Adventures in Auditing #1: The Matrix

18 November 2009 at 21:00 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

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.

A shot from The Matrix that illustrate the use of lighting and mise-en-scene to bring out the color green.

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.

Two shots from The Matrix that illustrate the importance of verticality to the film's aesthetic.

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.

Works Cited
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.



  1. Kit Hughes said,

    Love it. I’m reworking my Pulse paper for my writing sample, which has forced me to do significant research into digital aesthetics. I’ve read so many discussions of the Matrix in the last month, but I hadn’t yet read a discussion of the film’s verticality. Your analysis makes me want to re-watch!

  2. c8ic8 said,

    Hey Kit,

    Glad you liked the piece! The film’s aesthetic distinctions between the matrix and the “desert of the real” are remarkably consistent from beginning to end. Verticality is one component that helps make that differentiation. I highly recommend Whissel’s piece, by the way. She makes some fascinating connections between a number of films, all of which she argues use verticality to convey struggles against bigger social forces.

    Regarding digital aesthetics, did you see Lucas Hilderbrand’s Flow article about the topic? ( It’s also a piece worth taking a look at when you get a chance.

    By the way, best of luck with applications! I’m going through the same thing right now–it’s going to be a long weekend revising the Imprint paper!

  3. How Inception Bests The Matrix « Dark Room said,

    […] my Adventures in Auditing series, I discussed the ways in which The Matrix manifested the idea of a text-based reality through formal elements […]

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