This essay analyzes the recent film The Matrix from the perspective of modern-day myth-making. After a brief plot summary of the film, I note the well-documented parallels to the Christian messianic narrative of Jesus. I then go on to highlight the often overlooked parallels to the Buddhist existential analysis of the human condition. In particular, I note a remarkable resonance between The Matrix and the fourth century (C.E.) philosophical school of Buddhism known as Yogacara. By highlighting the syncretic or combinative nature of the film's symbolic narrative, I submit The Matrix as a cinematic example of the dialectical process of myth-making by means of Peter Berger's theory of socio-cultural construction.
Humans are mythologizing and, as Peter Berger would suggest, "world-building" creatures. We appropriate elements from our past and present to fashion epic narratives and myths for a variety of existential, sociological, and religious ends. Myths are not fixed narrative forms, however. Studies of traditionally oral cultures evidence considerable elasticity in the details of a particular myth.[i] And history also demonstrates that myths often evolve as a result of cultural diffusion and contact. Myths are constantly adapted to new cultural contexts and worldly realities. While the invention of writing inspired a more fixed status for some myths, it did not halt the ongoing adaptation and amalgamation of previously disparate mythological themes and concepts.
In this essay, I will examine the recent popular science-fiction film The Matrix, written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, from this perspective of mythological adaptation. While the Christian metaphors throughout the film have been well noted, significant elements of a Buddhist worldview are often overlooked. In particular, the symbolic and existential parallels to a fourth century (C.E.) philosophical school of Buddhism know as "Consciousness-only" (Vijñavada/Yogacara) are indeed striking. In addition to noting such parallels, I will submit The Matrix as a provocative example of modern-day myth-making. Appropriating familiar symbols and motifs into a new epic narrative is clearly not a contemporary phenomenon and I will borrow from Peter Berger's dialectical theory of "world building" to elucidate this process. The foundation myths of many religions arguably reflect the same dialectical process I will try to illuminate here. Although The Matrix is not likely to become the foundation myth for a new religion, it will perhaps inform the worldviews, if only subtly and temporarily, of thousands of young adults. Indeed, this is the destiny of most myths. But who knows, this may become a classic along the lines of The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars.
To characterize a contemporary film as "myth" is not without problems, not the least of which is qualifying such a genre into an acceptable definition of myth. Here I will adopt a definition offered by Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko. She delineates four criteria of myth with respect to form (narrative of sacred origin), content (cosmogonic in terms of cultural origin or existential condition), function (model for human activity), and context (in the sense that myth provides "the ideological content for a sacred form of behavior").[ii] I suggest that The Matrix qualifies in all respects as a mythological narrative. It is also important to note that myths are not disembodied texts divorced from time or place. Their language, symbols, and meaning are invariably tied to the context and worldview of origin. Moreover, the functional use of myths may range from a children's story hour to a mechanism of political legitimization. In other words, myths serve any number of social, religious, ideological, or pedagogical functions. Movies, like any narrative form, can be considered a form of myth if they meet the criteria noted above. Star Wars, The Fisher King, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey represent appropriate examples according to this perspective.
[i] See, for example, Raymond Firth's "The Plasticity of Myth," Ethnoligica 2 (1960), 181-88.
[ii] Lauri Honko. "The Problem of Defining Myth" in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 49-51.
Ford, James L.
"Buddhism, Christianity, and The Matrix: The Dialectic of Myth-Making in Contemporary Cinema,"
Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 4
, Article 1.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol4/iss2/1