May 03, 2003
Matrix Explained?

Slate is featuring this article which attempts to explain the appeal of the movie, "The Matrix." Some of this is right on the money for me, in that the movie represents a kind of ultimate "Walter Mitty" adventure for computer geeks. However, I think the author failed to emphasise what, to me at least, is important about it, and in fact is important about nearly all good science fiction.

In The Matrix the filmmakers created a completely new world. But, and this is something "mundane" screenwriters seem to have a really hard time getting their heads around, that world has rules. We may not know them, we may not completely understand them, but by watching, reading, or listening carefully we can begin to tease them out.

As we tease them out we get to play games with them, turn the movie or book literally into "science" (using observation to hypothesise rules, make predictions with those hypotheses, test them by further observation) "fiction" (in a fake world). We try to get our head around how a particular kind of faster-than-light (FTL) engine works as it is introduced. Later on, when the heros get in trouble because this FTL engine has broken down, we put ourselves in their place. What would we do if we needed to fix this thing? How would we get ourselves out of it?

In good science fiction, the authors (who presumably already know in at least a vague sort of way what makes it all tick) use rules to figure out what is going to happen. In really good science fiction they use these rules to make completely unexpected, and yet at the same time consistent and logical, plot corners and twists to get our heros out of their jam.

It doesn't even have to be "hard" science fiction. Everyone knows Dr. Frankefurter is a really weird crossdresser with a penchant for singing and a tendency to vat-grow bodybuilders in gold lame' speedos. But he does a lot of other weird things, ones that have a pattern, but which for some reason just don't quite stitch together. It is only when Riff-Raff and Magenta reveal their true nature that it all falls into place. A weird, twisted, ambiguous, and funny place, but a place nonetheless.

This consistency, the ability to build not just fancy spaceships or shiny guns but entire worlds, cultures, whole universes, is not easy. Whole chunks of Hollywood all too often think creating the former automatically leads to the latter, and then wonder why Earth 2 bombs while Babylon 5 thrives.

When the computer is just a computer, the girl is just pretty, and the hero simply quick with his hands, well, it's just another flat, cynical attempt by people who Just Don't Get It. It's only when the computer is a self-aware monster with an agenda and a history, the girl someone with a past that controls her reactions, her fears, and her hopes, and the hero simply a normal guy trying to figure it all out before it gets him killed, that it becomes something magic.

It becomes The Matrix.

Posted by scott at May 03, 2003 09:08 PM

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There is one thing about the Matrix that almost ruined the movie for me. One piece of incredibly bad science.

Why do the computers keep humans in cocoons, while their minds are in the Matrix?

To generate power.

In order to make this work, they would have to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. And even if we accept the implausible idea that humans can generate more energy than they consume, why didn't the computers use cows instead of humans?

All I want is a plausible reason for the computers to keep humans in coccons, and the movie didn't provide one. Like, the computers don't have imaginations, so they use human randomness and intuition to spark development.

I will, of course, be seeing "Matrix:Restored from Tape Backup" as soon as it is released.

Posted by: Byna on May 4, 2003 04:35 AM

Musta missed that part. My impression was they used humans for computing power, not "power" in and of itself. Conventional wisdom says humanity only uses 30% of the total available brain power. The computers harness the remaining 70%.

Also, with respect, not quite sure what you mean by "violates 2nd law of thermodynamics."

Posted by: scott on May 4, 2003 09:42 PM

*G* I like the way you explained that :) (also thought the same thing as scott, about why the humans were kept like that).

Posted by: witchy on May 5, 2003 07:04 AM

I always figured it was something along the lines of what Scott mentioned, though not "computing power" per se, but something else the Machines couldn't do for themselves.

What if the "power" the human race was being utilized for wasn't raw number crunching (a machine can do it better and faster), but the kind of conceptual abilities that the Machines couldn't duplicate? You (the Machines) have a problem. You can't come up with an answer to the problem because you lack the kind of lateral thinking or imagination necessary to solve the problem on your own. The solution, as you might see it, is to introduce the problem into the reality of the Matrix (suitably camouflaged to fit into the reality of the late 20th/early 21st Century as necessary), and let your Copper Tops with their complex society, its institutions of knowledge and learning, and their wonderful organic brains solve it for you.

It's the only reason that makes any kind of sense. Dunno if that's what the Cohen brothers actually intended, but hey.

Posted by: J. Austin Wilde on May 6, 2003 01:21 AM

The Cohen brothers? Who? We are commenting on The Matrix movie / triology right?

The theory that the AI / machines needed humans' *organic brains* for *computing power* and whatever, doesn't add up. Otherwise explain -- where does the solar power come in? Didn't the humans darken the skies in the real world so that the machines couldn't thrive?

Posted by: Savannah on June 16, 2003 08:50 AM
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