Twenty years on, and the articles on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell`; the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling. Not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet (Hackers doesn’t really count). And, subsequently, to ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.
Certainly, it’s the most perfect piece of entertainment the Wachowskis have made (although Cloud Atlas gets full points for trying). I’ve read a few remarks suggesting the picture doesn’t hold up as well as it once did visually, but I’d argue it’s every bit as impressive a production. Sure, bullet time had its ad-infinitum copyists (to the extent that it was already passé by the time the sequels came around), but stylistically, it’s crafted with pin-point, dynamic precision, reminding you of the kind of results that could be achieved when great talents stuck to their storyboards (Spielberg in his heyday, before the deleterious age of Janusz Kamiński).
Those sequences – “I know Kung Fu” – “Show me”; “Déjà vu”; “We need guns, lots of guns”; “It’s the smell”; moving “like them” on the rooftop; the subway confrontation with Smith – are as enervating as ever, providing you haven’t watched the movie hundreds of times and so irrevocably diminished its lustre (entirely possible: that DVD boom again). And threading through them is a cast-iron narrative, before the siblings infused their conception with all kinds of doubt and despair that the self-perpetuating mire could ever be truly escaped.
This is, after all, the same hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker, two decades later. Neo, like Luke, is just an ordinary worker Joe who finds he is special, more special than anyone else in his universe. Instead of a farm worker, he’s glued to a keyboard. Instead of a Ben/Yoda to guide him, he has a Morpheus (“Don’t think you are. Know you are”), who also notes that those as old as Neo is are rarely suitable candidates for training in the ways of the Matrix. So too, this stage of victory against “the Empire” comes through using the equivalent of the Force, marshalling the energies of the environment to his disposal (“He’s beginning to believe”).
If The Matrix has a failing, in terms of the telling, it’s one that won’t become a cross to bear until the sequels; the real world of the machines simply isn’t very interesting, divested as it is of super powers and magic. It’s a place of borderline heroin-chic holey knitwear rather than designer leather and shades. It’s easy to see why Cypher makes the “Ignorance is bliss” choice from that aesthetic perspective, but the knock on is that it will eventually cause the actual plotting to become sluggish, the siblings unable to disguise their own disinterest, no matter how many machine onslaughts or slow-mo raves they throw in.
The casting is, of course, peerless, with the ever-youthful Keanu still able to pass himself off as a young hacker (he’d turn 35 soon after the film’s release), Laurence Fishburne making the most of a rare attention-grabbing turn (his last great one had been Deep Cover), Carrie-Anne Moss seeming like a fresh discovery despite having been in constant work for nearly a decade (she’d disappear off the radar again almost as quickly after the trilogy finished), Joe Pantoliano bringing his patented weasel perfectly to life, and Hugo Weaving’s delivery defining the film as much as bullet time (one of Spaced’s less successful manoeuvres was the fan-gasm of the second series’ opener homage).
And then there’s the hook. If the movie isn’t the topic of conversation it once was, amid an ever-spiralling and all-consuming digital environment, it remains the defining popular term for the idea that we are all imprisoned together in an artificially designed, nefariously constructed simulation: a fake reality, a hologram.
And it’s one that, with the theoretical endorsement of actual scientists (and Elon Musk), and not a little from many in the conspiracy field, has only increased in credibility/cachet as the grip on the concrete and material and familiar becomes less demonstrably certain and unswerving. Everyone knows what the Matrix means as a shorthand (even if Doctor Who used the term not dissimilarly twenty years prior) and it’s been David Icke’s go-to expression for our proposed manipulated realm for almost as long as the movie itself.
It’s also found endorsement, not merely as science fiction and so a warning of our unchecked ambitions come to bite us in the arse, but also fact, via a strand of claimed insider testimonies that veer remarkably close to the Wachowskis in a number of respects (or not so remarkably, if you view the insider, or whoever MKUltra’d them with that information, as having been inspired by these texts). The siblings themselves have shown an evident affinity for questioning the nature of existence and whatever hierarchies may or may not be controlling it – well, Speed Racer aside – albeit not with the degree of success of The Matrix (Jupiter Ascending was a contrastingly massive flop, dealing with hybridisation and the covert control, manipulation and feeding off – looshing, if you will – humans by shapeshifting, reptilian extra-terrestrials).
Aug Tellez, purportedly ex- of the (covert government) Special Projects and partial to media reinforcement of his experiences in such works as Rick and Morty and Black Mirror – most media depictions of such material represent soft disclosure, from his and other insiders’ perspectives, which would naturally include the Wachowskis and their predilections – provides an immensely involved and often difficult to follow narrative. Mostly due to both the denseness of the information, language and concepts, and his facility for rambling digressions.
It’s an account that mixes in The Terminator, The Matrix and HP Lovecraft, with a splash of Gnosticism and reverberations of the Montauk Project; our reality is a simulation, one engineered by time-travelling humans from the future and advanced AI (shades of the actual present in The Matrix being one hundred years in the future); later in the trilogy, we’ll learn there have been six earlier iterations of the Matrix, the same number Aug professes there have been hitherto of this simulation within a multiverse.
AI in his conception is more insidious and less concrete than the machine world of The Matrix, however, and while he’s partial to the “humans were the demiurge all along” conceit, he allows for holes in that fabric with a fallen creator being (Gnosticism again). Most notable about Aug’s account is that it doesn’t really provide an answer – other than that, if we all get wise, this fake reality will reset as something presumably more tolerable – any more than Icke’s does. Rather, it relocates it one remove away. All our troubles are troubles because this reality isn’t the real reality. But since the real reality is, logically, the source of all our troubles – except that, as a paradox, it was ever thus, so we don’t really know – the advisability of putting faith in that one as the solution to all our troubles is debatable.
Aug gets frustrated that, aside from his devoted thousand or so YouTube followers, a portion of whom seem to want to marry him more than they want to appoint him their personal prophet of doom and salvation, few seem to be taking up his message that we need to avoid the encroaching AI hive mind apocalypse that has previously, via time-travel, already perpetuated this realm (albeit, we’ve already won too, depending on his mood). The real surprise, though, should be that he – or his handlers – thought that he could gain sufficient traction with his idiosyncratic content and mode of delivery (even Icke soft pedals the simulation and demi-urge side of his message for more immediate and tangible – political – concerns). Or maybe he has gained traction; now Alex Newald, whose Co-Evolution abduction experience first gained attention thirty years ago, is promoting hitherto unrevealed nuggets of a very similar bent that he kept to himself “because it would have jeopardised what (he) promised to do upon returning to Earth”. Which is very convenient.
From Aug’s point of view, and many in the conspiracy sphere, the reason the great unwashed aren’t taking notice is simply that they are, as Morpheus puts it “not ready to be unplugged”. We’re all capable of tending towards a dissociative, objectifying attitude in the face of those with strongly oppositional views to our own (usually in the particularly divisive arenas of science, politics and religion). But here, the encouragement comes from seeing those who aren’t awake as frequently “other”, not even really ensouled individuals (see Jordan Peele’s Us for a fairly uninspired recent envisioning of this idea).
The term NPC – non-player character – has been cottoned for those who go about oblivious to the true nature of reality and the artifice of this realm, suggestive of a chicken-and-egg dilemma in conceptualising and dealing with subjective existence; the NPC is effectively, like the pagan of old, going straight to hell through wilful ignorance (excepting that those going to hell need to have souls in the first place; NPCs may be essentially constructs, as per The Matrix).
But one has to ask what does the better job of eroding our abilities to discern reality, if the price of being awake is seeing those around us who fail to see the world as we do as inferior; this reads as an unnerving brand of quasi-spiritual fascism. Then again, the flip side is that Tellez and his ilk can be dismissed with a casual “LARPer” label, what with the floodgates of conspiracy lore irreversibly opened and awash with ex-super soldiers, contactees, MKUltra victims and secret-space-programme whistle blowers, as if all the Merovingian’s playthings, designed to provoke and tease with the not-quite-knowable and seemingly fantastic, have been unleashed portentously at once so as to spell imminent disaster.
The Matrix halted technological advancement at ’99 standards, so those cool (now retro) flip phones are solast millennium. By the rules of that reality, we have now gone past the point, tech-wise, where we can be lulled into thinking reality is concrete, the argument being that we will ever-more suspicious our malaise is suss, en masse.
In its way, The Matrix is simply the next step on from Terminator 2: Judgement Day in cinematic depictions of the AI threat; it’s becoming more streamlined, interior and less overt each time. There’s no need for physical war when it can take place on the plane of the mind and implants. One wonders how Terminator: Dark Fate will address this in a manner that seems contemporary, particularly since Terminator: Genisys (un) spectacularly failed to feel fresh with its nano-tech (although, it did jump headfirst into multiverse concepts, which deserves a grudging respect); the only other picture to attempt something similar was another turkey, Transcendence.
There are occasional rumblings of a Matrix reboot, but it would likely be inadvisable for the same reasons the Terminator sequels have largely floundered; the concept is very zeitgeist, finite and of its era. After all, even the sequels were exhausted for inspiration by the time they concluded…