The Matrix Delusion – Did the Wachowski’s ‘steal’ their seminal work?
It’s as underground and suppressed as the resistance within the films themselves and has this blogger’s head swimming with questions, as Sophia Stewart – dubbed Mother of The Matrix – has claimed for over a decade that Andy and Larry/Lana Wachowski stole the narrative behind the trilogy.
Movie Logs jacks into the blogosphere’s conjecture, explores the literary works and asks the question we thought the films had answered – “Who made The Matrix?”
In 1999 a few school friends and I went to our local cinema to see The Matrix, a film led by the supposed fading star that was Keanu Reeves and helmed by directors only really known for getting hot women to kiss. Oh, those were the days when you could buy a cinema ticket with a ten pound note, pick up some popped corn and a carbonated beverage and still have change spare for the 133 back to town. Good times but I digress.
I was completely blown away by the poignancy and eloquence of the techno-Orwellian story of a man who finds out that the very world he felt so oppressed by was nothing but a construct, a computer program devised to enslave and feed off humanity’s bodies and minds. I had never before been so affected by what on the face of it was an action movie and since then I have been a complete Matrix fanboy.
The Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry (now Lana), became my action movie gurus. Their seminal work became the beacon of what could be achieved in the cross-pollination of high-octane action couched in sociological and ontological concepts. Though they never followed up the Matrix trilogy with any other original work, I was continually loyal to the Wachowski name as a sign of quality.
In all honesty, over the years, their work has greatly tested that allegiance. However, you could still make out some of the brilliance in the adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta , though it lacked Matrix’s depth. Their adaptation of manga series Speed Racer  was…enjoyable, as well as being completely forgettable, as a clear departure with a bubblegum story and saccharine CGI. More recently, the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas  seemed promising, as it wrestled with some interesting motifs, yet it is simply a mess.
So for it to be brought into question whether the Wachowski’s devised their most successful, provocative and well-structured original work is alarming but somehow plausible.
Mother of the Matrix
Sophia Stewart (pictured), a writer, former student of the USC Film School, and a working tax clerk, allegedly sent the Wachowski’s her
6-page treatment and her 45-page manuscript – ‘The Third Eye‘ – in 1986 in response to an advertisement in a national magazine seeking works of science fiction. Some thirteen years later, the Wachowski’s, producer Joel Silver and Warner Brothers produced and distributed The Matrix movie and comic book series and subsequently the movie’s sequels, which Stewart contends were all based on her copyrighted works.
Though this case and story is over a decade in the making, it has been kept out of mainstream media (with conspiracy theorists attributing this to a TimeWarner suppression of press) only present in the blogosphere and the case notes of the United States District Court of California. So when I found out about this case I was anything but calm.
You see Sophia Stewart purports to have lawsuit worthy claim over ideas present within the Terminator franchise! You read right. This lady claims to be the brains behind two of the defining science fiction franchises in cinema history that have grossed $25 BILLION in box office, licensing and merchandise and which warrants more exclamation marks!!! Seriously, if I find out that she claims to have written Alien, Blade Runner and Star Wars I think I may crap-a-crabcake!!!!
The dispute has played out through the courts where Stewart was given the burden to raise triable issue of fact that The Matrix and Terminator films bore a striking similarity to her literary works with infringement being the protectable expression of an idea and not just an idea as concept.
She was unable to illustrate similarities or protectable expression and lost her case, with a judge ordering her to pay the defendants’ legal fees. Ouch. Yet, simultaneously, the legacy of both a supposed injustice and her successful collection of $2.5bn in damages continues to live out on the web. Recently, an article published by Africanglobe.net in February of this year has been adding fuel to the fire and attracting new followers, as Stewart has made believers out of many evidenced by an ardent Twitter following. So, despite all the hearsay and the court judgement, as history will attest that the truth and a ruling judgement are not always one and the same, could it be true?
The Third Eye vs. The Matrix
With the Wachowski’s never commenting on the case, it would be easy to get pulled into listening to the many conspiracy driven interviews with Stewart, who is at times eloquent, savvy and considered about the impetus and subtext of her work as well as being slightly naive and somewhat of an egotist. It would also be easy to rise to the tone of online content forged in prejudicial opinion with annoying headlines like ‘African-American woman claims to have written The Matrix.” Allusions to her ethnicity being the most shocking and unbelievable part of this story become irksome, as it should have no bearing in a case of copyright. So in ignoring the Terminator claims, as they immediately seemed far-fetched, I focused on The Matrix when reading excerpts from Stewart’s 1986 manuscript.
I chose to use the “extrinsic test” of the two part-test that was applied during Stewart’s 2005 court case, which required an “objective comparison of specific expressive elements such as “plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events in two works.” I believe this to be the more important aspect of analysis over the “intrinsic test”, which is a subjective comparison that focuses on whether an “ordinary, reasonable audience” would find the works substantially similar in “total concept and feel.”
What follows, therefore, are a few points of comparison that I thought were interesting.
The elements that CANNOT be claimed…
- There are certain themes inherent within the hero’s journey that have route in a messianic narrative structure. These themes are present in The Matrix as well countless other stories, so Stewart cannot take credit for them.
- The Third Eye is preoccupied with the science fiction/fantasy fodder of distant aliens and worlds, intergalactic politics and rebellion and a quest for peace, which bears greater similarities to George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars, which Stewart openly admits heavily influenced her work. Also, what could be considered its prologue, describing a tech from a distant land creating a sub-species of hybrids, is very similar to that of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus  rather than The Matrix or Terminator (the latter’s ‘tech’, exploited by Miles Dyson, being from Earth’s future), though that might just be a coincidence…we hope.
- In knowing that Stewart was influenced by Star Wars makes sense, as her theme of harnessing and weaponising good and evil sources of energy present a remarkable resemblance to Lucas’ Force. Also, her slight reference to the projection of consciousness to battle an enemy cannot be claimed as an expressed idea infringed by The Matrix, as the theme of teleprescence is not routed to any particular function as seen in the The Matrix as a cyberspace within which one would enter.
- Then there is Stewart’s vague ideas surrounding a system of control, conditioned by computer games, driven by a computer-city and orchestrated by autocratic banks and corporations that control humanity in a sole quest to satisfy a mass hunger. The expression of what Stewart called ‘The Great City’ has some elements slightly similar to that of The Matrix’s Machine City but only in it being a hub of control, out in a waste land, which is not a novel idea in of itself.
Motifs that are kind of close…
- Stewart presents a plot device where I-Khan (in reference to the greek “eikṓn” meaning ‘image’ that when in reference to Christ means ‘supreme expression of the Godhead.’ I-Khan is equivalent of the Neo character) is the only one able to stand before the “Eye”, also known as The Source, and bring its power to Earth to defeat Morning Star (equivalent to the Agent Smith character).
As a plot device, this is similar to Neo’s journey to the Machine City in The Matrix Revolutions where, as the One, he is able to stand before the Deus Ex Machina (translated from the Latin as “god out of the machine”) the central interface of the Machine City. This is the place Neo ventures when he is told he has to go “back to the source”. By Jacking in to the matrix (the simulation of Earth) via Deus, Deus sends a surge of energy through Neo’s body, which is presumably a deletion program that wipes out the Smith/Neo avatar and destroys all other copies of Smith’s code throughout the matrix.
- Stewart calls her protagonist the “One” repeatedly and has timelines of the One that run within the past and the future. Stewart’s character I-Ceus ( I-Khan’s mother and maybe in reference to Egyptian goddess Isis, who was worshiped as the ideal mother and wife as well as the patroness of nature and magic) is told she was the descendant of a forgotten ‘great One’ as well as giving birth to the One. This is a very similar theme to that in Matrix: Reloaded, where The Architect reveals there have been multiple versions of the Matrix and with it multiple versions of the One.
- For I-Khan (Neo) to possess the power of third eye the people of Space Star (the equivalent of the inhabitants of the matrix) must first die for their own impurities as a testament to their belief in I-Khan’s own purity and identity. Those people are reborn with super strength and walk out of I-Khan when he receives the power of the third eye.This is very similar to Morpheus’ actions in The Matrix Revolutions, where he drops his weapon and steps out in front of the Sentinels in a final act of belief in Neo’s identity and that he fights for Zion.It is also strikingly similar to the scenes in which Agent Smith absorbs Neo. Inhabitants of the matrix, including the likes of the Oracle, had become ‘Smiths’ (a sign of their world’s corruption/impurity). They were in turn blown up (i.e.’killed’) when Deus ex Machina and Neo’s code/energy passes through the matrix. This allows everyone to be reborn (as the matrix is reloaded), providing all with Neo’s ‘power’ to choose freedom and to manipulate the matrix, as seen in Sati creating a sunrise in honor of Neo’s act.
Whoa, De Ja Vu!
Finally, there is a passage in Sophia Stewart’s 1986 manuscript that is nearly a beat-for-beat explanation of a scene in a film that would be produced seventeen years later – The Matrix Revolutions. Its specificity warrants replication to avoid confusion in paraphrasing and I will also attach key scenes from The Matrix Revolutions to illustrate the similarity.
This to me illustrates “substantial” and “striking” evidence to the fact that there was some “extrinsic” plagiarism of plot, themes, mood, setting, pace and characters involved in the creation of The Matrix Revolutions narrative. Yet Stewart’s council were unable to illustrate the similarities which, in reading the case notes, seems to be based on the “intrinsic test” of “feel” of the work as well as an omission of actual case work. Also, her testimony of said allegations, strangely including facial similarities between her character descriptions and the actors in The Matrix, were inadmissible as evidence to the fact. Curiouser and curiouser.
The Third Eye could not be considered a professional script or treatment by conventional standards. It is a well expressed and earnest work but is ultimately poorly composed and labors under simplistic analogous references to capitalistic oligarchy and the Cold War. But this is Hollywood we’re talking about, where poorly conceived narratives have seldom been a barrier to production or at least purchase for development and subsequent shelving.
However, past the unprofessional approach to literary convention within Stewart’s manuscript, much like Fuki-Eri’s in Murakami’s 1Q84, lies something intellectually engaging, novel, interesting and worthy of exploration. Her preoccupation with the messianic story played directly across a science fiction theme in a way that involves concepts of metaphysics, shared energies, the subconscious and conscious mind and the inter-connectivity of the human experience has a novelty that is self-evident. The problem is Stewart’s manuscript is too heavily influenced by Star Wars, appropriating her own novel story by using the tone or “feel” of George Lucas’ film to cater to what she probably believed to be a climate of science fiction cinema of the 1970s and 1980s.
So if you were to remove the Star Wars template of an old-world view of a futuristic age with a hero caught up in an intergalactic conflict and replaced it with…I don’t know… the story of a computer hacker who enters a “matrix” through “jacking in” to simstim (simulated stimulation) cyberspace, then maybe you’re on to something! That supplanted idea is not one conceived by the Wachowski’s. It belongs to William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk, who expressed that very idea in his greatly acclaimed 1984 novel Neuromancer.
So what does this all mean, did the Wachowski’s steal Sophia Stewart’s work?
Well they probably did but at the same time, in the eyes of US copyright law, they didn’t. There are many expressed ideas that can be deemed and explained away as mere concepts as they coalesce into the fallacy of another person’s novel literary work. Unfortunately, with a good legal team, the inter-connectivity of concepts, their dissemination in part by populous culture and the nature of inspiration arising from shared experiences coming together as a ‘feel’, or even a similar idea in form, can make such instances of plagiarism a hard sell and difficult to substantiate.
Ultimately what makes this case an easier sell to those hearing it for the first time, and those geeky enough to explore it in any depth, is that Matrix differs in tone, structure, plot and feel to anything the Wachowski’s had done before. Also, even though I will defend the merits of The Matrix Reloaded until the detractor taps out in boredom, I must admit that it is filled with ill-fitting concepts and is nowhere near as profound or well devised as the first installment or the last. Therefore, it would be easy to make the leap that the Wachowski’s didn’t have sufficient material to create a link between Gibson’s work as a fantastic lead-in (The Matrix) and the use of key aspects of Stewart’s work structuring the trilogy’s climax (The Matrix Revolutions).
However, The Matrix trilogy, as an expressed work, cannot be said to be either Gibson’s or Stewart’s work as they were melded together seamlessly to tell a story novel in its own right that somehow removes from each work its context and “feel” while retaining reminiscences of its narrative physique. And lest we forget David S. Goyer’s Dark City  that could easily claim infringement, as The Matrix is eerily similar in “feel”, plot, themes, mood, setting, pace, dialogue and characters.
So even though I know this all to be conjecture, this fan of both The Matrix trilogy and its writers has sadly lost a bit of respect for the duo as conceptualizers, due to the cases’s ambiguity, but not as artists. The Third Eye and/or Neuromancer may have been made into decent films on their own but the Wachowski’s brought together their allegedly stolen jump-off points to create an epic work that was truly visually, narratively and technically spectacular, novel and that changed cinema and my life.
It is unfortunate that maybe Stewart’s awkwardly written but conceptually promising manuscript was probably pilfered in part but it’s just another cautionary tale of the inequity of the system, the turpitude of its players and the perils of submitting unsolicited works. Now it seems that Stewart has been assimilated into the very system that she was fighting against, as she seems to have written Wachowski fan-fiction in the shape of Matrix 4 The Evolution: Cracking the Genetic Code, where she ditches her title, characters and their entire universe in favor of the Wachowski’s. Maybe they’ll be suing her soon. I doubt it.