After seeing the latest Matrix 4 trailer that begins with “We’re all caught in these strange repeating loops”, I was struck by the fear that the latest entry in this movie series would follow the current trend of “time paradox” science-fiction movies: I’m thinking of the Interstellars, Arrivals and Dunes of recent times. All of these suffer from a brilliant premise that peters out into a “it couldn’t have happened any other way” scenario.
Could the Matrix 4 also fall into this cliché and, more importantly, would that go against what the movies have until now achieved? To answer this question, I will first look at Interstellar, Arrival and Dune as symptoms of contemporary science-fiction cinema; I will also complement this with a small commentary on Westworld and I will finally summarize the findings of my previous analysis of the trilogy. In doing so, I hope to give myself and others interested in the Matrix 4 a Marxian-inspired guideline for when the movie comes out next week.
Interstellar (2014) starts on the premise of a near-future Planet Earth gone uninhabitable, due to dust storms seemingly caused by climate change. The movie then embarks on the story of a few astronauts sent to scout for other inhabitable planets through a wormhole that has conveniently appeared near Saturn. Its innovations were its “realistic” visual representations of wormholes and black hole event horizons, all wrapped into a narrative interwoven by very strong themes of love in family and the lengths to which characters might go to overcome the impossible. The teaser trailer for the movie was extremely successful in relaying these themes, as you might see below:
Ultimately, the movie only partially delivered on these promises and its biggest weakness is its time paradox plot device: Cooper (“main” astronaut) enters the singularity of a black hole to find himself inside a tesseract capable of distorting space and time, which he uses to inform his daughter about quantum data in such a way as to make an impossible “anti-gravitational propulsion theory” possible, thus saving humanity. The problem isn’t even the “deus ex machina” of the singularity, but that his daughter had already received “visits from a ghost” while Cooper was on Earth, and the movie makes it clear that it was Cooper who was the “ghost” in the past, meaning that there was a “previous version” of Cooper from the tesseract that got the current Cooper to the tesseract, which strongly suggests that the characters are stuck in a time loop where their actions are “predetermined” by themselves from another timeline. Moreover, these paradoxes render impossible anything outside of themselves: there is no first time Cooper got to the tesseract, only Cooper getting himself there through alternate timelines or “future humans” whose future depended on the data Cooper was getting from “the past”. It’s all bollocks and severely hampers what could’ve been a poignant tragedy of future generations bearing the brunt and annihilation sowed by previous generations, attempting the impossible and ultimately failing, the eventual consolation being that “love transcends time and space”, as one of the characters opines during the movie.
In 2016, Arrival comes hot on the heels of Interstellar as the next big sci-fi about space-related concerns, the premise here being the “arrival” of an alien space-ship and the difficulties that might arise from the attempt to communicate with it: how do different cultures communicate and understand a completely different life-form? The film simultaneously depicts the problems of cooperation between different nations (speaking different languages!..) while also adding a more personal, emotional dimension through different facets (disease, learning) of the relationship of the main character (Banks), a linguist, with her daughter. The cinematography is exceptional, as you might conclude from the movie’s main trailer, that also does a great job of not spoiling too much:
While the theme of language and communication certainly bring originality to its plot, Arrival suffers from the spectacle it seeks to pull off. During the whole movie, you see snippets of Banks’ relationship with her daughter as well as how that relationship ends, but at the end of the movie it is “revealed” that those snippets are actually those of the future: they are flash-forwards, not flash-backs. This is the “plot twist” of Arrival, and its success depends on the evolution of the main plot, the communication with the aliens. You see, Banks begins learning the language of the aliens, who apparently communicate in palindromes and circular symbols; and on the basis of the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” (that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview or cognition), she uses the structure of this alien language to see into the future, allowing her to use that information to convince the other earth nations to cooperate and not destroy each other. The problem is eerily similar to that of Interstellar: the outcome of the “present” depends on a “premonition” of an already decided future, but the existence of this future must thus depend on a “different” present “that has already happened” in order for “our” present to see into the already existing future. In other words, if the present hasn’t yet happened, how can you see into the future? I suppose one might say that, since it’s palindromes we’re talking about, the future is like past? In any case, I don’t see a way in which this turns out in a coherent fashion. And, having actually read up on it recently, I learned that originally the ending was supposed to be that humans get blueprints of an ark that they will need, and (GET THIS!) after Interstellar came out, Villeneuve and Heisserer (the other writer) decided for some reason that it was no longer a good ending, so they changed it to this mess.
Last example: 2021’s Dune. Hailed as a particularly loyal adaption of the novel, the movie follows the same structure that we have described before: its premise is interesting enough, but simply a background element for the main story which, again, turns itself inevitably inwards. Here, the premise is the planet of Arrakis, a desert planet whose very hostile environment is also the source of the psychoactive “spice” necessary for space travel. It is a very rich biome, with the famous sandworms, requiring a very specific technique of collection and production, and makes it a fascinating technical setting for the political intrigue that frames the main plot.
As you can see, it’s a very pretty package, but also tonally very unstable. “The planet is beautiful at sunse”t, but one second afterwards the same person describes “a planet ravaged by outsiders”. This is because, once again, the main plot is actually about the coming of a “galactic messiah” fostered over generations by a secretive sisterhood called Bene Gesserit, which translates to the contemporary equivalent of a feminist Illuminati. The key power of this messiah is said to be his capacity to see into the future… which effectively already happens with Paul, the main character, whose adventures roughly follow his visions in what becomes a revenge story in the name of his family. The end result is certainly the development of a story, with the KEY CONDITION that the viewer is made aware of certain hints and power moves that let him know that the story could not go any other way.
The story could not go any other way, this is the impression one is left with when watching blockbuster science-fiction movies of the recent past. Interstellar, Arrival and Dune all participate, in their way, in this explicit framing. And they’re not the only ones. Have you seen Westworld, the TV series started in 2016? While asking questions such as about what defines human consciousness (and free will!!) and if machines could ever replicate that, the first season (the only one worth watching, in my honest opinion) also falls into an impotence of translating this question into a coherent plot: the machines become sentient, “free-willed”, but only as the result of the plan of the designers of the park (Ford in the following of Arnold); this is amplified by “plot twists” aiming for so much spectacle (ex. many humans actually finding out that they are machines, such as Bernard) that they muddle what the story is actually about, a bit like those soap opera reveals of who is whose cousin “by secret”. However, once we consider Westworld in the sequence presented here, its ubiquitous question becomes extremely eloquent: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
This is actually the question asked by all of the stories I’ve highlighted so far: psychologically, it is a plot device implying your freedom in the consideration of the question. But politically, each one of these stories clearly and inextricably, truly inextricably, answers unilaterally and without any room for negotiation: reality is that which it is and must be, and it cannot be in any other way. In this way, and in these film productions, mass productions for mass consumptions, science fiction becomes a depoliticised space in which practical engagement can only follow a pre-ordained and “innate” outcome, an immediate mediation between the individual and the circumstances circumscribing his liberty of thought and action. Put simply, we are free to question and to act along the lines of a predetermined line of question and action. Marx describes this as “the double meaning of freedom”:
The owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realization of his labour-power.– Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Chap. 6
This is a theme that I have touched upon in my four-part analysis of the original Matrix trilogy:
- In part one, we saw how the Matrix portrays itself (the actual “Matrix”) as a world very similar to ours (skyscrapers and all), where human beings are reduced to simple energy units destined to be consumed by their machine overlords: batteries;
- in part two, we saw how the machines have thus not only physically reduced human beings to batteries, but also how even the rebels have been taught to view the world not as a result of (human) action, but as the unfolding of prophecy, of a purpose;
- in part three, I tried to show that the movies are ambiguous and very attentive to details, in such a way as to paint as antagonists not the main characters we see (Neo, Trinity, Morpheus) but the programs the machines have created, whose capacities have grown beyond the control that can be exercised by them (Merovingian, Smith);
- and in part four, we pointed towards Smith as the ultimate representation of the subjectivity the machines have achieved, due to the combination between his knowledge of the human psyche and the occurrence of what he thought impossible making him understand exactly what more or less all other characters in the movies fail to acknowledge: that the world is not an achieved and impenetrable universe, but one who is historically produced (while interrogating Morpheus, Smith indeed reveals his knowledge of the history of the Matrix) and whose reproduction is realized by the collective actions of all those involved in it.
To summarize, my work on the trilogy arrived at two levels of meaning: a surface one and an analytical one. The surface one is the one of first viewing, of stirring of questions and ultimately of a lot of entertaining martial arts. The analytical one is the one arrived at after many viewings and the taking into account of many details that are just there, without being the object of an explicit exposition by the characters: the story is more than it appears, especially insofar as it is, essentially, the story of a failed messiah, only succeeding (in resetting the matrix) almost by accident. Indeed, it seems that the ultimate resetting of the matrix in more vibrant colours (as can be seen at the end of Revolutions and in the new trailers) is only cynically presented by the movies as “success”, considering that it implies the resetting of the cycle of exploitation of man by machine. It is a relatively subtle distinction, and it remains that at first viewing, the original Matrix trilogy does indeed meet many of the messianic and “could not have happened otherwise” plot structures of highly commercialized sci-fi movies that succeeded it.
Taking a look once again at the last trailer (of “repetitions”) of the Matrix Resurrections, there is certainly a sense of multiple levels of meaning: scenes of the fourth movie are directly juxtaposed with scenes of the old movies, pieces of dialogue are exactly repeated from old movies, in the most explicit and visible way, with the expression “we’re all trapped inside these strange repeating loops” preceding it (notice the identical expression of Westworld “loops”). However, and in the most striking fashion in regards to our own analysis, the trailer goes on to say that “This is the moment for you to show us what is real” (harking back to the EXACT subject of part one of our analysis); “they taught you their world was all you deserved” (the more-or-less exact subject of part two of our analysis); and the trailer also explicitly underlines its ambiguity with one line of dialogue saying “maybe this isn’t the story we think it is” (which also leads back to the third part of our analysis highlighting the contradictory elements discreetly present in the movies after careful observation).
What is the take-away then? It is the danger of the fourth Matrix presenting the same structure as more recent science-fiction works: that its story must follow the story that has already preceded it; more generally that the freedom of questioning follows, so to speak, the double meaning of freedom we mentioned above. Concretely, that the Matrix 4 is a rehash of the first trilogy, with some elements inverted (for example it seems Trinity is the “chosen one” this time) for novelty and the current politically correct consensus. It is the danger semantically evident when the sequel to “Revolutions” is christened “Resurrections”: from collective praxis to religious myth is such an antithetical sequence that, at the same time, it begs the question of how cynical the movie might be about its title.
There is then also the possibility that the movie itself will be a critique of the religious myth, a critique of the narrative that nothing else is possible but that which is. How it might pull this off is, however, a complete mystery to me: it does rather seem that the two main characters of the trilogy have in some way been resurrected, which is a bad omen for wanting to read a critical dimension into the movie at its viewing. In the end, I believe the most likely result will indeed be the exposition of a resurrection, with some elements of ambiguity and subtle critique that will drown under the special effects and martial arts where this series finds its mass appeal. The public will be given that which it expects, in an expression of passivity characteristic of the uniformity generated and expected by the social processes of commensurability of market exchange: the movie was produced to be sold first, viewed second, discussed third, et cetera.