‘The Matrix,’ 25 Years Later, Has Changed the Culture for the Worse

To some extent the film, while enormously influential, has become a victim of its own self-indulgence.

Warner Brothers
'The Matrix', 25 years old this year, was an instant cultural sensation when it was first released in 1999. Warner Brothers

Main character syndrome refers to someone who believes that they are the protagonist in a bigger narrative. On the internet, it describes someone with an inflated ego and, more importantly, who feels disconnected from the rest of the world. 

It is quite common for movies to make the spectator feel immersed, and a part of, their worlds. 1999, in particular, saw several notable films including “American Beauty,” “Fight Club,” “Being John Malkovich,” and “Office Space” that would be hugely influential for their portrayal of middle-class alienation.  But no other 1990s film has had such an enormous influence on the alienated middle class — and on popular culture in general, as “The Matrix.”

‘The Matrix ” — which turned 25 this year — was an instant cultural phenomenon upon its initial release. It was a a breakthrough for the Wachowski siblings, who were fresh off their cult hit “Bound,” a low-budget, neo-noir crime thriller. In the quarter century since its release, fans still can’t stop quoting the film’s dialogue, nor can they stop thinking that steampunk is cool.

By wearing much of its influences on its (black trenchcoated) sleeves — from “Alice in Wonderland” to martial arts movies to anime — “The Matrix” launched a much-envied franchise that spawned three sequels and a fifth still on the way.

In February 2019, New York Magazine dedicated an issue to “The Matrix.” It covered several topics important to the film’s legacy, from Keanu Reeves playing Neo to the film’s slow motion bullet time to its masterful grasp of machine consciousness, as popularized by Jean Baudrillard.

According to New York, though, it’s the film’s narrative — in which a white collar man discovers he’s living in a computer simulation after he escapes into a post-apocalyptic Real World dystopia — that is its most irresistible aspect. Twenty-five years later, “The Matrix’ is still at the forefront of our pop culture sensibility.  

Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves as Trinity and Neo. Warner Brothers

Go deeper into New York’s special issue and, for a moment, it becomes more interesting than the film itself. There’s an essay, by Andrea Long Chu, on how the film is an allegory for gender transition (both Wachowskis are trans women). There’s another essay about the “red pill,” the film’s most enduring concept, which describes, to put it generally, a person’s liberation from an established and progressive-leaning order. This idea is what’s most well known about the film.

In “The Matrix,” the red pill is an homage to “Alice in Wonderland” (“Eat Me”) in which Neo is asked by Morpheus to make a choice. If he chooses a blue pill, he returns to the only world he knows — an artificial one and he will forever be blind to reality. If he choses a red pill, however, he chooses the much darker and more dangerous real world. 

Nowadays, the idea of “red pilling” is used mainly by conservatives and the manosphere — most notably by Andrew Tate — to criticize orthodox norms that heavily favor a left-leaning establishment. Neo becomes the One to free the humans living in intellectual poverty, and to fight back against the Agents (who represent the artificial intelligence that enforces the pretend world) who see him and his small band of compatriots as a threat to their power. 

Four years ago, Lana Wachowski, having come out as a trans woman,  retrospectively said her film was a “trans allegory” all along, adding that “the corporations weren’t ready for that.” Ms. Chu, in her 2019 essay, argues that the red pill represents the hormones she takes as a trans woman. Neo has dysphoria, she argues, and The Matrix (the unreal world) perpetuates the gender binary, with the Agents being transphobic advocates. 

Keanu Reeves as Neo and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. Warner Brothers

Today, when Elon Musk says “take the red pill” on Twitter, Ivanka Trump quote tweets him in agreement only for Lilly Wachowski to say “f– both of you.” In a nutshell, this represents the intense fight for her film’s real meaning. 

If there’s one thing that could unite Ms. Trump, Mr. Musk, and the Wachowskis, it’s that they appear to share the opinion that society is broken and that the only path to the truth is the power of one individual. It’s a template that’s profound, yet shallow, dressing self-loathing as honesty, inflating one’s ego for a false god complex, and concluding that a conspiracy is ultimately behind all societal woes.   

To some extent the film, while enormously influential, has become a victim of its own self-indulgence. Most of the topics I’ve mentioned earlier have manifested themselves into a larger meta-narrative in the franchise’s most recent entry, “The Matrix Resurrections.”

During a scene in which some of the characters discuss the cultural impact of the original “Matrix,” they remark that the film’s appeal lies in its spirituality and world-building. “Resurrections” is as confused as its predecessors, but worse, it is condescending to itself and its audience. It represents that any interpretation of the film that doesn’t dwell on its characters’ transitions is either void or missing the point. 

This is what a lot of fans interested in analyzing “The Matrix” miss. By dressing their film up as a story about a marginalized minority, the Wachowskis presume that only they have control of their art; that the culture surrounding it should not shape it into something they don’t want. As modern film culture becomes nothing more than permission-seeking, it values virtue over truth and moralizing over pathos.

In truth, there is much beyond the transition narrative that makes “The Matrix” unique. The film was shot at Sydney, Australia (due to tax credits) and the setting does enhance its muddy, neo-noir backdrop (I often walk past the Martin Place fountain where we see the woman in the red dress). Quotes like “I know kung fu” are cheesy, but charming.

The visual effects were, at the time, dazzling, and to a large extent they still hold up. Villains like Cypher and Agent Smith are compelling enough to make a twisted case for just letting the machines possess all humans. Would you consider taking the blue pill, to live a comfortable life of conformity and order (with steak and red wine), in which Neo and Morpheus are the real villains?

Fiona Johnson as the Woman in the Red Dress in an iconic ‘Matrix’ scene filmed at the Martin Place fountain at Sydney. Warner Brothers

At the time of the first film, Mr. Reeves wasn’t the rugged action star he’s become in his 50s with “John Wick”. In 1999, he sticks to the same, slightly puzzled facial expressions he mastered for his part ingenu, part stoner characters in “Dangerous Liaisons” “Parenthood,” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” But he shares a lot of chemistry with his co-star, Carrie Ann-Moss, who plays Trinity, the mysterious woman who leads Neo out of the Matrix.

Neo’s romantic pursuit of Trinity is nothing new, and is something that permeates throughout the franchise, all the way up to the tragic ending of “Resurrections.” But 25 years later, the original relationship from the first film still holds up, as it enhances the sense of hope among the spectators, before it’s squandered by the increasingly smug nihilism of the sequels. 

“The Matrix” franchise has the substance of an undergraduate thesis whose author has just learned about the writings of Mark Fisher for the first time on TikTok. But the original survives through spectacle, something that made the film appealing in the first place, and makes the Wachowskis palatable to broader audiences.

Sadly, it’s sullied by their champions using it to promote their ideology, because at the end of the day, freedom, according to their narrative, becomes obedience. And it’s ironic, and unfortunate, that this has become the entire message of the film.

The New York Sun

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