Theorists of postmodernism such as Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard explore the ways that post-Fordist capitalist societies present reality as a replication of that which has its origin in texts. Similarly, the film The Matrix presents a world in which human beings live in a computer-generated simulation designed to distract their minds while artificially intelligent machines use their bodies for energy. The film, then, literalizes the idea of a textual world; however, it does not merely convey this point through plot but also through cinematography and mise-en-scene since the world within the matrix resembles computer code in terms of color and downward vertical motion.
The opening shot of the film establishes the formal elements of the computer code. Green lettering runs downward in vertical lines, eventually revealing the film’s title. This shot signifies the concept of the matrix as text, using a specific color scheme (green on black), motion (vertical), and pattern (lined). Following this first instance, the film repeats this use of code throughout, raising it to the level of a motif.
The film reproduces the formal qualities of the computer code in scenes that take place in the matrix, emphasizing green tones during these segments of the film. The scene of Neo’s first interrogation by the agents demonstrates the use of green tones through cinematography and lighting.
Other scenes bring green tones out through costume and set design. The Oracle, for instance, wears a green patterned dress and her kitchen’s tile and counter tops also display the color. As a result, the mise-en-scene and cinematography align the color schemes of the world within the matrix with the motif of computer code.
On-screen motion and patterns during scenes within the matrix also mimic the vertical fall of the code. One scene in which Neo meets Trinity under a bridge brings the code to mind through heavy rain. Kristen Whissel makes this connection in her essay on contemporary cinema and verticality, stating, “Fragments of marble and concrete, spent bullet casings, shards of glass, and water from a sprinkler system create a constant stream of downward motion that mimics the descent of binary codes seen falling across the screens throughout the film” (850). Hence, the downward vertical motion within the world of the matrix replicates the motion of the computer code.
In essence, the film portrays the world of the matrix as a simulated text through these formal elements, literalizing the postmodern notion of a reality based on text. Still, The Matrix’s aspiration to allegorize the work of Baudrillard falters in a significant way: by so dramatically contrasting a simulated world with “the desert of the real,” The Matrix suggests that what Zizek would call a “real reality” exists beyond the simulation (19). For Baudrillard specifically, “the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials,” and only simulacra remain (2). In many ways, then, The Matrix offers a comforting narrative in which the simulated world can be identified as such, and cinematography and mise-en-scene help make that distinction.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press,1994.
Whissel, Kristen. “Tales of Upward Mobility: The New Verticality and Digital Special
Effects.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 834-852.
Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso, 2002.