Below is an older college essay of mine in which I was required to take a deeper look at a film, any film, of my choosing, and see how the Director utilized mis-en-scene to bridge his thoughts to an audience’s. I’m sharing this not only as a fan of The Matrix, but as a demonstration of the painstaking details and thought that some truly remarkable filmmakers go through.
Beyond The Matrix
Heralded as being one of the most innovative science-fiction films, 1999’s The Matrix complements its stunning visuals by providing an intricate story, cleverly laced with intellectual subtleties that may go unnoticed by the casual viewer. Despite The Matrix being just the Wachowski brother’s second film, the duo took on such an elaborate undertaking out of a desire to deliver something beyond the typical Hollywood “loud, dumb, and obvious” action-film. Their intention was to make audiences think; to express important philosophical ideologies while still being able to entertain. They achieved that perfect blend by making precise choices in production design, costume, sound, and kinesis to create a distinct contrast between the real world and virtual reality, while also supplying stimulating undertones of the cyberpunk genre, Zen Buddhism and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation to express their theme of waking up to reality and search for truth.
Inspired by the visuals of Japanese director Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, the Wachowski brothers set out to create a cyberpunk based world popularized by writers such as William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer. “The very word cyberpunk itself is a fusion between cybernetics, the science and technology of the system, and punk, the philosophy of rebellion against the system. The most clandestine aspect of cyberpunk is the subculture of hackers, phreaks, netrunner, ravers, and razor girls.” The basic idea is to present a dystopian world set in a future where mankind has succumb to technology through our creation of artificial intelligence while civilization rests in the hands of the few, typically hackers. Such is the world the Wachowski brothers create, and it’s the mise-en-scene that’s executed ever so precisely that creates an immersive and believable synthesis of reality, and virtual reality.
The use of color is the most prevalent feature in recognizing the difference between what is real and what is the Matrix. There is a heavy emphasis on the color green and black for all scenes taking place inside the Matrix because it serves as a visual correlation to monochromatic computer monitors and the underground subculture of computer hacking.
Alternatively, the very moment we enter reality the tint is gone and the set design shifts to emphasize the color blue. Everything from floor to ceiling is steel and iron, an allusion to the cold and deserted world of the future where machines embody life on Earth. Visually, without ever getting a chance to see what the world has amounted to, (except in a very short scene with Morpheus and Neo) we as an audience get a sense of the desolation of the future, a stark contrast to that of the virtual world inside of the Matrix, all befitting of the cyberpunk genre.
However, there is emphasis on yet another color: red. (The irony of this becomes that the three emphasized colors, red, green, blue, are also the three primary additive colors, which serve for color transmission in television and computer screens of today.) Instead of enhancing the distinction between the real world and virtual reality, red is a guiding force throughout the film. As pointed out by Ken Wilber, in Zen Buddhism, the color red often signifies streams of desire, which the Wachowski brothers take full advantage of to progress the narrative. An auspicious example is the “Woman in the Red Dress” designed by the short statured character, Mouse, to appeal on a very primitive level of desire: sexuality.
But, the more intriguing usage comes when Neo has to make a choice. Morpheus unfurls his hands revealing a red and blue pill. Taking the blue pill sends Neo back into the Matrix, but taking the red pill sends Neo “further down the rabbit hole” towards the truth, the epitome of Neo’s innermost desire all highlighted by a single color, something we as an audience may not even bother to take in.
These notions of truth and “waking up” are obviously the major philosophical concepts of the film. We see it in a very literal sense when Neo is awoken from his hyperbaric sleep inside of the Matrix and awakens to the real world and discovers the truth of the virtual reality he had been living in. Yet, the Wachowski’s also cleverly place little messages throughout the film to hone in on the concept of awakening and truth. Take for example, the name of the company Neo works for plastered in gigantic letters of the façade of the building, Metacortex. “The roots of this word are meta-, which according to Webster’s means ‘going beyond or higher, transcending,’ and cortex, which is ‘the outer layer (boundary) of gray matter surrounding the brain.’ Thus, Metacortex is ‘transcending the boundaries of the brain,’ which is precisely what Neo proceeds to do.”
My favorite of these hidden messages comes in the scene where we’re introduced to Neo for the first time. He reaches for a book that he has hollowed out for purposes of hiding black-market software and the camera stays on the cover just momentarily, but precise lighting techniques illuminate the gold lettering to reveal the book that appears to be a Bible, is indeed actually Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a novel centered around man’s replacement of reality with instead a simulation. Even more interesting still, the chapter the book is open to is “On Nihilism” which is defined as “a total rejection of established laws and institutions.”
Only seconds later in the scene Neo opens his door; but notice the lighting conditions here again. The key light puts heavy emphasis on the door number, 101, and barely sheds any light onto Neo himself. The number 101 reoccurs not just in this film, but also throughout the trilogy as a whole, and it is not without significance. When translated from binary code, 101 stands for 5, the 6th numerical character, which coincides with Neo being the 6th “Chosen One” to rise against the machines. These deceptive elements are just a few examples of the fun the Wachowski’s had in creating the mise-en-scene of The Matrix, however, they also took a very direct approach in exploring philosophy while also perpetuating the stark distinction between reality and the Matrix.
Costume in the cyberpunk genre has been befitting of the predicted times, The Matrix is no different, however there is a glaring distinction. Costumes in Bladerunner, for example, very much so take on a futuristic look by utilizing synthetic materials, bright colors, and unusual shapes to assist in the verisimilitude of the film. The Matrix, on the other hand, because of the diegesis of the film, has to create three entirely different looks: one of present day, one of a dystopian future, and one of the mental projections made by persons “jacked” into the Matrix. Zion, the last human city, is merely mentioned by Morpheus, civilization is never visually revealed, but through the costumes of the crew on the Nebuchadnezzar a clear understanding of the struggles to survive is achieved. Everyone is donned in flat, neutral colors. Much of the clothing is oversized, loosely woven, covered in grime, and laden with holes.
These characteristics help to describe the scarcity of materials in that reality; that everyone is relegated to a few articles of clothing in a desolate world. Conversely, for those “unplugged” inside the Matrix, various shades of grey, black, and white are used nearly exclusively, conveying a drone-like conformist society. Lastly, for when the crew is inside of the Matrix they all wear dapper suits made of leather, which are constructed based on their own mental projections of their confident “awakened” selves. This selection in styling separates their look from those that are “asleep”, but it is also typical of the cyberpunk genre that emphasizes underground sub-cultures like BDSM, by using materials such as leather and patent-leather as mentioned above.
Yet, the most intriguing of costume choices comes during Neo’s interaction with a boy inside of the Oracle’s apartment. He’s a Caucasian boy dressed in Buddhist monk robes with a sanghati draped over his shoulders. He’s sitting on the floor bending spoons, grabbing the attention of Neo who comes closer to question how he does it. The boy offers this simple explanation, “Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon.”
This philosophy comes from the sixth patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Huineng. Challenged by a teacher, Hung-jen, to compose a verse depicting their understanding of truth, Huineng offered this prose.
“There is no bodhi tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can dust alight?”
This is a very blatant expression of religion and philosophy by the Wachowski brothers, but it’s done to give insight to the concept of truth and awakening that is the cornerstone of the film’s message to audiences.
An interesting little tidbit: within the scene following immediately after Neo speaks with the boy in robes, the Wachowski’s decide to revel in their genius by now using sound. Ever so faintly you can hear jazz being played in the background as Neo begins to talk to the Oracle. It just so happens the song playing is performed by Duke Ellington titled, “I’m Beginning to See the Light”.
Last, but certainly not least, the kinesis of the film plays an integral part in not only depicting reality, but in philosophy as well. The Matrix will forever be immortalized by the advent of “bullet time” as it dawned an age of taking movement and speed to a new level.
By using still cameras lined up taking sequential pictures, Neo gives the illusion of moving at incredibly high speeds while camera movement remains at a real-time pace. Additionally, influenced by recent Hong Kong cinema, the Wachowski’s brought kung fu stunt coordinator Yuen Wo-Ping onto to the project to assist in creating the surreal fighting movements. This was a vital hiring, as Wo-Ping was able to facilitate the gravity defying technique that would embody the essence of the film. For when in the real world, the laws of physics still apply and the crew moves as we expect they should, but in the Matrix, anything goes, bending the rules of reality to their willing. As soon as Neo became aware of the truth that there are no restrictions inside of the Matrix, because nothing is real, he reaches a point of enlightenment that allows him to move freely, free enough to even fly, and it is this aesthetic that brings the whole theme of the film full circle.
Larry and Andy Wachowski tight-roped a fine line in creating The Matrix. They had to successfully bridge their love for action and cyberpunk with their philosophical beliefs without being overbearing or preachy in the process. They had to make audiences believe in what they believe, to see what they see, and they could only accomplish that lofty goal by visually creating two very different worlds. Through their calculating uses of just about every aesthetic possible, they not only managed to entertain, but they also achieved their greatest goal: getting audiences to ask “Why?” I believe the Wachowski’s not only meant for Neo to awaken, but for us to awaken as well, to open our eyes to the current state of man. Perhaps The Matrix is more than just a clever bit of science fiction; perhaps it is also the greatest cautionary tale of our generation, but only time will tell.
And there you have it. So the next time you watch The Matrix, I’m sure you’ll pick up on these little things.