Twenty years of bullet time

John Wick’s son Neo turns 20 this year. Kind of.

The Matrix at 20: how the sci-fi gamechanger remains influential
Yet objects tend to shift during flight, and in the year 2019, The Matrix has endured as both touchstone and Rorschach blot, a way for people of vastly different ideologies to make sense of the world around them. The effects are still a marvel, but the film’s ideas have taken root in a destabilized culture where conspiracy theories flourish and individuals are defining for themselves what is and isn’t real, and what constitutes freedom in a heavily monitored, highly synthetic technological space. Neo may “follow the white rabbit” into a Wonderland of personal discovery, but we’re citizens of Wonderland now, having made a second home for ourselves where the laws of gravity don’t apply …

Yet the idea of the world as changeable seems far closer to what the film’s creators, the Wachowskis, had in mind. In the time between then and now, the Wachowskis have both gender transitioned and The Matrix seems at least a subconscious reference to the evolution to come. Much has been written about the film as trans allegory, and the reading bears out in the possibility for humans to define themselves however they like, outside the fixed identities enforced by the machines. Whenever Agent Smith snarls “Mr Anderson”, it feels like a menacing taunt, his refusal to allow Neo to untether himself from the matrix and discover who he actually is. That goes beyond red-pilling, which is about the authoritarian business of telling someone how things really are, and grants them the latitude to figure it out on their own.

The trans narrative escaped me then, and escapes me still. It’s certainly a philosophical film, though.

15 facts about The Matrix on its 20th anniversary
7. The actors were asked to brush up on their knowledge of philosophy before production began.

The Wachowskis had all the lead actors read Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, Out of Control by Kevin Kelly, and Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans and Oscar Zarate in order to better understand the world of the movie. In the film, Neo actually hides his illegal computer files in a copy of Baudrillard’s book.

Not everyone’s a fan, however.

The Matrix’s male power fantasy has dated badly
It’s this attitude which now seems so antiquated – so glaringly late-20th Century. Anderson isn’t kept awake at night by war or climate change or the rise of fascism. He isn’t campaigning for equal rights – and he certainly isn’t doing any Kung-fu practice. He’s a white-collar worker whose most pressing problem is a slight dissatisfaction with ordinary office life. He is, fundamentally, a less witty brother of Chandler Bing from Friends. And they have plenty of other brothers. One is the unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) of Fight Club. The other is Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a disgruntled software programmer in Mike Judge’s cult comedy, Office Space. Both of those films came out in 1999, as The Matrix did. And as different as the three of them may appear, they all share a theme whose prevalence in 1990s pop culture culminated with the debut of the BBC2 sitcom The Office, in July 2001. The theme is that being a handsome, middle-class, thirtysomething professional is ultimately not very fulfilling. The Matrix may allude to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, to Jean Baudrillard and Jesus, but its central thesis is right there on the Office Space poster: “Work Sucks”.

Perhaps those confusing sequels were to blame for souring it a little.

The ending of The Matrix trilogy finally explained
One major theme that came to the fore as the series reached its conclusion had to do with the similarities between humans and machines. In the original, they couldn’t seem more different, but by Revolutions, programs in the Matrix are portrayed as being almost more human than our heroes, loving and happy individuals, as worthy of existence as any person. Further, characters from the first film who were firmly human or machine are portrayed in the sequels as having a little bit of both …

The humanizing of the Machines and the complimentary mechanization of Neo made for a storytelling turn that audiences weren’t really ready for. People who saw The Matrix couldn’t be faulted for expecting an ending that saw Neo winning by doing his Superman thing and eradicating humanity’s robot overlords. Instead, Neo triumphed by becoming a bridge between man and machine, sacrificing his own life for the sake of securing the future.

Author: Terry Madeley

I enjoy reading about art and design, culture, data, education, technology and the web. I'm confused by a lot of it, to be honest.

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