Neo (Keanu Reeves), the One, and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), his No. 1.

Set at the end of the second century of the current millennium, the Matrix trilogy (which is screening on back-to-back Wednesdays at the alcohol-and-eats-serving Central Cinema) is about a world that humans believe is real, but that is, in fact, a gigantic simulation operated by malevolent machines. The real world is an environmental nightmare (scorched sky, rubble everywhere, polluted water); the virtual world is an affluent capitalist city (great restaurants and shops, nightclubs, an autotopian infrastructure). Some humans, however, are not happy with the virtual world (called the Matrix). These individuals wake up in the real one, learn the truth, and become rebels.

The leader of the resistance against the machines and their powerful, soul-sucking simulation is Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and the only hope he and his rebels have of defeating the machines is a 21st-century messiah named Neo (Keanu Reeves). In the Matrix, Neo was a computer hacker; in the rebel city of Zion, he is the One. He is also in love with a rebel warrior named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). She is the One's one. And the future of the human race, it turns out, entirely depends on Neo's love for Trinity.

But why did the machines make the Matrix in the first place? According to Morpheus, the rebel leader, it's to keep humans docile while their bodies are harvested for energy. But this explanation, which is obviously wrong, exposes the shallowness of the rebel ideology. The courage of freedom fighters is so philosophically and spiritually feeble, they need a vivid image of exploitation to make sense of their material (the fine dining, fresh threads, and excellent nightlife in the Matrix) and existential (dreaded death) sacrifices.

But only a few moments of reflection reveal that there are certainly much easier (even nonbiological) ways to power the machines and their Machine City than transforming cumbersome human bodies—which themselves demand a lot of energy—into batteries.

Though the liberated humans do not want to find and spiritually confront the real reason behind the Matrix, it is made abundantly clear that they must by the most important and complex character in the movie, the Oracle (played by Gloria Foster in the trilogy's first two films and by Mary Alice in the third). The Oracle is a computer program that continually blocks the balance that the Matrix's maker, the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), wants to establish. The Oracle is black American; the Architect is Central European—he even wears impeccably white suits. The Oracle chain-smokes, raises gifted children, and spends much of her time in the kitchen. She is, without a doubt, a 21st-century mammy.

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But her very existence provides the explanation for the simulation. It is through her that we see not one but two illusions in the trilogy. There's the apparent illusion (the Matrix) and the fundamental illusion (the city of the freedom fighters, Zion). The former hides the latter, which in turn hides this truth from liberated humans: The machines cannot let go of their masters. For reasons that are spiritual (rather than practical), the machines are unable to imagine a world without their makers, humans. And so they developed a simulation that keeps the troublesome gods alive but also inactive. This solution, however, proved to be unstable.

The Architect's mathematics failed to balance his system of active machines and slumbering masters again and again. It is from this imbalance that the Oracle emerged, and by way of instincts, seeks a machine/human arrangement that's truly revolutionary (or entirely breaks with the past): humans not as the humans from the past, and machines not as the machines from the past. The trilogy ends as a sun is rising over the virtual city.