The earth was totally devastated and only ruins remained to be seen. As the sun was now hidden, the temperature was quite low and no human being, animal, bird could live on it. All the vegetation has also disappeared.
2.1 The machines (robots)
The first robots built by the humans before the war were made to look as closely as possible to human beings. The later models, made by the machines after the war, were more advanced but they were not humanoids anymore; they looked more like strange insects or octopus. As they are made of metal the machines were not directly affected by the war except that their energy source, the sun, was hidden so they could not receive any energy from it. It is not clear where they now lived but probably they only cleared some space and lived somewhere in the cold desolated earth.
Being electrical/mechanical machines they did not need any food, only energy. Most of the humans were now prisoners of the machines that kept them in slavery. The machines soon found a way to use the humans as their new source of energy. In other words the slaves acted as batteries for the machines.
The machines did not have the power to reverse aging or to shrink the humans. But they removed their dignity by moving them from the pinnacle of human civilization to mere slavery. The machines took their brutal revenge by putting the humans a lower level that the machines had been before.
2.2 The enslaved humans
The machines took as many human prisoners as they could. They kept them alive, stored in vats/jars in a kind of lethargy. This became known as The Matrix that was based, in simple words, on the principle of the ‘Brain in the Vat’. As the machines depended on a continuous and regular captive human population, they found a way to grow them in fields like vegetables.
So these human slaves became the main energy source sustaining the Machines. Due to lack of exercise they are crippled. Some plugs/jacks were inserted in their bodies (the main one in their necks) and, in order to keep the human slaves alive and happy, the AI machines developed a computer program that led these slaves to believe that they were living a normal life in the world of 1999. In this way their minds could ‘thrive’ while their bodies were used as batteries. Humans were not experiencing any more suffering while kept in vats than the common sufferings sustained during the normal life of human society. They were not aware of their captivity. They could converse between themselves, eat and enjoy their food and drink. So everything seemed fair.
The Matrix is not a physical place in which one could enter and go out. The Matrix is like a phone call or an email or, better, like a long distance Conference Call. The slaves are not really seeing each others personally but they can see their pictures on the screen and talk between themselves even if they are not in the same room. The screens, speakers and the microphones are what keep them in touch. No real meeting room exists in the Matrix world but they are simulated in the computer program. However the slaves do not know or suspect it. The computer is only a machine that shuffles information and interactions back and forth between slaves as well as direct responses and reactions
The slaves did not know that their life wasn’t ‘real’. Their minds were plugged or jacked to the computer that gave each of them the feeling that they were normally alive: they ate, dance, got married, etc. Every slave was ‘his own master’. All of them went on with their own life, exercising ‘free will’ and living life to the fullest. At least they thought so but, in fact, everything was under the total control of the computer. The slaves, as we see them, are only computer projections, they have no flesh, and can only “live” inside the Matrix. However the humans found a way to bring some of them out and back in the free world.
Life in the Matrix is like our dreaming activity during sleep. There is no chronological sequence. The virtual reality given to the people trapped in the vats was like the good old year 1999 but in reality they were way into the future. But there is no way to figure out the actual ‘date’ as we count it today (since the Birth of Jesus or any other old calendar like Hebrew, Chinese, Sanskrit, etc).
Humans do learn about themselves partly by the way that they discover, develop, and experience their technologies. In order to keep their prisoners inside the Matrix dumb but happy the Machines keep their technology stagnant. In the Matrix everything remains always the same
Inside the Matrix, the prisoners’ crippled bodies are kept in vats but their minds are fed electric stimulus that give them the impression that they are happy and living a normal life. They live in bondage but they don’t have the slightest clue. They don’t know that they are not really eating; it is just like eating in a dream in the real world. They feel the effects, the taste of food, but it is all produced by the computers. In reality, the people who are slaves of the Machines are only fed intravenously liquefied fresh human corpses. The machines also breed them in large number in fields –like vegetables- so that the machines always have new generations of human batteries. People in the Matrix do not know that there is an ‘outside’.
Of course the Matrix was not the real world or the real planet earth. Any scientific investigation was limited by whatever ‘laws of physics’ and ‘elements of the universe’ have been programmed into this simulated world. Moreover the Matrix not being the real world did not have to be an exact replica of the real world.
The Matrix is not a physical place in which one could, physically speaking, enters. However there is nothing like magic or mysticism in the Matrix, it is not like Narnia, or any of those stories of dimensional portals. The Matrix is not a pocket universe either.
The Matrix is like a phone call, an email. If one stares at a message long enough, one stops paying attention to the real surrounding environment. Instead in the Matrix one is ‘in the phone call’. It is like being in a Long Distance Conference Call in which everyone can join from their desks at home or from their phones. So the participants are seeing one another and experiencing one another although they are not in the same room, they are conferencing via a screen, speakers and microphones. The meeting place does not exist in the real world but inside a computer which make the input and output connect to one another back and forth. That’s what the Matrix is, a phone call or a video conference except, they do not suspect it. It is like a giant switchboard which connects every slave to the one another. But the switchboard is not like a house it’s not like a meeting place it is not a place where one goes to wait to meet someone that’s just a machine that shuffles information and interactions back and forth and directs responses and reaction. If somebody plays ball while plugged to the matrix, the matrix will respond by making that imaginary ball bounce and bounce back as if one is playing a video game.
2.3 Free humans
Humans who are free from the Machines live in Zion, the last human city, deep down near the Earth’s core, where it is still warm enough to sustain human life. However one does not see them in The Matrix, just hear about them. In Zion most resources are channelled into the Military.
Zion is a city of total austerity. Occupations are diversified, but many people work in the Military. This is the case of Morpheus, Trinity, Neo, and all the heroes from the first movie. They are the crew of one of the advanced Military ships known as Hovercrafts. There are many other hovercrafts. They sneak into the Matrix like ghosts, spying on what is going on there and trying to recruit some slaves. To do this they tell the chosen slaves –mainly young ones- the truth about the Matrix, how they are living the ‘brain in the vat treatment’ in a virtual world. Their job is to smuggle slaves (mind and body) out of Machine City to Zion.
Part of the problem in the story is that the free humans don’t tell the chosen slaves the full truth about Zion; they don’t tell them that once they come out of the Matrix they will live a poor life, dressed in rags and eating mono-cellular goop while in the Machine World everyone is led to believe that their life is good and that they are well fed. Outside the Matrix there is no wine, no cigars, no coffee, no chocolate, no steak, and no ice cream!
The slaves who are freed come out of the Matrix; they may live in Zion but most go into the Military because that’s the place where most jobs are as the war goes on in a hidden way. Some ex-slaves start to feel terribly troubled because it was so much more comfortable to live in the vats. It was effectively easier to be a slave to the machines because their virtual life was pleasant and the change from their previous life on earth was imperceptible. Some slaves want to cling to the Matrix, or return to it if freed, because there it is a beautiful fantasy world. So different people make different choices as their needs are not all the same have and that’s part of the plot of the story. Now, some ex-slaves argue strongly that the Matrix is not real and are happy to be out in the real world. But others, given their nature, will have second thoughts.
The free humans who live outside the Matrix are not perfect. They are divided, they are superstitious and they have problematic relationships. In other words the free humans are not a ‘band of brothers’. Outside the Matrix every person lives in their own world, they are limited and some of them are like a brood of vipers.
Neo is the Chosen one, the Gifted One, the most powerful human when he goes inside the Matrix. As he understands its encoded virtual reality, he can see the computer script or command lines in the Matrix computer program and so he can manipulate the encoding to the point that he can even fly in the Matrix. For Neo the Matrix is like a vivid dream, a dream that he can partially control. But what is control and who can control who or what? He is introverted, not talkative and it is not clear what he wants.
2.4 Possible personal problems with The Matrix
People familiar with this type of movies -which is very much a mix of Cyberpunk, Hong Kong action, Japanese Animation, French Anime, etc. – should not have much difficulty to understand the story. But if this kind of story is new, it will take a while to see through it. Something could be distracting you; this could be either a false assumption, or some sort of visual cues that are not evident, or there must be something here that it is not touching you.
Perhaps it is the role that technology plays in this story. Part of it might also be that it is difficult to understand when things happen inside the Matrix, outside the Matrix, or inside a simulation program. The only way to find out is by observing the visual cues.