The archetypal hero’s journey has taken many forms throughout history; in contemporary film, it often requires the main characters to step outside their cynical, grounded physical worlds and enter new realms of imagination. In the case of two classic films from the 1990s, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King and the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix , three archetypes of the hero’s journey(the hero, the mentor, and the monster) are found, contextualizing these modern science fiction and fantasy films as modern hero’s journeys. The three characters from each of these films that fit these archetypes are adapted for a modern story in various ways, updating the hero’s journey for a modernized audience.
The hero of both stories is someone beaten down by modern society – Neo in The Matrix is a depressed office drone who finds no fulfillment in the industrial cityscape he finds himself in. He is repeatedly noted as being unremarkable, and unappreciated, as well as “searching for something,” as love interest Trinity informs him. With the arrival of Trinity and Morpheus, however, he is told that the mundane world that does not appreciate him needs saving, and that he is the literal “One” who can save it. The hero’s journey in this instance is updated with an eye for the technological; technology is shown as both Neo’s prison and his tool for escaping it: “in order for this mythic narrative to have had fidelity with the modern audience, it had to accommodate the technological feelings of both the alienated and hacker segments” (Stroud 427). In this case, Neo is unremarkable because technology has alienated him from other humans; he is introduced to the film asleep at his computer, with the wash of an Internet screen over him, showcasing this unique position as someone alienated through technology. However, it is also through these hacker skills that he is such a formidable warrior, and innately tuned into the ‘wrongness’ of the world around him, which is subsequently revealed to be due to it being a virtual reality simulation. He must then be guided into a position where he takes his own initiative and becomes The One, utilizing these tools and others gathered throughout his journey to overcome the technological system to which he had become imprisoned.
The Fisher King’s Jack, meanwhile, is a radio jock whose earthly mistakes, leading to the suicide of a listener, haunt him and drive him to attempt suicide. Like Neo, he is disillusioned with the world and alienated; his troubles are not necessarily technological, but his alienation is illustrated somewhat with his job as a talk radio host – he is always in a booth, separated from those he speaks to. The cynicism of the modern age has broken him down into a person with no faith or directionInstead of the blank slate that Neo is, Jack has a tragic backstory that informs his character. He is haunted by the fact that his insensitive comments to a listener caused him to kill several people in a bar; this makes him feel guilty, and informs his worldview that interfering in the affairs of others causes trouble for them. This particular hero starts out life on the bottom and must work his way to normalcy, as opposed to Neo’s rise from mediocrity to messianic status – however, they both must undergo quests to discover themselves, Neo conquering the Matrix and Jack retrieving his friend Parry’s “Holy Grail.”
Both heroes are also actualized and rescued from alienation by the entrance into a romantic relationship. Neo in The Matrix achieves a measure of solace and completion by the revelation that fellow cyber-warrior Trinity has been fated to be with him; through the prophecies of the Oracle, Neo is fated to be the hero, and Trinity is literally prophesied to be his love interest, as The Matrix adopts a postmodern approach to the hero’s journey by pointing out their character archetypes as prophecy. Meanwhile, Jack in The Fisher King has the unenviable challenge of maintaining a romantic relationship in the face of modern cynicism; Jack’s misanthropy is a source of tension for him and his girlfriend, Mercedes Ruehl’s Anne, who offers a realistic outlook on his flaws. While he loses her at one point, his completion of the hero’s journey makes him worthy for her to return.
Over the course of the story, these two hero characters must go on their respective journeys to better themselves and conquer their corresponding demons – represented in The Fisher King by the imaginary Red Knight and in The Matrix by the computerized Agent Smith. The Fisher King’s Red Knight is a figment of Parry’s imagination, a horrifying chimera of red armor and flaming sword that represents the pain that he (and Jack) must overcome. For this modern reinterpretation of such a romantic hero’s journey, the Red Knight stands for the alienation, guilt and malaise that come from living in a world that does not favor them; as a construct, it is not real in the reality of the film, but its significance is great.
Agent Smith in The Matrix is representative of the systems of control that Neo and crew must overcome in order to achieve solidarity and freedom in this postmodern, technological world they are trapped in. Smith is shown to be one of many similar-looking men in dark suits, with supernatural powers that let them easily overpower the film’s heroes; it is only Neo that has a chance of stopping them. Smith, in particular, is given a particular agency and motivation, as he wishes to destroy the entire system in order to escape it; he is a hero who protects the status quo yet hates it. By giving the hero this extra level of dimension and desperation, the hero’s journey is even further updated in complexity.
Along their journeys, Neo and Jack are helped along by the archetypal mentor – the person who knows the truth of the world around them. However, in these films they are also painted as unstable figures who are of dubious motives or sanity. Morpheus is shown to be a blind believer in the idea of the One, perhaps to a fault. Like most mentors, Morpheus is a charismatic leader and a helpful disseminator of information. However, there is tremendous doubt among the others (and Neo) that his confidence is warranted; the prophecy of The One that he wholeheartedly believes in is constantly called into question. The Oracle, Cypher and others all pose the question that Morpheus’ hope that Neo is The One is a naïve pipe dream, and it is only through Neo’s choice to believe that Morpheus’ hope is justified.
On the other hand, Parry in The Fisher King is a mentally unstable homeless man on a fool’s errand for the Holy Grail. Parry has a tremendous joy for life, which is part of what inspires Jack to regain his confidence and happiness - “The Fisher King is a serious comedy, above all a story of guilt and redemption, with comedian Robin Williams as the wise fool, the spiritual guide of the guilt-ridden hero” (Hasenberg 41). At the same time, he has delusions of grandeur, and his manic demeanor is at least partially inspired by his own personal tragedies; he attempts to hide from them by fancying himself a pseudo-religious figure: “’I am the janitor of God,’ says the mad city tramp Brian Perry in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), thus hinting clearly – though incidentally – a religious dimension to the film” (Hasenberg 41). This lends a bit of unreliability to him, though this is corrected by Jack helping Parry with his problems, like finding love again. Just as Neo helps Morpheus validate himself, Jack does the same with Parry, solidifying the more equitable relationship heroes have with mentors in the modern hero’s journey.
In The Matrix and The Fisher King, these three archetypes appropriately update the fantastical nature of the hero’s journey for a more grounded real world, which necessitates creating divides between the real world and the fantasy world and blurring the lines between them. Neo and Jack are both lost souls alienated by the modern world through technology or secular cynicism, who then meet their mentors (Morpheus, Parry) and enter into a grounded, mutually beneficial relationship in order to defeat their respective monsters (Agent Smith’s control, the Red Knight’s reminder of guilt). It is through these interesting twists to the hero’s quest that these films are updated for a modern audience.
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