is an anti-consumerism rant. It is a spiritual piece against materialism. It is anarchist literature. It is a commentary on our ‘lost’ generation. At first viewing of the movie, very little of this can be seen and it appears violent and chaotic. However much thought was put into providing the movie with depth and development that only become apparent after multiple screenings. ...

It is most simply the story of a man who mentally splits himself in two. His newly sprung half is called Tyler Durden, and is everything the hero wishes he were. The irony is that he is physically the same man and therefore is what he wants to be, but cannot realize this and uses his alter ego to accomplish his goals. In the end Tyler gets out of control and his tamer half cannot get rid of him even though he no longer wants him. In the process of Tyler’s development of his anarchist plans he gathers others to himself who are seeking someone to believe in. His teachings to them contain much Taoist thought and start a cult-like terrorist group. This paper will detail each aspect of these Taoist ideas present in Tyler’s teachings. ...

The story of Fight Club begins with our hero’s dissatisfaction with himself and his pathetic life. The Yin and Yang sides of him are both present, but he has been raised to repress his Yang side. This was caused by his family life, expressed several times in the book as "Tyler never knew his father." This is also the problem for other men who join fight club; "what you see at Fight Club is a generation of men raised by women" and his observance "I’m a thirty year old boy, and I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer I need." ...

The end goal of Fight club is to destroy modern society in order to recreate it. They believe that the men of their society are going to waste; "I see the strongest and the smartest men who have ever lived, and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables." They envision a new world where technology is greatly reduced; "imagine hunting elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center."

From: Taoist Philosophy in Fight Club, by StrykerX0.

From a collection of quotes from the movie and short commentaries on their meaning:

"...the things you used to own, now they own you." (or, in the movie version) "...the things you own end up owning you."

From: "Fight Club?" by Dave Zero.

And a shorter review of the film:

But the film is more than an anti-consumerism statement. That's just the catalyst to letting go of one's material possessions. ...

Rather than using an underground boxing club to simply release pent-up rage, the two main characters start their own religion, an isolation from the fake world, and start to become more authentic. They even live like monks -- albeit violent and sexual monks.

From: Philosophy Drives Fight Club: Top Ten Films of the 1990s. By Will Albritton.

Ebert has a really good review, in typical cynical Ebert fashion:

Is Tyler Durden in fact a leader of men with a useful philosophy? "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything," he says, sounding like a man who tripped over the Nietzsche display on his way to the coffee bar in Borders. In my opinion, he has no useful truths. He's a bully--Werner Erhard plus S & M, a leather club operator without the decor. None of the Fight Club members grows stronger or freer because of their membership; they're reduced to pathetic cultists. Issue them black shirts and sign them up as skinheads. Whether Durden represents hidden aspects of the male psyche is a question the movie uses as a loophole--but is not able to escape through, because "Fight Club" is not about its ending but about its action.

Of course, "Fight Club" itself does not advocate Durden's philosophy. It is a warning against it, I guess; one critic I like says it makes "a telling point about the bestial nature of man and what can happen when the numbing effects of day-to-day drudgery cause people to go a little crazy." I think it's the numbing effects of movies like this that cause people go to a little crazy. Although sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behavior it shows, my guess is that audience will like the behavior but not the argument. ...

"Fight Club" is a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy--the kind of ride where some people puke and others can't wait to get on again.

From: Fight Club, by Roger Ebert.

I want to get on again!


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