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Are we living in a simulation?

To understand the main ideas and beliefs of postmodernism, it is crucial to observe the origins of this movement and how it has changed the way people started perceiving the surrounding world. During the historical period of modernism, a major intellectual shift occurred. People left behind their religious beliefs and started glorifying the aspect of mankind, thoughts, and problem-solving. Such ideology was destroyed after a devastating period of World War II when human beings’ optimism was dimmed by a trauma. Modernism projects the real, collapsed world as the tragic ad suggests escapism into art and literature as the only coherence and remedy. Nevertheless, people still believed in the power of mankind as the only coping mechanism and solution.

Postmodernism introduces a new need to delve into the unknown of the surroundings, rethinking and analysing what has already been stated. People started questioning the aspect of reality and rejected what they have already established about their perception of the world. This period was considered a prime era for psychoanalytic and philosophers. As opposed to modernism, postmodernism derives from the fragmentation of the world and states that it is something inevitable. Plantinga (1996) compares visual images to the Plato’s Cave: "(...) cave dwellers see only the ephemeral shadows cast by a reality outside the cave (...) they see only the cave walls, and not outside." (14) He states that people that have never left the cave will wrongly consider what they see inside it as reality because they’ve never seen the outside world. Lacey in his book titled Introduction to Film states that postmodernism beliefs were mostly influenced by the media - virtual imitation of the surrounding world, which is a more modern explanation to what Jean Baudrillard declared in one of his most popular works Simulacra and Simulation from 1981. French philosopher and sociologist suggest that we are living in a world that the reality and everything that used to be certain has been replaced by simulation, where the reality is non-existent. The writer states that human beings can manipulate and imitate reality to the extent that no longer enables them to distinguish between simulation and existence. Mark Poster (1988) introduces Baudrillard’s thesis in a book titled Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings. The philosopher describes the map as a simulacrum, which projects a reality, without being real itself: "Simulation is no longer that of territory, a referential being, or substance. It is the generation by modes of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory precession of simulacra that engenders the territory…" (166). Moreover, if a human being’s existence is no longer real, so is the simulacra created by them.

Postmodernist movement enhanced many new ideas and evoke creativity in various artists, including film directors, giving them a new chance to experiment with their film’s narrative. Postmodern works were a mixture of low and high art and a combination of contrasting genres. According to Hutcheon (1997): "Postmodern film is that which paradoxically wants to challenge the outer borders of cinema and wants to ask questions (though rarely offers answers) about ideology’s role in subject-formation and in historical knowledge." (42) Movies such as Run Lola Run (1998) by Tom Tykwer, visibly inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), introduces three different possible endings of a film. Fight Club (1999) by David Fincher (where the main character enters the new reality by playing a life-changing game), or The Truman Show (1998) directed by Peter Weir (in which the character portrayed by Jim Carrey realises that his whole life was a TV show) are a solid representation of postmodern cinema. Their directors ‘play’ with the audience, blearing and mashing the meaning of reality even on the screen. In 1999, Lilly and Lana Wachowski (The Wachowski Sisters) released a film that combined Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy with CGI, action, science-fiction, and special effects, introducing a new reality, known as the matrix.

The Matrix is a film that follows the story of a computer hacker (Keanu Reeves) who discovers that the world that he used to live in is a simulation (the matrix). Later he learns about his destiny to save both realities from vicious machines that draw energy from human beings. The film was introduced during an era of huge technological progress, which enabled The Wachowski Sisters to fully use more advanced equipment for their action film. The film was foreshadowed before it’s release during Super Bowl commercial break when the viewers were hijacked with a short classic bullet time scene of Keanu Reeves effortlessly dodging the motion bullet trails. Shortly after, the audience could log in to the website titled and the whole excitement surrounding the film started. Moreover, according to Hoberman (2012), "The Matrix further benefited from and made use of DVD technology which, introduced in 1996, came into its own as a consumer product in the late 1990s" (14).

As stated above, The Matrix was a huge commercial and technological success, which provided the audience with a new level of entertainment and excitement, but the film is not only about visual delectation. The film heavily borrows the stated concept of no longer existent reality, questions and reflects postmodern problems. The Wachowski Sisters stated that The Matrix is a conscious validation of Jean Baudrillard's theory presented in Simulacra and Simulation combined with the big-budget CGI movie for the mass audience. The book itself is referenced in the film. It is owned by the main character (Neo), in which he keeps software discs needed for his profession as a programmer. This short scene is a direct foreshadowing to the character’s future of becoming the chosen one that unites both parallel worlds. Neo is introduced to the matrix by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who starts their conversation in the real world by referencing Jean Baudrillard theory: ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’, which sets the proper atmosphere and induces a philosophical tone for the film. In the matrix (which closely resembles the real world) characters have to fight with sentient machines and agents that are a threat to their world. Human beings are reborn in a special incubator, which can be interpreted as an absolute forfeiture of the knowledge about the surrounding world (another reference to postmodernism). Moreover, the characters can quickly learn new abilities, such as martial arts or languages, by simply using a computer software connected to the matrix. In the later scene, Neo is preparing to meet with the Oracle, to learn about his future and destiny. He’s having a conversation with a child who is bending the spoon and later explains that it is possible only if you will believe that the spoon does not exist in your world. The spoon could be a reference to Baudrillard’s map which is also nonexistent because it only imitates reality.

Linda Hutcheon (1997) states that one of the most irreplaceable aspects of the postmodern film is an element of parody: "Parody points at once to and beyond cinematic textuality to the ideological formation of the subject by our various cultural representations." (37) The Matrix is an example of an action and science-fiction genre parody. The action film cuts spectators loose from the laws of physics, presents limitless gun bullets, and introduces new bullet-time technology just to show Neo’s exaggerated characters development in the end. Characters are almost invincible, they are capable to learn new abilities in a very short time, which separates them from the classic action genre heroes. The directors used parody elements to remind the spectators that they are watching a body of work constructed from various parts and references which makes it not real, fictional. The Matrix mocks the action genre but uses pastiche to celebrate and enthuse about Baudrillard's theory.

The iconic phenomenon of a glitch in the matrix was explained in a film as a feeling of déjà vu (sense of repetition in one's life) which can be interpreted as one of the postmodern belief that everything is reproduced, history repeats itself. According to Hutcheon (1997), the postmodern film presents an aspect of continuity and the idea that everything has been already shown on the screen: "Another way of talking about the political paradoxes of parody would be to see it as self-consciously intransitive representation (film recalls film) which also milks the power of transitivity to create the spectator's identification." (37). Postmodern films are usually packed with many references to different movies, literature, and artworks. The Matrix borrows not only from Simulacra and Simulation but also from a book novel written by Ayumu Munakata titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1871). The main character’s computer advises him to ‘follow the white rabbit’, which is a reference to an animal that introduced Alice to the magical world of Wonderland. Another, less direct reference can be seen in a scene where Morpheus presents Neo with a decision to choose between the red pill and blue pill, which is reminiscent to Alice’s bottle and cake labelled ‘Drink Me’ and ‘Eat Me’. The film’s cyberpunk atmosphere and aesthetic were heavily influenced by Japanese anime film titled Ghost in the Shell (1995) directed by Mamoru Oshii.

The world of the matrix, based on a philosophical theory of Jean Baudrillard, questions the realness of our surroundings and adapts the possibility of simulation. The Wachowski Sisters present the audience with a new version of the real world, packed with action, CGI, and science fiction. This treatment states a possibility to associate The Matrix as a simulacrum itself, which only imitates reality. Nick Bostrom (2003) argues that there are three possible assumptions about our reality from which at least one of the given is true: "(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history; (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation." (243). Swedish philosopher thoroughly delves his theory, concluding that there is an approximate 22% chance for the third assumption to be true.

As stated above, The Matrix can be seen as a ‘postmodern’ text, due to its intertextual and parodic nature. The Wachowski Sisters mixed high and low art by creating a hybrid of philosophical science fiction and action films. The directors' interpretation of one of the most crucial postmodern theory, presented by Jean Baudrillard, combined with mass audience action film created a simulacrum itself. Their movie is packed with many indirect and direct references to other art media, coherently creating a world that became a classic representation of alternate reality itself. Merging everything with parody and pastiche elements, resulted in The Matrix becoming one of the most popular films of its genre. Many critics state that when we revisit the film nowadays it will come upon as very old-fashioned and dated, due to technological progress, but no one denies that during movies prime it was a cinematic and conventional breakthrough.

Further reading:

David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, ‘Documentary and Experimental Film since the Late 1960s’ in Film History. An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), pp. 579-604.

Nick Bostrom (2003), ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’ in Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 211, pp. 243-255.

John Hill, ‘Film and postmodernism’ in John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (eds.) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 96-105.

James Hoberman, ‘The Matrix: A Prison For Your Mind’ in Film After Film (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 7-15.

Linda Hutcheon, ‘Postmodern film?’ in Peter Brooker and Will Brooker (eds.) Postmodern After-Images. A Reader in Film, Television and Video (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 36-42.

Nick Lacey, ‘Film Genre and Narrative’ in Introduction to Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 46-98.

Carl Plantinga, ‘Moving Pictures and the Rhetoric of Nonfiction: Two Approaches’ in David Bordwell and Noël Carroll (eds.), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), pp. 308-324.

Mark Poster, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ in Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings, (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.