The Matrix at 20

Aaron Nava
June 29, 2019
Who’d have thought the rotary-dial phone and kung fu could help save late 22nd-century humanity? These were just a couple of the charming wrinkles in a sci-fi thriller that captivated audiences with its innovative special effects and ambiguous religiosity and mysticism. The oddness of the combination perhaps helps explain The Matrix’s staying power. Aaron Nava first saw the film at age nine, triggering a lifelong devotion that, two decades and many viewings later, continues to nourish his moral reflections.

The Matrix at 20

Aaron Nava
June 29, 2019
Who’d have thought the rotary-dial phone and kung fu could help save late 22nd-century humanity? These were just a couple of the charming wrinkles in a sci-fi thriller that captivated audiences with its innovative special effects and ambiguous religiosity and mysticism. The oddness of the combination perhaps helps explain The Matrix’s staying power. Aaron Nava first saw the film at age nine, triggering a lifelong devotion that, two decades and many viewings later, continues to nourish his moral reflections.
Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter

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, C2C Journal, Aaron Nava
The Matrix’s “bullet-time” sequences were probably its most innovative and exciting special effects.

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.

The Matrix, C2C Journal, Aaraon Nava
Working for the good guys, or evil replicated? The ominous Agent Smith.

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.

The Matrix, C2C Journal, Aaron Nava
Two very different prophets (l-r): Jesus Christ delivers the Last Judgement (painting by Jan II Provost) and communist cult leader Jim Jones. Jones' absolute power convinced more than 900 followers to commit mass murder-suicide.

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 Matrix, C2C Journal, Aaraon Nava
Morpheus the prophet lets Neo freely choose dangerous enlightenment or contented servitude.

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.

The Matrix, C2C Journal, Aaron Nava
In the age of virtual reality, the use of the phone booth was a novelty even during the making of the movie.

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.

The Matrix, C2C Journal, Aaron Nava
Even in the year 2199, love conquers all.

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 Matrix, C2C Journal, Aaron Nava
The sophistication and elegance of the Matrix has endured, even compared to more recent sci-fi movies.

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.

 

Love C2C Journal? Here's how you can help us grow.

More for you

Thirteen Things That Can’t Be Said About Aboriginal Law And Policy In Canada

How do you make new laws and policies or reform old ones in a democracy? You talk openly about every aspect, carefully consider the pros and cons and the long-term implications, and strive to come up with solutions that are fair to everyone. That has been the ideal, anyway, in Canada since Confederation. So what happens when vast areas of law and policy cannot even be discussed any longer? Bruce Pardy lists the things that have become perilous to say regarding Indigenous issues – but that need to be said if Canada is to maintain a legal system that is fair to all Canadians.

Democratic socialism is the new communism, but what does that mean for the people old enough to remember living under communism?

New Communism, Old Fears

Supporting or working to bring about “democratic” socialism has become an alluring option for ever-more voters across North America. It is ascending on clouds of virtuous intentions, high hopes and utopian goals, backed by elaborate theories, with good doses of anger and envy adding punch. Yet it has all been tried before – and failed calamitously, an unmitigated horror ending in ruination. Luckily, people who have personally lived through it are still around to tell the tale. Through the eyes of one survivor of Eastern European communism, Doug Firby issues a stark reminder of what real oppression looks like and a plea to younger Canadians to resist the seductive call of socialism.

What would have happened if Canada rejected "coronapsychosis"?

Rejecting “Coronapsychosis” Could Be Good for Our Health

It will remain forever unknowable how Canada would have fared had our country not largely aped the “lockdown” model adopted by most of the advanced countries. But there is meaningful evidence for those who care and dare to look – and the implications aren’t pretty for our public health officials and their political acolytes. Brian Giesbrecht examined an obscure, far-off country run by an eccentric old man who decided to do the pandemic his own way – and may well have saved not only his nation’s economy but hundreds of his compatriots as well.

More from this author

The problems associated with the act of tipping are more treacherous than they appear.

The Delights and Problems of Tipping

It was the left that dragged things long considered personal into the political realm. Not even the basic acts of breaking bread and pouring wine are exempt – not when there are hard-done-by serving wretches to be shielded from the rich or callous. And that certainly covers the once-subtle art of deciding whether to leave a little (or a lot) extra. Aaron Nava navigates the surprisingly treacherous shoals of tipping – its social, moral, transactional and political features. Relying on his good heart and sunny optimism, Nava steers his way to the sincerely personal and soundly conservative bases for tipping, reasoning that preserves the free choice of the customer and protects the dignity of the recipient.

Life Interrupted – Again: On Being a Millennial in a Time of Pandemic

No postwar generation has endured more delays and interruptions than the Millennials. A lack of permanency − in jobs, housing, education, relationships and everywhere else – is often considered their defining characteristic. So how are the cataclysmic disruptions of the coronavirus affecting Canada’s Millennials? Aaron Nava offers a revealing personal take on the generational costs imposed by social distancing and economic shutdown. And manages to find a welcome message of hope.

The Inter-Generational Insights of “ok boomer”

The view that social media are a wasteland of trivia and irrationality that’s making everyone dumber has become so common as to form an example of the very genre it condemns. In truth, decidedly non-trivial things are being communicated, just not in ways that older generations – or not-yet-clued-in members of current ones – quite understand. The current meme-war over the political and economic legacy of the Baby Boomers, for example, may well define how this generation is remembered as it fades into dotage and beyond. Millennial Aaron Nava shoulders the almost superhuman burden of working with a boomer editor to illustrate one skirmish in the eternal inter-generational tug-of-war.

Share This Story

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print

Donate

Subscribe to the C2C Weekly
It's Free!

* indicates required
Interests
By providing your email you consent to receive news and updates from C2C Journal. You may unsubscribe at any time.