The Matrix (1999) is a dystopian film in which humans are enslaved by sentient machines in a simulated reality called “the Matrix”. We are introduced to the protagonist Neo, who is revealed to be the promised Messiah who emancipates humankind. Simultaneously, a nemesis which tries to stop Neo arises in the form of Agent Smith – an ostensibly pitiless, single-minded computer program in the Matrix. The dialectical opposition between Neo and Agent Smith drives the whole film, perhaps meant as a parallel to the larger battle between humans and AI. The Matrix hinges on the premise that they are antithetical, with their strong enmity being reinforced by Smith himself – “I’m going to enjoy watching you die, Mr. Anderson.” In fact, the Matrix’s creator, the Architect, reveals later on that Smith is Neo’s opposite and negative.
However, a surprising turn of events arises with Agent Smith gradually demonstrating emotional percipience through his unpredictable emotional outbursts. One particularly striking moment is when Smith confesses – with human-like abhorrence – that he “hates this zoo, this prison,” and is unable to tolerate his incarnation in the Matrix further. His explicit distaste for humans and the Matrix is an unprecedented emotional development for a computer program.
Simultaneously, we observe a process of dehumanization developing for the protagonist, Neo. We see Neo losing his human characteristics over the course of the film – starting with him downloading programs into his brain to learn Kung Fu, just like a computational entity. We recognize a form of mechanistic dehumanization as he begins to assimilate into his role within the Matrix – his emotional weaknesses, personal doubts, physical limits and agency all begin to fade. Neo is originally shown as a quiet, nervous computer programmer; we compare this with the final scene of Neo exuding a robotic calm as he talks to the machine overlords and subsequently ascending to the skies, representing a complete manipulation of the coded reality.
From these observations of Smith and Neo, we see that they are not as hermetic as what prevailing thought suggests. Ironically at the end, Smith the program becomes like a human, while Neo as a human resembles a machine. I argue that there is an underlying convergence and overlap in the distinctive features of Neo and Smith through a role reversal mechanism, making the lines between them blurred instead of what conventional literature proposes. Throughout the film, we can see Agent Smith going through a process of humanization, while Neo goes through a contrasting process of dehumanization – culminating in an eventual convergence of their characteristics.
Agent Smith is initially portrayed as a loyal AI, meant to maintain order of the Matrix by eliminating all potential threats. He approaches problems like how a machine would – pragmatic and logical, focused on finality. All the AI in the Matrix have the sole goal of maintaining its stability – they are created for this purpose and nothing else; Smith is no different. In fact, the lack of his individuality is emphasized in the film’s opening – as Morpheus says to Smith, “You all look the same to me.”, referring to Smith’s indistinguishability from the Agent next to him. Smith shares a consciousness with all other programs and simulated human bodies, and is able to mutate into any of them. The ability of Smith to replicate himself in the Matrix as multiple instances – a realized variation of an object – is a feature commonly seen in computer programming. In programming terms, Smith is simply a programming class meant to be replicated within the parameters of the computer memory.
However, as The Matrix unfolds, there is a gradual humanization of Agent Smith as he begins to show a more erratic, human side, and he slowly becomes more familiar to viewers. (Lavery, 2001, p. 231). He begins to display hints of uncontrolled rage when provoked by Neo; his raw hatred for the human race and even his own masters in the Matrix begins to unravel. It culminates in him removing the symbol of his shared identity – his earphone from which he receives the Matrix’s commands from – during his interrogation of Morpheus. This iconic scene portrays Smith revealing his undisguised disgust for humans – “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” He compares humans to a virus, and expresses his strong distaste for their weaknesses. Smith is revolted by his exposure to even the digitized equivalent of human embodiment, possessed by the overpowering call of some higher world. (Lavery, 2001, p. 155). At the same time, he states his clandestine condescension for the Matrix itself, confessing to Morpheus that he “can’t stand it any longer.” Tbis is not without irony, given that he was created for the Matrix. At the end of the scene, Agent Smith the sharp-suited enforcer torturing Morpheus is immediately juxtaposed with a tortured AI as he removes his glasses and earpieces, revealing his desperation and intolerable distress. “I must get free…and you have to tell me how.”
Agent Smith’s humanization is an unexpected development in The Matrix. It is especially ironic given that he hates humankind, but has adapted some of humankind’s distinctive characteristics. As we see a greater extent of Agent Smith’s features overlapping with distinctively human traits, we find him remarkably human-like. This makes it increasingly difficult to classify Agent Smith as a computer program as the film progresses.
Simultaneously, Neo is originally portrayed as a quiet and nervous computer programmer who lives a sterile life, inundated by his hacking activities at night. He is depicted as a flawed and human character, filled with palpable human trepidation and incredulity. At the start of the film, his fear of using the scaffold outside the building despite Morpheus’ reassurances – “No way. This is crazy.” – compels him to willingly be arrested by Agent Smith instead. When Morpheus tells him about the real world, he expresses skepticism – “No. I don’t believe it. It’s not possible.” His inability to perform in the training sessions with Morpheus draws jibes from the rest of the resistance, reinforcing his pre-existing self-doubt and lack of confidence which causes him to consistently repudiate Morpheus’ conviction that he is humanity’s Messiah – ‘The One’.
As the film progresses, the preponderance of disbelief, doubt and weakness we see initially in Neo disappears as a gradual declination of emotion occurs. As Neo gains control of his abilities and comprehends the prophecy of him being “The One”, he dehumanizes into an instrumentally configured vector of virtual energy in the Matrix. The flawed figure we see initially disappears as Neo exercises his extraordinary powers by flying, stopping bullets in mid-air and manipulating every aspect of the Matrix to his liking. Neo not only can read the code, but he lives it. We compare his initial flawed characterization with the intensely symptomatic point at the end – Neo impassively deflecting all of Agent Smith’s punches without even looking at him. Neo’s transformation is “tantamount to a physical and psychic vanishing in which we see him deploying himself as a dehumanized mathematical-cybernetic entity (Diaz-Dioaretz, 2006, p. 239).”
The hint of dehumanization grows stronger as we discover that Neo carries the Matrix’s source code called the Prime Program, which allows him to freely manipulate the Matrix. This evinces a startling realization for viewers – Neo is essentially coded into the Matrix. Essentially, Neo’s only function in the film is to act like a specialized computer program and hack the Matrix (Woodward, 2008). There is no deviation – in fact, the potential for human characterizations of Neo such as having the ability to love is stifled throughout the film. The relationship development with Trinity is shallow, with Neo being insufficiently aware of Trinity throughout most of the story (Frentz, 2010, p. 77). Interestingly, he doesn’t become more human after he is out of the Matrix and into the real world, as what would be expected. Ironically, it is the other way around – he loses aspects of what makes him human, and has become a little more than just an overpowered, egoless program called ‘The One’ with the ability to read and control the Code, superseding mortal visuality (Diaz-Dioaretz, 2006, p. 238).
The loss of Neo’s agency is also stressed upon as another aspect of his dehumanization. While autonomy and free will are key aspects of being human (Goldhill, 2016). This entire characterization of Neo under this pre-determined “Prophecy” in The Matrix foreshadows the status of Neo as an entity with no agency. In the third instalment The Matrix Revolutions (2009), the Matrix’s inventor, the Architect, denies Neo his entire legacy and crudely reveals to him that he is but another planned program in the Matrix, subject to the control of the masters of the Matrix. The Architect has installed a subprogram called ‘The Path of the One’ into Neo, ensuring that Neo would act according to any of the Architect’s wishes. “You are the eventuality of an anomaly…which has led you, inexorably, here.” Essentially, everything that Neo has done was programmed as part of the machines’ dominance plan – Neo never had free will.
The Role Reversal
At the end of the film, we revel in Smith’s more complex, human characterization as he reveals rage, disgust and desperation all wrapped up in despotism. His nihilist, sadistic and vengeful propensities hardly belong in the description of a computer program. The juxtaposition of Neo’s transformation then brings the role reversal to a completion – his journey to become the ‘The One’ causes him to lose his vulnerabilities and struggles. He becomes an egoless and detached entity with superhuman abilities, transcending any Matrix programs. Instead of the perceived dichotomy, we see the fluidity between the two characters as human and machine converge. The role reversal seems symbolically complete at the end, when Neo assimilates Smith into his own body. The simultaneous processes of humanization and dehumanization for the characters concludes; the lines between the two are blurred.
However, the fact that this role reversal was deliberately engineered adds complexity to its nature. Neo and Smith have all along been programmed by the Architect to resist. Neo’s actions have been pre-determined by the system elaborately – after every hundred years of operation, the Matrix’s stability degrades dramatically, leaving the machines’ virtual creation at risk of a catastrophic system crash that would kill all inhabitants. To counter this, a reset is required by the programming of “The One”, who had to be led to the Architect through fabrications such as the “Prophecy”. Neo, the sixth iteration of “The One”, was all along designed to become this overpowered program and reset the Matrix.
Similarly, Smith’s rebellion and desire to destroy Neo was planned as a balance to the Matrix equation (Frentz, 2010, p. 65). The Architect explained that the Matrix had to be in equilibrium – Neo was meant to be the “thesis”, and Smith the “antithesis”. Smith’s gradual humanization was meant to mirror Neo’s own dehumanization, and both Smith and Neo were ultimately just self-perpetuating designs of the system. This is a possible counter-argument to how there is no role reversal, given that the protagonist and antagonist are arguably powerless actors in the film, with this “role reversal” being artificially driven by a third-party.
Additionally, one might also leverage upon Smith’s humanization to analyze the role reversal more critically. Did Smith really “change”, or is his development just the pinnacle of an AI’s intended role? The paradox is that Smith’s humanization and desire to rebel might precisely be the outcome of his AI programming, and is in fact an indicator of his programming’s success at human mimicry. The modern paradox of AI is that to create AI is to recreate humans (Schmidt, 2006, p. 196). They are not separate entities – AI is forged after Man’s image and intellect, and the long-term goal of creating AI is essentially reconstructing human reality (Schmidt, 2006, p. 196). Larson (2015) laments – “How can we both brilliantly innovate – and become unimportant, slinking away from the future, ceding it to the machines we’ve built?” The very consequence of AI is to will humankind out of existence, simply because its purpose has always been meant to mimic and replace humankind (Larson, 2015). Hence, from this perspective, Agent Smith’s humanization seems to be expected. He resembles this paradox of AI, bringing a certain irony to the whole dichotomy and role reversal. Therefore, it cannot be definitively stated that there is a role reversal given that it might in fact be a role intensification instead – the transformation of Smith might just be in fact the ultimate state of AI.
While the nature of this role reversal can be more complex than it seems, the pre-established dichotomy between Neo and Smith is far too trivializing. I believe that there is an underlying convergence in their distinctive features through a role reversal mechanism, blurring the lines and predicating a fluidity between them in The Matrix. Through Smith’s growing emotional percipience and Neo’s dehumanization, the film may be trying to explicate the key idea of the unclear territory where the machine world converges with the human world. Whether the filmmakers intended for this to be a commentary on the state of artificial intelligence is ambiguous, but at the heart of the issue is that at the end of the film, we as the audience struggle with the question: who is more human than the other?
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Frentz, T., Rushing, J.H. (2002). Mother isn’t quite herself today. Myth and Spectacle in The Matrix. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19(1), 64-86
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Lavery, D. (2001). From Cinespace to Cyberspace: Zionists and Agents. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 28(4), 150-157
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