World on a Wire

I fell asleep during The Matrix. Its themes seemed to me, at the time of its release, more or less just trite ideas that I had already read about in various intro philosophy texts and whatnot, and the areas it touched on were never my areas of interest in philosophy anyway. It muddled its religious undertones, and the ethical questions were given short shrift. Fifteen years later, I watched a movie nearly twice as long, which eschews action in favor of psychological intensity, and tackles many--but not all--of the same questions.

It was much better this time around.

The first and best difference is aesthetic. Fassbinder has created a science fiction world that looks schlubby. It's populated by suits and hats and seedy strip clubs, air that probably reeks of cigarettes, and the neatly dated styles of the early 1970s. If we're going to tackle questions of what is or isn't real, I definitely prefer things schlubby. It suggests that this is vastly less about style and more about ideas, and it smacks of a greater likeliness. The machines wouldn't give us leather coats and sun glasses. We'd just be dull businessmen and scientists.

As for the philosophical/psychological aspects? Well, I'm still not overly interested in ambiguous realities, machine simulations, or metaphysics, but at least the toll of such questions was effectively shown. The story focused much more on truth than on messianic fantasies, though there is a hint of such toward the end. It's almost noir in its approach to mystery, but the paranoia feels more at place in a Cold War world, in a The Prisoner-like environment, where truth can't even set anyone free.

Which, in a way, gets to why such plots don't impress me. If we are all living in a simulation, what the fuck does it matter? Do we have free will or are we programmed? Who cares? If we have no control over our actions but think we do, the result is the same. How we act matters. Our perceived motivations matter. Some cosmic controller dictating our every move without our knowledge? It changes nothing. We should treat each other with kindness and compassion all the same. If we're unable to because something programmed us that way, what matter? If we think we have self-control, better to try to be good than not.

That said, Fassbinder's story takes an interesting turn in the end. As final revelations are made, there is a hint, via imagery certainly, that things will change within the simulations for the better, and the sacrificial nature of the change suggests a savior-like turn. This final snippet, this little allusion, was vastly more satisfying an idea that almost any preceding it (and certainly better than the depictions done in The Matrix later, to go back to my original comparison).

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