In 1999 the hip question asked around movie theatres was: "What is The Matrix?" This year, after the release of two sequels, the big question appears to be "What does The Matrix mean?"

Like The Odyssey and Star Wars, The Matrix (Warner Bros.) is a case study in storytelling. In the science fiction screenplay, brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski wove into the classic hero's journey storyline psychological thought experiments, philosophical theories, and allusions to literature, film, and major world religions.

The result? An engagingly smart action movie with innumerable connections. Can't relate to the archetypal hero's quest? Then maybe you'll respond to the Christian symbolism. Or to questions about fate. Or maybe you'll just like the neat martial arts.

What exactly is the matrix? The protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves), discovers in the first film that the world he knows—normal life of the late 1990s—is actually a virtual reality program plugged into his brain. This computer program, or matrix, is the wool pulled over humanity's eyes. In reality, mankind is imprisoned by menacing machines that use humans for energy. Whoa.

Then a group of freedom fighters waging war on the machines take Neo into the war-ravaged real world. Many of them believe Neo is their prophesied savior.

The Matrix stands apart from other pop culture franchises because the Wachowskis embed their films with philosophical questions and theories—and then refuse to talk publicly about what they mean. Fans then rabidly discuss what The Matrix is and means. They dissect dialogue, research character names, and analyze what even a room number (303) might mean.

These discussions continue in Internet chat rooms, in postmodern coffee shops, and in at least three books released ...

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