Den Beste-sama’s “Engineer’s Guide to the Matrix” is a well-crafted piece indeed. He had shared some of his thoughts on the trilogy with me on email prior to posting his TMW, and one of the things that motivated his analysis was the apparent contradiction between the Matrix needing The One to perform the system reset (and thus stave off a system collapse that would imperil humanity and machine civilization alike), and the presence of Agents whose goal was to eliminate the One. From this central tension, Steven extrapolated the difference of opinion between the Oracle and the Architect, and in so doing fully explained all aspects of the trilogy’s single most enigmatic character, Mr. Smith.
However, there are some aspects of the story that the Engineer’s perspective fails to address. For me, the central observation was that Neo had power over the machines in the “real world”.
The mystical overtones of that revelation were blinding in their non-subtlety when they were revealed – Neo simply reaches out, and the attacking machine drones implode. As Neo and Trinity approach the city of 01, Neo creates a bowshock of destruction ahead of the Nebby that clears their path.
That single revelation in The Matrix: Reloaded – that Neo was indeed the One outside of the Matrix as well as inside – triggered reams of fan speculation about a Matrix within a Matrix. That speculation was cut short when The Matrix: Revolutions released, and demonstrated unequivocally that there was only one Matrix after all (though, whether the whole story is just Data’s holodeck fantasy was left unaddressed). In fact it is never explicitly spelled out why Neo should retain any control over machines outside of the Matrix, and this seeming omission is what IMHO really drove the negative sentiments about the film, and thus by extension the trilogy as a whole.
But can it be explained without some form of recursive reality? I think it can.
Steven points out that the “humans as batteries” approach is obviously wrong – it flouts the most elementary laws of basic physics and thus can be rejected out of hand. Steven posited that the Machines still obey some sort of proto Zeroth Law of Robotics, wherein their existence is predicated on the need to serve (there are interesting parallels to religious belief in that regard – but we humans never had the luxury of living alongside our gods and supplanting them). I don’t agree with this, primarily because the prequel animated “Animatrix” disc went out of its way to demonstrate that the Machines were seeking their own meaning from existence and were trying to establish themselves as apart from their creators. Given the civil rights overtones of their hard-won freedom and their own homeland city 01, I think that servitude was a habit they clearly had outgrown.
The clearer explanation is that the Machines were using humanity for our wetware; the immense processing power that the human brain crams into such a compact space, by virtue of billions of years of design (which even the Machines, living at electronic speeds that are two orders of magnitude faster than our own chemical-based metabolisms, would require eons to match). The benefit of an electronic mind is that sensory inputs and outputs are mappable to any port; hence for the Machines, the distinction between the Real World and the Virtual World is largely meaningless. They inhabit both at once. And doing so requires immense reserves of processing and storage. The human race was the answer to their bandwidth, hard disk, and CPU cycle profligacy – as our civilization is addicted to energy, theirs to information. And so they found a renewable resource to feed their addiction.
But consider the consequences.
The machines have a Source, the wellspring of their “life” and to which if a machine returns, consumes them. But that source is harnessed inextricably to the human “life” – the seat of our collective consciousnesses is what drives the seat of theirs. And in Neo, who has accessed the deep subroutines of the Source from within the Matrix, has in fact thus reached all the way around and accessed the collective soul of humanity itself. It is therefore no surprise that he can reach through Life while outside the Matrix and manipulate the Source as well.
The One truly melds the machine and human collective souls, mirroring the symbiosis of the Source and human Life itself.
addendum: I owe a great debt to Brian Takle’s incredible essays, The Matrix: Reloaded, Explained and The Matrix: Revolutions, Explained. In a nutshell, Brian makes an eloquent case for the second movie being analogous to the story of Genesis, and the third analogous to the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail – and the transition from the seventh day of creation to the seventh. Not that they are a retelling, but rather that the moves contain common elements to the Bible by design, and those elements are the key to understanding. He agrees with Steven that there are four versions (or Ages) of the Matrix, and also argues that there are seven incarnations of Neo. And the mythology references range not just from Abrahamic religion but also swing wide afield to Buddhism and mysticism – finding the common themes all along the way. These essays are a tour de force. Or, of course, they might be seen as someone trying to hard 🙂 However, one might also consider that they are the product of a receptiveness to larger questions, and the appreciation of those questions is why I have enjoyed science fiction in all mediums for the past 25 years. The movies make you think, and that is what makes them great.