Most work we consider maverick and radical comes from the margins. The Matrix bundled genuinely radical concepts into the last place one would expect them: a slick, effects-laden action-movie framework. Its studio, Warner Brothers, promoted it like any other blockbuster project, but cleverly avoided giving away any of its biggest secrets in its trailers or ads. It all worked: not only did the movie rake in hundreds of millions and spawn two (ill-conceived, I feel) sequels, it made itself felt in pop-culture consciousness like little since Star Wars. If that isn't a piece of subversive cultural engineering, I don't know what is.
"A mythology for the information age" was the label I came up with for The Matrix not long after seeing it. Twenty-plus years later, the label continues to stick. The information age is now the disinformation age, and our world has become virtual unreality -- not because it was strong-armed onto us, but because we cheerfully gave ourselves over to it thinking it was a good idea. Against all this, the Wachowskis' digital fable still stands tall, outliving the slickness of the moment and resisting attempts to misappropriate it.
The mystery teased in the movie's promotional material lasts for at least the first fourth of the film, because it's deliberately unclear what kind of movie we're watching. At first, it seems like a high-tech noir thriller, with vinyl-clad hacker Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) escaping when cornered by police in an abandoned hotel. But many things seem out of place, like how she soars across rooftops like a superhero ... and how one of the FBI agents pursuing her does the same without blinking ... and how she apparently vanishes into thin air after picking up a pay phone a split second before it's squashed by a garbage truck.
She and the authorities are after the same man. Real name: Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a keyboard jockey for a major multinational software company by day, and "Neo", a hacker by night who deals illegal software out of his apartment and searches clandestinely for information about forbidden subjects. He doesn't know what to make of Trinity confronting him at a rave and telling him he's in danger, and he definitely doesn't know what to make of the cops coming to his workplace and arresting him. They want him to help find "Morpheus", another legendary hacker Neo purportedly knows, and they're prepared to subject him to literally nightmarish tortures to do it.
Neo does not have to wait much longer to learn the truth. Trinity and her gang bring him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a guru-like presence who offers Neo the chance -- offer good for a limited time only -- to learn the truth not only of what's been happening to him, but of all things in his world. One red pill later, he finds out: he and the rest of the human race are the prisoners of a world-spanning artificial consciousness that keeps its meat batteries docile by way of a shared hallucination, the Matrix. The few renegade humans who've broken out of this cage now hack back in and lead others to safety when they can. Neo's response to all this is on a par with what our own would be: he pukes.
But there's no going back, and Neo knows it. Or, maybe better to say, there's no going back because Morpheus believes Neo is the One: someone who, once liberated, can bend the Matrix to their will, and use that to liberate the rest of the human race from the grip of the machines. Neo may be a fast learner -- in a hilarious sequence we found out just how quickly he picks up on having kung-fu programs uploaded into him -- but this messianic stuff doesn't sit well with him. Even his own teammates are skeptical, particularly Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), who makes overtures towards Neo chiefly to disguise his jealousy. Trinity, though, clearly believes as Morpheus does, and maybe more.
Maybe the Oracle (Gloria Foster) knows what the others don't, and so Neo meets her in her apartment where she trains other potential Matrix-benders for the resistance. What she has to offer him -- and it comes right at the middle of the movie, as all turning points do -- is a little sly psychological jiu-jitsu. He may not think he's the One, and she doesn't seem to think it either -- but Morpheus does, and that belief may endanger them all. It forces Neo to act when a traitor in their midst kills half their crew and nearly traps them in the Matrix for keeps: he decides the only thing he can do is go back in with guns blazing, heedless of the odds, rescue Morpheus, and maybe embody everything they think he is through sheer effort of will.
The mythological and spiritual dimensions of the story aren't window dressing; they're everything that distinguishes it from the competition. Most science fiction, especially anything cyberpunk-y, is about concepts (technology) or ideas (the social implications of said tech), but not as much about beliefs (the unquestioned assumptions about all of the above as embodied in people). The Matrix could have taken the simple road and been about the mechanics of "unplugging" other Matrix denizens, but it has bigger things in mind, and so all that stuff is confined the first fourth or so, or sprinkled throughout as spice.
The greater subject of the movie -- how our minds construct reality and how our lives become "prisons we choose to live in", to use Doris Lessing's phrase -- becomes that much greater because of the movie's spiritual and gnostic lens for it. By making it into a dreamquest, a future mythology, the Wachowskis gradually put the technical side of the story in the background. It also establishes a contrast: the technology is not what has real power in the lives of these characters, but their worldviews and belief systems, since those shape how it's all used and to what end.
This extends to the machines, too. Consider Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the cold-eyed and -voiced lead in the triumvirate of machine intelligences that doggedly pursue the rebels. At first Smith merely seems like the end result of creating an AI that mimics not only police procedure but police attitudes, as when he insouciantly offers Neo a bargain-that-is-no-bargain on his first arrest. Then over time another aspect of that emerges: he does his job well because he despises it and wants done with it. The sooner it's over, the sooner he can be done with patrolling this digital zoo of inferior biological specimens. What other, better things he could move on to is not explored, but that's fine: the mere fact of this longing on this part has made the job personal in a way even his fellow machine intelligences don't anticipate.
Of all the casting choices in the film (they're uniformly excellent), the one that has held up best over time is Keanu Reeves. The one thing movie buffs wrinkled their noses at about him -- his gormless personal presence -- complements his character here. One doesn't need a retrospective reappreciation courtesy of the renaissance in his career that John Wick touched off. The very point of the movie is that he's something of a blank slate, a sleeping nobody waiting to awaken. It makes his awakening more impactful. A more assertive actor, like Will Smith (who turned down the role) would have obscured that. Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity, works the same way: a more dialed-up A-list actress would have diluted her qualities as a pillar of quiet strength, something she builds on when she pulls rank and insists on following Neo into the Matrix to rescue Morpheus.
The smartest thing Warner Brothers did to market the movie, aside from being deliciously cagey about its storyline, was lean hard on its qualities as a stylish, effects-driven thrill ride. The slick black-and-green visuals (intentionally the same color scheme as an old-school hacker's CRT) wrap some of the snazziest and most creative action sequences put on film. Movie action is always exaggerated and absurd, but here that exaggeration and absurdity serves an actual in-story purpose: it helps emphasize the plasticity and fundamentally arbitrary nature of the Matrix, and how our heroes can exploit that to their own ends. When Trinity runs up a wall to evade police gunfire, or when Neo and Morpheus bend gravity in their initial dojo sparring session, we're not just looking at something cool.
But there are just as many times when we are, and the movie knows it and revels in it: the stupendous sequence where Neo and Trinity break into a building, commandeer a helicopter, tear Agents in half with a mini-gun, and lead Morpheus to safety; the climactic fight between Neo and Smith (one part Western, one part kung-fu epic, one part Hitchcock chase on nitrous). Or even just the sequences where they strut into and out of the Matrix in the clothing you suspect they always wanted to wear in real life but never got a chance to. It's another nod towards how the digital age empowered all of us to remake ourselves in our fantasies: the MMORPG nerd dream of dressing however you want, driving whatever cool cars you want, and unleashing martial arts and gun violence on those who get in your way.
Most Hollywood movies with any kind of spiritual bent are a nondenominational gumbo, a catholic-with-a-small-C grab bag of traditions. When there's "God", it's typically in the form of an inoffensive father figure (whether played by George Burns or Morgan Freeman); when there's "enlightenment", it's equally cuddly and defanged. At least The Matrix presents enlightenment and self-actualization as difficult and painful business, one that requires discarding one's entire concept of self to make real -- something raided wholesale from Buddhism, but at least preserved with the most important parts intact. Especially the way the arc of Neo's journey through that complements the traditional hero's journey, beginning in ignorance (Neo is literally asleep when we first meet him), through being jolted out of complacency, leaving home, undergoing initiation, awakening to his true self, being confronted with choices that require the use of his newfound power, death, rebirth and transfiguration -- and, finally, returning to what he left behind to transform it as well, climaxing appropriately enough with Rage Against The Machine(!)'s "Wake Up" on the soundtrack.
When The Matrix came out, many hardcore literary SF fans disdained it as being nothing but a dumbing-down of ideas that had been floating around in the bookosphere since Philip K. Dick's days. I originally followed that view, but ultimately abandoned it. For one, gatekeeping is unproductive and has never helped any genre thrive. People who complain about "originality" are only too willing to apologize for the unoriginality of something that trips their own particular trigger. And also, any story that could take tricky material about reality, consciousness, etc. and make it not only accessible but palatable and intriguing to a general audience deserved a thumbs-up. I saw not a ripoff, but a distillation.
I am not happy, as are many other people, with how the movie's conceits have been hijacked in the service of reactionary and retrograde social programs. "Red pill" has come to mean something almost entirely contrary to the movie's original idea of it. All rather ironic, since it's used to mislabel someone's temptation into selfish and socially regressive doctrines as an awakening to some great truth. And one not remotely in the spirit of the material, either. Cyberpunk is inherently an antiauthoritarian aesthetic (hence the "punk"), and the whole point of it is to question authority -- especially the authority of those who claim to be antiauthoritarians, and your own authority as well. Morpheus's idolization of Neo as something he might not even be puts a skeptical spin on things that's in line with the larger thinking at work. Faith and doubt must be complements in a dialectic, not either the winner or loser in a culture war.
Long after I first watched it, The Matrix exerted influences on my creativity, and not merely in the sense that I wanted to make something cool like that. It encouraged me to blend difficult and important ideas into my work whenever I could, because now I had at least one pop-cultural model for how to do that and get away with it. It also served as a personal spur in an entirely different way. Before the movie's release, I formed my own pet theories about what the great secret of the film was. I was beyond wrong about all of it, but I didn't mind being wrong; what the movie offered was too much fun for me to mind. Still, the theory I'd hatched gnawed at me, and over time I refined it and made into the basis of one of my own novels. People only noticed the connection when I pointed it out, so far had my work moved from its inspiration.
I have said nothing yet about the film's sequels, if only because I feel they are misguided in the extreme. They expand aggressively on what for me are the least interesting aspects of the world the Wachowskis created and its implications, and lean too heavily into the mythic side of things for all the wrong reasons. Maybe the upcoming fourth installment will rectify that, in the way Blade Runner 2049 turned out against all odds to be a brilliant piece of work. If not, we still have the original, and all that it offers, growing more newly relevant with each passing year.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind