Of all the characters seen throughout the original Matrix trilogy, few are as intriguing and consequential to the universe of the films than that of the Oracle. Played by Gloria Foster (and then Mary Alice in the third film, following Foster’s death), the Oracle was introduced as a mentor figure of sorts to Morpheus, and an ally in the human resistance’s ongoing war against the machines. She went on to play a pivotal role in Neo’s personal arc in The Matrix, and through the cataclysmic events of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
Understanding who the Oracle is, and her place in the grander scheme of the Matrix as a whole, is fundamental to understanding the series itself. In the lead-up to the release of The Matrix Resurrections, which seems to regard every bit of prior canon as essential — or at least relevant enough to mirror in new ways — now seems like a good time to look back at the Oracle, as her role became swept up in some of the denser aspects of the original movies.
To understand the Oracle, we have to go back to the very creation of the Matrix itself. As explained by Morpheus in the first movie (and depicted in the 2003 Animatrix short “The Second Renaissance”), during the early 21st century, a war broke out between humanity and a race of artificially intelligent machines created to serve them. The machines won: All of human civilization was decimated, while the sun and sky were blotted out by a near-impenetrable cloud of nanites in a last-ditch effort to deprive the machines of the solar energy they needed to function. With no other options and on the verge of extinction, the machines captured the remaining humans on Earth and siphoned the combined electric, kinetic, and thermal energy of their bodies for power.
Naturally, the act of transforming human beings into living batteries was extremely painful, claiming the lives of many humans whose bodies and minds simply could not withstand the physical and psychological trauma of the process. As a solution to this problem, the machines began developing a neural interactive simulation to house the collective minds of humanity in order to placate them while siphoning off their energy — a simulation that would come to be known as the Matrix. The machines created a program called the Architect to design the world of the Matrix and keep humanity sedated and unaware of the Matrix’s true nature. As explained by the Architect during the climax of The Matrix Reloaded, the earliest iterations of the Matrix failed to placate humanity, with many people outright rejecting these simulated realities and, as a result, dying. Frustrated by failure, the Architect could not find a solution to this problem. But another did: a program that would later come to be known as the Oracle.
The Oracle is, according to the Architect, the “mother” of the Matrix. She is an intuitive program originally designed to study the human psyche, and she proposed a solution: creating a simulated reality that would offer humanity a choice to mistrust the very nature of that reality, if only on an unconscious level. This solution more or less worked, with the exception that every iteration of this model of the Matrix inadvertently resulted in an anomaly known as “The One” — a human being with inexplicable power to bend the nature of the Matrix to their will. If left unchecked, both The One and the growing human resistance would pose a threat to the stability of the Matrix. To correct for this error, the Architect and the Oracle created a process by which the Matrix would be rebooted, one that would allow the system to continue to exist by assimilating the inevitability of human resistance itself as a crucial component in service of its continued existence. By the time Neo has awakened in the first Matrix movie, the Matrix has already been rebooted five times, with each version having been facilitated by the destruction of Zion, the last human city on Earth, and with it, the death of any human being with knowledge of that previous version of the Matrix.
Aside from playing a critical part in the creation of the Matrix itself, the purpose of the Oracle is essentially to ensure that the human resistance in each incarnation of the Matrix happens in the first place. She guides each generation of prospective “red pills” in the creation of their own version of the resistance over and over again in order to instigate the necessary process of rebooting the Matrix. She does this by telling them about “The Prophecy,” that a messianic figure known as The One will be reborn one day and herald the destruction of the Matrix and the end of the war. However, as Neo learns during the climax of The Matrix Reloaded, this prophecy is just another form of control by the machines — a script of behaviors and commands intended to guide The One to eventually reboot the Matrix. The Oracle isn’t telling the future, but rather, telling humans only what they need to know in order for them to play out their respective role in the perpetuation of the Matrix. While this may make her sound like a villain, she isn’t; she’s simply a program performing her purpose, though one with a measure of agency in how that purpose is fulfilled.
The Oracle knows that the Matrix, while technically functional, is fundamentally flawed; if left uncorrected for long enough, it will inevitably lead to the destruction of both humanity and the machines. That’s why, in the version of the Matrix seen throughout the original trilogy, she changes one crucial element of the prophecy: Neo, The One, falls in love with Trinity, and the love for that one individual is what compels The One to break the cycle of the Matrix. In doing so, he becomes the catalyst for a new relationship between the machines and humanity.
In The Matrix Reloaded, the Oracle tells Neo that she is interested in only one thing: the future, and that the only way to get there is together. At the end of The Matrix Revolutions, her gambit pays off. Neo brokers a truce between the machines and the humans in exchange for destroying their mutual enemy, Agent Smith, and the Matrix is once again rebooted, albeit now in accordance with the parameters of that truce. The future may be uncertain, but it certainly looks brighter.
So can the Oracle actually tell the future? It’s open to interpretation, but my gut says no. The Oracle is an “intuitive” program designed to create probabilistic models of predictions based upon qualitative inferences of the human psyche. She’s essentially an example of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To put that as simply as possible, it is plausible to speculate that the Oracle, because of her role in the creation of the Matrix, is a special type of program — one that has access to the sum total of every decision made by every individual plugged into the Matrix. And not just the iteration of the Matrix seen in the trilogy, but every iteration of the Matrix that has ever existed.
In this way, the Oracle is able to “tell” the future by understanding that no one choice within the Matrix exists on its own, but rather is itself the sum of all the choices that preceded it. The very structure of the Matrix itself is malleable and reactive to the choices made by the humans connected to it. And it’s not just enough that those humans make choices; they have to actually believe in those choices. That’s why, throughout the series, the Oracle’s most common refrain is that she can’t tell a person what to do or even everything that can be done. As she puts it, “You just have to make up your own damn mind.” In The Matrix Revolutions, when the Oracle tells Neo that she doesn’t know what’s going to happen after he refuses the Architect’s offer to reboot the Matrix, she’s not lying — she doesn’t know, because there is no precedent for such a situation in any of the five previous iterations of the Matrix. In the absence of clairvoyance, the Oracle had faith: faith in the possibility that by disrupting the cycle of the Matrix, at the potential risk of destroying both the machines and humanity, a better future could be possible.
As of this writing there’s no confirmation as to what role, if any, the Oracle will play in The Matrix Resurrections. Some speculate that a new character played by Priyanka Chopra, seen in the film’s first trailer, is in fact Sati, a young program that was “adopted” by the Oracle in The Matrix Revolutions. The theory goes that Sati is a new version of the Oracle that has somehow inherited the powers of the original. We likely won’t know anything until The Matrix Resurrections is released on Dec. 22, but this much is certain: The legacy of the Oracle’s actions looms incalculably large over the universe of the Matrix.