I love the smell of napalm in the morning
So I just had this long discussion with this woman I know about the inherent immorality of the movie The Matrix, and I completely failed to convince her... well, actually, I suppose I convinced her, she simply didn't care. She feels that the fact that The Matrix was a philosophically 'deep' movie, in that it introduced into the pop gestalt the concept of the subjective/objective dichotomy (she's a Christian Scientist, so she thinks that's pretty cool) and made people generally conversant with the idea that the consensus reality could in fact be 'programmed' from without is the most important thing about the film, and justifies any moral excesses the movie may have had. More generally, she thinks it's silly to worry about the moral subtext of a dumb action movie, because she is of the apparent opinion that these things really don't matter and kids really aren't going to learn anything meaningful from The Matrix.
Let's take that last point first. I personally think kids learn an enormous amount from media artifacts, whether they're conscious of it or not (I picked up a lot of my basic morality from Silver Age superhero comic books, scary though that may sound). I don't know for certain that kids absorbed the gratuitously and murderously violent (im)moral subtext of The Matrix, but I certainly suspect they did, whether they are consciously aware of doing so or not. And I will point out here that the producers and creators of The Matrix went to enormous pains to avoid an R rating specifically so they could reap millions of dollars from a young (impressionable) audience. Add to all that the fact that I personally believe all creators who benefit from the social contract (which is pretty much all of us, especially those of us who can swing multimillion dollar movie deals) have an implicit obligation to create moral fiction, whether we're aiming it specifically at kids or not, and I don't think one should ever simply blithely dismiss whether a movie (or a TV show, or a novel, or a short story, or a comic book) sets out a morally consistent and socially acceptable storyline or not, simply because 'it's just a silly (fill in the blank).' If you're planning to sell your work to an audience, and if the local network of laws and civilized customs in any way benefits you, you should simply not be implicitly or overtly teaching within your fictional artifact that immoral behavior is rewarding. Or, to put it another way, in moral fiction, evil must inevitably be punished, and virtue must inevitably be rewarded. If the villain flourishes and the hero ends up stymied, defeated, suffering, or dead, you've produced an immoral work of fiction, and by doing so... by presenting a story to an audience in which right fails and wrong prevails, you have betrayed the fundamental social principles that keep you (and more importantly, me) out of the cannibals' stewpot.
If that sounds extreme, I can't apologize. I am very aware that I am a child of a technological civilization; when Y2K was threatening, I took a good, hard look at myself and my own particular skills and abilities and capacities, physical and non, and realized on a fundamental level that I simply could not survive without the surrounding support system of my civilization. (Even if I could somehow survive, it certainly wouldn't be a life much worth living.) And unlike a lot of people, I myself am very aware that the computer, the DVD player, the television, the CD player, the radio, and the very electricity that powers all these wonderful things, all of which hugely enhance my life in positive and desirable ways, not only could not have ever been invented without the nurturing cradle of a protective technological civilization, but could not have been manufactured and would not continue to be supplied without that same technological civilization. Without the codes of mutual cooperation that the majority of civilized people adhere to, we would all be armed savages hunting each other through the ruins. Maybe you don't want to deal with that simple truth, but I'm very aware of it. And the very least I can do, as a creative individual, is not write fiction that dignifies evil and demeans social behavior, much less that subtly or overtly teaches that corrosive, destructive, murderous, anti-social behavior is ever acceptable within a social context.
Badges? We don't got to show you no steenking badges
Now, having stated that, let's get to what probably all five of the people reading this are primarily wondering: have I lost my mind? What the hell was so goddam immoral about The Matrix? I mean, sure Neo and the other 'heroes' killed roughly 2.4 kazillion people during the course of the film, but it's an action movie for Christ's sake, and the people they killed were minions of Evil! Killing minions of Evil is okay, right?
Well, let's compare and contrast The Matrix with another film: another one of your favorites, most likely, Star Wars.
Over the last couple of years, I've seen a few people at least start to morally criticize Star Wars, on the grounds that when Luke blows up the Death Star in the movie's climax, he pretty much commits mass murder. And you're probably thinking, 'yeah, you must love those assholes, because you're saying exactly the same stupid goddam thing about The Matrix, and God, you suck'. However, in point of fact, I think the people who call Luke Skywalker a mass murderer and turn their noses up at the film Star Wars because of it are basically incapable of really working a functional moral equation. They've heard a couple of other thoughtful, conscientious media commenters offer similar criticisms of, say, some Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and they've turned around and blindly applied what they rather non-discerningly regard as a sort of 'ethics formula' to Star Wars, to show that they, too, are capable of controversial social insights regarding beloved mass media artifacts.
The problem is, they're wrong. First, it's important to remember that Luke's action took place in a military context, and Luke, and his fellow pilots employed by the Rebel Alliance, were going after a legitimate military target. If you're going to say that Luke's action in blowing up the Death Star was fundamentally immoral, you'd have to find the actions of any soldier who has ever destroyed an enemy military installation to be equally immoral. There may be those in the world who would argue that, but I suspect they'd be arguing from a point of view that finds all violence to be inherently evil, and while that point of view may or may not be valid, it's certainly not one that can be seen to work well within the heroic adventure genre. Which is my way of saying, I am not a moral pacifist, nor am I going to simply define all fictional portrayals of violence as being pro forma immoral. (For that matter, I don't believe that all real world violent acts are necessarily immoral; if I shoot a mugger who is coming at me with a knife, I haven't done anything wrong.)
Violence can be portrayed in an ethical context, generally, one in which only the Bad Guys initiate violence for purposes of their own self gratification, while the Good Guys, on the other hand, generally only respond to violence offered by the Bad Guys, by which I mean, they get violent in defense of themselves or others. (Again, see my 'if I shoot a mugger who is coming at me with a knife' example.)
At this point, it's worthwhile to recall the scene in the otherwise pretty much worthless Return of the Jedi, where Darth and the evil Emperor are urging Luke to give in to his anger and strike the Emperor down. In this context, neither Darth nor the Emperor are directly threatening Luke; if Luke were to take lethal action against either of them, he would be initiating that action, taking an aggressive and unnecessary violent, even murderous action... which, of course, is what they're trying to goad him into, to get his foot on that road to the Dark Side. Such an action on Luke's part, in defense of no one, but merely indulging his own desire for vengeance, would be evil, and the movie clearly portrays that.
In contast, let's remember that at the moment Luke destroyed the Death Star, the Death Star itself was seconds away from blowing up an entire inhabited planet. Luke knew that, and in fact, Luke and the rest of the Rebel Alliance also knew perfectly well that the Death Star was capable of blowing up a planet, and that the crew of the Death Star was perfectly willing to do so, because earlier in the film, the Death Star had been used to blow up another entire planet.
So, yeah, maybe there were some neutral electrical contractors still on board the Death Star working on the wiring, who were only there to get a paycheck so they could feed their families. Bummer for them. The Death Star was absolutely a legitimate military targer, and in the morally simplified world of George Lucas, it had also been pretty clearly established to be a massive murder weapon being employed by Absolute Evil. Luke's actions cannot be seen, in that context, or in our own, as immoral; it would have been far less moral for him to be suddenly overcome by conscience pangs and to have refused to pull the trigger when he had a chance, thus dooming himself and all his fellow pilots, and all the members of the rebellion on the moon below, to dying in the cosmic explosion that would have ensured a few seconds later. In other words, Luke acted in both self defense and the defense of others, making his violence essentially 'moral'.
Up is down. Black is white.
Star Wars is a good point of comparison for The Matrix for another reason: both films take place in a morally simplified context. There are really no ethical shades of grey in either; even Han Solo, a supposedly amoral mercenary, proves to be 'good' in the climactic moment of Star Wars, risking his life and his newfound wealth in order to help his friend, Luke. The good guys are pretty much entirely virtuous, the bad guys are entirely vile, and there is no middle ground, no 'justifiable evil' or morally questionable actions taken 'for the greater good'. The Rebels are fighting for freedom, the Empire is fighting to ensure and extend its totalitarian power (and in our own cultural context, 'freedom' is one of those words that pushes all the 'good' buttons, while 'totalitarian power' immediately gets our hackles up).
The Matrix is set in a similarly morally simplified context. The heroes, as represented by Neo and his crew, are fighting to free mankind from an illusion that holds us all enslaved while an alien computer drains our life force, and the opposition, said alien computer, is, well, using virtual reality to keep the vast mass of humanity tranquilly docile while it drains our life force. Not too many shades of grey there; you got your white hats, you got your black hats, now I want a good clean fight.
In a morally simplified environment like this, it's extremely important to make certain that all the actions your Heroes with a capital H take are, well, Heroic... which is to say, everything they do had damned well better be unquestionably moral and socially positive, because when you tell your audience that these are the Good Guys, you can't then turn around and have your Good Guys running around acting like the psychotically ultraviolent thugs from A Clockwork Orange. The actions of your Heroes are by definition being held up to your audience as positive behavior; if your Heroes are running around blowing up buildings and using unrestrained deadly force on their opponents, you had better be extremely careful to only have them doing so in a context in which such extremely violent actions are completely justified... such as, for example, the situation where, if you don't blow up the giant artificial planet in the next couple of seconds, it's going to kill you, your friends, and at least a few thousand other people.
Unfortunately, there is no such moral imperative for the diabolically exciting mass murders presented as visceral and entertaining eye candy, and, worse, upright, noble, morally necessary behavior, in The Matrix.
Now, the fact that Neo and his buddies are effectively outlaws battling to not only disrupt, but to comprehensively destroy, the existent status quo, is dealt with quite neatly by the movie's establishment that the status quo is an unhealthy illusion being inflicted on mankind by a malign alien intelligence. I won't dispute that this makes Neo's actions, which are, by definition, anti-social (attempting to destroy a virtual society is still anti-social) nonetheless, morally justified and, in fact, imperative. (Sometimes anti-social behiavor is morally justified; Gandhi's actions were socially disruptive and doubtless annoying to people trying to get around India at the time using the bus system. We would not judge Dutch partisans planting bombs in Gestapo HQ buildings as harshly as we do, say, Irish Republican Army members planting bombs in public libraries.)
Within the adventure fiction milieu, such a context justifies the employment of violent, and even lethal, force, assuming there is no other moral alternative.
Luke Skywalker's choices were very limited, and thus, simple; blow up the Death Star, saving himself, his friends, and a bunch of people he'd never met, while killing a whole lot of people actively engaged in attempted mass murder, or, do nothing and allow said mass murder to occur.
Neo, on the other hand, has the ability to manipulate the virtual reality he finds himself immersed in, in pretty much any way he can conceive. He chooses to use this ability to make himself very very fast and agile, to defy what we would consider to be normal physical laws restraining his movements through physical space, and to produce firearms out of nothingness which operate at a much faster rate of speed than normal firearms, and which apparently never run out of ammunition, which he then employs to kill dozens if not hundreds of pawns of the Enemy, the vast majority of whom (rather disturbingly) are dressed as policemen from our culture. (Yes, I honestly do think there are profound moral issues raised when creators deliberately produce images of police officers being slaughtered by gunfire simply because they know this will entertain and gratify their target audience, most of whom are young adolescents. But that's not the point of this essay, although I may write another one just about the relatively recent media trend of vilifying the police.)
It's been a while since I watched The Matrix, but as best I can remember, no reason is ever given for exactly why every confrontation between Neo and the vaguely defined forces of evil is inherently violent. You'd think that an alien computer which can create and maintain an entire collective virtual reality would also be capable of doing more subtle things to retard Neo's rebellious activities (like, for example, creating a windowless steel cube around him and his friends, or turning the atmosphere around Neo into chlorine gas). You'd also think that Neo and his friends, all of whom can manipulate the physical parameters of the virtual reality around them pretty much any way they like, would be able to take any number of productive actions besides (a) create magical automatic weaponry with an unending supply of bullets and (b) shoot evil police officers over and over again while bouncing off the walls and ceilings.
Live in their world. Kill in ours.
I understand why the story was structured to include these fight scenes (beyond the simple, if rather twisted, 'our audience is going to love watching a guy in a long black leather coat killing hundreds of cops'): The Matrix is meant to emulate one of those point and shoot video games that are so popular with its target audience (and that were so influential on the behavior of the Columbine killers, among others). But that's an external reason; a conscious decision on the part of the creators of the artifact. If any reason was ever given for why the stupid alien computer kept sending heavily armed legions of brainwashed drones after someone who could demonstrably kill them by the hundred all week long without being scratched, and especially for why Neo would repeatedly choose to confront these evil lackeys with murderous violence after he'd been informed that in fact, these agents of the Enemy were actually real people being mind controlled by the Enemy at that moment, and when he shot them, real people died, I don't remember it.
However, even if some reason was given for exactly why Neo, upon being convinced that he had effectively undefined and unlimited superpowers, would decide to use those superpowers to become a player character in a three dimensional game of DOOM, instead of just using them to walk through walls, create doorways in partitions, turn invisible, fly around his opponents, and otherwise avoid the conflicts that he knew would result in the deaths of innocents, it couldn't possibly be a good enough reason to justify Neo's ongoing and deliberate acts of mass murder... especially given that these acts of mass murder are presented to an audience primarily consisting of adolescents, for purposes of entertainment.
Once again... when Neo hauls out his magic guns and starts shooting bad guys who look like police officers, he is causing the deaths of innocent people who have been momentarily mind controlled by his real enemy. This was made clear in the movie, to the audience and to Neo. And even if this course of action could possibly be justified by saying 'well, in this case, the freeing of the entire human race from virtual slavery justifies the loss of some innocent lives' (which I don't concede; it's not very noble for your Hero to willingly sacrifice other lives for his cause), the fact is, Neo and his friends have many, many options they could exercise before they resort to deadly force.
The Matrix is simply an immoral movie. It presents mass murder as heroic, necessary action, when in fact, its 'heroes' could fairly easily try a lot of other options before they get to the 'let's kill everything that moves' slot. Even if the opposition encountered (and slaughtered) by Neo during the film were just computer generated phantasms, I'd still have deep moral issues with the presentation of such gratuitously violent and provocatively anti-social images as entertainment for adolescents. Given that the film makes it clear that each 'virtual' death of an opponent corresponds to a real death of a real person whose participation in the gunfight is entirely involuntary, The Matrix is simply unconscionable.
Give in to your anger, young Jedi
Nobody likes me when I hold forth on The Matrix. As far as I can see, this is because of one thing: Everybody likes the goddam film, and nearly everybody understands that immoral fiction is a bad thing that they shouldn't like (or support with their cash), and therefore, everybody really resents the hell out of it when I pretty much irrefutably demonstrate that this thing they love and they really enjoyed watching, and that many of them own on video or DVD and love to watch over and over again, is, well... evil.
Look... I enjoyed watching The Matrix too, on a visceral level. It's more or less internally consistent (not at all common in science fiction or fantasy films), it's dialogue doesn't resolutely suck all the way through like the dialogue in most SF and action movies tends to, and it does indeed bring some very interesting and rather provocative philosophical issues into the popular gestalt. Over the past few years I've discovered I can now have a conversation on solpsism with nearly anyone, since nearly everyone has seen The Matrix and has a, well, matrix, to put the essential concept of the objective/subjective dichotomy into.
Nonetheless, the fact that you really enjoyed the movie doesn't excuse the film, or its creators, from its moral responsibility, or, for that matter, you from yours. Yes, it's a very entertaining media artifact. It's also a media artifact that basically teaches its viewers that it's okay to kill people, especially people in cop suits, even if you don't have to, if you're the Hero and they're the Villains.
An argument can be made that this is only a story, and even the most retarded adolescent can tell the difference between this movie and reality. Only the truly deranged are going to start believing that the fictional reality presented in The Matrix is real, and it is only within that fictional reality that the actions taken by Neo and his pals are justifiable (or even, really, possible).
However, morally, that makes no difference. Within the fictional reality of The Matrix, it is clearly established that every 'enemy agent' is a real person being controlled by the actual enemy force, and when Neo kills an enemy agent, a real person dies. Neo and his posse are committing mass murder, without bothering to attempt to, you know, not commit mass murder, and since they are the Heroes, mass murder is being held up as a socially acceptable, valid, necessary, and even admirable activity. That's simply reprehensible, and everyone I've ever had this discussion with knows it's reprehensible; that's why they dislike hearing it so much.
Do the right thing
The final argument I generally hear from really exasperated action film lovers at about this point is 'well, so what, it's just a goddam movie, who cares if it's moral or not? What practical difference does it make? Do you really think the people who go see The Matrix are so impressionable they're going to put on long black trenchcoats and wraparound mirror shades and go shoot a lot of cops in a parking garage? How often has that actually happened in the ten years that people have been watching this 'immoral' film, anyway?"
First: Yes, of course, nobody in their right mind is going to believe that in the real world, we are all immersed in a shared virtual reality and they should go out and kill cops in order to save the human race from a lifesucking alien computer. And, of course, no one in their right mind is going to come to believe that real teachers and real high school students are simply targets/opponents in some weirdly three dimensional, true life version of DOOM or RISE OF THE TRIAD, either. It's not the people in their right minds we have to worry about; it's the borderline sociopaths who are simply looking for a credible and attractive framework to hang their paranoid persecution fantasies on. And these people exist, they go to movies, or watch TV, or play video games, or all three. And then, sometimes, they get a gun and they kill people. It may not happen very often, in statistical proportion to the total population, but just how many dead bodies are acceptable to you, so that movie producers can make a few million dollars and you can watch a really bitchin' DVD?
Second, you care. You obviously care, because this is pissing you off so much. On some level, you understand, even if you don't like it when I articulate it to you, that immoral fiction is wrong, and it should not be supported, much less rewarded with hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales, rentals, and video/DVD purchases.
And apparently we all understand this, because I watch way too much TV, and I've seen a lot of movies, and I cannot think, just off the top of my head, of any TV show or other film than this one in which the heroes blithely commit mass murder against innocents (much less against opponents largely dressed as police officers) without being punished for their actions in some way before the end of the movie.
There are plenty of violent films, of course, and some of them I love. However, the only other movie I can think of at the moment in which the hero commits mass murder, besides the aforementioned Star Wars, is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, in which, at the end, Buckaroo targets a spaceship full of evil aliens (who are, admittedly, sentient beings) and blows them straight to hell. And, like Luke Skywalker, Buckaroo really didn't have much choice... if he'd let the shipful of Red Lectroids skate, the Black Lectroids in orbit would have incinerated Earth. Beyond that, like the minions of the Empire in Star Wars, the Red Lectroids were pretty clearly shown throughout The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to be evil; they kill anyone who remotely crosses them, and they also seem to enjoy kidnapping and torturing people, too.
Other than those two, though, I'm at a loss at the moment to come up with any movie where the putative hero kills a lot of people (or sentient beings). Hmmmm... well, I guess Arnold Schwarzenegger tends to kill a lot of criminals in most of his action movies... he certainly wipes out a small army of them in Commando... but, again, Schwarzenegger is killing criminals, generally, criminals who have attacked him first. Tony Soprano has probably whacked a dozen or so people on screen by now, but I can't recall him ever killing anyone who wasn't also a criminal... and even if he has, while Tony Soprano is the protagonist of his fictional artifact, nobody has ever tried to say he's a hero, and his behavior is socially acceptable.
This is very different from Neo,who is presented as the noble, admirable hero of the movie, and who is killing temporarily brainwashed drones that, in their right minds, would never have attacked him, and which Neo could simply walk around if he felt like it, anyway.
As a pretty much universal rule in our culture, if a fictional character kills innocent people, that fictional character is 'bad' and generally gets arrested, or killed horribly in turn, by the end of the film. The Matrix is simply the only movie I can think of where the hero kills a lot of innocent people, when he doesn't have to, and the immorality of mass murder is never even acknowledged.
Our popular fictions are a reflection of our culture, and, synergistically, our culture also tends to over time begin to mirror our most popular fictions. Whether we want to accept that or not, it's true. Do we really want to be part of a culture that is reflected in, or starts to reflect, the values (or complete lack thereof) depicted in The Matrix?
Yeah, I know. When I start talking about the corrupt Hollywood media and its lack of values and the horrible impact this has on our culture as a whole, I sound just like Rush Limbaugh. I realized that as I was typing my closing sentence above, and it horrified me as much as it probably did you. But let's get one thing straight: I'm not pissing and moaning about a movie in which members of the same gender kiss each other, or sex occurs outside the sacrosanct boundaries of holy matrimony, or the fucking American flag gets burned by someone. I'm tolerant of alternate lifestyles (if a movie features guys kissing each other on the mouth, I'm not gonna watch it, but on the other hand, if a movie or TV show has the phrase My Big Fat Greek ANYTHING in it, I'm not going to watch it, either... but on the other hand, I don't write long diatribes saying these things are objectionable or immoral, either. Other people want to watch guys kissing each other, or even engage in that behavior, well, that's fine for them. Other people want to go watch movies about Big Fat Greek Somethings, that's cool, too.
What I'm talking about is not something that can be dismissed as simply my narrow minded, provincial views regarding aspects of human behavior that really aren't anyone else's business but the people performing said acts. What I'm talking about here is the fictional depiction of mass murder as a socially acceptable activity, for purposes of commercial entertainment. And, personally, I think the sanctity of human life is a concept that can legitimately be described as a 'value'... and a 'value' worth defending at length on a weblog, at that.
The fact that conservatives twaddle mongers have co-opted the word 'values' and sullied it with a lot of narrow minded and hateful bigotry doesn't mean I can't use it properly and appropriately, when I feel the need.
The Matrix is, flatly, an immoral film, one that undermines the cultural values that you and I and pretty much everyone we know depend on to keep us safe and comfortable. You may hate acknowledging that, and you may hate even worse acknowledging that as a member of this culture, you have a moral responsibility not to support ethically toxic crap like The Matrix with your disposable income. Nonetheless, the fact that you really don't want to admit that your favorite piece of cinematic eye candy is reprehensible and morally atrocious, and you'd really rather not be a conscientious, morally consistent grown up in just this one instance, does not justify your abdication of your responsibility to actually be a conscientious and morally consistent grown up.
Even I have to admit, though, that Carrie Ann Moss is a major babe...
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
KILL THEM ALL AND LET NEO SORT THEM OUT: The Fundamental Immorality of The Matrix
KILL THEM ALL AND LET NEO SORT THEM OUT: The Fundamental Immorality of The Matrix
opinion|other people's heroes|