People who weren’t around when The Matrix dropped onto American theaters like a Rage Against the Machine-powered nuclear bomb in March of 1999 can’t possibly understand the degree to which it conquered the zeitgeist. There are all sorts of jokes to be made about Hugo Weaving’s viral baddie Agent Smith infecting other programs to self-replicate ceaselessly and the same way that suddenly every club-goer and low-rent action movie star wanted to be in head-to-toe black with bug-eyed shades.
You could cut together an hours-long highlight reel showcasing how the completely earnest psychobabble of the characters in this movie and its sequels became lovingly parodied in every corner of popular culture.
Why did the tale of trench-coated punk hackers, cephalopod kill-bots, and tons of spent shell casings cut so deeply into our imagination? I argue it’s because it marked the true shift to Hollywood’s full-on embrace of digital effects, the fallout of which we still see 20 years later.
Generation X Writes the Millennial Hero’s Journey.
Clerks was Generation X’s student film. The Matrix was the capstone research project it tortured itself to make, using every East-meets-West idea of cinematic coolness to exceed what people thought it was possible to depict onscreen. The movie’s creators, the Wachowskis (born in the ’60s) somehow made the ultimate origin story for a Millennial audience in Neo. People keep telling me I’m an “old millennial,” those fortunate sons born as the ’70s turned into the ’80s, who remember the last days of analog technology and will on our deathbeds look back at the birthing pains of our present digital dystopia. The Matrix took every paranoid cyberpunk thought about a world ruled by corporations, in which individuality is stifled and the populace is kept asleep, and made it into a hero tale about harnessing the power of the system to destroy the system.
Keanu Reeves’ Neo reads as the prototypical disaffected late-Gen Xer or early-millennial. He’s berated by supervisors at his mind-numbing job by day and immersed in an outlaw online subculture by night. The affectations of the world around him are stifling and pointless. The shadowy in-between places are where his mind sticks. For a certain school-age viewer in the year that would give the country the Columbine High School shooting, when personal security started to mean things like not clicking bad links and not sharing one’s email password, where congregating with like-minded outcasts started to mean meeting in online spaces and abbreviating the real world as “IRL,” he was instantly recognizable.
The symbolism The Matrix uses as Neo leaves the known world and crosses over into the fantasy realm isn’t exactly subtle: He follows a white rabbit like Alice, a character tells him he’s not in Kansas anymore. That was the appeal, though, at least in that first rousingly straightforward movie. His training and self-realization echoed Star Wars and gave its audience a scarier Empire: baddies who wore the bland, monotone cloak of banal authority, who carried out their sinister directive with the total complicity of the populace.
Once awakened to the horror of the real world, where machines have enslaved all humanity and shoved them into pods to be used as batteries, he begins training to become The One, the warrior of prophecy who will cast down the machines and usher in a human revival.
The story basically ends when Neo gets his head in the right place and slaps the C# right out of his enemies—the triumph of his warrior mysticism coming about because he can see past the veil and literally hack the code of the sinister Agents in mid-fight. Audiences went nuts.
The First Action Film with Truly Digital DNA
Plenty of movies had hung their success on computer effects before. The Matrix was the first to really make the concept of a CG-heavy action spectacle work in concert with an epic fantasy story. (It is fantasy, cyberpunk trappings aside.) Several stabs at cyberpunk had fallen flat in the past decade: Virtuosity, The Lawnmower Man, and even the Keanu Reeves vehicle Johnny Mnemonic are all remembered as cult classics at best. The Matrix was a genuine phenomenon, pioneering new ways to showcase its flashy fight scenes.
To create the swooping camera movements that captured a single moment from all sides, entirely new filming and lighting techniques needed to be painstakingly rigged and tested, and the final shots needed to be married to computer-based morphing to stitch the end product together to appear seamless. We only now recognize the uncanny aspect of the camera circling Carrie Ann-Moss’ Trinity as she leaps up and kicks some mook in the face, or of Reeves doing the limbo under a hail of bullets as our view glides around him in slow motion.
Part of the reason we do is that The Matrix conquered the brainspace of action movies for a good several years. In the next few years, movies like Equilibrium, Resident Evil and Underworld would wrap themselves in black leather and kung fu gunplay, to say nothing about the contents of the bargain bins. Computer games followed suit, too, with the likes of Deus Ex in 2000 picking up the cyberpunk themes and the Max Payne series building an entire mechanic out of infusing its John Woo homage with “bullet time.” This is to say nothing of the copious catalog of licensed Matrix games.
The War over Interpretation
But we can’t talk about The Matrix without talking about the lexicon it’s given to the sick part of the sexist men’s rights chatroom internet, even as it is also pretty transparently a trans narrative that was written and directed by trans women.
In the years since the Matrix trilogy, writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski transitioned, and are now Lilly and Lana Wachowski. The themes of revelation and transformation are everywhere in The Matrix, predicated as the whole thing is on rejecting a past self and becoming a true self, right down to the idea of one’s in-Matrix avatar being one’s “residual self-image.” You may be a sickly, atrophied refugee from digital slavery in the ruined real world, but your true self will always be a black-clad shit-kicker in the Matrix. The idea was supposed to have been made explicit in the character of Switch, who originally was planned to be played by actors of different genders when she jumped in and out of the Matrix. (This did not end up making it to the screen, probably because interesting ideas are not allowed if they make the 18-35 male demographic feel strange about their naughty bits.)
Even as some in the trans community are embracing that reading of the movie, there’s the persistent and eye-rolling trend of the anti-woman internet using terminology from the movie to organize. Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus offers Neo one last out before he crosses into the Unknown, in the form of a choice of a red or blue pill. Choosing the red pill, in the terminology of the movie, is making the conscious choice to reject the Matrix’s simulated reality and embrace the struggle for freedom, which in turn means acknowledging the terrible truth of the world. (Kids these days call this being “woke.”)
Apparently, this spoke to the worst chatrooms and message boards of the internet, who have adopted “red pill” as some kind of signifier that you’ve rejected the lies of feminism or something. All of these putrid corners of internet discourse grow out of the same cesspit, and in one way it’s unfortunately easy to see how The Matrix feeds into this, too. Neo and Trinity end the movie in a kung fu-infused shootout with hapless security guards, because hey, they’re just digital representations of people (NPCs, if you will)! The entire system is set up against a small few rebels, and even a hot woman in a red dress could just up and turn into a deadly enemy—better just gun down anybody who gets in your way.
I don’t think the Wachowskis explicitly intended their work to be read that way, or even as an explicit trans narrative. At the time, especially as the sequels started piling more philosophical musings onto the rapidly accumulating lore at the series’ heart, people who were more critical of the trilogy were skeptical that it succeeded at articulating any kind of deeper message. It’s partly that its references go all over the place that different people can find so much to read into it.
That said: If your takeaway from The Matrix is that you should hate women, you’re wrong.
The sequels were not as well-received, for reasons that seem inevitable. Difficulties plagued production, including the tragic and unexpected deaths of two actors in incidents unrelated to the movies. The first movie, with its ending promising Neo will punch out the pillars of totalitarianism with IDDQD and IDKFA activated, made everything that came after seem anticlimactic, even as the movies tried to complicate the narrative around his godhood.
There is no diminishing the first entry, however. Back in 1999, I was supposed to meet a friend who flaked on me, and went into the screening feeling bummed about it. The movie rocked so hard that any disappointment over this fact was completely erased. I left feeling like I could punch a train off its rails, blasting Rage Against the Machine the whole time.
Kenneth Lowe knows this steak isn’t real. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.