Film * The Wachowskis * AI Singularity Apocalypse * 1999
Well, that pretty much holds up. I was worried, you see, because I hadn’t seen this movie in a long time, and sometimes memories lie. Also, I’m not sure if I’ve seen the original film since I watched the sequels, which were not great. However, any trepidations I may have harbored about overly 90s-ass nonsense have been soothed. The Matrix is still good, despite the fact that “Dragula” by Rob Zombie is featured. The film still looks incredible, though a few of the slow motion “bullet-time” shots are beginning to show their age. The action scenes are taut, the exposition is peppered throughout and manages to be coherent without overwhelming the plot, and the performances are exactly what they should be for a story like this. Stylistically, The Matrix wears its love of Neuromancer on its sleeve (Neo and Trinity may as well be named Case and Molly, at least so far as their look is concerned), which is totally okay with me.
If you’ve somehow made it this far through life without seeing this movie, The Matrix is a cyberpunk “chosen one” story that plays out a couple hundred years in the future. The film opens in a nondescript, gritty, and run-down metropolis. There’s a lot of chasing and running around and shooting, and there is very little explanation given. Eventually, we’re introduced to Neo, who is an apathetic and rather strung-out young hacker who works in a cubicle farm for some faceless corporation. He is contacted by a mysterious lady named Trinity, who wants him to meet the even-more-mysterious Morpheus. However, before a meeting can be arranged, scary, blank-faced men in black suits arrive and take Neo into custody. Action happens and Neo escapes, and the larger premise of the film is laid out for us.
The concept of The Matrix is solid, and is pretty much perfect for the year 1999. The entire idea is that reality isn’t real. As Neo painfully finds out, the entire world he knows is a horrible lie perpetrated by the enemies of humanity. The year is not 1999, but is in fact closer to 2199. Earth is a fire-lashed hellscape, and the surface has been rendered uninhabitable. Why? Well, shortly after “the pinnacle of human civilization,” which is the late 20th century, humans created artificial intelligence. These intelligent computers eventually became self-aware (like Skynet in The Terminator, and like the AIs in Neuromancer). This event is referred to as the singularity, which is to say that artificial intelligence will self-replicate and rapidly evolve into a new, super-intelligent lifeform. In the world of The Matrix, when this happened, they regarded humans as a threat. War broke out, the Earth was trashed, and humanity lost. The AI machines took over, using humans and an endless energy supply.
The Matrix, then, is the computer program that is jacked directly into people’s minds in order to keep them docile. It’s like an even more boring version of World of Warcraft in which everyone just mills around like always, doing normal human shit. The Matrix is nothing but a digital version of reality as experienced in the year 1999. Since everyone assumes this created reality is actually real, there is no real way for them to perceive actual reality, which is the aforementioned hellscape in which humans are nothing but enslaved batteries. However, there is a wrinkle in the plan, and some humans manage to escape enslavement. Running free in the Matrix, they are able to scrap together a Resistance while keeping a lookout for the fabled chosen one (creatively referred to as “The One” throughout the film) who is going to lead humanity to freedom like he’s John Connor or something.
The Matrix is a film that perfectly appeals to disaffected teenagers, which is not a negative, if only because the movie embraces this fact. The very premise is designed to appeal to people who are confused and disillusioned, those who are unsure about how the world works. To be fair, this generality extends to many people, but especially appeals to those who have just life childhood behind and are beginning to learn how to be cynical. Also, the sick trench coats, fly shades, dope guns, and Rage Against the Machine all help attract the teens. Further, this movie debuted on the very eve of the new millennium. Now, the very concepts of centuries and decades and millenniums are all pretty much arbitrary, but they manage to capture the human imagination of how history progresses and we tie the turning of the calendar to the concept of change. Millenniums make people nervous, and The Matrix capitalized on this.
This movie asks its audience repeatedly if they are comfortable with reality. They know for a fact that the answer is no. Despite the fact that this film came out during a period of relative global peace, there was a still a nervous, unsettling vibe to life in the United States. During the 1990s, art took a turn for the dark and away from the glorious pastel nonsense of the 80s. Music got grittier, and film started leaning on the apocalypse more. Beyond that, just look at this nameless city which comprises home for humanity in the Matrix. It’s a dump! It’s urban decay writ large, and every scene seems to feature peeling paint, swirling garbage, and flickering fluorescent lights. Yet we are told late in the film by Agent Smith that this is the way humans like it. At first, the AIs gave humans sweet fantasy and it was rejected. “Entire crops were lost,” Smith says. The machines know how profoundly fucked up the human psyche is, and crafted a dreary, monotonous world for us to ruin perpetually.
As for Agent Smith, he is the perfect embodiment of the faceless, bureaucratic authority that is emblematic of these post-modern times. Black suit, black tie (no black hat, because Hugo Weaving may be many things, but a rude boy he is not) and blank expression, Smith is a symbol of disconnected repression. He is everywhere and nowhere, and he always seems to be watching. Even beyond the immediate threat to our heroes, Agent Smith is a terrifying symbol of dystopia because he’s so familiar. What is more troubling to see: the sheriff blazing down the highway with its lights and sirens wailing away, or the featureless black SUV screaming down the tarmac, no lights, no sound? When social structures get large enough, we can imagine them to be capable of anything. The Matrix taps into this fear of the unknown. The world is too big, there are too many people, society is fundamentally unknowable. Who’s to say it’s even real?
Not Neo, that’s for sure. Look, I like Keanu Reeves a lot, if only because I will love Ted Theodore Logan forever. His performance here it totally fine, and suits the film and character. Same with everyone else. That said, I’m not here for the characters. I don’t care about Trinity and Neo’s romantic involvement. Trinity falling in love is barely relevant, wasn’t really connected to the story in any meaningful fashion, and as such doesn’t provoke much of an emotional response. This kind of story doesn’t really need it. Human contact should feel disaffected and strained in this situation, and Trinity’s affection feels forced for the sake of the “chosen one” plot. Whatever, though, because the rest of the movie works so well that I’m not terribly worried about whatever sub-plot relationship nonsense the film wants to use. The film ends well. There is enough closure of the “chosen one” situation to feel satisfying, while still allowing enough ambiguity to foster wonder and curiosity about the future of this world. It’s a shame they felt the need to actually go ahead and make two unnecessary sequels.