Baudrillard argues that as a species and individuals, mankind has lost touch with reality. This is most easily observed, I think, on the grand scale of international finance, where money once meant a physical good that could be empirically quantified, but those days ended with the New Deal. Baudrillard argues that when the bulk of what we observe in the world is via a highly processed medium, TV, we begin to believe that what we see and hear is the truth. Instead of interacting with the world as it is, we interact with a world of our imagination that luckily, almost coincidentally, sometimes corresponds with the real world. I’m inferring here, that Baudrillard would point to something like the radical anti-semiticism before WWII as an example of a situation where a mass population begins to believe in something that just doesn’t exist – the Jewish Conspiracy – and make decisions accordingly.
In The Matrix, this metaphor is treated literally. Morpheus asks Neo if he’s ready to wake up from his cybernetic coma, and welcomes him to “the real world”. Neo is special because he is the only human who can fully recognise the artificiality of the Matrix whilst inside it. This gives him the power to accept or decline its limitations and structures as he sees fit. Yet, Neo too remains bound within an artificial system of meaning – the prophesies of the Oracle. He ends the film by telling “The Matrix” that he’s going to show the mass population a world without rules, but that is a promise to show people a world without systems of order and control, which is antithetical to human existence. No wonder Neo returns to treating the Matrix as real in the sequels. He has addressed the means of constructing the environment they experience, but not the key feature of human psychology that concerns Baudrillard. Treating Baudrillard’s idea literally has not altered its essential nature or relevance.
In fact, Cypher is the character who finally recognises reality, not Neo. As Cypher explains to Trinity, the only freedom he has is to do what he’s told, and what happens in the Matrix affects the physical body. The others, like Switch, refer to those still trapped in the Matrix as “Coppertops”. In effect, they justify their slaughter of those still plugged in by rationalising that it’s for the “Greater Good”, by convincing themselves that only a select few have the mental capability to accept the “real” world, and they hide these constructions behind a de-humanising metaphor. They’re not killing human beings, they’re removing batteries from a machine. Neo, for all his power inside the Matrix, shows no awareness of his actions’ meaning, a point made beyond equivocation in his encounter with The Architect.
The dramatic logic of the film suggests that we view Cypher as an unbalanced sociopath, who cracks under the pressure of living the life of a renegade. We are supposed to see Neo as a kind of saviour, whose plan at the end of the film is to show the “coppertops” a world without rules, a world not controlled by machines. In effect, The Matrix is a kind of Portal Fantasy, where our protagonists journey from the “real” world into a “fantasy” world and Save The Day ™; all the while blind to the fact that they remain living in a simulacrum.
We must conclude that the film’s association with Baudrillard’s concept of Simulacra is more complex than I think most people assume. In part, I think the difficulties arise because The Matrix is quite far along the evolutionary curve of the Cyberpunk genre, and in part I think it’s because of the emphasis on the easier idea of “simulation”. The Matrix is a simulation of late 20th Century Earth, an essentially perfect simulation. As we recall though, from “The Precession of Simulacra”, that is merely the first step along an intellectual journey that leads to a perfectly inward-looking creation that has no connection to an external reality, a “Simulacrum”.
The architecture of the Matrix is a prime candidate for consideration as its own perfectly enclosed reality. Agent Smith wishes to leave “the Matrix” to return to his space of origin – but the films never go there, and I think we are encouraged to believe that it simply doesn’t exist. The machines are unable to construct an identity for themselves that isn’t a reference to human beings. It remains the function of humanity to live in a fantasy, called Zion, whose every facet and feature is proved false by Neo’s discussions with the Architect. Neo’s goal of showing the human inhabitants of the Matrix a world “without rules” is actually leading them further down the precession.