Zoom and Pan: The Matrix
Welcome to Zoom and Pan, Eat Me Daily's food n' film column. Each week, Soleil Ho of Heavy Table will tear apart a food-centric movie scene and, with luck, decipher the meaning behind all the food porn. This week: The Matrix.
Since its first installment was released in 1999, The Matrix (buy it) trilogy has lodged itself in the imaginations of pasty, Cheeto-inhaling nerds everywhere. Though it was marketed as a suave sci-fi flick, fans of The Matrix quickly latched onto the story's philosophical angle, which is widely understood as an adaptation of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." Like several of its blockbuster contemporaries that year (American Beauty, Fight Club, The Iron Giant), the film coupled a sophisticated social critique with a generic premise.
While The Matrix tends to be remembered for its showstopping bullet time technology and hot socket sex, its style and substance both shine in their originality and ability to juggle countless pop culture references at the same time. It begins with a nobody, Thomas A. Anderson, who turns out to be the key to humanity's survival. Newly christened as Neo, he is violently pulled out of his mundane, everyday life in order to assist a ragtag bunch of computer hackers in their battle against the Matrix. From there, it gets a little complicated.
Now, forget the stunning CGI and choreographed fight scenes — the heart of the film's take-home critique lies in a pair of dinner scenes.
In the first dinner scene, Cypher, the token sleazy bastard of the crew, solipsizes on the idea of eating a rare steak in a high-end restaurant. Due to his "awakening" to the truth of the Matrix, he realizes that the visceral sensation of eating the steak is entirely false: in reality, it and the restaurant are a mass delusion. However, Cypher decides to exchange his enlightenment for delusion. As he chews thoughtfully on his steak, he concludes, "Ignorance is bliss."
The scene that immediately follows shows Neo and his comrades sitting down to a bone-chilling meal of "single-celled protein combined with aminos, vitamins, and minerals." As the crew describes it, the dish evokes runny eggs, mucus, and "Tasty Wheat" (which seems similar to Cream of Wheat). The lavish atmosphere of the previous scene is repudiated by the barren, industrial setting of the mess hall in the gang's ship, the Nebuchadnezzar.
French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies that "to eat steak rare... represents both a nature and a morality." Going further, steak represents the triumph of the kill and the blood and virility of both the killer and the killed. As a marker of culture, it embodies machismo. As Cypher chews on his steak under the gaze of Mr. Smith, an agent of the Matrix, the masculine nature of the interaction seems almost hyperbolic, like a parody. The fact that the characters are cast as two white men is no less significant.
The enlightened people of the city of Zion and the group aboard the Nebuchadnezzar are, by contrast, much more diverse than those in the fictional world of the Matrix. As Neo crosses over from the virtual world to the real, the comforts to which he was accustomed disappear completely, replaced by the bland, single-celled porridge of reality. His respectable life as "Mr. Anderson" comes to a definite end, as do all the rights and privileges that accompanied it. The liminality, or borderlessness, of the character finds expression in the ethnicity of the actor himself: Keanu Reeves is part white, part Hawaiian/Chinese. Thus, Neo is able to cross over from the Matrix's white supremacist vision of the world to join the big, queer, ethnic bonanza of the real world.
In the Matrix, the reward for the white male's treason is an iconic steak. However, the steak isn't real. What the film is saying is that the benefits of social privilege are false prizes; the truth, as shown on the Nebuchadnezzar, is that no one is special. All the same, abandoning one's unearned privilege is not a pleasant experience, but, as the film argues, it is a necessary one.