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The Gospel according to Neo

Theologians and pop-culture experts see 'The Matrix' as a phenomenon shaping public opinion about religion

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2003



In a film era long gone, the Bible was a major player. Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart starred in movies that directly drew on themes of Bible history and Christian redemption.

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Hollywood treats religion a bit differently these days. Mel Gibson's "The Passion," aside, most A-list stars aren't lining up to play the carpenter from Nazareth. But some of Hollywood's most enduring science-fiction films have borrowed greatly from his story.

Casting Keanu Reeves as a Christlike figure in "The Matrix" trilogy may seem blasphemous, but it's not new. "Star Wars" didn't push the idea of a Jedi Jesus, but many fans felt that it freely mixed myth and religion. And some critics said "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" relied heavily on the account of Christ's passion - a suggestion that director Steven Spielberg, who is Jewish, rejected. More recent films, from "Signs" to "Contact" have used a sci-fi setting to discuss serious questions of faith.

But where previous films made vague references to the Christian story, "The Matrix," some theologians argue, appeals directly to the heart of Christian identity. Its script, however, draws on Platonic philosophy, Greek mythology, Buddhism, and postmodernism, religious experts say.

Its high-octane blend of comic-book action and lofty metaphysics fueled box-office sales in 1999 to more than $450 million worldwide. But it also created theological tension about the movie's symbolism. And with "The Matrix Reloaded" due out next week, the debate is likely to intensify over different interpretations of the trilogy.

"There's two ways to look at this from a Christian perspective," says Glenn Yeffeth, editor of the book "Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix." "One is that it's retelling the story of Christ," he says. "The other way to look at it is a very violent film filled with garden-variety blasphemy that exploits people's resonance with the Christian narrative to fool people into a story that is fundamentally atheistic."

Both sides see a movie phenomenon that, for better or worse, is shaping public thought about religion.

"The Matrix" is compelling people to examine the plurality of religions versus the unity of truth, says cultural critic Read Mercer Schuchardt. Like the movie's characters, who strive to understand what is real, Matrix fans are hoping the trilogy's second installment will help them unravel the film's tangled symbolism, say film experts.

Earnest effort to deconstruct the movie began with a question. On Superbowl Sunday 1999, "Matrix" filmmakers tantalized TV viewers with a commercial trailer that asked, "What is the Matrix?" After the film made its auspicious Easter debut, "Matrix" viewers began answering the clever marketing query in personal terms. Sci-fi fans, philosophers, Buddhists, and even evangelical Christians have found resonant themes in the story.

"There are hundreds of Matrix [websites] out there, and they're not about how cute Keanu Reeves looks," says Mr. Yeffeth. "The Christian parallels, the philosophical underpinnings - this is a movie that ... captures people's intellectual imagination."

Some observers, however, are skeptical about the film's ability to convey the profound. A number of critics panned the first "Matrix" for being too pretentious. And some viewers balked at the marriage of kung fu fight scenes with a "Philosophy for Dummies" script.

The film's creators, brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, have been remarkably tight-lipped about their vision for the trilogy. But these comic-book aficionados have pulled back the curtain enough to reveal which levers they are pulling.

"We're interested in mythology, theology, and, to a certain extent, higher-level mathematics," Larry told Time in 1999. In a Warner Bros. Web chat that year, they were asked to what extent their allusions to myths and philosophy were intentional. "All of it," they said.

Like all myths, "The Matrix" is first and foremost a story. By day, Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a cubicle-bound software programmer. By night, he's a computer hacker known as Neo with troubling questions about reality. A rebel group led by Morpheus recruits Neo and offers him a chance to discover the truth about the Matrix.

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