Matrix, the Apocalypse

Anyone looking for the "Matrix" movies at a video store knows to seek the digital mythologies shelved under "science fiction."

That will have to do, since there isn't a space labeled "apocalyptic."

"These movies are truly that ambitious," said the Rev. Chris Seay, co-author of "The Gospel Reloaded," about faith and "The Matrix" phenomenon. "This story reads more like the Book of Revelation more than it does your normal sci-fi thriller. Everything has this other layer of meaning. ... You have to wrestle with all that symbolism and philosophy if you take these movies seriously."

That statement may sound ridiculous to most clergy, said Seay, pastor of the young Ecclesia congregation in urban Houston. But anyone who studies Hollywood knows that the Nov. 5 release of "The Matrix Revolutions" will be an event of biblical proportions to millions.

The numbers are staggering. The final movie in the trilogy will open -- zero hour is 9 a.m. in New York City -- on almost 20,000 movie screens in 60-plus nations. Meanwhile, Forbes estimates gross revenue for "The Matrix" and "The Matrix Reloaded" is almost $2 billion, when ticket sales are combined with videogames, music, DVDs and other merchandise.

It matters little that Andy and Larry Wachowski veered into Star Wars limbo in "Reloaded," sinking into a swamp of linguistics and logic while striving to explain the visual mysteries of "The Matrix." Few acolytes blinked when Larry Wachowski left his wife, hooked up with a dominatrix and, newspapers reported, began taking hormones to prepare for a sex-change operation.

Millions will flock to theaters anyway.

"Everything about these movies is getting bigger -- bigger action scenes, bigger philosophical speeches, bigger rumors," said Greg Garrett, co-author of "The Gospel Reloaded" and an English professor at Baylor University. "Now they have to justify the buzz. ... I have faith that these guys are talented enough storytellers that they will be able to create some kind of cosmology that ties all this together."

But anyone seeking one coherent set of answers has got the wrong trilogy. The only certainty in "The Matrix" universe is that its new path to enlightenment is made out of pieces of all of the older paths, even if they contradict each other. The only absolute truth is that there is no one absolute truth, no one true faith.

Instead, these movies offer a crossroads where "all of our stories collide," write Seay and Garrett. "They not only coexist, they come together to create a story of tension, adventure and spiritual pursuit. As Buddhism, Christianity, Zen, existentialism, Gnosticism, Plato and Jacques Derrida interact with one another, we are encouraged to interact with them as well."

This shouldn't surprise anyone who has studied religious trends in recent generations, they added. "If movie theaters have become the new cathedrals, as cultural observers from Bill Moyers to George Lucas argue, then the priests of that domain are clad in black leather. And Cool Hand Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi and E.T. assist in serving the sacrament."

Yes, "The Matrix" is this kind of metaphysical myth, said actor Laurence Fishburne, who plays a Batman meets John the Baptist hero named Morpheus. Many viewers will seek, and find, deep meaning in the ties that bind Morpheus, the heroine named Trinity and the messianic Neo.

"What kids or young people will get from this divine trinity is ... not for us to say," he said, at a Warner Bros. press conference. "If they get whatever they need, then we've done proper service not just to the filmmakers but the larger thing, which is the story itself. So there you have it."

So there you have what, precisely?

"The Matrix" movies show miracles, but no ultimate power that performs them. Characters make moral choices, but follow no commandments. They pray, but to an undefined god. They believe, but in what?

"We deal with all kinds of people today," said Seay, "who believe in a Creator, but they have no idea how to articulate that belief. Their God is energy or light or love or something. But it's real to them and they don't want to answer that question. ... 'The Matrix' movies are powerful because they offer people all kinds of things to believe in and none of them are very specific."