The Matrix (1999) has singlehandedly brought the debate over the epistemology of the Real into popular dialogue. For the first time in centuries --if not in history-- a large section of the common crowd had a metaphor by which to question the very existence of objective reality. At bus-stops and street-corners, in fast-food restaurants and movie-houses, populations who would never have read Plato or Heidegger were discussing the very serious matter of whether or not there was, so to speak, a spoon. The entire plot of the movie can be seen as a retelling of the plot in Plato's mythical prisoners in the cave of shadows, though there are significant differences in the actual significance of the story. The movie's impact was not so much in that it got across its specific philosophical point-of-view, for in fact it raised far many more questions than it answered, but that it prompted examination of one's personal philosophy and approach to the world.
The plot of the story is a clever reinvention of Plato's cave allegory, with elements of the "brain in a vat" philosophical puzzle added in, and a good dose of kung-fu and Keanu action. The allegory of the cave was originally articulated by the character Socrates in Plato's Republic, and is generally understood as an explanation of the Platonic idea of the world of Forms (alternately called the world of Being) which is apart from and prefiguring of the world of Seeming (alternately called the world of Becoming). In this story, Socrates imagines a race of people who are kept imprisoned throughout their lives in a dark cave, chained so that they cannot move or see the outside world. There is a certain similarity between this imagined enslavement and the movie's post-apocalyptic vision of the enslavement of humans in millions of pods, chained in their dark slime-wombs, unable to recognize their own condition. The chained prisoners in Plato's cave cannot see the world, but they can see the shadows it casts. There is a great fire in the cave, and diabolic-seeming puppet-masters move about before it carrying shapes which cast shadows on the wall. The shadows alone are visible to the prisoners, who come to believe that these shadows themselves constitute reality. Socrates suggests that the world of the shadows is like the world which all living humans perceive, and that we humans cannot see the "real" world from which these shadows are cast. This is, of course, the central premise of the Matrix, which is that the bulk of humanity is both unaware of the true nature of reality and unready to perceive it. As Morpheus says, "you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch." (Wachowski Bros.) Plato uses the allegory of the cave as a way of explaining the difficulty with which philosophers are faced in understanding the nature of the Good and of Truth. Though Plato's story is most properly understood as concerning itself primarily not with the uncertainty of external physical experience but with the necessity of creating standards of concrete/absolute truth (forms), it has generally inspired in more modern audiences with the concern that there is actually no way to ascertain the truth of the forms or external world. This is precisely the case with the Wachowskis' movie, which unlike Plato does not propose that by analyzing the world we do see that we can come to understand the world which we do not see, and rather relies on internal self-understanding as the way to comprehend the truth of the world.
The second part of both Plato's allegory and The Matrix movie is the resistance movement which is formed in each story. In both stories, there is a prisoner who manages to escape from the prison and see the true reality, and in each case this individual returns to free (or attempt to free) others. Plato describes the way that such a prisoner, bound his entire life, would find that the sun outside the cave burned his eyes and that it was difficult to see outside. He even suggests that such a person would seem mad or crippled. "When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he'd be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he'd seen before." (Plato, 515c4-d1) This idea, (that the truth is something which cannot be seen by the eyes while imprisoned, and that when it is revealed it is so bright as to blind one), is consciously and consistently reflected in the Matrix film. The most obvious evidence of this is in the scene after Neo-has been rescued from his womblike prison, and lies on an examination table where he is being treated by the crew of the human's ship. He cries out that his eyes hurt, and Morpheus tries to explain to him, "You've never used them before." (Wachowski Bros) However, the idea is continued in the running sunglasses theme. One notices that the "agents" all wear sunglasses, and that often in scenes where the agents are going to be killed (which is a form of partaking in the matrix-world) they usually lose their glasses first. Sunglasses are also associated with the liberated humans -- Morpheus wears them, as does Neo-once he's been freed. These glasses serve as media for the many shots which involve framing characters in reflections (Neo, for example, is often reflected in Morpheus' glasses), and they also serve to indicate which characters see so much truth that they must wear shades to protect their eyes. The running theme of reflections, it should be noted, is also a testament to the idea of the reflected/shadowed world. In both Plato and the Wachowskis' story, those who are free must deal with the resistance of those who are not free, being mocked or even killed (as Cypher, wishing to return to the cave, kills his comrades).
There are, of course, some very striking differences between the allegory of the cave and the Matrix story. Plato's story serves to provide a basic plot -- that there is a prison of the mind creating a false world of perception and maintained by curious puppet-masters, and that those who are freed must fight to liberate those left behind -- but it's philosophical point (which is that ultimate truth can be revealed through philosophy and understanding of the shapes which are seen in shadows which may reveal the forms that cast them) is not one shared by the Matrix story. In the Matrix, ultimate truth appears to be found in the internal sense, as Morpheus says, "That there is something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad." (Wachowski Bros.) The Oracle tells Neo-that no one can tell another about being the One, it is something they themselves must know. Trinity is able to access that truth, though, because she knows that she will love the one, and that she loves Neo. Love is an inner awareness, and through it truth can be accessed. Finding truth by looking inward is a consistent theme in this movie, though not in the allegory of the cave. Neo-asks how he can find meaning in his life when all of his history is a lie -- Trinity responds that he must learn who he is without the Matrix -- who he is inside. (As a counterbalance to the fact that love has nothing to do with the allegory of the cave as portrayed in the Republic, it should be noted that in his book The Symposium, Plato describes Socrates' relationship with this sage woman who teaches him that love is a way to access the truth of the world of forms... this idea may have been added to the plot of the cave allegory in forming the Matrix plot) An integral part of this difference that should be recognized is that in Plato's tale the world that is not seen is much better than the world that is -- it has a sun (the sign of ultimate good), and colors, and three-dimensional objects. In the Matrix, the reality which is seen is much better than the reality which is unseen! The humans have put out the sun in the real world, and it has become dark and blighted and terrible. The real world is so bad that everyone seems nostalgic to return to the Matrix. Though they fight against it, they do so primarily (it seems) through stubborn human insistence not to be bested by machines and not to accept a dream instead of reality -- not because the dream world outside looks so much better.
Incidentally, an intelligent viewer of the first movie would do well to question what evidence Neo-has that the "outside" of the Matrix is any more real than…