Humanity is a Virus
The One is almost always the least compelling character in a given story. More intriguing by far is the ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. This is why I still enjoy The Matrix; Neo does little for me, but Thomas Anderson (Mr. Anderson) is a worthy protagonist. It is only during those early scenes starring Mr. Anderson that The Matrix avoids the stick-up-the-butt sexlessness of most science fiction and channels, instead, the unsettling, carnal horror of David Cronenberg’s best work.
First, Thomas Anderson finds that his mouth has become a mucky web consisting of sticky strands of flesh. Then his mouth seals completely and seemingly irrevocably, calling to mind the title of an old Harlan Ellison story: “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”. Then Mr. Anderson is held down by men who proceed to penetrate him with the help of an electronic insect that skitters across his exposed, boyish stomach in a somehow fussy manner before thrusting itself into his belly button. When Trinity later removes the device, it is sucked into a glass tube with a wet, clicking slap; it is coated with Anderson’s blood.
Finally, Mr. Anderson wakes in a semi-transparent mechanical womb, where he finds himself immersed in a sticky embryonic slime that permeates his pores and lungs alike. He is pale and hairless and blind, and he is more profoundly naked than you or I will ever be. Anderson then discovers that cold tubes are embedded in the flesh of his arms and spine, with the largest tube planted deeply into the back of his skull. Anderson is a baby, then, born of an industrial nightmare; later, this symbolism is revisited in a more overt fashion, as an actual infant twitches and kicks on a vast bed of H.R. Giger machinery while a dark liquid cascades over eerie tubes and tentacles. We are told that this liquid is human remains. This is what the baby is fed: our dripping, black remains.
This is what Mr. Anderson, too, has eaten. All his life.
But of course he’s not Mr. Anderson. Not anymore. Once he is rescued from his prison/womb, he is Neo, and we never have cause to care about him again, not least because the movie quickly devolves into a stylish but hollow series of fight scenes and shootouts. That these violent scenes are in fact too stylish is not the issue, nor is it the fact that a movie that dares to introduce an asskicker and turn her into Cinderella also ventures to clumsily engage us on a philosophical level only to solve its mysterious riddles with bullets and fistfights. (I am reminded of the Karate teacher from The Simpsons, who advised Bart that, “First you must fill your head with wisdom. Then you can hit ice with it.”)
No, the issue is that The Matrix never dares, in its third act, to be carnal. If the first act calls to mind eXistenZ, with Pikel licking Allegra’s bio-port and sucking gristle and skin from a gun, the third act is as antiseptic as a bad Star Trek rerun. Curiously, the only scenes to retain some measure of the earlier horror-of-the-body are those starring Hugo Weaving as the computer program known as Agent Smith, just as, paradoxically, the early scenes set inside the Matrix (before we know it as such) feel somehow more real than those set aboard the Nebuchadnezzar ship in the “real world”. Agent Smith’s monologue likening humanity to a virus is arguably the best writing in the movie:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.
More arresting still is the scene wherein Smith’s interrogation and torture of Lawrence Fishburn’s Morpheus turns startlingly surreal and intimate; Smith uses his fingers to trace fascinated, disgusted patterns in the sweat on Morpheus’s head and complains of the man’s revolting “stink” as Fishburn’s eyes roll up into his skull. Part of what makes this scene so fascinating and uncomfortable is that the science fiction genre has long been sexually stifled, added to which the Wachowski Brothers are fully aware of the ignoble roles African Americans have traditionally suffered in the genre’s history (when they have been offered roles at all.)
The brothers imbue this scene, then, with a nearly violent charge of homosexual undercurrents and racial tensions; Smith hates what he calls, significantly, “this zoo”, and when Smith’s two computer program colleagues enter the room, looking proper and groomed and impossibly Caucasian, they see Agent Smith looming over Morpheus. Here they behold a white “man” holding the face of a black man in his hands; they are so close they could almost be kissing. The black man is bleeding from his nose and mouth. His head is covered with sweat.
One of Agent Smith’s colleagues, brow furrowed, asks, “What were you doing?”
It’s a simple question. Understated, almost. And yet it is at this moment, more than any other, that The Matrix feels truly alive. There is accusation and disapproval and fear lurking in those four words: “What were you doing?”
Ultimately, of course, Agent Smith never answers the question; just when things start getting interesting, he runs off to exchange poses and banter with The One.