Historians of the future will probably be baffled as they trace a huge part of the discourse on what was in the early 21st century known as “the Internet” back to two films released in 1999.
Both The Matrix and Fight Club were cinematic oddities, in their own ways, when they were released. Today, they have become a Rorschach test of sorts: canvasses upon which the culture wars rage. So how did these two high-concept movies become so totemic of early 21st century culture?
The concept of being “red-pilled” derives from The Matrix, the moment when Morpheus offers Neo the opportunity to see the world as it really is. But it’s also very much a theme of Fight Club, in which men reject the material world and immerse themselves in a sort of proto-fascist egalitarian project in which enlightenment is achieved through violence (which has echoes of the Men Going Their Own Way online community, who choose to live without any romantic, or sometimes otherwise, involvement with women).
The so-called alt-right has fully adopted these themes: being “red-pilled” is the moment your eyes open to the real world, where women have subjugated men and emasculated them. The rejection of this false world is paramount, and the reclamation of hyper-masculinity the way back to enlightenment.
Because of this, Fight Club especially is held up as a prime example of toxic masculinity, what with its endorsement of violence, gender segregation and fascist undertones that are reflected in the contemporary far-right’s vernacular.
The abandonment of both films to the sweaty clutches of the internet-dwelling alt-righters would be, however, a huge mistake. Underlying both are themes of personal liberation and self-discovery, which don’t begin or end with the nihilism that makes up (an admittedly significant) part of their bodies.
For instance, far from simply endorsing masculine violence, Fight Club can be easily read as a parody of the toxic elements contained within it. The film is, after all, literally about punching yourself repeatedly in the face. Enlightenment only comes with the literal murder of the hyper-masculine alter-ego, signifying a re-integration, that rejects Tyler Durden’s nihilism. Why would anyone choose to read the film’s intentions without its ending in mind?
We find something similar in The Matrix. While there’s hardly anyone who would readily dismiss the first film, most don’t want anything to do with the other two instalments of the trilogy. And yet, without them, the first film makes no sense. And it’s here that I think we meet the source of the misunderstanding: being red-pilled was just the first part of the journey. If we stay there, then the alt-right’s reading of the film is actually correct.
But the narrative doesn’t stay there. Neo, a glaring metaphor for a gnostic Jesus, only realises what is really going on in the next two films. What is the Matrix without the revelation that the machines are not inherently malicious, but first tried to give humanity Heaven, only for us to reject it? And what sense does the trilogy make without its ending? Just like in Fight Club, Neo can only bring about change by re-integrating with the destructive force that is Agent Smith.
In this, both films end in pretty much the same way: the main character is redeemed by integrating his alter-ego and, crucially, through the love of what in theology might be called the divine feminine. It’s only through Marla and Trinity that this redemption is enabled. Trinity sacrifices herself to get Neo to the Source where the final confrontation with Agent Smith takes place, while Marla becomes the catalyst for the rejection of Tyler Durden. Far from being bystanders or simply “the love interest”, these female characters stand as equal parts of a story arch that goes back to the foundational myths of humanity, from ancient Sumer and Egypt to Christianity.
Partial readings on both sides are increasingly leading to a body of works that are labelled “problematic”, simply because the audience are not adequately engaging with their context; or because what is perceived as their primary audience is itself considered problematic.
This is very much a characteristic of extremist thinking, and one we should be striving to avoid. Fundamentalist Islamists, or Evangelical Christians in the US, focus purely on the elements of their holy texts that justify already existing prejudices and agendas. These attitudes are now, more than ever perhaps, seeking to yank us away from nuance.
This nihilistic approach plays right in the hands of those who seek to co-opt these messages for their own malicious use. Yes, both films are male-centric. But their message is also clear: being awakened is just the first part of the journey.
If we stop with the initial rejection of reality, then nihilism wins. But by the end of both these films, balance is restored. Their heroic narratives, versions of which have been passed down for thousands of years, were repurposed to create 21st-century myths. We should reject their misogynistic and shallow interpretations, the hell of the literal and the ham-fisted. Let’s not go down any further in this particular rabbit hole. Let’s instead look to reclaim these films as what they were meant to be.