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22 May 2009

Nitpicking the Matrix – There are a few films that I can watch over and over again and never tire of. I can pull them off the shelf, pop them in the DVD player, and thoroughly enjoy them despite the fact that I have all the lines memorized. One of these films is The Matrix. I have no idea how many times I’ve watched it, but the figure is somewhere in the double digits (on the other hand, I have seen the second and third films in the series exactly once each, and that was enough).

“I can’t believe I wrote over a thousand words about this one silly little scene in The Matrix.”

I was watching it again recently, and once again I was reminded of something that has always bugged me about the film. It’s not Keanu Reeves’ acting. It’s not Morpheus’ tendency to break into a speech at the drop of a hat. It’s not even the ridiculous idea that machines would somehow want to grow humans for power—I’m pretty good at suspending my disbelief, and I find it fairly easy to let this one slide for the sake of the story. No, the part that makes me cringe every single time I watch this film is the scene where they are coming back from seeing the Oracle in the Matrix. The group is walking up the stairs when Neo sees a black cat walk by. Then he does a double take when another black cat walks by and performs the same exact actions. The dialogue is as follows:

Neo: Whoa, deja vu.

Trinity: What did you just say?

Neo: Nothing. I just had a little deja vu.

Trinity: What did you see?

Cypher: What happened?

Neo: A black cat went past us... and then another that looked just like it.

Trinity: How much like it? Was it the same cat?

Neo: Might have been. I'm not sure.

Morpheus: Switch, Apoc!

Neo: What is it?

Trinity: A deja vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.

So what bugs me about this scene? Well, think about it for a moment. If you saw what Neo saw—a black cat walk by, stop for a moment, shake itself, and then continue on, followed by another black cat doing the same exact thing—what would you say? I don’t know about you, but if that were me, I would say something along the lines of: “What the heck?”

Deja vu, as everyone knows, comes from a French phrase that means “already seen.” In psychology, it refers to the phenomenon of mistaking a first-time experience for something that has been experienced before. It’s actually a pretty fascinating glimpse into the way the brain works—or fails to work properly. I suppose one could say that deja vu is a glitch in the brain. But the important thing is that it is a vague feeling of familiarity, that you have seen or heard or in some way experienced something before. You can never quite put your finger on it, though—and the reason is that you haven’t experienced it before, your brain has just gotten its wires crossed, so to speak. What deja vu is not, however, is seeing something and then seeing the same exact thing again a split second later. In the real world, we call that “pretty friggin’ weird.”

Why does this bother me so much? Well, for one, I am a language geek. But I’m also a narrative geek and a storytelling geek, and if there’s one thing that snaps me out of my blissful suspension of disbelief it’s a writer trying to shoehorn something into a story. It needs to be there for plot reasons, but the writer is too lazy to make it work in one way or another, and it sticks out like an acorn in dog food. In this particular scene, the writers need for Neo to see the repetition of action and then report it to Trinity and the others, who then kick things into high gear while Trinity explains the plot point to our hapless hero (and the audience).

We’ve already established that no one who has a reasonable command of the English language would say “deja vu” in this situation (although I suppose the argument could be made that Neo does not have a reasonable command of the English language, considering how little he says in the film, and considering the fact that half of the words he does say are “Whoa”). Ah, but what if our erstwhile rebels have co-opted the term “deja vu” to describe exactly this sort of thing? After all, they are obviously very familiar with this phenomenon, and you would want to have a quickly spoken and easily recognizable term for so important an event (like “Broken Arrow” for a nuclear accident or event that does not create the risk of nuclear war). This is all well and good, and even makes sense—no matter what certain words and terms might originally mean, people repurpose them to suit their needs all the time (in fact, this is the fundamental principle of slang). But there is one hitch—Trinity has to explain what the event means, and Neo is obviously clueless until she does so, so it is apparent that he is not familiar with the term and thus would not have used it. For him “deja vu” would have meant what it means to the rest of us.

And so we are left with something that feels incredibly out of place, something that feels artificial, and, most importantly, something that breaks the illusion for a moment—at least for me. It’s like when you’re reading a book and you stumble over an awkwardly constructed sentence that forces you to stop and reread it, destroying (or at least suspending) the fictional illusion. If I could rewrite the script to the Matrix, I would take out the term “deja vu” entirely and replaced it with, “Whoa, that was weird.” The rest of the dialogue would have continued mostly unchanged until the part where Trinity does the exposition bit: “That happens when they change something” would suffice there. After all, Neo has already explained exactly what happened, so we don’t really need a term for it, do we? Or, if you really want to throw the term in there, once Neo explains what he saw, Trinity could say, “Ah, a ‘deja vu.’”

I realize that this is an incredibly trivial thing, but somehow, after watching a movie in excess of ten times, the bigger problems seem to fade away and you are left with only the little, niggling problems. I suppose in that way it’s a bit like married life. You learn to deal with the larger personality issues and differences early on (either you learn or you have no more marriage, that is), and after a while you are left with only the little idiosyncrasies, like the inability to squeeze toothpaste from the bottom of the tube.

So why bring this up now, ten years after the film came out? I guess because it’s one of those little things that is left, and I just wanted to get it off my chest. Now that I’ve done that, I think (hope) that I can move on, just like how seeing a tube of toothpaste squeezed from the middle no longer makes me twitch uncontrollably... although I will still quietly squeeze the toothpaste up from the bottom before continuing my day.

Dang. I can’t believe I wrote over a thousand words about this one silly little scene in The Matrix. Well, at least I got that marriage analogy in there, which will hopefully make this seem deeper than it is.

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