It is one of the most iconic scenes in modern cinema, Neo (Keanu Reeves) sits before the sage-like Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in a room slathered with shadows, and is offered a choice.

Warning: this article contains spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections

Either he can take the blue pill, and continue his life of drudgery – a digital front, as it turns out, to stop human beings from realising they are nothing but batteries to power a race of vicious machines – or take the red pill, and awaken from what has only been a dream. 

The image of this fateful choice has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists, endlessly picked over by film scholars, and referenced in a thousand parodies. But perhaps the most interesting critique of the scene comes from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Why, Zizek asks, is there this binary between the imagined or “fake” life, and the real one? What is the distinction between fantasy and reality; how can one state ever exist without the other? There is no clean separation between the lives we live in our heads, and the so-called external world, no line that we can draw between the artificial and the authentic. 

Maybe Lana Wachowski, the director of the newest iteration in the franchise, The Matrix: Resurrections, heard Zizek’s words. Early on in the film, Resurrections re-stages a version of Neo’s fateful choice from the first instalment. But this time the falseness of the choice has been revealed: he is offered only the red pill. The binary between fake and real has been destroyed. Whatever path he takes – whether he comes frightfully into consciousness in his vat of goo, his body tended to by the tendrils of machine, or continues to pad through a life of capitalist turmoil – he is only ever in his own head.  

The Cage of Our Own Heads

Solipsism, the belief that only the mind exists – and not any old mind, your mind – has its roots in Cartesian skepticism. It was René Descartes who found himself plagued by a nagging worry: what if everything that he could see, smell, and hear was merely the conjurings of a demon, tricking him into sensations that he could not prove are real? Or, in the language of the Matrix: what if our entire world is a construct, as cage-like and bleak as the containers that cattle are exported to the abattoir in? 

Descartes, doubting the existence of reality itself, came to believe that there were only two things one could be sure of. The first, as he famously pronounced, is the existence of at least one mind: “I think therefore I am.” After all, if there wasn’t a mind to wonder about the nature of reality, then there wouldn’t be any wondering about the nature of reality. The other, less frequently discussed foundation of truth that Descartes believed in was the existence of God: if at least one mind exists, then God must have created it, Descartes thought. 

Resurrections accepts only the first premise. There is no hope that God might exist out there, in the ether, an entity to pin some sense of certainty upon.  

It is a film about being entirely trapped in a subjective experience that you cannot fully verify; held captive in the shaky cage of your own mind. 

When we meet Neo, he is seeing a therapist, in recovery from a suicide attempt. The source of his suffering? That he is plagued constantly by memories that don’t seem to belong to him; that he is filled, always, with a nostalgia for a past he is not sure he has even lived; that he is concerned the fictional stories that he tells as a game designer might in fact as authentic as the desk he sits at, the boss that he serves. Or vice versa: perhaps the desk, the boss, are the entities to be trusted, and the sprawling lines of code that make up the video game are just a joyful illusion. 

Neo has no way of verifying the reality of any of these thoughts. They are all just mental constructs, representations that are slowly fed to him for reasons that he cannot fathom, each carried with the same epistemic force. Desperate, he tries to use his therapist, played by Neil Patrick Harris, as his watermark; in what might be fits of paranoid delusion, he calls the man, raggedly trying to work out if he is losing his mind, hoping to dredge apart dreams and the complex mental representation we call “life”.  

But as Resurrections later reveals, the therapist is the least trustworthy source that Neo could have turned to. The therapist is not just part of a fantasy that might be a reality, and vice versa: he is its very creator. And his whims, when they are explained at all, are vague and confusing. He is no adjudicator of what is fictive and what is corporeal. He is just one more layer of fantasy-as-reality, and reality-as-fantasy, a mess of whims, and desires, and dreams that exists in two states at once. 

Loneliness and Hope

This is, on some level, a comment on our essential loneliness. We might feel as though we are surrounded by people, that there are lives being lived alongside ours. But, Resurrections says, we have no way of understanding the minds of our friends, families, and strangers – they are mysteries to us. Neo’s journey in Resurrections is one of finding a community, the rag-tag group of machines and humans that are hoping for a better world. And yet this community acts in ways he cannot predict; that surprise him. And more than that, he has no way of knowing if they are even real – throughout, he constantly questions whether he has actually awoken, or if he is merely living in complex whorls of fantasy. 

But there is hope here too. Resurrections is, amongst other things, a paean to the power of storytelling. Those characters who attempt to dismiss our ability to spin fictions – chiefly the therapist, and the capitalistic Agent Smith, who wants to turn narratives into more products to be sold – are the film’s villains. Its heroes are those who fully embrace the power of the stories that we spin for ourselves, whether they be video games or complex narratives about our own pasts. After all, though it might be bleak to imagine that the external world is always filtered through a shaky subjective experience, that means that our fantasies are as powerful – as life-altering – as anything “real.” The world is forever what we make it. 

The Power of Fear and Desire

If we are in total charge of our own destinies, able to spin ourselves into whichever corners that we choose, then what motivates us? After all, if everything is able to be re-written, then what reason do we have for doing any one thing over another?

Total freedom comes with a price, after all; there is a kind of terrible laziness that can descend upon us when we know that we can do whatever we want, a kind of malaise of submission, where, instead of rewriting the world, we sit back, and let it unfurl however it wants. 

It is this state that Neo’s fellow video game designers have fallen into, a kind of overwhelming boredom that narrows their scope of possibilities and makes them one more cog in a machine that is completely out of their own control. 

But Resurrections has a rebuttal to this laziness. In a key moment in the film, Neo’s therapist explains that the world he has created – the world of the Matrix – is driven, quite simply, by two states. The first is fear; the fear that we will lose what we have, whether that be our minds, in the case of Neo, or our freedoms, in the case of his fellow guerillas. And the second is desire; the world-making force that drives us to move fast, to want more, to continually strive for a different kind of world. 

There is a bleak reading to this thesis statement, one that aligns with the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza believed that we are at our least free when motivated by causes outside of control; when our own striving for perfection, what he called our conatus, becomes putrefied and affected by those around us. After all, if we are petrified by fear, and if our hope for a different world is contingent upon the behaviour of others, then we will perpetually be buffeted around by fictions, by memories, by states that are causally connected to forces outside our control. We will be, simply put, trapped, stuck in the ugly cycles of code that Neo spends the first 20 minutes of Resurrections designing. 

But there is still, even here, hope. After all, that fear need not be necessary painful; that desire need not be necessarily linked to unstable foundations. If we combine the notion that we are only within our own minds, that our fantasies have as much explanatory power as our “realities”, and this cycle of fear and desire, we can begin to understand how we might rewrite everything. We can make of fear and desire as we wish; we can alter and shape the people who we love, and we dream of. 

That is the message encoded in the final shot of the film. Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) have given up on the search of epistemic foundations. They do not kill the therapist who has kept them in the bondage of The Matrix. Instead, they thank him. After all, through his work, they have discovered the great power of re-description, the freedom that comes when we stop our search for truth, whatever that nebulous concept might mean, and strive forever for new ways of understanding ourselves. And then, arm in arm, they take off, flying through a world that is theirs to make of.