The Matrix is one of the greatest works of science fiction ever devised, but it also features one of the most glaring scientific plot holes. With the fourth installment of The Matrix movies currently in theaters, it seems a fitting time to review it.
Before we get nit-picky, let us first acknowledge that science fiction creators are allowed to take liberties with scientific fact if it serves the story (provided it’s a good one, at least). Warp drive and transporters in Star Trek, wormholes in Interstellar, time travel in Back to the Future – these unlikely plot devices are totally fine.
The Matrix‘s scientific blunder is particularly terrible, however. In the movie, the entire reason for the Matrix – a simulated dreamworld to which almost all human beings are connected – is so artificially intelligent robot overlords can keep humanity controlled while they use humans as an energy source on a barren, hellish, futuristic Earth where the Sun is completely blocked.
As Morpheus, one of the main characters, describes, “The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.”
This, however, doesn’t make any sense! The highly educated writers of the science fiction comedy Futurama – with numerous Ph.Ds in mathematics, computer science, and chemistry between them – playfully skewered the notion in one episode.
“But wouldn’t almost anything make a better battery than a human body?” one of the show’s characters, Bender, asks. “Like a potato? Or a battery?”
“Plus no matter how much energy they produce, it would take more energy than that to keep them alive!” another character, Fry, chimes in.
Futurama’s televised chiding was echoed by Robert Hurt, a Caltech-based visualization scientist who has worked on many NASA projects, in a 2019 interview with Esquire.
Humans consume quite a lot of high-energy products (food, oxygen) and the only thing they produce that could count as ‘energy’ would be basically heat. But if you took all the food and just burned it you’d get WAY more heat out of it. You can chalk it up to thermodynamics and entropy; some systems just don’t process efficiently and basically you can count on getting less energy out than you put in.
Reportedly, this ‘battery’ explanation for The Matrix was not the Wachowskis’ original intent.
In earlier versions of the script, the writer-director sister duo conceived of the Matrix as a simulation collectively produced by the brains of humans hooked into it. The malevolent machines needed humanity enslaved because they were dependent upon the massive processing power of billions of human brains. Apparently, studio executives thought this was a little too complex for 1999 audiences to grasp, so they urged the nonsensical ‘battery’ alternative. In the end, it’s just an annoying pockmark on a darn near perfect flick.