In Which We Go Down the Rabbit Hole
This article won’t be about The Matrix. No, you don’t need another thousand words dissecting the filmmaking, the performance, the philosophy, or the themes. The past 20 years have provided a veritable industry of interpretation and investigation in the Wachowskis’ crowning achievement. There’s nothing really to add to the body of the film itself. The contours are so well known, the history studiously documented, and every detail fussed over that I honestly believe that I have nothing more to say. Instead I want to focus in on something else, The Matrix as a cultural hinge. How the two decades following the release of the film have changed our understanding the picture while the text remains. New meaning and depths have been constantly revealed or applied to the film, some warranted others outrageous, but The Matrix has weathered the battering of imitators and poorly received follow ups to stand as one of the cornerstones of modern culture.
It’s an impossible metric to quantify, but the impact of a film like The Matrix is inherently linked to the day-to-day culture of contemporary America. You can idly speculate about living in a computer program by comparing life to the film without clarifying your point. You could say, “we live in a matrix like the movie The Matrix,” and meaning is completely understood. We can go a step deeper into the culture and talk about the absolute filth of the internet. The people who populate forums who are among the worst of society, Alt-Right trolls, Men’s Rights Activists, and Gamergaters, have frequently talked about their ideology being formed after being “red-pilled.” And of course, with the perspective of history and more information about the people who directed the film, The Matrix as an unmistakably queer piece of pop culture. That the film can support all of these conflicting ideologies and viewpoints without collapsing speaks to how universal its story and messaging are. I know it’s trite, but it really only compares to the original Star Wars for the level of blockbuster cinema transforming into a perfect touchstone for a wide audience of people.
The fascinating thing about The Matrix is how little of it has changed while the context around it has evolved and deepened. At the time of its release the film was less a radical departure and more a shocking synthesis. A culmination of culture, of not just the previous decade, but a whole century before. A story that aptly summarizes the condition of the pre-millennial experience while also providing a raucous action movie at the same time. You’ll ponder your place in the universe while thrilling at the John Woo inflected set-pieces. The world of the deep and the philosophical don’t have to live far away from the fantastic and entertaining. The art is both high and low with no distinction in between, it is action as philosophy and vise-versa.
There are questions that emerge from this. The Matrix has not aged perfectly, and like all things is a product of its time. The most uncomfortable is the pure fetishization of guns and gun play. It’s been noted many a time that The Matrix came out a mere month before The Columbine massacre, and it’s hard not to notice the disquieting contrast between the film and reality. Neo proudly proclaims, “we need guns!” and is obliged with racks of rifles. Twenty years on this declaration feels almost terrifying from our heroes; who charge into their final assault in a way that forces to confront the bloodshed of the innocent as the price of some cool kill shots. I don’t blame The Wachowskis for this tonal dissonance, they are merely updating their love of Hong Kong styled bullet ballets to the cyberpunk setting, but it grates now in a way never intended.
Luckily the context of a queer narrative remains a font of continued reinterpretation and expression throughout the intervening decades. The film becoming deeper and clearer as a greater diversity of voices express interest in the story. I am wholly unequipped to speak to the experience of transgender folks, but I can still see the ideas and themes course through the frames on screen. How Neo feels uncomfortable in his own body, how the villains use his old name as an insult against him, how a reaffirmation of his new true body gives him the power to thwart those who opposed him. It’s all there and wrapped in a power fantasy as well, a film that sees this transition as wholly positive for the character.
Again it’s amusing (in the perverse the “world is upside down” kind of way) that the scum of the internet has latched onto The Matrix as a narrative of oppressive empowerment. That two trans women made a story that is intoxicating to the hyper-masculine and socially regressive crowd. But the cues can be read. The story of a man repressed by middle management, who could be better than anyone if he just knew more, and can slay his enemies for doubting him earlier. After all The Matrix is still a whizz bang power fantasy, and those stories can attract all the wrong kind of flies and parasites.
It really proves the great tragedy of The Wachowskis’ career. The complete misunderstanding of their work. Every one of their films is a wonderful treatise on compassionate humanism. Neo’s true body in the Matrix, Racer X in Speed Racer, all of the characters in Cloud Atlas moving between race and gender. Each and everyone speaks for us to be kinder and more understanding, and yet the ugliest trolls on the internet have co-opted their work for their own nefarious deeds.
But in this way The Matrix will continue to live on and fascinate. To bear the burden of influencing every corner of the cultural spectrum, to stand as a metaphorical and literal transition for big budget blockbusters, and as metonym for an online society. Long past the questions of special effects, the tics of certain actors, and the structure of the story the work will still stand as a hinge from which the culture of the future swung, both in wicked fantasy and joyous self discovery.
Odds and Ends
- Here are some excellent pieces on The Matrix you should read/watch/listen to: History of Violence: The Matrix, The Matrix as Transgender Metaphor, Really That Good: The Matrix, and Blank Check: The Matrix.
- I was puzzling over whether to write about the sequels now, but upon further consideration they deserve their own column.
- It’s sad that The Wachowskis have nothing in production at the moment. Their brand of humane and extravagant action is sorely needed in these dark times.
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Next week we survey the casualties of The Matrix’s success with 1999’s The Thirteenth Floor.