In 1949, George Orwell wrote 1984, a stunning novel envisioning haunting images of the future. Fifty years later, The Matrix, a movie directed by the Wachowski brothers, debuted on the big screen featuring mind-blowing special effects and complex kung-fu choreography. There are many obvious similarities between these two works of fiction. For example, both 1984 and The Matrix are dystopian visions of the future, which is to say, both deal with the maintenance of an imperfect society. The word dystopia is the antonym of utopia, which itself means a perfect society; therefore, a dystopia is theoretically a society of total misery and wretchedness. Despite the many similar “distopic” elements found in these two pieces, there are still distinct differences which contribute to the variation in the overall themes of 1984 and The Matrix.
Most obviously, in both 1984 and The Matrix, the protagonist is a rebel and resists the controlling power. In addition, the dystopian environments in which the protagonists dwell are similar. In both worlds, the protagonists have very few luxuries: the main meal consist of very little besides a nameless bowl of tasteless artificial slop. The only available source of alcoholic beverage is, in 1984, a “sickly, oily smelling” Victory Gin, and in The Matrix, an anonymous liquid used for degreasing engines (Orwell 8). The clothing and furniture is equally unappealing, being old, ragged, and looking as if it was salvaged from a junk yard. Moreover, not only do the protagonists have to eat unsatisfactory food, they are also unfulfilled sexually. At one point, Winston recalls his encounter with the prole prostitute, thinking about how he needed to use her services despite her elderly age because he needed an “outlet for instincts which could not be altogether suppressed”(Orwell 57). In The Matrix, the short-lived “Mouse” had to resort to going into the Construct, or a kind of virtual reality, and interacting with the virtual woman in the red dress in order to fulfill himself sexually.
The setting gives off a cold unhomely feel to any dweller, contributing further to the dystopic imagery. The apartment which Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, lives in is cramped and uncomfortable, with the telescreen removing whatever privacy there is left. Likewise, the living quarters on Nebuchadnezzar, or the hovercraft where the protagonist, Neo, lives on, are very tiny, with each room being little more than an oversized closet featuring a narrow bunk and a heavy metal hatch as a door. Furthermore, with the constant threat of enemy machines called Sentinels “programmed for only one thing…search and destroy,” there isn’t a single second when Neo can feel safe.
In both works, the protagonist is imperfect: In 1984, Winston is old, frail, and constantly bothered by the throbbing ulcer on his ankle. In The Matrix, Neo has mechanical implants throughout his body, a painful reminder that he, too, used to be part of the Matrix. Had Morpheus not freed Neo, he would have never realized that the real world is actually a post-apocalyptic dystopia at the end of the 22nd century. In fact, the movie also explicitly says that our world right now is an imperfect society and hints that our society could never become utopic because “human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. So the perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from”(The Matrix). By choosing an imperfect person as the protagonist, the director/author is able to remind the reader that the protagonist is only human, not perfect.
Certainly there are many similarities in these two fictitious works; however, upon closer analysis, there are more differences than similarities. First of all, in 1984, the enemy to the public is their own government, and consequently, themselves. In contrast, the enemy in The Matrix is artificial intelligence. And although artificial intelligence is man-made, there is still a distinction between friend and foe because all the enemies are machines or programs whereas in 1984, it is hard for the protagonist to tell whether anyone is part of the Thought Police or not. And it is because of this inability for one to tell between friend and foe that Winston gets caught–by trusting Mr. Charrington.
Secondly, it is not the underground society which seeks the protagonist in 1984 as it is in The Matrix; it is Winston who, through the course of the novel, is always searching for the Brotherhood but never finds it. In fact, as far as the reader knows, the Brotherhood might not even exist. By emphasizing the obscurity and evasiveness of the Thought Police in 1984, Orwell is giving the reader a sense of Winston’s helplessness and the Party’s power. In The Matrix, the freedom of the human race depended all on finding and freeing one person, “The Chosen One.” When Morpheus freed Neo, the directors were able to convey a sense of hope to their audience. On the contrary, Winston Smith always knew that he was going to get caught by the Thought Police sooner or later because he could never escape the grasp of the Party, which gave the atmosphere a feeling of impending doom and utter hopelessness.
Both protagonists have a question which has always bothered them, but this question differs between the two protagonist. For Neo, it is “What is the Matrix?” and throughout the course of the movie, Neo little by little finds the answer. For Winston, on the other hand, the question is much deeper, since he already has extensive knowledge and understanding about the workings of the Party. His question is “I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY”(Orwell 68). In other words, he already knows how the Party is able to maintain control of the population using propaganda, but he does not know why the Party would want to hold power in the way that it is doing it. Although Winston has all this knowledge, he still does not know how he can use this wisdom against the Party. On the other hand, Neo knows less about the Matrix, but has the ability to fight and aid in the war between human and machine because of his gift.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, 1984 ends in tragedy. Even though Winston thinks he “has won the victory over himself” and by the end loves Big Brother, he has succeeded in nothing more than getting himself brainwashed (Orwell 245). Furthermore, in the end he does not love Julia anymore and they split up. However, The Matrix ends in triumph because Neo finally believes that he is The One and he also ends up falling in love with Trinity, a battle-hardened fiery rebel under Morpheus. All the elements in 1984 that differ from The Matrix combine to form a mood of despair and hopelessness. This is in contrast to Western society’s faith in future progress and humianity’s belief in freedom and equality. In The Matrix, a lighter mood is portrayed. Since 1984 is a darker work of fiction than The Matrix, some might argue that it is the only pure dystopian work of the two, as The Matrix’s main aim is to please and satisfy the viewing audience.
The theme to 1984 is “To deny humans of their freedom is to deny their very existence.” Orwell is saying that if we continue our current path in history, our freedom will become completely obliterated and the world will turn into a lifeless dystopia. On the contrary, The Matrix has a brighter theme: “In order to achieve your goals, you must have faith in yourself and dedicate yourself.” Throughout the entire movie, Neo has been doubting himself, doubting that he could climb over to the scaffold, doubting that he could jump the buildings, and doubting that he is “The Chosen One.” The Matrix is saying that through any problem, we as a race will prevail, whether it be within a dystopia or not. By the way The Matrix ends, it can be assumed that Neo frees the population and together they fight the machines. In 1984, George Orwell is giving a warning–he is cautioning us of and opening our eyes to the dangers of a totalitarian government. His book is a premonition of what is to come if we do not change our ways: we will lose our individualism and ultimately, we will be controlled by a suppressive and ruthless government not unlike the one in this novel.