In a vital scene in The Matrix, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) seeks to demonstrate the nature of the virtual reality simulation, which is keeping the majority of humanity in bondage, to Neo (Keanu Reeves) by bringing him into a simulation of his own. Note Morpheus’s reply to Neo’s question, “What is real?”
(From The Matrix: Morpheus poses the Challenge: 0:48 to 1:04)
While Morpheus asks Neo a vital question regarding reality, he does not state an answer, per se. He leaves the challenge open—and so, rhetorically, Neo must in some sense answer the question for himself. And in the meantime, the film has asked the question of us—and like Neo, we the audience must answer this “Morpheus Challenge”: “What does it mean to consider something ‘real’? How do we know what reality is—let alone how to recognize it as ‘truly’ real? How do we construct a valid conception of reality—and how can we be ultimately sure it is any more valid than a differing conception?”
The “mind-game” film, at its best, challenges not only its characters but the audience—posing questions of narrative, of character, or even of philosophy. Take the original Total Recall, tellingly billed as “the thinking man’s action film”, with its sci-fi conventions and “fun” Schwarzenegger-based aesthetics as a channel for an early hint of the Challenge:
(Original teaser trailer for the original Total Recall. Note the appeal to the mind–the direct challenge to the viewer.)
It is understandable why films directly questioning their characters’ perceptions of reality would prove popular: the viewer is invited to participate, thinking along with said characters. As such, the audience is invited to challenge their own perceptions of reality: when we accept one “in-universe” plane of reality, for characters like Neo, as “real”—that begs for the question of “Why?—By what standard of judging reality?” And ultimately: “Does this standard of determining reality have applications for how we determine reality?”
The Matrix makes this Challenge extraordinarily difficult to ignore: Unreal elements such as form-changing agents notwithstanding, the simulated world in the film is portrayed as, effectively, the world we deem to be real.
(Neo looks over the city he had once accepted as part of the “real” world)
Unfortunately, The Matrix does not make it easy for the viewer to solve the Challenge—for the simple reason that the film does not give direct standards for reaching a solution. Instead, in-universe, the “desert” world is taken for granted to be “real”: while Neo does face initial denial over the “true” status of humanity, he soon comes to accept it as “reality”, with no question whatsoever as to whether the “desert” world is just as much an illusion as the simulation of the Matrix. Reality, in effect, is taken for granted.
The question “How do you define real?” is left open even by Morpheus himself, and is ultimately left solely in the hands of the audience. The concern is whether or not the universe of The Matrix has an answer at all—otherwise, the audience might well have to accept a “reality” of constant questioning and second-guessing, for their own world as well as that of the film.
In the meantime, in lieu of answers, Morpheus gives us more questions:
(Morpheus applies the Challenge to dreams)
While Morpheus asks the question as an allegory—to prepare Neo for the revelations to come—the question itself remains, to be proverbially picked up and ran with by a later film that also addresses the Challenge, fully: Inception.
(From Inception: Cobb (Leonardo DeCaprio) explains the basics of “dream logic” to Ariadne (Ellen Page)–note his line about seeming reality at 1:05 to 1:13)
Inception postulates that, in certain cases, we can in fact become aware of oddities within the dream, and therefore become aware of whether we are in a dream. Shortly after the above exchange, Cobb’s associate Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discusses what sets “dream-logic” apart from “real-world” logic:
(Arthur explains the element of paradoxes in dreams)
He tellingly links the “cheat” of “impossible shapes” to dreams–paradoxes being impossible in the “real” world. Such paradoxes, he indicates, are only possible in a “false” reality—such as a dream, hence the term “dream logic” (on which many mind-game films are based).
Thus, each member of Cobb’s team can in theory be able to determine, should anything go wrong in an assignment, whether they are in a dream or not through simple logical tests—tests relying on a personal object, the “totem”, selected by the member specifically to indicate whether a paradox can occur (i.e., a top spinning without end):
(Cobb checks the top totem)
The fact that the tests are personal—the nature of each member’s test never to be revealed to the others in order to preserve said test’s integrity—refers to Descartes’s famous principle of cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am” emphasizes the importance of personal identity in determining an answer (such as it is) to the question of “What is real?”—in effect, Descartes (and Inception) implies, “How do you define ‘real’?” is answered by “Through logical reasoning from one’s rational mind.”
Inception expands this: the “real” world uses a “real-world”, non-paradoxical logic a la Aristotle—a top will not spin endlessly; it will eventually slow down and topple over. The “real” world cannot have an actual paradox—the Law of Non-Contradiction (A is A, and is never “non-A”) becomes the central tenant for a test of reality. Discovery of an unsolvable paradox (an endlessly spinning top, the Penrose Steps, etc.) becomes “the” legitimate, rational grounds for questioning reality.
Interestingly enough, The Matrix does, in fact, refer to such an answer to the Morpheus Challenge—but without direct appeals to Aristotelian/Cartesian logic:
(From The Matrix: Morpheus’s introduction. Note Morpheus’s lines from 2:00 to 2:25.)
Neo has an internal (personal) reason to believe–though he does not yet know enough to truly frame it in these terms–that the world as he knows it is “all wrong”. It is, thus, by appealing to this feeling that Morpheus is able to convince Neo of the “true” nature of reality.
Neo and the other heroes became aware of the false nature of the simulated reality of the Matrix because something felt wrong—a feeling arising from their personal observations of the world. This actually explains the oddity of Neo accepting the “desert” world as real: he has, in the end, no real reason to doubt that world (as opposed to his previous life within the Matrix)—and therefore, he does not doubt.
Inception and The Matrix challenge us to question, and give us the means to question. If our instinct causes us to doubt (The Matrix), we must observe the facts as we know them, putting them through a test of sorts. Whether we follow logical tests of contradiction and paradox (Inception) or simply what “feels” right (The Matrix) is ultimately subjective. In the end, both films agree with Descartes: “I think, therefore I am”—and reality, as an individual perceives it, is to be accepted or rejected, but ultimately analyzed either way, on an individual basis.
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