Red Pill and Blue Pill

rabbit hole

Allegory of the Cave

The red pill and its counterpart, the blue pill, are popular culture symbols representing the choice between embracing the sometimes painful truth of reality (red pill) and the blissful ignorance of illusion (blue pill).

The concept was popularized by the 1999 film ‘The Matrix,’ in which the protagonist is offered the choice of remaining in the fabricated reality of a computer simulation, living the ‘ignorance of illusion,’ or the freedom to live the ‘truth of reality’ even though it is a harsher, more difficult life.

The concept predates ‘The Matrix.’ The 1990 movie ‘Total Recall’ also features a red pill that is offered to the main character. He is told ‘it’s a symbol—of your desire to return to reality.’ No blue pill is present in the film, and the story centers on the very uncertainty of whether he is dreaming or in the real world. However, the pill is offered to him with the claim that he is dreaming, and that the pill will return him to reality, with the words ‘inside your dream, you’ll fall asleep.’ Science fiction author Philip K Dick was influential to both films. ‘Total Recall’ is based on his short story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ and the central ideas of ‘The Matrix’ are based in part on Dick’s works, which often recontextualize ontological philosophy, such as Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave.’

In ‘The Matrix,’ an office drone named Thomas Anderson, hears rumors of the Matrix on the internet and spends his nights trying to unearth what it is. The answer is given to him by an enigmatic hacker named Morpheus, who explains that the Matrix is an illusory world created to prevent humans from discovering that they are slaves to an external influence. Holding out a capsule on each of his palms, he describes the choice they represent: ‘This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. 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. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.’

The pills are irrevocable markers: ‘bluepills’ are people who have elected to remain in the Matrix, while ‘redpills’ are those who have chosen to disconnect. Once taken, the red pill becomes a ‘location device’ to locate the subject’s body in the real world and to prepare him or her to be ‘unplugged’ from the Matrix. Anderson takes the red pill and awakens in the real world, where he is forcibly ejected from the liquid-filled chamber in which he has been lying unconscious. After his rescue and convalescence aboard Morpheus’ ship, Morpheus shows him the true nature of the Matrix: a detailed computer simulation of Earth at the end of the 20th century (the actual year, though not known for sure, is approximately two hundred years later). It has been created to keep the minds of humans docile while their bodies are stored in massive power plants, their body heat and bioelectricity consumed as power by the sentient machines that have enslaved them.

An essay written by critic Russell Blackford discusses the red and blue pills, questioning whether if a person were fully informed they would take the red pill, opting for the real world, believing that choosing physical reality over a digital simulation is not clear-cut. Both Anderson and another character, Cypher, take the red pill over the blue pill, though the latter regrets his choice, saying that if Morpheus fully informed him of the situation, he would have told him to ‘shove the red pill right up his ass.’ Cypher subsequently makes a deal with the machines to return to the Matrix and forget everything he had learned, having come to believe that ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ Blackford argues that the film set things up so that even if Anderson fails, the taking of the red pill is worthwhile because he lives and dies authentically. Blackford and science-fiction writer James Patrick Kelly feel that ‘The Matrix’ stacks the deck against machines and their simulated world.

‘Matrix Warrior: Being the One’ author Jake Horsley compared the red pill to LSD, citing a scene where Neo forms his own world outside of the Matrix. When he asks Morpheus if he could return, Morpheus responds by asking him if he would want to. Horsley also describes the blue pill as addictive, calling ‘The Matrix’ a continuous series of choices between taking the blue pill and not taking it. He adds that the habits and routines of people inside the Matrix are merely the people dosing themselves with the blue pill. While he describes the blue pill as a common thing, he states that the red pill is one-of-a-kind, and something someone may not even find.

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