The Matrix still has you
The sunglasses are on. The screen is glowing green. A fourth Matrix film is now in theatres, but the first one, 22 years old, feels more relevant than ever as AI and machines control our lives. The 1999 film continues to influence everything from fight scenes to conspiracy theories. It’s a philosophy lesson wrapped in a trenchcoat of technology, and therein lies its power.
The scene is set in a grey office cubicle. A man is at his desk when a courier delivers an envelope to him. The man at the desk tears the envelope open and a small cellphone slips out. It starts ringing immediately. He slides the phone open to take the call.
“Hello, Neo.” Morpheus’s voice filters through the earpiece.
In 2021, this should all feel dated. It is one of the mysteries of the 21st century that, 22 years after its release, The Matrix continues to feel original, and feels more relevant now than when the film was first released. Conceived and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, then known as the Wachowski brothers, The Matrix (1999) raised the bar for storytelling and movie spectacle so high that even its two sequels couldn’t meet it.
Prior to The Matrix, the Wachowskis had run a construction business, written comic books, and completed two screenplays. Carnivore, about a soup kitchen that chops up rich people to make a delicious stew that feeds the poor, never got made. Assassins, about a hitman on the brink of retirement, was optioned by producer Dino De Laurentiis and became the 1995 film of the same name. The Wachowskis were so unhappy with the changes made to the script that they tried to get their names taken off the credits. That didn’t work, but the film did serve to introduce the duo to Warner Bros, the studio that produced Assassins and would later produce the Matrix films.
When the Wachowskis’ manager was shopping The Matrix’s screenplay around in 1994, Warner Bros was the only taker. The siblings weren’t willing to just hand it over either. Having spent two years on the screenplay, they wanted to direct the film. To prove their directing chops to Warner Bros, the duo directed the R-rated thriller Bound, which was accomplished enough, but no one would have guessed from that work of lesbian noir that the Wachowskis had The Matrix in them.
Set in a dystopian future where Earth is controlled by machines and artificial intelligence, The Matrix is the story of a group of humans who resist the machines and fight for freedom. The film poses a simple question: What if the world as we know it is a simulation? This is not a startlingly original question. Philosophers, scientists and tech bros continue to ponder whether our world is an illusion, a game or some kind of elaborate ant farm and, if it is, what that might mean for free will and choice.
However, to voice these philosophical ideas with the vocabulary of digital technology felt new (The Truman Show, released a year earlier, explored a similar idea but in a very different setting). To fold all this into an action film felt even newer.
In The Matrix, the Wachowskis presented a meticulously imagined world. From props — Neo keeps his digital contraband in a hollowed-out copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation — to details like his room number being 101 (Room 101 is a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love, in George Orwell’s 1984), every detail felt carefully crafted. If you wanted to nerd out on references to Plato’s allegory of the cave, Réné Descartes, Buddhist philosophy, Marxism, existentialism, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, you could. If you’d rather just focus on the exquisitely choreographed fight scenes, you could do that too. Either way, The Matrix was a treat.
In terms of ideas and aesthetics, The Matrix stood out because it didn’t conform. Here was a film in which the black character didn’t exist to enable the white male hero’s saviour complex. Instead, Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus is a patriarch in the Biblical tradition — charismatic, wise, strong, and a leader who commands the respect and devotion of his followers. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is a rare feminine hero who radiates strength and beauty but is never objectified (not even when clad in skintight black leather).
Unlike the swaggering alpha male action heroes of the time, Keanu Reeves’s Neo was almost androgynous, and unusually vulnerable. Neo was created as a sort of Buddha of Zion — quiet, observant, plagued by self-doubt.
The fact that The Matrix was so popular — it was the fourth-highest grossing film of 1999 worldwide and earned more than $460 million internationally — and so original meant that it infused a host of new motifs into the world of popular culture. The choice of red pill or blue pill (the red pill signifying truth and the blue pill, illusion) lives on as joke, satire, meme. It’s worked its way to the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, from the Wachowskis to the American alt-right. In May 2020, Elon Musk tweeted “Take the red pill”; Ivanka Trump replied “Taken”. (Lilly Wachowski responded with “F*** both of you”.)
The idea of the offline world as a decrepit alternative to a high-definition virtual world was outlandish in the 1990s. For many viewers, it took more than one viewing for the idea to make sense. In the current dystopia (climate crisis, pandemic, inflation, supply crises, and the promise of multiple metaverses), The Matrix feels not just relevant but increasingly real. The appeal of addictive, artificial parallel realities, the idea of sustained surveillance, are lived realities.
Perhaps the most poignant change in how audiences read the story of The Matrix occurred after the Wachowskis transitioned and came out as queer trans women in 2016. The references to feeling trapped in a body, being forced to conform by an oppressive society, and the importance of one’s chosen name in the process of self-determination now shimmer with transness.
Hearing Agent Smith call Neo “Mr Anderson”, his name in his former life; hearing him respond through clenched teeth, “My name is Neo”, takes on a whole new meaning.
While it may be speculation to see The Matrix as trans allegory, Lana Wachowski has made it clear that there is a connection between her personal experiences and The Matrix Resurrections, released in theatres this week. At an event in Berlin earlier this year, Lana said she returned to the world of the Matrix for comfort at a time when she was overwhelmed by grief. She’d recently lost her parents and one night, “my brain just exploded with this story”, she said.
Bringing Neo and Trinity back from the dead became a way for Wachowski to process her grief. “This is what art does. This is what stories do. They comfort us,” Lana said. (Lilly Wachowski felt she needed to process her grief differently, Lana added, and chose not to be involved in The Matrix Resurrections.)
There is an almost-naïveté to Wachowski responding to the loss of her parents by reviving Trinity and Neo. The past is a place that The Matrix Resurrections returns to repeatedly, with shots from the trilogy spliced into this 2021 sequel as though to give them new life.
Unfortunately, despite flashes of beauty and insight, the new film ends up being an awkward montage of nostalgic callbacks. Too little feels new; too much feels like a rehash rather than an update — which, one could argue, is a ruthlessly honest portrait of the franchise film industry. Yet, lurking in all the awkwardness and backward glances is a determined optimism for the future. ”You gave us something we thought we could never have,” Trinity says at one point in The Matrix Resurrections, “Another chance.”
(Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of Hush a Bye Baby, and the Puchku series of children’s books)