Sunday, February 11, 2024


The Wachowski sisters’ film “The Matrix”, the wildly successful and thoughtful cyberpunk science fiction action blockbuster, was released in March 1999, long enough ago for my first copy of the film to be on VHS, bought from no less than Blockbuster Video. It was the widescreen release, reducing the picture resolution to only about a hundred lines – it was “letterboxed” as in like watching it through next door’s letterbox. No wonder I swapped it for a DVD at the first opportunity, and later a Blu-ray boxset of what had become a trilogy. 


I like “The Matrix” for the same reason I say that Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” is my favourite film: it has everything in it. It is visually vibrant and innovative, densely plotted, filled with action, and it stays with you after the end, withstanding repeated viewings. It was like the nature of what a blockbuster film could be had changed, something which didn’t bear fruit much beyond its own three sequels.  


The comparative box office failure of 2021’s fourth instalment, “The Matrix Resurrections”, may have put pay to the chances of the original film’s twenty-fifth anniversary being officially recognised, but it remains important to me. The anniversary cannot be marked by the US Library of Congress adding it to the National Film Registry for future preservation, because that already happened in 2012, when it was inducted alongside “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Dirty Harry” and “A Christmas Story”. 


Cyberpunk was a subculture still current in 1999, but also nearly twenty years old, and the combination in “The Matrix” of technology, music and fashion, with added martial arts and gunfire, may have redefined that term in the mainstream, the nature of “the matrix” as a simulation and distraction of the real world of the film prepared its audience for when the World Wide Web would become exactly that. The Wachowski sisters’ innovation of “bullet time”, freezing action to move around it before continuing, has been copied endlessly, as has the “digital rain” of phosphorous green code and text on a black background, itself inspired by the 1995 anime “Ghost in the Shell”.


Much was made at the time of the use of postmodernist philosophy in the story of “The Matrix”, either to put the film above the action-fare characterised as mindless, or to say that it was too complicated for audiences to understand. The Wachowskis issued copies of postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 book “Simulacra & Simulation” to the cast and crew. Baudrillard himself said the film had nothing to do with this work, which was more about the breakdown of distinctions between reality and simulation until the latter takes precedence, but then again, it is also about the implosion of meaning in the media... well, at least that sentence appears in my copy of his book.


I will admit I had problems following “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” when they were in cinemas, but the epic nature of the story allowed you to get lost in it. Having already been used to the layering of references and meaning in “The Simpsons”, to be uncovered as your knowledge increased, I thought “The Matrix” will be the same. Only in August 2020, when Lilly Wachowski said that she and Lana had written and directed a trilogy with implicit transgender themes, my thoughts were, in order, (a) I wish they said that at the time, (b) how did I miss that, (c) 1999 may have been too early to say explicitly, and (d) that makes the films so much easier to understand, what with Keanu Reeves’ character Neo being alerted to their true nature, as well as that of the world around them, along with the villain Agent Smith only referring to Neo by the name the Matrix gave them –this would also apply to Trinity, Morpheus and so on.


When I saw “The Matrix Resurrections”, I took issue with criticisms of its internal commentary, and replaying of scenes from the original film: “To make a new ‘Matrix’ film is to comment on what has happened to our representation of the world in the last eighteen years, because that is the only acceptable way to do it.” It is my favourite film of the now-tetralogy, just as my favourite film of the “Back to the Future” trilogy is the second one.


We are now at a point where cyberpunk may now be understood as a historical period in popular culture, just as the dystopian worlds depicted in its literature and films resemble reality greater than they ever did. With “the matrix” now being misappropriated for personal gain by whoever Andrew Tate thinks he is, and “taking the red pill” being used as by right-wing groups as a term for “freeing” themselves from what they believe is a simulation of the world created by liberal ideology, a celebration of “The Matrix”, and what it really is about, couldn’t be timelier.


I now need to square how a previous film that also starred Keanu Reeves, the critically derided “Johnny Mnemonic”, came to influence “The Matrix”.

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