Continuing our theme of modern messiahs today, we turn to that fabulous classic movie, The Matrix, which intrigues not only moviegoers, but also theologians and scholars of religion, who have long recognized some fascinating engagement in the film with religious themes and tropes. One of our Bible and Popular Culture students, Minolie Rajapakse, spotted some connections between The Matrix and the American Monomyth, and wrote a marvellous essay about the film’s protagonist Neo as a modern messiah/supersaviour figure. Minolie hails originally from Sri Lanka, but has lived in New Zealand (Auckland) most of her life. She is doing a BA/BSc conjoint degree majoring in sociology and psychology. She hopes to pursue a career in psychology, particularly clinical psychology. Minolie took our Bible and Pop Culture course to discover some of the many ways the Bible influences pop culture and to learn more about the Bible’s stories and theologies.
So, whether you are a Matrix afficionado or not, we hope you enjoy Minolie’s fab essay.
Neo the great Messiah of The Matrix
Hollywood appears to have an obsession with ‘The American Monomyth’ culture, especially when it comes to religion. The American Monomyth allows for the portrayal of a hero in desperate times of need. These ideas may possibly stem from ideologies surrounding the bible, in particular with Jesus. This is arguably seen in the film, The Matrix (1999). The main protagonist Neo is an ordinary man who gets plunged into a computational world were machines rule and the previous known reality is rather a stimulation called the matrix. Neo can be viewed as a popular messiah figure because of his status of being “The One” in relation to his similarity to Jesus Christ. This is portrayed through his divine extraordinary powers, his representation as a saviour to his people embodying the American Monomyth superhero figure and lastly his purification through his death and resurrection.
The American Monomyth, as discussed by Jewett and Lawrence (2002), is a popular theme in thousands of movies; it frequently portrays, “a selfless superhero [who] emerges to renounce temptation and carry out the redemptive task”. The central protagonist has the sole ability to save the rest of humanity from evil. The heroic character often learns a greater knowledge and understanding about him/herself, which allows them to access their full power and abilities, allowing them to save their civilisation. With this storyline being represented numerously in films, it is often common to see the main protagonist being associated with biblical connotations such as being a divine saviour or messiah figure such like Jesus.
The Old Testament defines the messiah as “the anointed one” representing a holy or divine leader, elected and given authority for a specific task or reason (Bible Study Tools). Messiah figures come when times are desperate and a hero is needed. Arguably Neo can be seen as an example of this in The Matrix films as he is represented as a sacred and powerful man who is the only person capable of destroying the Matrix, giving him the status of being “The One”.
Parallelism between Jewett and Lawrence’s (2002) characteristics of the American Monomythic hero having “extraordinary powers” is represented through Neo’s character. In the beginning of the film Neo is presented as a common human, going by the name Thomas Anderson who is plunged into a world of dystopia. He is taken outside of the Matrix reality aided by his mentor Morpheus, where he is rebirthed into “the real world” and is renamed Neo. Significantly Neo is an anagram for one, a clever play on words by the directors, the Wachowski brothers, to reinforce Neo’s almighty status. Morpheus initially tells Neo that he believes Neo is “The One”- the one who can destroy the matrix simulation and save humanity. Neo’s extraordinary powers are clear in an early scene where he and Morpheus have a fighting training session. It is obvious to the audience and the other characters in the film that Neo has strengths like no other; Neo’s ability to quickly and easily learn makes him a competent opponent to the advanced Morpheus, even allowing him to overpower Morpheus. One character even exclaims, “Jesus Christ he’s fast…way above normal”. These extraordinary powers and abilities elevate Neo to a messianic status as he continuously proves himself worthy thus embodying his title of being “The One”.
Furthermore the final fight between Neo and Agent Smith (the film’s main antagonist) is a pivotal moment that depicts Neo as a messiah figure through his gifted extraordinary powers. This particular fight scene was considered legendary to cinematic viewers. This scene portrays Neo accepting his destiny and finally believing that he is “The One”. At that moment, his abilities are enhanced as he exhibits superhuman strength and power, which become unmatched compared to Agent Smith, and so Neo defeats him. Sutton and Winn (2001) note how commonly there is a representation of violence in the final confrontation between supersaviour and antagonist: “violence is an essential component of the monomyth.” This may act to reinforce ideas of power and strength which are typically associated with superheros and reinforces the final epic battle. Neo’s use of violence symbolises his extraordinary powers used for good, again epitomising him into a superhero/messiah figure as it reinforces his abilities and individuality compared to everyone else. I believe this makes him powerful and heroic in the eyes of others around him, reinforcing his special status as “The One”.
Neo’s representation in The Matrix can also be viewed as an allegory to Jesus Christ. For example, Paul Fontana (2003) writes that, “In ancient Israelite tradition there was an expectation that a great military leader would arise…this person was referred to as the messiah”. Furthermore he writes, “When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem the people hailed him as a king”. Arguably these parallels between Neo and Jesus reinforce Neo being a popular messiah figure, which is enhanced by Neo being “The One,” creating symmetry between him and Jesus. Moreover both Neo and Jesus displayed divine powers that made them seem of a higher celestial status compared to everyone around them. Neo’s extraordinary powers can be compared to that of Jesus’ miracles. In Matthew 9:1-8 Jesus performs the miracle of giving a paralytic the ability to walk again and in John 2:1-11:1 Jesus turns water into wine, again exhibiting divine extraordinary powers, which set him apart as an almighty individual, and a powerful messiah. These extraordinary powers and abilities resonate with the figure of a superhero, which idealises qualities such as mightiness, strength and confidence. These qualities are still deemed desirable in popular culture, which may be why Neo is arguably hailed as a popular messiah figure.
Neo’s portrayal as a messianic figure can also be exhibited through his representation as a self-sacrificing saviour – another criteria of the American Monomyth according to Jewett and Lawrence. In one scene, Neo meets with the Oracle, a wise woman whom the characters confide in to learn more about their future. The Oracle tells Neo that he is not “The One” and that a time will come when he will have to choose between saving his own life or the life of Morpheus. Later on in the film, Morpheus is captured by Agent Smith and is held hostage. Neo makes the brave decision to give his own life to save Morpheus, thus exhibiting his first sign of self-sacrifice and leadership. This saviour presentation is a common portrayal using the American Monomythic theme of a noble saviour stepping up and fulfilling his/her duty by making a sacrifice to save others. This representation of Neo also acts to categorise him as a selfless hero, a quality Jewett and Lawrence identify as being part of the American Monomyth.
Arguably Neo’s selflessness resonates with the qualities of a messiah because it reinforces his devotion to help others, in this particular case Morpheus. Neo’s self-sacrifice to save Morpheus (as he thinks he has to die for Morpheus to live, as the Oracle prophesised) creates symmetry with the American Monomyth theme of sacrifice. Jewett and Lawrence discuss this in terms of redemption: “the combining elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others”. Thus again, Neo can be viewed as a popular messiah figure because of this quality; his selflessness defines him as a saviour.
Neo’s sacrificial role in the film is enhanced through his death and resurrection, which ultimately represents a form of purification and enlightenment for his character. In the film, after rescuing Morpheus, Neo is still trapped in the matrix, left alone to fight Agent Smith. However as Neo is just about to escape, he is shot multiple times and dies. Back in the real world, Trinity declares her love for Neo and kisses his body, representing the kiss of life. Neo then takes a breath and wakes up, symbolising his acceptance of his status as “The One”. He is then able to see the Matrix and its manipulations and has the ability to control it, becoming all-powerful. He becomes purified through his strength and power and destroys Agent Smith. Rising from the dead and fulfilling his destiny and fate to help others ultimately reinforces Neo’s messianic status. His death and resurrection can be compared to that of Jesus’, as both died trying to save others – Neo for Morpheus and Jesus for the sins of humanity. Furthermore a similarity is seen between Neo and Jesus in terms of how both of them first encounter women when they are resurrected from the dead (Milford 2010). Neo first sees Trinity watching over him and Jesus meets Mary Magdalene according to the Gospel’s of Mark 16:9 and John 20:14. These similarities aim to reinforce the resemblance of Neo to Jesus, thus outlining Neo’s own representation as a messiah who dies but is then resurrected. After their resurrections, these two messianic figures appear to become purified and enlightened, through recognition of their status as “The One” and also through the love and loyalty of their followers.
One reason why Neo became such a popular messiah figure is because, by embodying the American Monomythic hero, he becomes a role model for the way some viewers would want to be themselves, someone they admire. Neo is selfless and brave in a frightening world, where computers and machines basically control the known reality. This would have been a very topical subject back in 1999 when the film premiered, as technology was beginning to boom and was changing society, which raised many anxieties within the general population. As Lang and Trimble (1988) suggest, “The hero came to represent the needs of the masses”. Blizek (2011) also notes that people turn to religion in times where there is worry or hardship, thus “religion reassures us in times of trouble”. Thus perhaps Neo came to represent a powerful saviour and hero amidst the culturally growing uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the future of technology (Szollosy 2017). Neo offered audiences a human saviour who could protect them from the dangers of technology. Thus he was morphed into a cultural messiah figure becoming a character people could relate to and identity with.
It is clear to see how Neo from The Matrix embodies the messiah figure as he is depicted as having similar characteristics as both the American Monomyth ‘supersaviour’ figure and Jesus. Neo’s extraordinary powers and abilities portray him as an almighty and powerful being, elevating him to a divine status (‘the One’) compared to others around him. His illustration of being a sacrificial saviour for his civilisation reinforces his selflessness and devotion to others, and his death and resurrection act to purify and enlighten his divine being. These portrayals of Neo, aim to epitomise him as a powerful messiah in a dark dystopian future, perhaps to reinforce that there will always be a hero, a saviour, a messiah to help and guide others and save the day even in the most terrifying moments or times.
References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV edition.
BibleStudyTools. Messiah. Retrieved from http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/messiah/
Blizek, W. L. (2011). Finding Religion in Film: A Methodology for Religion and Film Studies. International Journal of the Humanities, 9(7). http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=eb6bea1d-2a50-4f4a-947a- 9bfc560b850c%40sessionmgr120&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=91798207&db=hlh
Fontana, P. (2003). Finding God in The Matrix. In G. Yeffeth (Eds.), Taking the red pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix (pp. 159-184). United States of America: Independent Publishers Group
Jewett, R., & Lawrence. S. J. (2002). In R. Jewett & J. S. Lawrence (Eds.), The myth of the American Superhero (pp. 3-8, 47-48). Retrieved from https://content.talisaspire.com/auckland/bundles/5966d92d646be02ae4 496124
Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero. The Journal of Popular Culture, 22(3), 157-173. doi: 10.1111/j.0022-3840.1988.2203_157.x
Milford, M. (2010). Neo-Christ: Jesus, the matrix, and secondary allegory as a rhetorical form. Southern Communication Journal, 75(1), 17-34. http://www.tandfonline.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/doi/abs/10.1080/10417940902780686
Silver, J. (Prod.), Wachowski, A,. & Wachowski, L. (Dir.) (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States of America: Village Roadshow Pictures
Sutton, D. L., & Winn, J. E. (2001). “Do We Get to Win This Time?”: POW/MIA Rescue Films and the American Monomyth. The Journal of American Culture, 24(1‐2), 25-30. doi: 10.1111/j.1537-4726.2001.2401_25.x
Szollosy, M. (2017). Freud, Frankenstein and our fear of robots: projection in our cultural perception of technology. AI and Society, 32(3), 433-439. doi 10.1007/s00146-016-0654-7