This originally appeared about a year ago at my main blog
When I first saw the first film of The Matrix series, I was thrilled to hear this line from Morpheus: "The dead are fed intravenously to the living." He says it when he is explaining to Neo how the humans are kept alive by the machines for use as "batteries." The reason the description made me smile is that I see it as an activity that the film itself engages in.
To me, Morpheus's description is a perfect analogy for intertextuality. Intertextuality is a term popularized by Julia Kristeva, and it points to the ways in which one text is made up of other texts. It is a place where many texts meet together through allusions, citations, or any form of reference, whether subtle or more direct. The Matrix participates in a free play of intertextuality, almost celebrating its relationship to the various other texts which it ingests and lives on.
In the first film, great use is made of Alice in Wonderland. Neo is first told to "follow the white rabbit," which he does, and which begins his adventures in the strange world into which he enters. We see large chessboard floors, again calling Alice to mind. And it is this language that Morpheus uses to introduce Neo to the Real World. "I imagine you're feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole," he says, sitting before the distorted looking glass. In taking the red pill, Neo is invited to "stay in Wonderland, see how deep the rabbit hole goes."
Similar references to images from popular culture are made throughout the films. Neo's ability to fly is referred to by Link in the beginning of the second film as "doing the Superman thing." And at least twice in the movies we see a fight scene with music from an old Western playing in the background, bringing to mind for us all those old images. It happens over and over. From the names used in the film, to the Christ-figure images, to lines such as "you're not in Kansas anymore" -- the film digests a multitude of other texts and gives them a new body and a new life. It is a site where text interacts with text in a freeplay of intertextuality.
Intertextuality plays an important function in a very loaded, deeply layered text like The Matrix films. In referring to other texts which are familiar to us, it makes use of signs we already know how to decode in order to draw us quickly (and fully) into its otherwise convoluted world, giving us a point of entry, so to speak. The interplay of text with text in the films is, I think, one of the aspects that made it so popular -- along with the great action scenes. In a film that is otherwise heavy on ideas, the references to Superman and Alice keep it accessible and approachable for us.
These are the shared codes of our cultural community. In a series of films so concerned with what it is to be human (and not Machine), I think the heavy use of these cultural codes is an important factor. Wonderland, for all that it is confusing, sometimes nonsensical, amusing, and amazing, is part of our world. It is part of what we have known, what we have taken in (perhaps intravenously -- as in, unthinking), and it is part of what keeps us going. I love the tribute that The Matrix pays to this process of the old/dead sustaining the life of the living. And isn't it amazing -- think how many films have since used The Matrix in the same way.