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The Walchowski's Matrix Trilogy stands out as one of the classics of modern sci-fi storytelling. Not only does it powerfully present the hero's journey in a similar manner to other epic tales like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but this incredibly complex series also incorporates various philosophical, Buddhist, Christian, and science fictional elements. Most of all, it serves as a modern re-visioning of the ancient religion of Gnosticism, an obscure theological-cosmological system that describes a dualistic cosmos, in which spiritual sparks have become trapped in matter but can be released through saving knowledge, or "Gnosis." Whether or not the Walchowskis were aware of the teachings of Gnosticism, they are basically telling a very similar story.
Yet ironically for a movie series that draws from so many philosophical and spiritual teachings, there is no spiritual realm in the Matrix Universe. What The Matrix offers therefore is Gnosticism without Gnosis.
While this does not diminish the amazing creative inspiration and opus that is the Matrix series, or its great entertainment value for the sci-fi enthusiast, it means that there is still something incomplete about the Matrix. Ultimately, it is a story half told.
The Universe of the Matrix
I won't spend too much time on the story because everyone knows it, or if they don't, there many summaries available online.
The plot-line, in a nutshell, is Neo (Keanu Reeves), a hacker, gets mysterious messages on his computer. He is contacted by Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) a more famous hacker, who in turn puts him in touch with Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). There's also the sinister agent Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) with his ear-mike running around pursuing our heroes. It then transpires that the reality Neo (and every one else) knows is a virtual reality construct, the Matrix, a means by which the AI (or AIs - presumably there are many) keep humans under control. Morpheus believes that Neo is the promised savior who will finally liberate humanity from the machine, and begins training him. Thus the battle against the machine in the virtual reality Matrix begins.
This is just the first movie, which is followed by two sequels. There's also a series of animated shorts, several video games, and some tie-in comic books. The first movie premiered in 1999; after 2005, the franchise had run is course.
The Matrix, which was filmed on location in Sydney, invites comparisons with Dark City (sinister forces manipulating people's perception of reality), Twelve Monkeys (the alternation between the present day and a poisoned future with curiously gothic-type technology - everything is big and bulky), Terminator (the malevolent AI and the apocalyptic war between humans and the machine (only briefly referred to in The Matrix), and the initial thesis in Total Recall (have memories of a holiday implanted in your brain without actually going on a holiday - so what is real and what is a memory?).
The Matrix and Cyberpunk
The Matrix begins as a story about humans plugged into a computer network is reminiscent of William Gibson's reference to cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination"; part prophecy of the modern day internet (for which the word has been appropriated), part something totally different, an actual immersive environment of the virtual reality sort.
Cyberpunk as a genre of science fiction novels and cinema tends to emphasise a high tech near future film noir setting, featuring postmodernist tech-savvy characters inhabiting a post-industrial nihilistic dystopia dominated by information technology and cybernetics, ruled over by megacorporations rather than dictators, and featuring social breakdown and shadowy operatives.
The genre could probably be said to begin with Ridley Scott's 1982 movie Blade Runner, itself an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But it was truly defined by William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, which with its short, sharp, biting Chandleresque prose and Japanese techno-fetishism set the tone and atmosphere for much of cyberpunk since. While the ultimate visual development would be Japanese director Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime classic Ghost in the Shell (recently remade as a live action movie starring Scarlett Johansson), the characterisation and tone of which being somewhat different to detective-noir Blade Runner and Neuromancer, with the protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi being an enhanced cyborg working for a government security agency.
The Matrix Trilogy could certainly be construed as cyberpunk. It features a fast moving storyline, superb special effects, grungy sets, cool-looking characters wearing mirrorshades and shiny black, virtual reality, AI (well, at least in the background), and even Keanu Reeves (who starred in the Box Office flop Johnny Mnenomic, a horrible retelling of Gibson's short story Neuromancer prequel of that name). But, while the Wachowskis were clearly influenced by cyberpunk, William Gibson himself praised The Matrix as "arguably the ultimate 'cyberpunk' artifact." Yet it represents a very different form of cyberpunk. The virtual reality that is featured is not a cybernetic enhancement by which underworld hackers or security forces ply their trade, but a sinister means of entrapment. The AI is not an enigmatic figure in the background like Neuromancer's Wintermute, but a malevolent presence more akin to the Terminator franchise, and the future when it is conveyed is a sort of gothic post-apocalyptic rather than gritty neon-lit streets in the shadow of towering arcologies.
What is Reality? - The Matrix and Western Philosophy
The Matrix is one of those rare movies that is exciting and fast-paced, yet raises interesting questions. What is reality? How do we know that what we are experiencing really is real, rather than an artificial construct? And in fact everything we experience ultimately is a construct, it is a construct of our brains, a way the brain makes and interprets electrochemical neural signals from the senses, and the mind interprets the brain's interpretation. One would be hard pressed to find a philosopher nowadays who accepted the "naive realism" model of reality; that the reality in our heads really is an accurate image or reflection of the reality "out there"?
This is a question which was pondered over by the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes wanted to arrive at a method of truth based on absolute certainty. He began with a method of radical questioning, a thought experiment, by asking (using ideas that would seem to be, and perhaps were, directly adapted to The Matrix) how do know anything at all. How can we be sure that the things we see and feel are real, and not implanted in our brains by an "evil deceiver" fooling us into believing what we experience is real? Can we trust our thoughts and sensations to tell what is real?
Modern philosophy teachers replace Descartes’ deceiving spirit with a mad scientist sending signals through electrodes to a brain in a vat, so it believes it's walking and talking and not just floating there helplessly a beaker in some mad scientist's laboratory beaker in in and the hypothesis has come to be known as the "brains in a vat" hypothesis.
If there is one basic premise to The Matrix it is this one, the Brain in a Vat. Or in contemporary updated form: how do we know we are not already living a computer simulation (strange as it seems, this question has been seriously asked by some contemporary philosophers and scientists (see Nick Bostrom's essay "Are you living in a computer simulation?" Philosophical Quarterly (2003), also his website)
The question of what is real is discussed in The Matrix where one of the characters, Mouse, complains "that's exactly my point. Because you have to wonder: how do the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal, or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things."
Descartes' answer to this question, by the way, and follow-up reasoning, is disappointing. He began by stating that one can doubt everything but one's own existence, by which he meant one's own ability to think - cogito ergo sum - "I think therefore I am." From there, he then proceeded to argue for everything he'd doubted, the world, his Christian God, everything, until he was left back exactly where he began. There's no evil deceiver, and no vat. Phew!
The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant was another one concerned with trying to figure out the nature of reality just by using thinking. Kant was concerned there was too much idle metaphysics going on, so in his Critique of Pure Reason he distinguished between Phenomena and Noumena; phenomena being what we experience in our heads, noumena the unknown and unknowable reality "out there." Even in philosophy today this is the most widely accepted hypothesis of reality. It's not that the world doesn't exist. It's that it does, but we can't know it (which is pretty illogical, because by assuming it exists we already know something about it).
Some philosophers go even further. The Scottish 18th century Subjective Idealist Bishop Berkeley suggested that reality only exists because we experience it. The Yogachara (also known as Vijnanavada) school of Buddhism came to the same conclusion about 1300 years earlier, replacing God with a sort of Oceanic shared Group Mind, the alaya vjnana or Storehouse Consciousness (a bit like Jung's Collective Unconscious).
What is Reality? - The Matrix and Buddhism
Simulation hypothesis aside, Western science and philosophy is based on the premise that the universe really exists, and basically that it exists very much like how our senses perceive it. Religion may add a supernatural Creator and other metaphysical premises, science may discuss quantum fields and virtual particles, but the idea is that our everyday reality is the primary one. Western and Middle Eastern religion is as much as science is all about the "manifest" or visible world (Kant's phenomena), the creation, nature, and ultimate purpose of the cosmos and of man/woman. The only difference is that science does it rationally, via experimental method, and religion dogmatically and irrationally.
The worldview of philosophies and religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism is more mystical, concerned with the "Unmanifest", with things in themselves (Kant's noumena), the Transcendent and how to attain It. From the Eastern point of view, the everyday world is an illusion, called maya ("magic show," illusionism), in Hindu Vedanta and samasara ("going around and around") in Buddhism, that keeps the soul or consciousness trapped in the ignorance of everyday reality. The goal of yoga, of the spiritual path, is to wake up from this illusion to see reality as it really is.
Now is this solely an eastern perspective. Exactly the same theme is found in Platonism, the foundation of Western philosophy, as in Plato's allegory of the cave, where shackled prisoners see shadows on the cave wall in front of them, and mistake these for real objects, not realising how impoverished their own understanding is.
In both Buddhism, which the Wachowskis are aware of and acknowledge, and Platonism, which they don't refer to, the reality one experiences is a sort of illusion or mental construct, with little or no relation to the true nature of things. Plato's allegory is actually doubly relevant here, because the entire Matrix trilogy (apart from one brief moment near the end of The Matrix Revolutions where Neo and Trinity in one of the ships become briefly airborne) takes place in underground tunnels and caves.
The theme of the sudden awakening and Realisation of things as they are, spiritual awakening beyond the phenomenal veil of appearances, is represented in the Matrix by the red pill. As Morpheus says: "You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
But here is where the similarity with both Eastern Philosophy and Platonism ends. For the Reality that Neo awakes to is not the essential blissful realm of nirvana beyond all embodied existence, or the Platonic world of pure spiritual forms, or the identity of one's own consciousness with the supreme Reality as in Vedantic (Hindu) monism. Instead he wakes up in another world material world, another relative reality or relative truth, but a hellish one, hooked to a machine in the grotesque womb-like fluid-filled pod in which his body has grown. Rather than freedom from the endless cycle of rebirth (samsara) that Buddhism promises, this is a metaphor for re-embodiment and re-incarnation back in the material world.
So although Buddhist tropes and themes are scattered throughout the trilogy, they don't seem very relevant to the overall world building narrative.
For example, when Morpheus begins Neo's training he says "You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind," it would seem that he is referring to letting go of the limitations of the relative truth and the unenlightened consciousness, the culmination being Neo's attainment of the Absolute Reality. But as the movie proceeds it soon becomes apparent that it's really about combat training in the world of samsara.
Neo is also helped to understand the Matrix by a young boy dressed as a Buddhist monk, the "spoon boy" in the Oracle’s apartment, who can bend spoons by looking at them, Uri Geller fashion. Neo has to realize that there is no spoon. "Do not try and bend the spoon. Instead, only try to realize the truth: There is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."
Again, the language of what is being described is all about the transcendence of phenomenal existence with the realisation on nonduality and Buddha Mind. But result of the training is not what the Buddhist source texts were all about: the actual transcendence of finite consciousness in nondual awakening; but gaining new special skills and superpowers. At best it might refer to the popular New Age idea of change the world by changing our thinking. Interestingly, the existence of supernormal powers, called siddhis or "perfections," actually are acknowledged in both Hindu and Buddhist yoga, but it is repeatedly stated that they are distractions on the path to true Awakening. But in popular fiction this always appears as the Enlightenment Superpowers trope, and it is very much in this tradition, especially predominant in Japanese anime and manga (with too many examples to list, see the TV Tropes page for examples).
Neo's superpowers include being able to dodge bullets ("bullet time") and seeing machine code directly (as glowing green characters). Such combat enhancement and added cybernetic perception is an essential and dramatic factor in Neo's role of Warrior-Savior in the Matrix Trilogy. In this regard, Neo's role is very like that of other pop-oriental martial arts warrior-hero figures, such as David Carradine's Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, in the popular 1970s TV series Kung Fu, who had a similar period of mystic-martial enlightenment-superpower training.
And here also is where the Matrix descends into yet another blockbuster action movie, with lots of guns, lots of martial arts, lots of fight scenes, despite the fact that almost the whole thing takes place in a virtual reality construct. Since the whole thing is a simulation, why even bother with the pretense that it is physical? Why not just directly access the code and change it at the source, which would seem to be what the Buddhist tropes are saying anyway?
The problem is, if this was done, there would be no epic story. And this is the challenge that movie makers, and indeed storytellers and mythopoeticists face. The human mind expects certain concrete symbols, and it just isn't possible, or if it is it is extremely difficult, to tell a story about transcendence without them.
The Chosen One: The Matrix and Christianity
The purported messianic religious elements of The Matrix are by far the weakest aspects of the story. Neo as the Chosen One, is presented as a sort of combination of Christ, Buddha, and Superman. At the end of the first movie he's "doing his Superman thing" flying through the air with one fist in front (Superman being, of all the superheroes, the most benevolent as the "big blue boy scout").
The Chosen One theme is a recurring trope, a universal mythic theme, or what Jung would call an archetype, as it appears time and again in myth and culture, and in messianic religions and political demagogues and movements throughout history. At its best it provides a dramatic plot device around which a science fiction or fantasy narrative can be constructed. Poorly applied with bad writing and author avatar thrown in, it becomes a sort of runaway Mary Sue / Gary Stu effect.
There's certainly no shortage of chosen ones in the SFF genre. Interestingly, they are almost always child or young adult characters; in this case the thirty-something Neo is an outlier. Mention could be made Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon's choice of title retaining a sort of cringe-worthy quality; what's the best name you can think of for a vampire hunter? Van Helsing? No! Buffy!), Katniss of Hunger Games, Irisa Nyira of Defiance, Harry Potter, John Connor of Terminator, Goku of Japanese martial arts fantasy manga Dragon Ball Z, and countless others. (Anakin Skywalker, despite being described as the chosen one, is more a subversion of the trope as he turns out the villain)
In The Matrix, Neo's name has a dual meaning: it means "new" and also an anagram for "one." Christian symbolism abounds. His original name Thomas Anderson refers both to the "son of man" and to his initial doubts regarding his mission. As the "one," or Christ figure he’s also connected with the "Trinity," in this case the name of his love interest.
While the whole of the original Matrix seems to turn on Neo's role, and the Oracle’s prophecies that he would free humanity from slavery to the machines, this was undercut by the two sequels, in which Neo’s messianic power and promise is greatly diminished. In the end he is less a religious saviour, and more the obligatory chief actual hero, protected not by supernatural status but simple plot armor. Rather than overthrowing the machines, he simply wants to work alongside them, to humans freedom to make their own choices. Like the Star Wars sequels and prequels, the story was changed as progressive installments came out, and again like Star Wars, without the necessary retroconning (rewriting earlier installments), the whole thing ended up inconsistent and full of contradictions.
Cypher, as the obligatory Judas, seems to be there for no reason other than to further provide a shambling imitation of Christianity. The mythic elements of the story, and the genuine menace posed by the machines, are surely strong enough to stand without the tiresome trope of the traitor in the midst!
Despite the film’s Christian references, there is little in the way of a moral or ethical message representing the inner message of Christianity. This is probably because The Matrix is less a morality tale, and a more a heroic epic, along the lines of the Illiad or Star Wars, which not only tells an adventure story but creates an entire universe (worldbuilding) while doing so. Despite the constant mystical elements, it's not about inner spiritual growth, but about action and adventure, and struggle in the face of an overwhelming enemy, the mysticism being part of the sets and details, rather than the core of the character arc. It could even be considered military science fiction, as so predominant are the battle and fight scenes.
A striking contrast can be made here with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings was just as much an adventure story, just as much a war story, and of course even more world building. But it was also a morality tale. Tolkien as a Christian scholar of old English and Norse paganism and languages nevertheless managed to incorporate a subtle Christian message in his epic work, in a way that was not overbearingly preachy, in contrast to fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy (the Inklings was a writers discussion group that met at the University of Oxford, in the 1930s and 1940s, for discussions on writing fiction, especially the fantasy genre).
And even if the Buddhist associations are stronger and better managed than the Christian ones, the Matrix Trilogy's story arc does not carry through with the individual spiritual salvation and transcendence of Buddhism any more than it does the cosmic messianic promise of Christianity.
What is Reality? - The Matrix and Philip K. Dick
American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (1928 – 1982) was one of the true innovators of the genre. His works such as the 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle and the 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the original inspiration for Blade Runner, were part of the 60s and 70s turning away from the classic hard science space opera of the 1940s and 50s to explore more philosophic and sociological issues. A number of his short stories were later been made into movies, including Total Recall, and Minority Report.
Other contemporary writers such as Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr., Philip José Farmer, J.G. Ballard, and others established the New Wave genre of experimental writing, literary sensibility, and emphasis on "soft" (sociology, anthropology) as opposed to hard (physics, astronomy) science. Even if Dick wasn't specifically part of the New Wave movement, there was certainly an overlap of themes. In the 1980s, New Wave would in turn give way to new genres such as Cyberpunk, Military Science Fiction, and a new, post-modernist, rebirth of Space Opera.
Dick was a brilliant, paranoid, visionary thinker, whose stories explored themes such as monopolistic corporations, authoritarian governments, identity, and altered states of consciousness. Following a series of mystical experiences in early 1974 he began writing more explicitly about theology and the nature of reality, in his later novels as A Scanner Darkly (1977) and VALIS (1981).
A collection of his letters and notes was published posthumously as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (2011), it is full of explicitly Gnostic-Christian metaphysical speculations.
Recently the The Man in the High Castle, a depressing story of a dystopian America in a parallel timeline in which the Axis powers won WW 2 perhaps Dick's greatest work, has been adapted as a TV series by Amazon com's crowd-sourced studio, with visual effects by the open source 3d modeling and movie software Blender. A third of century after his untimely death, Dick's creative genius continued and continues to blaze new trails.
In any case, the bleak and despairing world of The Matrix is far closer to the Dick's paranoid-visionary style, especially stories like Total Recall, in which Quaid's opts for a fake holiday, but his whole life turns out to be a lie, than to Buddhism's optimistic promise of spiritual liberation. The two are almost exact diametric opposites, since the whole idea of spiritual awakening is to let go of fear and paranoia, whereas in both Total Recall and The Matrix, fear and paranoia are precisely the result of awakening to the nature of things. Instead of waking up from a dream to the real world, which is one of the metaphors of the nonduality traditions, one wakes from a happy dream to a bleak and nightmarish world.
In his later, religious-visionary phase, Dick's Gnostic-Christian speculations were concerned with the superimposition of the dystopian "The Black Iron Prison" of both his contemporary 1974 was the ancient Rome of the early Christians with the "Palm Tree Garden" representing the heavenly state. The world of the Matrix is very much a "Black Iron Prison" in a very literal sense, even if the inmates, hooked to their machines, believe they are in a "Palm Tree Garden."
Space Opera in the Tunnels
One element that seems particularly strange in this setting is of Morpheus’s ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, a sort of strange hybrid hovercraft / submarine / planet-bound spaceship. Certainly the Old Testament mythopoetic reference is pretty obvious, and fits the cool name; Nebuchadnezzar signifying Morpheus and his crew as "exiles" awaiting a deliverer. Likewise calling free humanity’s refuge Zion references the Israelite's promised land.
The question is, why do they need a ship at all? One might expect running along corridors and climbing up and down access tunnels. But a cool streamlined ovoid vessel with supertech hover-rings?
If the Nebuchadnezzar and its crew resemble anything, it's the ragtag team of freedom fighters in their nimble but rather run down little ship sneaking under the noses of the all powerful totalitarian regime that rules the galaxy. Franchises such as Star Wars, Firefly, and Farscape immediately come to mind.
Even though The Matrix isn't space opera, the Nebuchadnezzar makes it feel like space opera. It's as if there are two different stories that have been welded together; a psychological paranoid Dickian Total Recall type tale in which things aren't really as they seem, and an action-adventure epic space opera story about brave but hopelessly outgunned rebels taking on a vastly superior fascist regime. It's the synthesis of these two elements that makes the Matrix Trilogy so unique.
Gnosticism - a science fictional myth of the classical world
The term "Gnosticism" is a modern one, although accurate in that it is derived from the Greek gnosis, higher or spiritual or Intuitive or Divine knowledge, which is different from knowledge in the more mundane sense. Gnosis in this context is the same as Awakening or Enlightenment (prajna, bodhi) of Buddhism.
Since Gnosis and Spiritual Awakening are basically the same, Gnosticism and Buddhism are very similar in this regard at least many respects.
True, Neo undergoes a zen martial arts style training, which gives him various powers and abilities, but it is something unique to him in his role as Saviour and champion. It is not something that is given to the people of Zion, or even the rest of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, as a matter of course.
Transcendence does appear elsewhere in science fiction, for example Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke's 2001 A Space Odyssey, and some of the Culture Novels of Iain M Banks.
Of more relevance to the Matrix's story is the other aspect of Gnosticism; its mythmaking (or worldbuilding). Certainly it is a very bizarre form of worldbuilding, at least from our modern perspective. But that is only because it represents an immersion in the pre-modern, pre-scientific mindset. It's best to think of it as like a religious creation myth or a fairy tale. While there are many different variants, the general Gnostic mythos can be described as follows (the reader may find it useful to refer to the diagram at the top of this section).
From the unknowable transcendent Godhead, there emanates a succession of Divine Powers (called "Aeons", literally "Eternities" or "Worlds"). Together these constitute the transcendental Pleroma or "Fullness"; a realm of Light that is prior to the Cosmos. These Aeons are heavenly prototypes of the higher phenomena in this world (e.g. "Word", "Life", "Man", "Church", etc). (Call this Act I)
But as a result of a pre-creation error or crisis, the youngest and lowest of the Aeons, called Sophia or Wisdom (a dig at the intellectual philosophers) overreaches herself and, creating without a partner, gives rise to a sort of abomination. This takes form and becomes the Demiurge, commonly identified with the God of the Old Testament (Act II), since the True God is utterly transcendent and exists far beyond the created world as we understand it.
Created and existing outside the Pleroma; and thinking itself alone, the Demiurge or Yaltabaoth (a corruption of Yahweh / Jehovah) considers himself the supreme deity, and creates, in turn, a whole succession of Archons, petty rulers of monstrous appearance who are the craftsmen of our physical world. Whether out of ignorance or active malice, he denies the transcendent spiritual Powers of the Pleroma and claims to be the one Supreme God. This is a sort of sarcastic dig at the Old Testament Deity with his presumptuous "you shall have no other Gods before me" command.
As a result, Sophia's voice comes from heaven a rebuke him: "Man exists and the Son of Man," together with a vision of this celestial being. All these names like "Man" and "Son of Man" are not physical humans but aeons, transcendental archetypes.
Startled by this Celestial apparition, Yaltabaoth decides the best thing to do would be to make an image of it for himself. So he creates angels or archons (if these weren't made earlier) to rule over the world and aid in the creation of man. Man comes to life when Yaltabaoth is tricked into breathing his light-power - the essence of the Spirit or Divine soul - into him; again, another parody on the Genesis account; in this case God breathing life into Adam (obviously, only the Judeo-Christain Gnostic schools follow this Biblical version) (Act III). Thus begins a long struggle between the powers of Light (Sophia and the other Aeons) and of Darkness (Yaltabaoth and his minions) for the possession of the divine particles of light in man. The negative powers imprison man in a material body, and also create woman and sexual desire to spread and diffuse the particles of light through procreation, thus making their salvation more difficult. The whole story is a sort of perversion of the biblical literalism of the time.
Meanwhile, from the Pleroma a Savior, usually (depending on the particular sect) is sent down to save humanity by reminding them of their heavenly origin (Act IV). In Christian Gnosticism, Jesus is described as the Divine messenger, the one who brings gnosis to man/woman. In non-Christian Gnosticism, the messenger may be Seth (a Biblical figure), Zostrianos (a corruption of "Zoroaster" or Zarathustra, the prophet of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism), or a totally mythological or symbolic figure.
It's important to emphasise that the Gnostic Savior is not a messianic figure that automatically saves everyone. Rather, he's the one who gives out transcendental knowledge, or gnosis, in order to awaken those who dwell in ignorance, like the bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, who are soteriological (savior) figures but still require you to do your bit in awakening to higher knowledge.
A common theme in Gnosticism is alienation, the contrast between the exiled souls as aliens trapped in matter, who have forgotten (through metaphysical ignorance and the power of matter) that their true home is the transcendental realm of the Pleroma. Similarly, the God who saves them isn't the God of the Bible, but the Alien God from the transcendent realm (For the Christian Gnostics of the later Roman Empire this was Christ, a figure more like the Maitreya of early 20th century Theosophy than the deity worshipped by the Tea Party and Televangelism).
Surely this is pure science fiction; the theme of the alien wanderer or exile on Earth. In this context, David Bowie's 1976 The Man who Fell to Earth, is a Gnostic story about an extraterrestrial who comes to Earth seeking a way to ship water to his planet, which is suffering from a severe drought. Here water represents the spiritual principle. Compare also Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, with its very gnostic title, water rituals and extraterrestrial visitor, although this is less about alienation.
Gnosticism and the Matrix
While it is not clear if the Wachowskis were directly influenced by, or deliberately incorporated Gnosticism in the same way they did Buddhism, or Christianity, there are certainly strong parallels with Gnosticism that, if not direct borrowings, are striking convergences, although some are closer than others.
Matter as Prison. For the gnostics, the material universe is a bleak place, ruled over by cruel overlords who keep souls imprisoned. The universe is an elaborate mechanism, a sort of machine, in which, in the astrology-centered universe of the Gnostics, the motion of the stars and planets serves to imprison the souls by astrological fate. In the Matrix, this is the world the machines have set up the system by which humans are trapped and used as biological batteries, in a vast infrastructure of complex mechanisms created by the AIs. Everything about the matrix is dark, and gloomy, and set in the underworld and among the constructs of the machines. This most central and motif-rich theme not only recalls the world of non-spiritual matter of Gnosticism, but also the Cave in Plato's allegory, the realm of Ahriman, the god of matter, in Rudolf Steiner's theosophical system (called Anthroposophy) of mystic cosmology, and Philip K Dick's "Black Iron Prison".
The Demiurge. Near the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the Architect tells Neo that he is responsible for the creation of the Matrix. In this way he is shown to be the demiurge, the world creator who is not a supreme being like the Chrsitian deity.
Wisdom. In Gnosticism, Wisdom (Sophia) is the creator of the Demiurge, who stands above him and rebukes his foolishness. In the Matrix, Wisdom is the Oracle, a program within the Matrix and an embodiment of wisdom about the Matrix. Although not prior to the Architect (Demiurge), she still is the source of light and guidance fort those seeking the Truth.
Alienation. Just as the sparks of Light in the Gnostic cosmology don't belong in the world of matter, and are alien to this cosmos, having come from elsewhere, so the humans imprisoned by the machines do not belong in that environment.
The Redeemer. The gnostic saviour (or the Buddhsit bodhisattva) is the one who descends into the world to give saving knowledge to the sparks or souls trapped in matter. Ironically, this is not Neo, because his special messianic status and role of releasing humanity from their imprisonment by the machines is more like that of the Christ archetype who simply saves people through faith or miracles. It is actually the ironically named Morpheus ("Sleep") who serves as the Gnostic Redeemer by offering the choice of Red and Blue pill, offering each individually the opportunity to awake from the deceptive dream of the machine. This incidentally makes the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar gnostics. Were the overall narrative less Neo-centric, this is a theme that the Wachowskis could have developed further.
The Two Realities. In the radically dualistic cosmology of Gnosticism, the material world is the prison that keeps sparks trapped and ignorant of salavation and transcendent reality; the pleroma is the pure spiritual world above, like the Nirvana of the Theravada Buddhists and the Jains. In the Matrix, awakening to spiritual knowledge does not provide salvation or access to the transcendent, but simply means you are born into a new inferior world, albeit one that at least is free of self-delusion
The oppressive archons. In the Matrix trilogy, the role of the oppressive rulers is taken by Agent Smith, the sinister program of the machine world, the agent of ahrimanic matter. There are also monstrous forms like the Leviathan: the overall machine city that features in The Matrix Revolutions, and physical infrastructure that links all the local neural networks. This paranoid vision of the cosmos as something vast and oppressive and overpowering also ties in with Philip K Dick's creative worldview; as mentioned, Dick was very much a gnostic writer and worldbuilder, more so even than the Wachowskis.
Gnostic Mythology, but No Gnosis
As mentioned, the one jarring absence in the Matrix Trilogy is the lack of any actual transcendence. If you scroll back up to the Gnostic diagram you'll notice the duality; there's a transcendent world of Light (the Pleroma), and there's the world of darkness, of spirit trapped in matter. This latter is conveyed with great visual and storytelling flair by the Wachowskis. But there's no allegorical equivalent in their opus to the Pleroma, no Nirvana, Heaven, or Palm Tree Garden. This absence of spiritual-transcendent dimension, which is also reinforced by the lack of emphasis on Buddhist spiritual awakening or Christian or Buddhist moral uplifting is the largest flaw in the the whole trilogy, giving the entire setting a feeling of incompleteness.
As in dystopian, cyberpunk, and "grim-dark" fiction in general, transcendence is replaced by the plucky band of outsiders and rebels fighting for freedom against the oppressive powers around them.
So if the Matrix is Gnosticism, it is Gnosticism as Myth, not Gnosticism as Gnosis.
I have elsewhere suggested that epic myth and epic science fiction are really just two historical versions of the same thing. In the classical, pre-science era, the great storytellers invented tales using the world, technology, knowledge, and religion and superstition of their day. Hence myths feature gods, heroes and demi-gods, monsters, and long voyages across the sea or unknown lands. Conversely, the epic, mythic format re-envisaged with present or imagined future technology, contemporary society, and other modern tropes, becomes science fiction. Triremes are replaced by spaceships, swords and bows and arrows by blasters, distant lands by distant planets, but it's still the same epic story-telling structure.
Moreover, as Joseph Campbell has pointed out, what we today call religion, or monotheism, is simply another form of myth, which still retains in epic quality in earlier reboots such as Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost, ancient science fiction once again.
In closing, although the Wachowskis perfectly captured the paranoia and world-negating aspect of Gnosticism in their sci-fi epic, they were not able to incorporate the other side of Gnostic Dualism, the awakening or ascent from this bleak world into a higher spiritual realm. For all its ascetic world-negation, Gnosticism was ultimately a positive path of spiritual awakening and transcendence. To leave that out is like writing a story about monks living their lives in austerity, without explaining why they are doing so, or what they hope to get out of it. This in no way makes it a bad story, just a pessimistic one.