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Holy Hell! The Matrix Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Matrix Turns 20

It is impossible to build a retrospective of 1999 without discussing the importance of The Matrix.

Carrie-Anne Moss, clad in skintight leather, froze in midair, her right leg poised to strike. Up to that second, the mise-en-scene of The Matrix is a mashup of ‘90s action stemming from kung fu aesthetic and S&M motif of The Crow and Blade until the camera rotates three hundred and sixty degrees to change the angle of the shot and the way action sequences are choreographed onscreen forever. The effect, known as “bullet time” after a moment later in the film when reluctant hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), dodges a flurry of gunshots, instantly infected pop culture, becoming a staple of action filmmaking and subject of parody within months. Due to its immediate cultural impact, The Matrix stands with Star Wars as the two movies that expanded the possibilities of visual effects in the last quarter of the 20th century, but that impact goes beyond mere technical achievement.

Released in 1999, the Wachowski sisters created a parable for the budding internet age where what you see cannot be trusted and truth is an arguable concept. These were the days of Y2K, the premier doomsday scenario of the dialup days, which stood as an affront to the corporate utopia promised by companies like Microsoft and AOL. The ubiquity of social media had yet to manifest, but a dread started to permeate the dotcom millionaires foisting promises from their bubble. The Matrix tapped into the historical anxiety that rose every time mankind held up egalitarianism as a slogan. No technological or financial innovation had ever democratized power. Some group or class always ends up owned or oppressed. Concurrently this was also the age of Wag the Dog, the Barry Levinson film that showed how easy faking world events could be with a green screen and some motivation. The information war was coming, but it would turn out to be less glamorous than filmmakers imagined.

Watching The Matrix twenty years later creates a feeling akin to watching Star War: A New Hope in 1997. First comes the near cellular anticipation for previously experienced greatness followed by tinges of disappointment if one is being honest. This script is constructed around grand set pieces and a series of monologues delivered primarily by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the dystopian prophet on his quest to find Neo, the one destined to save mankind, and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the main sentient program out to destroy Zion, the secret home of the rebellious humans who have been freed from stasis as living batteries for the machines that rule the planet. The matrix is a computer simulation meant to occupy the minds of the human cattle while the machines harvest their energy and bodies. It is a place for the sheeple while Zion is the home of noble truth seekers. It’s all a bit heavy-handed, but the martial arts and Prada makes it all look cool. Apart from bullet time, where time is stopped, the action feels slow after two decades of evolution. Reeves himself and the kinetics of his John Wick series can shoulder some of the blame for that.

The basic plot relies on the trope of the reluctant hero. Neo wants the truth but shies away from the responsibility of his godhood within the virtual reality. He is the anti-Luke Skywalker as the Matrix is the antithesis of the Force. Both elements are the code for life with the former being the more nefarious of the two. The Wachowskis enliven the process of Neo’s eventual acceptance of his predetermined role by making his teachers women and people of color. Humanity is survived by its marginalized communities and the villains, virtual and human, are expressly White and male. The filmmakers’ statement about societal power structures are abundant and clear, but the continued misreading of this film should invoke a national campaign for film literacy.

Somehow rightwing extremists have come to claim this film as their own, adding The Matrix to the list of late century misunderstood masterpieces alongside Fight Club. They meme about the red pill and the blue pill, Morpheus’ offer to Neo. The first would reveal the harsh truth behind the Matrix and the war humanity fights for its freedom while the second would continue the path of blissful ignorance. The trolls of Twitter, 4Chan, Reddit and other internet cesspools consider themselves truth-seekers who have taken the red pill and know all the lies from the moon landing to the Sandy Hook massacre. Studies show that white men form the typical demographic for this cohort, yet they champion a film that explicitly states that the truth is multicultural and female. Their delusions tell them they’d be Neo, when in reality they’d be more like Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), the man who couldn’t take the truth and betrayed his comrades for a return to ignorance.

Far more interesting readings of the film have emerged since the Wachowskis have come out as trans women. The red pill becomes a gateway to personal truth and power, making the blockbuster feel like a more personal albeit kickass story of transition. Know the truth in the Matrix and you become a superhero, which is enticing message to swaths of audience and to an entire industry. With the Batman franchise having crumbled, Superman nonexistent and the Marvel films a distant possibility, Neo built a bridge to the X-Men and Spider-Man. He was the last great superhero of the twentieth century. It is impossible to build a retrospective of 1999 without discussing the importance of The Matrix, but what often goes understated is how it opened up the industry to a genre of film that would save Hollywood for decades to come.

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