The Matrix turned 20 this year. To those of us for whom its 1999 release created a coming-of-age movie experience, that seems hard to believe. Famous for combining information technology with religious themes in a harrowing dystopia, pairing trend-setting special effects with joyously Japanese-style martial arts scenes, and wrapping it all in an endearingly cartoonish package of action-flick dialogue and dark urban landscapes, The Matrix was a film like no other. Directed by the Wachowski siblings and starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss, it grossed US$460 million and won four Academy Awards, spawning two sequels and other adaptations.
The film’s self-seriousness combined with a knowingly-cool 90s aesthetic didn’t please everyone. What really set The Matrix apart and made it enduringly compelling, however, are its themes of religion, resistance, revolution and redemption. These enter the plot gradually and are employed vaguely, indirectly or ambiguously. This creates nearly unending scope for rumination and debate – as well as evolving opinion as a teen-aged or even younger first-time viewer watches it again (and again) as a youth and then adult.
This year’s retrospectives mainly reflected on the film’s influential special effects, which spawned a host of imitators and adaptations. The video game “Tiger Woods 2004”, for example, aped The Matrix’s famous “bullet time” visuals. Others noted how its messages of nonconformity and revulsion at mind-numbing cubicle work would be put to use in films like Office Space. A few were more critical. Alan Scherstuhl at Vulture reflected on The Matrix’s “gun problem”, noting that dozens of innocent people are shot down in the film’s final act, “a violation of the unwritten adventure-movie rule not to make murder look heroic.” (One would think Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino had already established new rules by 1999.)
The Matrix is a “hero’s journey” tale in which a man goes from fear and confusion about the world he lives in, to understanding and confidence, and finally to messianic certainty and godlike power. Its at-times clunky dialogue occasionally interrupts but doesn’t derail the film’s sincere attempt at moral seriousness. The hero is Neo, a young-ish and deluded IT worker whose awakening is provided by the enigmatic sage, Morpheus, aided by the lithe fighter Trinity and a small force of rebels. Though presenting themselves as moralistic warriors for freedom and truth, Morpheus and his band of believers also display some disturbing elements of a terroristic cult.
Agent Smith, presenting himself to Neo as a stand-up law enforcement official before it becomes clear to Neo that Smith has special powers and malevolent intent, labels Morpheus a dangerous “terrorist”, pressuring Neo to help him track Morpheus down. Neo gives Smith the finger and demands his phone call, saying “you can’t scare me with this Gestapo crap”. What follows is scary indeed, suggesting there’s more to Morpheus than Agent Smith claims.
Like other great science-fiction, The Matrix uses a future of impossible wonders and horrors – in this case, mostly horrors – to explore age-old human themes of morality, reality, longing and meaning, the struggle for individual integrity and freedom despite crushing odds. It creates its own universe in which the bizarre primary characteristics that defy our laws of physics somehow make sense. And it doesn’t try too hard to explain the many inconsistencies. It’s almost cheerful in its absurd reliance on certain props, like the rotary-dial phones that were already 15 years out of date in 1999.
Throughout the film, Morpheus habitually uses religious and mystical imagery to describe the real world beyond the Matrix, the evil institution that supplies the movie’s title. Morpheus is – or plays the role of – prophet, revealing much and promising Neo further enlightenment by visiting “the Oracle”. Neo ends up so confident, so strong and so firm in his belief in the falsehood of the Matrix that he is willing to die for the rebels’ cause. Here it gets morally tricky, as he and Trinity assault a building full of human security guards, innocent in their unwitting service to the Matrix. In an act of convinced zealotry, the rebels kill dozens to free the captive Morpheus.
Moviegoers, of course, know that Morpheus is both right and righteous. We eventually see the world ruined by AI-driven machines that Morpheus knows, and we see him talking even with his closest shipmates about reality in the same way. The Matrix’s Agents can take over the bodies of innocent people and use them to attack our heroes, making the ordinary humans unwitting pawns in the machine’s oppressive game. Morpheus himself notes this. “These people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy,” he tells Neo. “And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”
But outside of a movie theatre, when someone hears someone else arguing insistently that the nature of reality is different from how all others suppose, then learns that the same person was inspired to fight and kill to advance that idea, most would agree that’s terrible and the perpetrator insane. Then again, the conceit of The Matrix is that Morpheus is actually right; we’re not left to wonder whether Morpheus is a paranoid raving madman and Agent Smith was right all along. This makes the Morphean dilemma more like that faced by soldiers in most wars. Only rarely do they get to target strictly the “bad guys”; the path to victory almost always entails mowing down a swathe of deluded, unwitting or even unwilling servants of the other side. There were innumerable such casualties in the Second World War, for example.
The success of The Matrix, and the way Neo’s journey swept along hordes of excited or even awestruck filmgoers, tells us that elements of religious zealotry – mystical language, prophecy, the feeling of mission, elite-group trappings such as ideas, weapons, clothing and tactics that distinguish them from the non-believers – remain relatable and individually compelling. It suggests that people seduced by charismatic leaders with a convincing message are all too human.
The Matrix makes this seem like a good thing. Millions were moved by a protagonist who embraces the belief that his former reality is a sham and is willing to kill to resist and, he dares hope, topple the forces or people who created the evil edifice. How would we feel if someone told us that our reality was false, that we were slaves and that our bodies were being exploited as mere batteries for a sinister purpose? Ordinarily, we write such people off as kooks.
But it’s hard to completely disprove the possibility that we’re living in a simulation of some kind, and grappling with that elementary metaphysical dilemma is the stuff of endless teen-aged angst and first-year university philosophizing. This film portrays admiringly the ability to discern the nature of reality for oneself, along with the willingness to fight for it at all costs, even giving one’s life as Neo does. If you had really good reasons to believe our creators were using and abusing us, wouldn’t you want someone to fight back? Perhaps so, if we knew their reasons were as good as the ones Morpheus offered. To a nine-year-old, it certainly seemed exciting at the time!
The years following 9/11 have provided many opportunities to reflect on the failures of human judgement, when people are willing to kill for the wrong cause, as religious fanatics and others have terrorized our societies. For the most part, populations in Western countries have come to oppose the idea of people fighting at all costs for what they believe. By 2017, for example, only 18 percent of Germans were willing to fight for their country. The Matrix makes a case that such violence can be righteous if serving the right cause.
Given societal trends, it seems likely many would oppose the film’s message were it released today. The killing of the innocents would collide with today’s revulsion at civilian casualties. For the film’s protagonists, it’s not that the victims “aren’t real”, it’s that some of them have to die to free humanity from falsehood and slavery. That’s probably unacceptable today. Similarly, the scene in which Morpheus is identified as a terrorist, but the viewer is still led to admire and support his mission, would be out-of-place in a post-9/11 movie.
As well, the club scene in which the beautiful and clearly dangerous Trinity seductively whispers irresistible clues about the Matrix in Neo’s ear could be seen as unethical exploitation of a vulnerable younger person – especially given the emphasis on Neo’s “choice” to join Morpheus’ rebels. Was it free at all? Women have attempted to seduce men for actual cults, so the framing is questionable.
Perhaps Trinity’s motives were pure, for she had been prophesied to fall in love with “the One”. The Matrix does not explain these or other unsettling details, like the naming of Morpheus’ spaceship, the Nebuchadnezzar. When Neo asks whether the Oracle knows the future, Morpheus replies, “Try not to think of it in terms of right and wrong. She is a guide, Neo,” suggesting Neo should embrace the vagueness of prophecy rather than attempt to nail down meaning.
The Matrix was a good fit for the late 90s, uniting concerns over the growing power and danger of technology with a sense of religious mystery at a time when religion was a larger part of American culture. With longer attention spans and a finer appreciation for Morpheus’ predictions and aphorisms, which did not always have a fixed meaning, the era’s less technologically-jaded audiences were transfixed.
The machines have not taken over, as The Matrix warned. We have, however, sadly lost some sense of wonder and appreciation for mystery along the way. And its identification of AI as a potentially uncontrollable force wasn’t unreasonable. As our world moves ever-closer to actual AI, as the surveillance-state extends into every crevice, as the first driverless cars start killing their first pedestrians in the streets, concerns about out-of-control technology have only intensified, with even mainstream technology leaders warning vocally about the risks.
The average Matrix viewer in 1999 probably didn’t pause to consider the ethics of Neo’s recruitment from several angles, nor analyze what was appealing about perceiving a false universe and fighting back against it. They appreciated the feeling the characters gave them, let the characters speak for themselves, and were drawn into an intricate sci-fi universe. The Matrix would probably not be made the same way today, and would be more divisive if it were. But as a window into a more patient culture, one that was perhaps more tolerant of stories about free-thinking protagonists following their views to violent ends, this film is precious. So, don’t think of The Matrix in terms of right and wrong; think of it as a guide.
Aaron Nava is a writer, social media and political manager living in Ottawa.