Back to Wonderland- the cultural impact of The Matrix.

From 1999 to 2021 and beyond.

DISCLAIMER- I’m going to try not to rehash years old theories, theses and academic deconstructions of the film, as I’m not that clever and quite frankly they already exist, so here is my personal opinion about the Matrix and my anticipation for the next/ new installment.

The Matrix is probably my favorite movie. There. I said it. But to back up for a minute, I believe that a movies, and in particular, a sci fi movies success could come down to the world it creates, the rules set up within that world and subsequently the reasons to bend or break them.

It’s paradoxically the intrigue of new vernacular or entering new worlds combined with the suspension of disbelief- conceding to that plausibility reliant on escapism that determines effectiveness. If the experience is ruined by a slew of eye roll inducing “get out of jail free” cards played due to nostalgia, narrative or lore plot holes to cover lazy writing or poor character development, well… You know it can’t happen, but that doesn’t mean sometimes you don’t wish it could.

Also, no fingers need to be pointed, but for all the double speak resembling a “because magic” rhetoric, these days I do still enjoy some good old fashioned Kaiju on mecha action. As silly as sci fi can be, it’s also glorious in its unashamed ambition yet precarious in its execution.

1999 was almost a lifetime ago. Sci fi for me went from being about new planets, robots or aliens to something different. Asking questions beyond the screen. I used to think the key to the Matrix at its core and within its own context was its balance. The trifecta of exploring knowledge, power and control.

Yet outside of the movies incredibly detailed and realized split world, never had a movie perfectly balanced high concept themes such as existentialism, religion, philosophy, identity to name a few with a new level of visual symbolism, interpretation and representation of the action (anti or reluctant) hero narrative that was cohesive yet fascinating, so kinetic, visually dense and just so damn stylish.

Awesome.

In 1999, I was less knowledgeable about foreign cinema or anime such as Ghost in the Shell, as well as dystopian noir films like Strange Days, so the Matrix was much more original than it actually turned out to be, but still, bringing martial arts and a cyber punk aesthetic into a western mainstream movie and bringing everything together so tightly was something of a revelation.

Everything from the Nokia to the sunglasses to the costume design oozed cool, propelled by beautifully choreographed combat and an aggressive yet regimented soundtrack of industrial electronic music and… Rage Against The Machine. As time as gone on, the belligerence has somewhat (!) diluted with age- as Neo clarifies to the old dude in the second movie- we need machines and machines need us.

The Matrix had its audience, as well as audiences needing the Matrix, especially with the internet becoming more prominent and Star Wars the Phantom Menace taking the cinematic spotlight. Over the last 20 years in a social media dominated digital landscape, it’s unsettling to see how the Matrix envisaged how reliant on technology we are, how obsessed with residual self image we’ve become.

Forums, spoilers and leaks notwithstanding, We are controlled by technology, but in a much more malignant manner. the Matrix was not only brilliantly marketed and the perfect movie as just pure entertainment, but a great amalgamation of style, philosophy and culture I was not exposed to in an Internet- infancy world.

With new (or ironically older) lenses to look through, I see the movie now is about acceptance, or lack thereof. Pragmatically reviewing the past to accept mistakes rather than reminiscing or dwelling is something I’ve wrestled with going back to the Matrix universe as well as what’s happened in the years since it’s first release. I’m very interested to see how the past is dealt with the architect (ure) of the new film, but I’ll come back to that.

In 1999 all I had was questions. In the first 45 minutes, over 50% of Neos dialogue is asking questions. But now the world has changed. Knowledge of both the Matrix universe and the alarmingly convenient access to information in the real world has somewhat lessened the feeling of thought provoking exploration or discovery. Information is a drug. Influence is an addiction. We all have online aliases and personas whether we consciously curate them or not. Our physical and digital presence is now a result of the lens that exposes rather than merely captures.

We are selective about the moments we share, for better or worse. In our minds and in our dreams we might be the rebel, or the knight in shining armor or even nothing like that at all. In the real world, we are part of an institution or just doing enough outside of the daily grind to fuel that creative or cerebral fire… And I guess that’s why I’m writing this.

Contemporary life has its trials as much as (but different to) previous generations. The war on terror, pandemics, cancel culture- the list goes on. Raising a child changes perspective. Working for a faceless corporate entity can be demoralizing.

I’d like to mention another one of 1999s (and my favorite) movies- Fight Club. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

The cruel irony is that it is now a generation raised on social media and mobile technology makes us believe it’s possible albeit in a slightly skewed way. Theres no down time. An audience that never sleeps. It’s always potentially missing out, or the right place at the right time. So many of my students say they want to be YouTubers, but the world has become synchronized in a similar shared yet alternate reality to the Matrix.

Maybe now anyone can be “the one”, as if that’s even the endgame or the bigger picture anymore. Prophecies are old fashioned. Messiahs are whimsical myths. Neo was the ordinary man believed or destined to be extraordinary, but as humans are redesigned grown, and not born, maybe returning to the Matrix holds deeper threats to his (and my) psyche.

The Matrix was the right film at the right time, both personally and in the grand scheme of things. It is more than my Star Wars or my Judgement Day. Childhood favorites like Back to the Future, the Goonies and Jurassic Park may have captured my imagination growing up, but the Matrix did, and still does floor me on narrative, technical, thematic and stylistic levels.

New Morpheus.

How history has decayed the impact of bullet time in particular is another example of being a victim of ones own success, but entertainment mediums are gluttonous in their willingness to cash in on a winning gimmick or formula- when the same technique is being used to promote a tranquil British holiday resort and even Olympic sports, over saturation has caused younger audiences and consumers to become aware of the Matrix in retrospect, it’s natural to start understanding the originals relevance, if questioning the franchises return.

So, in 2021, does the Matrix have to deal with that struggle for relevance, both in and out of its own world? It certainly has a lot of interesting potential subject matter to play with that was integral to the first film.

Using humans as energy might make way for the idea of further exploring the illusion of choice and striving for harmony in today’s world.

New Smith.

The feeling of oppression due to the media and consumerism has perpetuated a renewed sense of nihilism in recent times. However, the motives for making another film are much more tragic and fragile. According to Lana Wachowski, revisiting the characters of Neo and Trinity helped with the grief of losing her parents. As the first film is now fully realized as the directors artistic expression, I see Resurrections having a lot to do with loss, acceptance and personal conflict.

But I guess the most interesting reason as to why the Matrix Resurrections exists is it’s purpose- can it possibly add to the dense lore and narrative established in a past life, but in parallel balance the harmony of its captivating cultural voice without being a cash grab in an industry relying on reviving old franchises.

The examples I want to mention are actually just a couple of characters from the sequels- first, the Merovingian. On the surface, a suave, verbose, arrogant obstacle to our heroes, continually advocating cause and effect- action and reaction. While Resurrections could well have a certain degree of social commentary- a lot has happened in 20 ish years- his deeper significance is in fact vital to a better understanding of the films- He became more hidden due to an updated version of the matrix. The pond around him didn’t get bigger, he was no longer the alpha. His knowledge is his power which may or may not be as lucrative now.

The Merovingian spliced.

Within the lore, phenomenons such as ghosts and werewolves are rogue programs covering unruly behavior, but I also consider them the victims of humans rationality and awareness evolving like updated versions after each iteration of the Matrix. Therefore they become antiquated, quaint indulgences rather than threats or authority.

In addition, a character such as Sati (who is also due to appear in Resurrections) – was originally a program without purpose and therefore destined for deletion. There is a typically convoluted conversation about the link between abstract nouns and humans (or indeed the machines) comprehension- in this case, love, yet the way Resurrections calls back to the first will be crucial to its (and her) purpose. As certain recent franchise movies have disappointingly demonstrated, the balance of old and new, or in this case, the relationship between Neo and Trinity in particular hinges on this new definition of purpose. It’s a very risky move. Does the Matrix still have something to say? Has too much time passed? Can it balance social commentary, cutting edge filming techniques, introduce engaging new characters as well as the old ones feel worth getting reacquainted with?

Sati.

As well as the age old favorites of machines and AI wrestling with humanity, there have been some great movies dealing with some of the concepts referenced in The Matrix. Manipulation of dreams in Inception, of memories in Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. Most recently, Blade Runner 2049 demonstrated how a genre classic can be successfully (critically if not commercially) brought back after such a long time.

The Matrix may well break free from the “save the world from a new threat” trope- at least in part because it’s justifying itself more than its contemporaries have to. Humans increased knowledge and desire for freedom is the antagonist, with inquisition and curiosity the villains. Despite the various personifications of threat or danger in the films, recasting or new reincarnations of iconic characters may be for the greater good or the lesser of two evils. They could be an artistic compromise.

There are still so many questions. Will it go down the Groundhog Day/ inception route of a simulation within a simulation? How much does choice, ignorance and compliance play in to a world where Neo (probably) once again feels like something is wrong- an ominous sense of deja vu or something more meta or subversive.

I could be way, way off the mark, so I guess I’ll finish with this- Avengers Endgame managed to (just about) balance referencing and revisiting its past, respecting its many characters and satisfyingly concluding (and even setting up) a number of story arcs. The Marvel movies (infinity saga) were a pop culture juggernaut for the best part of a decade under the mounting pressure of fans and fan service. The Matrix Resurrections has a different conundrum entirely. Putting the directors personal reasons aside for a minute, am I prepared to go back into the world of the Matrix and can it possibly have any semblance of impact as it did in 1999?

I don’t know. Ask me in a week.

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