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8 December 2021

How The Matrix made us

In their 1999 film, the Wachowskis glimpsed the future of our digital lives. More remarkably, they shaped them.

By Samuel Earle

In the most iconic scene from The Matrix, released in 1999, Morpheus holds out his hands and, with a coloured pill in each palm, offers Neo a choice. Neo (Keanu Reeves) doesn’t know it yet, but he is living inside “the Matrix”: a computer simulation of the year 1999, designed by machines to enslave the human race. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) belongs to a band of rebels determined to free humanity, and believes that Neo is the one (or rather “the One”) to do so.

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,” he says. “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Neo takes the red pill, and we see how deep the rabbit hole goes: into a bleak future where, sometime late in the 22nd century, humans are confined to womb-like pods that line metal skyscrapers, harvested as an abundant energy resource that machines live off. Machines plug humans into the Matrix to blind them to this unbearable existence: the virtual world keeps them passive.

For Neo and the movie’s huge fan base, reality was never the same again. The Matrix instantly became both a Hollywood blockbuster and a cult classic, with four Academy Awards and an unusually devout and diverse following. Today, its influence is everywhere: from fashion and philosophy to the shape of our technological anxieties, the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the political tumult of the past five years.

The Matrix presented an exhilarating kind of dystopia, tailor-made to the paradoxes of the digital age. On the one hand, the eponymous computer simulation is a sinister mechanism of control that hides from humans the true source of their oppression. On the other, once aware of the simulation, people have the power to plug back in and bend reality to their will.

[See also: How Nella Larsen’s Passing deconstructed the question of race]

The directors, Lilly and Lana Wachowski, foresaw contemporary tensions online: between the internet’s tendency towards freedom and conformity, anarchy and authoritarianism. More remarkably, through the sheer force of the movie’s prescience and popularity, they shaped those tensions. “There is no religious text more foundational to the internet than The Matrix,” the critic Max Read wrote in 2019, marking the film’s 20-year anniversary. According to Kanye West, The Matrix is “the Bible of the post-information age” – this is among the pop star’s more credible claims.

More than two decades on, The Matrix remains eerily relevant to our world. Though two 2003 sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) failed to reach the same heights, the thrill of the franchise hasn’t faded. Now, with a fourth film, The Matrix Resurrections, released 22 December, the franchise returns to a context that it played no small part in creating: a world riddled with the feeling of tumbling deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, waiting to wake up.

In September 1993, when the Wachowskis were working on the script for The Matrix, the New York Times told its readers about a new “thing” called “the internet”: “an unbelievably dense global matrix of 1.7 million computers”, the paper explained, that is “currently the world’s most fashionable rendezvous”.

This was one of many signs that the internet was going mainstream. The same year, the World Wide Web went public, Rupert Murdoch bought his first web service and the New Yorker ran a cartoon that is still the most reproduced in its history: a dog sits at a computer and says to a canine friend, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It played on what seemed like a fundamental fact of life online: an internet user’s anonymity, which opened up infinite possibilities. “You can be whoever you want to be,” one early online user enthused. “You can be the opposite sex… You don’t have to worry about the slots other people put you in.”

The Matrix harnessed this liberating promise. The title referred to an early word for the internet, the rebels use phone lines to move between real and virtual worlds, and inside the simulation, you can manifest a truer version of yourself. Neo is a bored software engineer called Thomas Anderson before he is “Neo”. The movie’s diverse and androgynous cast suggests a world beyond gender and race. When Neo meets fellow super-hacker, and future lover, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in person, he is surprised: “I always just thought you were a guy.” “Most guys do,” she replies.

[See also: House of Gucci is a supersized melodrama of dynastic strife]

The original script made this theme even more explicit. Not only is there speculation of Trinity’s gender – “87 per cent of all women online are really men”, a character insists – but another rebel, Switch, is written as gender-fluid: a man in the real world and a woman in the simulation. Warner Bros insisted Switch should be a woman – a gender-fluid character would be too “weird”. Yet the lost plot-line took on added significance when, in 2012, Lana (previously Larry) came out as trans, and then in 2016, Lilly (previously Andy) did too. Lilly’s statement was headlined: “Sex change shocker – Wachowski brothers now sisters!!!”

The Matrix was the second movie the siblings directed. The first was Bound, a lesbian neo-noir thriller released in 1996. In one of their rare interviews for The Matrix, conducted on a chatroom (they signed a no-press clause in the Warner Bros contract), a user named “enjoythesilence” asked the Wachowskis if they saw similarities between Bound and The Matrix. “Both films examine the idea of an individual searching for their true self while attempting to escape the box that we often make of our lives,” they wrote.

The promise of escape and reinvention recurs in the Wachowskis’ work. “There’s a narrative omega point in every Wachowski movie,” Lana said in 2018. “We have to find a door, imagine a way out of this world, into a different world. In order to experience this new world, you have to let go of a lot of traditional assumptions, your standard expectations. Beyond the rabbit hole, new possibilities, new versions of us can exist.”

By 1999, when The Matrix was released, internet excitement had reached delirium. Time named a young Jeff Bezos Person of the Year for embodying “the two great themes of the year: online shopping and ‘dot-com’ mania”. The BBC called it “the year of the internet”. But there was always a dark side to this dreaming, not least in the age-old fear that our technological genius might spell our downfall. With machines developing so fast, how long before they subjugated the human race?

The Matrix met this mood of triumphalism and paranoia perfectly. While scenes in the simulation were imbued with a phosphorus green (harking back to old PCs), pioneering CGI, camera work and fight scenes choreographed by the legendary Hong Kong director Yuen Woo-ping created something that felt new. Some hailed it as “the first movie of the 21st century”. The storyline also riffed on fin de siècle fantasies. “We have only bits and pieces of information,” Morpheus tells Neo from the barren lands of the 22nd century, but “at some point in the early 21st century, all of mankind was united in celebration. We marvelled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI, a singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines.”

The reason why the victorious machine race then establishes the human simulation is explained later, by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), a “sentient program” charged with safeguarding the Matrix against the rebels. Smith explains how the machines first simulated “a perfect human world” without suffering, but humans rejected it. “Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this,” Smith says, dryly. “The peak of your civilisation.”

[See also: Minae Mizumura’s linguistic mission]

From the barren lands of 2021, it is tempting to agree with Smith’s conclusion. Since 2016, a series of surreal events has left our world in a spin: a cascading climate crisis, Britain’s surrender to Euroscepticism, Donald Trump’s mutant presidency, a devastating pandemic, the storming of Capitol Hill by a band of horned conspiracy theorists. The internet lets us experience these events intimately and obsessively, wherever we are. The more dizzying the spectacle, the more we are glued to our screens, immersed in footage of Australia’s wildfires one moment, attending Trump’s press conference the next. The classic question of history – “Where were you when X happened?” – now receives a unanimous response: online.

But the internet is also experienced as the prime mover in our chaos. The matrix of computers that enables a greater awareness of reality also makes us feel as if reality is slipping away. The age of information is also the age of misinformation, making our politics feel wilder and less plausible – as if, like Alice, we have gone through the looking glass; as if, like the humans in The Matrix, we are living in a simulation. In comparison, submerged in memory’s mist, the 1990s seem a sanctuary of calm: a time when history had ended, and the future was something to look forward to.

The turbulence of 21st-century politics has only heightened a sense that, as Adam Gopnik wrote in 2017, “we are living in the matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers”. The fear that reality is a hoax pre-dates the internet – Plato’s allegory of the cave and René Descartes’ “evil demon” are famous examples – but, popularised by The Matrix, it is now a cultural mainstay.

Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO and self-described “techno-king”, claims there is a “one in a billion chance” we are not living in a simulation. Two tech billionaires have reportedly hired scientists to work on setting us free. At a more playful level, the acronym IRL (“in real life”) emerged in the 1990s, reflecting the sense that a whole part of life was no longer “real”. Weird events are routinely described as “a glitch in the matrix”.

Yet the reality or unreality of our world was not the central concern of The Matrix. The Wachowskis called it “an intellectual action movie” and, while it’s filled with philosophical references, the most overt is to the French theorist Jean Baudrillard. The directors made Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981) required reading for the cast: Neo holds a copy, and Morpheus quotes the theorist. Baudrillard was even asked to assist on the sequels but refused. The simulacrum hypothesis deserved better than to become a reality, he said.

[See also: Locking down with Kafka]

Writing when the internet was in its infancy, Baudrillard’s principal idea was that under a deluge of what we now call “content” – news articles, photos, movies, adverts, television – anything as singular and concrete as “reality” ceases to exist. Representations of the world saturate society. Even lived experience takes on an unreal edge: an endless déjà vu of stories already encountered, a succession of screens where you watch “reality” take place. Baudrillard argued that this deluge of information – “viral” in the truest sense – led to “the liquidation of meaning”. All events whirled in a “vertigo of interpretation”. Any protest could be “the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to discredit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario?” Baudrillard insisted “all are simultaneously true”: it just depended on what channel you chose.

In this context, conspiracy theories flourish: anyone can find comrades for their cause, no matter how outlandish. Or rather, because corporate interests actively promote sensationalist content, maximising engagement, the more outlandish the better. The vocabulary tied to the rise of “conspiracism” is bound up with The Matrix. Online, to be “red-pilled” is now a verb, meaning to awaken to a vast conspiracy that only a select few can see. The paths by which algorithms radicalise online users are called “rabbit holes” (a nod to both The Matrix and Alice in Wonderland).

Donald Trump’s rise remains one of the starkest symptoms of our collective descent down the rabbit hole. Trump was a conspiracist who called every truth into question: from the size of his inauguration crowd to his predecessor’s country of birth, to the weather on any given day. As Baudrillard foresaw, in a society dizzy with information overload, “‘take your desires for reality!’ can be the ultimate slogan of power”.

Perhaps inevitably, given The Matrix’s own symbiotic relationship with the web, the film became entwined with Trump. The red pill was appropriated as a symbol of the alt-right, and an entire industry now surrounds it: movies, podcasts, YouTube channels – all telling their audience a version of the same, conspiracist story, that reality is a hoax imposed by a politically correct, feminist cabal determined to subjugate men. Trump was cast as Neo. In edited clips, he dodges bullets marked “fake news”, “Hillary Clinton” or “CNN”. “TheRedPill,” a notoriously misogynistic forum on the social media site Reddit, became a hotbed for support. The forum’s creator, later revealed to be a Republican lawmaker, used the alias “Morpheus Manfred”.

Of all The Matrix’s legacies, appropriation by the far right must be hardest for the Wachowskis to swallow. In more plausible readings, the red pill represents class consciousness or hormone therapy (oestrogen pills sold in the 1990s were red). But Neo’s arc from computer nerd who hates his job to Übermensch tasked with saving the world fitted too neatly with the fantasies of frustrated white men Trump tapped into.

More than two decades after its release, The Matrix stands as the definitive movie of the digital age. In light of the internet’s chaotic evolution, the title is not all complimentary. We are in a very dark timeline, as the saying goes – one where Elon Musk can tell 34 million Twitter followers in May 2020 to “take the red pill” and Ivanka Trump can reply “Taken!” (Lilly Wachowski added a blunt remark to that exchange in May 2020: “Fuck both of you.”)

Far from offering an open space for self-expression, the internet is dominated by some of the wealthiest corporations in history: Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon. The first three are accused of exploiting our psychological vulnerabilities to maximise profit; the fourth is a $1trn company and the zenith of digital capitalism, built on the back of lifeless work that would make the machines in The Matrix proud.

The dreams of realising a second life online are fading. Internet culture values authenticity over anonymity, neatly aligning with the business interests of Silicon Valley. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man, woman or dog – they’ll sell your data just the same. “We don’t need you to type at all,” Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, enthused in 2010. “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

On 29 October Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta (Facebook’s new parent company), laid out his vision for “the next chapter” of the internet. He called it “the metaverse” – a Matrix-like “embodied internet” where we can come closer than ever to finally living online. The company tried to give the idea a utopian sheen. “Imagine a world where we are represented the way we want to be,” one video declared. The venture capitalist Matthew Ball gave a better clue to where the platform’s priorities lie: “It is likely to produce trillions in value as a new computing platform or content medium.”

[See also: Mark Zuckerberg is fooling no one by changing Facebook’s name to Meta]

With capitalism feeling more insidious than ever, the fourth instalment of The Matrix arrives into a world both familiar and distinct: riddled with paranoia, sapped of whatever techno-optimism once existed. It’s a world where the system hardly permits original films, let alone novel futures. In the 1990s, three of the top 20 highest-grossing movies were sequels, prequels or spin-offs. In the past decade, only three weren’t.

Hollywood’s abandonment of original film-making for box-office certainties will see many greet The Matrix Resurrections with suspicion. But the Wachowskis are critics of Hollywood’s derivative tendencies. Fans will take solace in the belief that Lana Wachowski, who directed the new movie without her sister, would not return unless she thought it was creatively worthwhile. “The system abhors originality,” she said in 2012. “Originality cannot be economically modelled.”

Whatever the fourth movie holds, producers can be assured of a reliable, if splintered, fan base – from computer nerds to the trans community, Marxists to men’s rights activists. Such a mutually antagonistic audience is a fitting testament to the busy afterlife of The Matrix and to the internet’s unhappy fate, which promised to bring us together and ended up – simultaneously, if not instead – tearing us apart.

The Matrix Resurrections
Dir: Lana Wachowski, 22 December

[See also: The best films of 2021]

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special