On the 25th anniversary of the initial release of The Matrix (1999)
By Mark Wegierski
The Matrix (1999), directed by the Wachowski siblings, is possibly one of the most audacious and brilliantly rendered science fiction movies ever made. The master-premise of the movie is in some ways reminiscent of Plato's Simile of the Cave, cleverly projected into a technological setting.
In a highly dystopian future, human beings are artificially grown in massive numbers to provide electric power from their bodies to a race of Artificial Intelligence entities (AIs). The Matrix is the virtual reality construct they are tranquilized with, as their bodies "feed" the machines. Ironically, the virtual reality in which the human minds dwell, is a re-creation of the world as it was in 1999.
Seeing the movie for the first time is a truly mind-blowing experience, because it begins in the virtual reality setting which the first-time viewer may initially think is just a cinematic portrayal of the current-day world. The first time viewing of the movie is thus initially quite bewildering. It is also a movie of the type that greatly benefits from being seen at a movie theatre.
The story centers on Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), who is said to be the One who will save humanity from their enslavement by the machines. His body and mind are disconnected from the Matrix, by the handful of human resistance fighters led by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) who live in the actual reality of the future, but continue to re-enter (or "hack into") the Matrix in order to bring more persons out of its bondage. This is clearly strongly reminiscent of Plato's writing about the Simile of the Cave, where the philosopher who apprehends the true light of wisdom must eventually return to the Cave to teach and guide the other prisoners, even if they deride him for his efforts.
The Matrix is defended by the Agent programs that are virtually unkillable within the VR setting вЂ“ but which Neo must finally find a way to dispatch. Much of the fighting within the Matrix is done through martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, combined with "gravity-defying" flourishes. Agent Smith (played by Hugo Weaving) is one of the main villains of the movie.
The movie has an incredible aesthetic of "hyper-coolness" -- Neo dressed in a black trench coat with dark sunglasses, floating ballet-like through the air, and spraying machine-gun fire at the soldier-minions of the Matrix from an Uzi-like snub-nosed SMG. What some have criticized as the "fascist" (or at least, "fascistic") aesthetic of the movie probably made it necessary for the directors to show the forces of the human resistance as highly multicultural and rather "counter-cultural", while the minions of the Matrix are all white males and "conservative"-looking. This may admittedly be somewhat annoying to some more conservative-minded viewers of the movie.
The main heroine of the movie is Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss), who is a highly capable fighter in her own right, and adds a certain aesthetic appeal in her black leather get-up. There is also a traitor within the group of embattled human fighters, Cypher (played by Joe Pantoliano), who is sick of the dreary real world of the future (for example, the awful food), and longs to get plugged back into the Matrix, where he can, among other things, enjoy "real steak". All that remains of humanity in the actual future lives in a geo-thermally-powered underground city near the core of the Earth, called "Zion" as well as in the hovercraft ships that course through the vast old sewer systems below the surface of the planet. The Sun has been "scorched" by humanity itself in an attempt to deprive the AIs of their earlier main energy-source.
One of the main bases of the appeal of the movie has been how it combined elements from various types of earlier movies вЂ“ such as so-called kung-fu fighting, and incredible computer-generated special effects, into a new, seamlessly blended whole. The scene where Neo is jolted from his suspended animation, and beholds the seemingly unending black towers of the physical structure of the Matrix, is truly amazing. The scene where the crops of human embryos are growing under the supervision of the machines is truly Boschean вЂ“ a classic of science fiction/horror imagery. The scenes of the AI Sentinels (huge, spider-like mechanical monsters) attacking the hovercraft ship are also suitably chilling. The sequences of the hand-to-hand martial arts fighting are amazing in their inventiveness and ingenuity and clearly required extensive and laborious choreography. Also, the movie's dialogue was exceptionally well-written, which, along with the actors' superb delivery, breathed life into statements that might have otherwise sounded rather sententious.
There is some question whether the movie fits rather easily into a quasi-Marxist typology of describing our contemporary world вЂ“ referencing, of course, to the concept of "false consciousness". The prevalence of this so-called "false consciousness" is said to explain why most people continue to believe in capitalism, despite the obvious rationality of Marxist thought. Some critics also suggested that the movie was animated by quasi-Gnostic concepts, that is, denouncing the "falseness" of the physical world, and pointing to salvation purely by mystical insight beyond the so-called "false reality". It may be remembered that orthodox Christianity, while to some extent renouncing the world, did not in fact entirely curse the physical world. The soundtrack of the movie, which consists largely of the music of groups of well-known left-radical provenance вЂ“ such as the (particularly aptly titled) Rage Against the Machine вЂ“ might point to the movie's easy identification with quasi-Marxist ideas. Certainly, some of the critiques voiced by Morpheus about the nature of the Matrix have a Marxist tinge. Some critics have also noted that a movie that вЂ“ albeit at a very superficial level вЂ“ appears to glorify "terrorist" activity, could be seen as rather inappropriate in a post-9/11 world. Nevertheless, there was also extensive comment drawn to the fact that the logo of Silver Pictures (the main producer of the movie) which appears after the credits, was a stylized cross.
The movie can certainly be considered more genuinely trans-ideological, than, for example, V for Vendetta (2006), based on the comic book by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, for which the Wachowski siblings wrote the script.
The Matrix movie can also be well contextualized by reference to various current-day subcultures, such as so-called "computer geeks" who partially overlap with "computer hackers" вЂ“ some of whom call themselves "cyberpunks" вЂ“ after the well-known science fiction subgenre вЂ“ of which this movie itself has become a paradigmatic example. "Cyberpunk" is also the name of a current-day popular musical subgenre, which emphasizes so-called industrial and electronic effects. One item often cited as symbolizing today's cyberpunk culture is a black leather, metal-studded, pencil protector! Among the initial defining works of cyberpunk in written form was William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) вЂ“ where the term "cyberspace" was first coined. It is said that one of the biggest appeals of cyberpunk was to make "computer geeks" finally feel "cool". It may also be remembered that 1999 was probably the height of the so-called high-tech boom, when people sometimes termed as "computer geeks" were lauded as virtual Masters of the Universe.
The writer of this review would like to suggest a less-overtly Marxist, somewhat more "trans-ideological" way to interpret what the movie may be trying to say about the contemporary world. Various critics вЂ“ whether nominally of the Left or Right вЂ“ have pointed to an all-pervasive mass media as one of the defining characteristics of life today. The mass media today typically upholds both the commodity-consumption society and "political-correctness" вЂ“ which together can be characterized as constituting "the managerial-therapeutic regime". This could be viewed as a systemic "matrix" or grid from which genuine community is excluded. Those who go on today about the "white, patriarchal power structure" are, it could be argued, hopelessly trapped in nineteenth-century perspectives. The threat of the current-day system to true human flourishing is clearly of a different sort, which can be approximately suggested by a careful reading of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Those who write with thoughtfulness and clarity about the current-day system can be seen as the real cutting-edge of resistance to so-called "late modernity". Probably for the first time in history, ideas can, at least in theory, be widely circulated (through the Internet) without regard to any so-called "gate-keepers". However, the extent of conditioning by mass media and mass education would tend to prevent the possible appeal of many worthwhile arguments.
Ironically, it could also be argued that various imaginative movies, insofar as they inspire virtual cults of fans that increasingly obsess inwardly about a given movie or series of movies, actually have an effect of "de-politicizing" people. In some senses therefore, The Matrix movie could itself be considered as part of the current-day mass media "matrix". Apart from those in the general movie-going public who saw The Matrix as two hours of sci-fi fun, the movie can serve either as just another obsessive attachment for some of the more intelligent parts of the populace, or the beginning of a more genuine resistance to the current day world by persons who are intelligent but also more reflective.
The Matrix, of course, became part of a trilogy of movies, Matrix Reloaded (2003), and Matrix Revolutions (2003). The two successive installments have been considered as somewhat weaker than the first, most highly inspired movie. The long-awaited fourth installment Matrix Resurrections appeared in 2021.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher, as well as science fiction and film aficionado.