The Matrix: The Matrix (1999)

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Watching The Matrix 20 years later clarifies what a whirlwind of innovation it is. In 1999, the major innovation seemed to be the formal use of bullet time, which showcased Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his fellow freedom fighters, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss), achieving impossible physical feats within the computer simulation from which they hoped to free humanity. Now, in light of subsequent seismic events in American democracy, the rise of identity politics, and the curdling of the American action film, The Matrix feels utterly prophetic. More than any of its contemporaries (save the similarly prophetic 1999 film Fight Club), The Matrix predicted the apocalyptic thinking that characterizes the present moment and championed an internalized philosophy of self-worth, self-actualization, and self-awakening that is the mantra of current culture warriors. The result is that The Matrix may be the definitive film of the past 20 years.

Fusing the paranoia and simulacra of Philip K. Dick with the techno-focus of William Gibson and anime, The Matrix tells a classic story of an uprising, of a small band of heroes fighting the machine of oppression. Of course, in The Matrix, that oppressive machine is a literal machine: robot overlords have enslaved humanity at some point in the future and trapped the collective human consciousness within a computer program that replicates the world of 1999.

The film’s story world is a slight variation of Dick’s own exegetic belief (brought on by heavy drug use and borrowing from Gnostic beliefs) that modern-day America was only a simulation caused by a demon and that in reality, humanity was still living in the 1st century BC, not long after the time of Christ. The Matrix is heavily indebted to Dick and his obsession with dual realities, but in more generic terms, the Wachowskis rely more heavily on the structure of James Cameron’s Terminator films, which they reconfigure to their own purposes.

Like The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day, The Matrix depicts a future reality where machines have decimated human civilization and a small band of humans live underground under the leadership of a chosen hero who’s prophesied to save them. Also, like The Terminator films, The Matrix simultaneously depicts a present that looks very much like our own, with the only indication of abnormality the presence of homicidal machines capable of extraordinary feats of strength. This dual nature of reality is essential to the film’s philosophical obsessions, depicting the real and the unreal, but it also brings the story into the viewer’s own world, infusing the film with palpable paranoia and making the ultimate message key to the viewer’s own life and circumstances, instead of merely a rumination on what could be.

However, first and foremost, The Matrix operates as an action film. It’s a masterpiece of the genre. The Wachowskis’ own obsession with anime and Chinese action cinema is apparent from the opening moments. In addition to cribbing from Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film, Ghost in the Shell, most notably in the opening sequence of Trinity escaping the agents, the Wachowskis employ Chinese fight choreographer and filmmaker Yuen Woo-ping—then known for directing 1993’s Iron Monkey and choreographing Once Upon a Time in China and Fist of Legend and going on to choreograph Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill in the wake of The Matrix—to bring wire-fu to America. However, instead of showing martial arts legends like Wong Fei-hung or Ip Man doing the impossible, the film posits that anyone who becomes aware of the true nature of the Matrix has the ability to override the program and become capable of superhuman feats within it. Thus, the film’s message of empowerment is apparent even within the action.

As well, the Wachowskis are Americans, and as such, have to add uniquely American elements to the Chinese-influenced action sequences: namely, guns. Although obviously indebted to the films of John Woo, The Matrix has a fervour for guns that is impossible to replicate outside of America. The lobby scene, in which Neo and Trinity lay waste to a skyscraper lobby full of armed guards, eviscerating them with a barrage of bullets and impossible acrobatics, is the best example of this obsession bordering on fetishism. It’s also perhaps the crown jewel of modern American action cinema. But it also positions terrorists as heroes, exploding skyscrapers and murdering police officers in a time period where such narratives didn’t come with the same damning implications. The Wachowskis don’t mull over the moral implications of such violence; in the film, the bloodbath is justified as liberation and more easily swallowed due to its existence within a computer program, even if people die in real life when they die in the program.

Furthermore, the action furthers the film’s obsession with personal realization and conspiracy, as only the liberated humans are capable of amazing feats, and anyone who is working against them is inadvertently allied with the machines, and thus, compromised. Revolution, whether personal or global, cannot stall for the sake of a few inadvertent oppressors.

The action also plays into American pop-culture and religious iconography. The character and location names recall Biblical importance, with the last human city Zion obviously taking the name from the central hill in Jerusalem that’s key to End Times prophecies as well as the name of utopia within Rastafarian myth. Neo is an obvious Christ figure, but particularly a second coming figure, as Morpheus mentions that the One appeared in the past and started the Resistance and that he’d come again, now in the form of Neo. Early on, one character even says to Neo, “Hallelujah, you’re my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ,” as if the Christ connections weren’t clear. Even Neo’s chosen name (his name in the program is Thomas Anderson, but it’s a dead name) is simply a word for “new,” as well as an anagram for “one.” But Neo’s role as the One also draws on Buddhist iconography of rebirth, with the One being a kind of bodhisattva returning to samsara to liberate as many people as possible—this Buddhist influence is only heightened with revelations in the sequels.

The leather outfits, focus on guns, and cold-hearted logic of the action recalls pop-culture and film noir, specifically. The film’s cliched hard boiled dialogue, from Switch’s “Our way or the highway” ultimatum to Neo when he doubts joining the Resistance to Cypher’s “It means buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, cause Kansas is going bye bye” right before he’s released from the Matrix, sound cribbed straight from the movies. They are deliberately pastiche, as everything in the Matrix is.

It’s important to note that the Matrix within the film plays into iconography more heavily than the film’s real world, as our burgeoning obsession with screens in 1999 is posited as a means of being controlled by false narratives. It makes sense that within the Matrix, people would act and talk like they’re movie characters, as in our real world, movies warp people’s sense of what real life is like. It’s a subtle commentary on how entertainment itself is another form of brainwashing within the stages of late capitalism.

This all plays into the film’s obsessions with dualities, which the visual style and camera choices highlight throughout. The Wachowskis take advantage of the anamorphic frame to create compositions that operate on the extreme horizontal, with objects often positioned in the far left and far right to force an oppositional reading. An early sequence in a leather bar where Trinity whispers into Neo’s ear has the shot reverse-shot of each of their faces on the far sides of the frame, looking off the frame and confounding the axis of action in ways that television shows like Mr. Robot would take even further in the wake of The Matrix.

More importantly, the Wachowskis use mirrors wherever possible, as there’s no clearer way to emphasize the real and the fake, the reflection and the reality, than by having characters surrounded by mirrors, reflective skyscraper glass, or even an inverted reflection on a spoon. Early in the film, we see that Neo has hidden discs within a copy of Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra, which clarifies the philosopher’s influence on the film. The Wachowski utilize doubles throughout the film to subconsciously trigger the viewer’s own obsession with dualities. This is best exemplified by the reflection in Morpheus’ sunglasses when offering Neo the red and blue pills, with each lens showing Neo and only one of the pills; the two paths of humanity are laid out. But there’s another scene that captures the dual nature of reality in more subtle ways, specifically the scene with the woman in the red dress.

As Morpheus explains the Matrix to Neo, he walks him through a crowd of people, and Neo stops paying attention when he spots an attractive woman in a red dress. Morpheus asks him whether he’s still listening, but Neo says he was simply watching the woman, only to turn around to see that the woman in the red dress has transformed into an agent pointing a gun in his face. Morpheus explains that the purpose of the program is to show how the Matrix is meant to distract human beings from the truth; the woman in the red dress lured Neo’s focus away from what’s important, and the agent would’ve then made him pay for such distraction. However, the Wachowskis cleverly bury their own unrealities within the scene, using the dialogue and the woman in the red dress to distract the viewer just as Morpheus uses her to distract Neo. In particular, the Wachowskis cast only identical twins to play the background characters in this scene, dressing them in identical outfits with identical haircuts and placing them on opposite sides of the frame to fill out the background. It’s not readily apparent that the background crowd is composed of doubles, but the subconscious effect is profound, emphasizing to the viewer the unreality of the Matrix even if the viewer isn’t consciously apparent of the doubling effect.

For The Matrix, it’s not merely enough to point out the unreality of the program, or the unreality of the various lies humanity is sold in the real world. Such knowledge has to lead to liberation. Of course, what kind of liberation that entails is what makes The Matrix such a fascinating, and dangerous, text. The Matrix is an anti-establishment text, but because its messaging is so rooted in the personal and the subjective, encouraging individuals to discover their own true purpose from within, it can be taken as speaking everything to everyone. The Matrix positions every viewer wary of the system and longing for liberation (whether physical, sexual, or mental) as a freedom fighter against an unjust world. Just as it formally awakens American viewers to the impossible feats and pleasures of kung-fu cinema, thematically it awakens viewers to a world not to be trusted. But like Fight Club, the aforementioned other prophetic work of 1999, The Matrix is the urtext for self-actualization, self-liberation, and self-awakening. It is both the holy grail for those who want to rebuild a lost world and those who want to create a new one free of any boundaries and limitations.

There’s no accident that the concept of the red pill has been grasped onto by misogynistic men on online forums, using the language of the film to describe an awakening to a feminist conspiracy that has taken over modern western culture. But at the same time, the film has a deep meaning for the LGBT community, not only for its iconography of leather and all the kink associated with that subculture, but also because the film was made by two individuals who came out as trans in the years that followed its release, uncovering all manner of trans messaging within the film’s plea for self-discovery and self-actualization. These dual readings are not contradictory; The Matrix is about awakening, but because this is science-fiction, the implications of that awakening are left for the viewer to determine.

Thus, the film works equally well as an anti-capitalist screed, since it has 1999 as the time period that the machines trap humanity’s mind within. 1999 was the last period of optimism and stability in late capitalism. It was prior to 9/11, prior to the Iraq War, prior to the mortgage crisis and the rise of ethno-nationalism. It was the last moment when American capitalism seemed capable of producing a stable, safe world. But like the computer program within the film, that optimism has proven to be a lie, as the excesses of the 1990s contributed directly to the catastrophes that would follow.

In The Matrix, Neo is an office drone living an anonymous life. He is unsatisfied, but doesn’t know why. It’s only after he learns the truth of his exploitation that he becomes capable of transcending it, mirroring a Marxist sense of discovery of the true distribution of goods and labour. In the film, we learn that human beings are literal energy sources for the machines, who grow them and feed off their bioenergy, but this is simply a metaphor for the exploitation of labour, as workers feed the riches of the capitalist class. The only difference is that in The Matrix, the capitalist machine is a literal machine. Later in the film, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) rants about humanity as a parasite, endlessly consuming resources and growing, and again, it’s hard not to interpret his words as a screed against the parasitic nature of capitalism, which is built on the endless growth of wealth that parallels viral growth.

Even if the true political message of The Matrix is impossible to parse, it does provide absolute clarity on its take on the issue of identity. Midway through, Trinity tells Neo that “The Matrix cannot tell you who you are,” and you can sub in the “world” for Matrix to make the message abundantly clear. Later, the Oracle (Gloria Foster) tells Neo that “You’re in control of your own life.” All of this messaging puts forth that identity is intrinsic, but not tied to body or circumstance; it argues that identity is something that you chose for yourself, just as Neo and Morpheus and Trinity chose their names. Most importantly, it shows that identity is liberating and empowering, as only once Neo truly knows he’s the One—when he proudly declares to Agent Smith that “My name is Neo”—does he unlock his full powers and begin to take control of the Matrix and defeat the agents. Neo’s speech to the agents in the final moments of the film is not actually addressed to the narrative adversaries, but to the audience, imploring them to wake up and embrace their true reality (the credits song by Rage Against the Machine entitled “Wake Up” only further emphasizes this point). Of course, what that reality is is only something they can determine.

That The Matrix is 20 years old and more relevant today than when it was made proves its timelessness. That it continues to speak to viewers and open up new philosophical worlds for them even as it expands their conception of what action cinema can do proves what a classic it is.

10 out of 10

The Matrix (1999, USA)

Written and directed by the Wachowskis; starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Gloria Foster.