The Matrix starts out with intriguing promise: you know exactly where it’s going–Neo’s world isn’t real–but that’s cool. You want to see what they’ll do with that, especially after Morpheus says to him,
“You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind.”
Then he wakes up in that vat in the “real world” and it’s so chilling!
After that, the movie falls into a familiar ennui-filled post-apocalyptic sci-fi mode that is broken only by action!packed moments of gratuitous violence. The basic premise behind the future world is incredibly lame–machines harvesting people for energy? Puh-lease. There are much more efficient ways to create energy. This was something someone made up at the last minute to have an excuse to keep humans locked up in virtual reality.
The philosophical quandary the movie’s premise turns on is also nothing new. It’s a contemporary spin on an empiricist brain-teaser that’s been around since the 17th century–“just because we can sense things with our five senses, does that make them real?” Philosophers call this “problem of the external world”. Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Normal Again“, in which Buffy is shown switching disorientingly back and forth between the story world we’ve come to know on the show where she is a small-town superhero, and another life, in which she is institutionalized and only imagines she’s a small-town superhero, did a better job of driving home that philosophical dilemma and its existential horror.
The one genuine truth to come out of this movie is the absurdity of our socially constructed reality. When I was a teenager, I had this fantasy that I suddenly fell and found myself looking back up at my life as if it was a play on a stage. At that moment, I realized that everyone around me, including myself, was an actor playing a role. Suddenly I didn’t know what was real, what was genuine, what was “really me” or “really you,” or if asking for genuineness was even meaningful. You see, unlike The Matrix or “Normal Again”, there is (probably) no conspiracy of machines or demons or other sinister Others creating a false reality for us: we do it to ourselves. We create social rules and mores, roles and constructs for each other, and we create them as individuals for ourselves. And we do it because we’re programmed by nature and nurture to have this deep need for a solid “reality” to live in.
That’s why Normal Again demonstrated the philosophical “problem of the external world” better than The Matrix. Because when Cypher says he wishes he’d taken the blue pill, you know he knows he’s accepting a lie. He wants to live a lie, and it’s made quite clear in the universe of the movie that the world create by the machines is the false world. Buffy is never quite sure which world is the real world. Both worlds–the world of the Sunnydale superhero, and the world of the asylum–are presented by the narrative as in some sense products of her mind and her conflicted needs. Not for Cypher. In the narrative of The Matrix, there is a real world and a fake world in the absolute metaphysical sense, and neither is a product of his needs and wants, he simply chooses one over the other due to his needs and wants.
Buffy, on the other hand, must make a choice between the superhero world and the asylum world without knowing which is “more real” in an absolute metaphysical sense, if either is. Both are presented as “created” out of her differing needs. The demon in the episode merely makes them come alive for her via magic. And in the end, when Buffy makes her choice, it is a choice between which is more real to her as an individual choosing the way she wants to live, as an individual choosing the way she wants to think about herself.
In my teenaged fantasy, I imagined myself superior to those around me because I fell off the stage of life and saw it in all its absurdity. I could see “reality” on a different level than those around me. Unlike them, I didn’t buy into the necessity of the social constructs. I was Neo, choosing the red pill. Yay, me. Now I understand it’s a little more complicated than that. Taking the red pill, seeing the basic non-necessity of our conception of the world, is only the first step. If there is a proper way to conceive the world, who knows if we are even capable of having that conception? We may just have to settle for building a new construct to live in. And that demands choices.
But if, like Morpheus and his gang, we do discover the proper conception world, we still have to live in it, build in it, create it. Cypher was unhappy in the “real world” because it was all fighting, a daily grind of bad food and fear of being caught. Was that “necessary”? Could they have built a better life for themselves in the “real world” than they did?
In so many ways, reality is a choice. So easy to say. But not easy to put into practice. Most of us just end up “taking the blue pill”–accepting the socially constructed world we happen to live in as unavoidably “real.”