“The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.”

These were the infamous words that Jean Baudrillard used to break his silence on The Matrix movies in a 2004 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur. Baudrillard’s idea of simulation — which we explored in-depth in a previous instalment — was the primary inspiration behind the Wachowski siblings’ movie series.

His 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation was not merely a prop in The Matrix but was the main inspiration for the movies and was required reading for the whole cast. After the release of the first movie the Wachowskis reached out to Baudrillard inviting him to work on the sequels but he turned down the offer and in this interview we learn why.

As it turns out Baudrillard – the “high priest of postmodernism” – hated the movies. In this article we are going to look at the three reasons he gives for this disdain:

  1. It misrepresents Simulacra and Simulation,
  2. It is a work of hypocrisy and
  3. The Matrix fails to represent his overall theoretical position.

And following that we are going to look at why Baudrillard is wrong.

#1 The Misrepresentation of The Matrix

In 2004, a year after the release of the third Matrix movie, Baudrillard finally broke his silence on the Wachowskis’ cinematic adaptation of his work. It was well known by now that his work was the main inspiration behind the movies but he had never spoken publicly about them until now.

And he was not happy.

His first criticism is the rather damning claim that the movies completely miss the point of his work and that it confuses the classical Platonic problem of illusion with the postmodern problem of simulation.

The Problem of Illusion

The classical formulations of the problem of illusion were given by Plato and Descartes. Plato’s version comes from his dialogue The Republic where we find his allegory of the cave in which the mass of humanity lives in an illusory state where they mistake the shadows cast by a fire on the cave wall for reality. The philosopher is the one who leaves the cave and emerges into the real light of the sun.

A more condensed version of this classical problem is found in Descartes’ work Meditations on First Philosophy where in a line of investigation that culminates in his famous conclusion “I think there I am”, Descartes embarks on a quest for the foundations of knowledge. He begins to question how he knows whether what he is experiencing is real. It seems to be real, and yet, he writes:

“How often my sleep at night has convinced me of all these familiar things—that I was here, wrapped in my gown, sitting by the fire—when in fact I was lying naked under the bedclothes.”

This is the classical problem of illusion. For Descartes this sitting here beside the fire is reality while dreaming is an illusion. With the problem of illusion there is a clear and absolute distinction between reality and illusion.

We see this problem being directly referenced by Morpheus in the first movie:

Morpheus: “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”

The Simulation Hypothesis

Baudrillard’s simulation hypothesis is a tough idea to fully grasp. For a deeper exploration check out the previous instalment where you can read my futile attempts to wrap my brain around the nuances of Baudrillard’s brilliant simulation hypothesis.

The bottom line is that with the emergence of simulation in the postmodern age we have entered, this distinction between the real and the illusory, to use Baudrillard’s term, ‘implodes’. The difference between reality and illusion becomes meaningless.

With the emergence of the age of simulation, the real has become inaccessible. We can no longer speak of the real, it is no longer attainable. We only have a simulated reality that Baudrillard calls the ‘hyperreal’ in which reality and illusion have imploded into each other. In Simulacra and Simulation he writes:

“The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.”

It is this distinction between the problems of simulation and illusion that Baudrillard, in the 2004 interview, claims the Matrix movies missed entirely. The problem as he sees it is that the distinction between what is real and what is illusion is far too clear cut. There’s a red pill that takes you to the truth and there’s a blue pill that leaves you in illusion. In the interview he states that:

“The actors are in the matrix, that is, in the digitized system of things; or, they are radically outside it, such as in Zion, the city of resistors. But what would be interesting is to show what happens when these two worlds collide. The most embarrassing part of the film is that the new problem posed by simulation is confused with its classical, Platonic treatment.”

So for Baudrillard the Matrix movies have completely missed the point – they have the real in Zion and the illusion in the Matrix. The idea of the real is preserved.

Of course any serious fan of the Matrix movies will be shouting at their screen right now saying that it is Baudrillard that has missed the point but we’ll come back to that in a minute.

For now though we can say that Baudrillard’s first and his primary criticism of the movies is that they have missed the point of Simulacra and Simulation. They have misunderstood the idea of simulation and have set up an all-too-clear distinction between the real and the illusory.

#2 The Matrix would love The Matrix

Baudrillard’s second criticism of the Matrix series is what he sees as the hypocrisy of the movies. The Matrix is, on the surface of things, a criticism of technology and how technology is gaining more and more power over our lives. We learn that the humans in the real world had gone to war with their machines:

Morpheus : We don’t know who struck first, us or them. But we do know it was us that scorched the sky. At the time, they were dependent on solar power. It was believed they would be unable to survive without an energy source as abundant as the sun.

However the machines find another power source – humans and so humanity become batteries that power the machine-run world.

The entire setup and story of the Matrix is as a cautionary tale about the danger of technology and it is supposed to point us back to what really matters – our humanity, our freedom, our human love and connection.

But Baudrillard remarks that “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.” The interviewer picks up on this observation noting that it is:

“a film that purports to denounce technicist alienation and, at the same time, plays entirely on the fascination exercised by the digital universe and computer-generated images.”

Baudrillard expands on his point further saying that The Matrix movie is:

“an instructive symptom, and the actual fetish of this universe of technologies of the screen in which there is no longer a distinction between the real and the imaginary. […] The Matrix paints the picture of a monopolistic superpower, like we see today, and then collaborates in its refraction. Basically, its dissemination on a world scale is complicit with the film itself.”

And when you think about it Baudrillard has a solid point here. The Matrix, for all its criticism of technology, utilises it to make a spectacle. The very thing that is so seductive about the Matrix movies is the dazzling technological spectacle – there’s Neo dodging bullets, learning kung-fu by downloading a computer program, there’s the gunfights running up walls, there’s the world of the robots and the sentinels, and then of course, there’s the Matrix itself – the movie is a monolithic fetishization of the exact thing it sets out to criticise.

For Baudrillard this is part of the broader cultural landscape that is so overwhelming. He says that this:

“is exactly what makes our times so oppressive. The system produces a negativity in trompe-l’oeil, [a trick of the eye] which is integrated into products of the spectacle just as obsolescence is built into industrial products. It is the most efficient way of incorporating all genuine alternatives. There are no longer external Omega points or any antagonistic means available in order to analyze the world; there is nothing more than a fascinated adhesion.”

And so in our postmodern world there is no solid ground from which to criticise the system. Che Guevara has been legitimised as an icon of rebellious adolescents and sells millions of t-shirts and posters every year. Critiques of the system on social media only further enshrine the power of those technological monopolies. Resistance is futile. The system is all-engulfing.

#3 A Glimmer of Irony

In his third criticism, Baudrillard moves from criticising The Matrix for misunderstanding the idea of simulation, to criticising the movies for failing to understand his philosophy in general. He says that:

“The pseudo-Freud who speaks at the film’s conclusion puts it well: at a certain moment, we reprogrammed the matrix in order to integrate anomalies into the equation. And you the resistors, comprise a part of it. Thus we are, it seems, within a total virtual circuit without an exterior.”

Baudrillard is of course referring to the scene with the Architect at the end of the second movie The Matrix Reloaded where the Architect explains that the resistors in Zion are a part of the overall Matrix program. By giving rebellious outliers the illusion of autonomy and an escape into reality, they ensure the greater overall stability of the Matrix.

But Baudrillard isn’t happy. His criticism is that the movies fail to enact his chosen form of rebellion which he summarises in the interview as:

“a glimmer of irony that would allow viewers to turn this gigantic special effect on its head.”

This ties in with Baudrillard’s broader philosophy of what he calls Seduction and his way of subverting this all-encompassing system within which we live.

But when it comes to the Matrix, this criticism doesn’t make sense. The Wachowskis are being criticised for not being true to Baudrillard’s overall philosophy. He admits that they have created an all-encompassing system of oppression as he maps out in his works but criticises the movies for not also including his own chosen form of rebellion. But it’s an unfair criticism.

The Wachowskis don’t reference Baudrillard’s entire corpus in The Matrix. They didn’t get the cast to read all of the French postmodernist’s books. They were primarily concerned with the problem of simulation as presented in the book Simulacra and Simulation.

This third criticism then is to my eyes an unfair one because it criticises the movie for something it didn’t try to do. Baudrillard can dislike the film because it doesn’t agree with his philosophy but on this count he can’t knock the Matrix movies just because they aren’t exactly how he would have liked them to be.

Why Baudrillard is Wrong

This brings us back to Baudrillard’s main criticism of The Matrix — it fails to portray the difference between simulation and reality — it makes the distinction too clear cut.

This criticism might be applied to the first Matrix movie but remember this interview took place a year after the third movie had been released. Also Baudrillard referenced the conversation with the Architect at the end of the second movie in the interview so we know he has the second movie and so we can safely assume that he has also seen the third. And assuming that’s the case, Baudrillard has somehow dramatically missed the point because anyone who has seen the third movie or even just the end of the second movie would find it difficult to support Baudrillard’s critique.

The third movie, The Matrix Revolutions, completes the fractalizing of epistemological doubts that had begun in the first movie. In the original movie we find out that the entire reality Neo is living in is a virtual reality universe. Neo escapes this Matrix and meets the other rebels who live in Zion – the underground city of humans in 2199.

The second movie muddies the waters even more when we learn that even this rebel colony is part of the system. The Architect informs us that previous iterations of the Matrix had failed to account for the rebellious minority and so this rebellious anomaly had been incorporated into the design of this Matrix. The upshot is that yes Zion is the real world but the rebellion that Zion represents is not real. It is a simulated rebellion that serves the purpose of stabilising the Matrix.

So already with the second movie we have the destabilisation of the neat dichotomy between reality and illusion. Already we have entered a blurred state of reality where even though Zion occurs in the real world it is a hyperreality – it is not a spontaneous utterance of nature but a crafted and predicted simulation of rebellion despite what its members may believe.

This destabilisation of the reality principle reaches a new level at the end of the second movie which is picked up in the third as well. At the end of the second movie we see Neo destroying the sentinel robots – fighting them in the real world using the same sort of superpowers that we see him using inside the Matrix. Then, in the third movie we see his ability to see code when he goes blind and we also have the strange moment when a sentinel flies through him.

These instances muddy the waters of reality more. We are now left questioning what is Matrix and what is reality and it seems that we can no longer truly tell one from the other.

The “real” world of Zion and Machine City seems to be equally prey to the peculiar powers of Neo as the world of the Matrix. By the end of the series we can no longer say for certain what is real. Neo sues for peace with the machines but he does not know for sure what is reality.

I’ve seen some people online argue that from the moment Neo leaves the room of the Architect he is in a new level of virtual reality. Others have argued that Zion was always a simulation. The bottom line is, the distinction between the real and the illusory has been muddied so much that we no longer know where one ends and the other begins. The distinction, has as Baudrillard would say, imploded.

Final Thoughts

In their introduction to the 2004 box set The Ultimate Matrix Collection, the Wachowski siblings say that

“It was our sincerest hope that our movies might inspire or perhaps provoke a little Socratic interaction, something beyond, ‘Remember that one part? That was cool’”.

There can be no doubt of their success. The Matrix movies are far from perfect and Baudrillard’s second criticism still stands. But that being said, I can’t think of any other movie except for maybe Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that has inspired so much philosophical engagement – hundreds of articles that transcend the Analytic/Continental divide in philosophy.

The Wachowski siblings created a work of art that has sparked a philosophical conversation in a way that no other movie ever has. It is easy to get distracted by the criticisms of the Matrix movies, and to miss the greater success of the movies as attaining their initial goal. The Wachowskis set out to make a movie that got people thinking and they succeeded at a scale that outstripped all expectations.