By the end of the third Matrix movie, as Neo is held aloft — Christ-like — by the mechanical tendrils of the machine consciousness, it is clear that, if he were once human, he has now ascended to something greater. He has fused man and machine to become the salvation of both. The question of the boundaries between man and machine are complicated throughout the series (including the fantastic series of shorts, “The Animatrix”) but are, ultimately, lost in the final film’s heady brew of theology, resistance, war, and a drawn-out fight between Neo and Agent Smith that would fit better in a Superman film.
The first film flirts with these ideas. Tank calls Neo “a machine” during his training, and Trinity tells him, after one of the many rooftop fights, that Neo “dodged bullets like them” — “them” referring to the agents, the software entities programmed to protect the Matrix from those who would subvert and destroy it. Neo begins to act more and more like the agents as his abilities within the matrix progress, to the point where he is able to enter another entity. This is a relatively confusing moment, and one that receives surprisingly little attention in the sequels. One of the more dangerous capabilities that the Agents possess is their ability to enter (and thereafter control) any mind that is plugged into the Matrix. It happens again and again, whether they inhabit the body of a helicopter pilot or a homeless man. This omnipresence makes them incredibly dangerous. At the end of the movie, however, we see Neo jump into the “body” of Agent Smith (I use “body” because it is unclear what relationship a purely digital being like Agent Smith has to a simulated corporeal body). Neo enters and implodes the body and, as we learn later, “infects” Agent Smith with some of his power. This is all in addition to the very physical manifestations of Neo’s growth under the machines: the plugs and holes in his arms and back and at the base of his skull.
Once Agent Smith, infected and empowered by his contact with Neo, has overtaken the Matrix, it is Neo who offers himself as a sacrifice that “balances” the program and ends the fighting between the Machines and Zion. Metaphorically, then, the binary opposition between man and machine is solved only through synthesis, a point the films could have asserted more strongly or emphasized through a more literal synthesis between Neo and the machines. Instead, Neo’s martyrdom leads to a ceasefire and an agreement (between the Architect and the Oracle) that those who do not assent to the simulation will be freed. The logical extension to this solution, then, is the creation of two different “races” of human: those willing to continue to live blithely in the Machine’s simulation and those who occupy Zion. It is a world where a figure like Morpheus would no longer have any role to play. But such a world reinscribes the opposition between man and machine and posits a future where those groups will remain separate, discrete civilizations. This new dynamic will actually decrease the amount of interaction, as the freedom fighter/ Agent battles will no longer be necessary.
I’m not sure how to interpret this ending (of the final film). Are the filmmakers purposefully avoiding the creation of a cyborg? Is Neo a cyborg? Donna Harroway would not agree, as Neo is recreating salvation history and does nothing to disrupt that cycle. Always more questions …