Skip to main content

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix 
(1999)

(SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet (Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Certainly, it’s the most perfect piece of entertainment the Wachowski sisters have made (although Cloud Atlas gets full points for trying). I’ve read a few remarks suggesting the picture doesn’t hold up as well visually as it once did, but I’d argue it’s every bit as impressive a production. Sure, bullet time had its ad infinitum copyists subsequently (to the extent that it was already passé by the time the sequels came around), but stylistically, it’s crafted with pin-point, dynamic precision, reminding you of the kind of results that could be achieved when great talents stuck to their storyboards (Spielberg in his heyday, before the deleterious age of Janusz Kaminski).

Those sequences (“I know Kung Fu” – “Show me”; “Déjà vu”; “We need guns, lots of guns”; “It’s the smell”; moving “like them” on the rooftop; the subway confrontation with Smith) are as enervating as ever, providing you haven’t watched the movie hundreds of times and so irrevocably diminished its lustre (entirely possible: that DVD boom again). And threading through them is a cast-iron narrative, before the siblings infused their conception with all kinds of doubt and despair that the self-perpetuating mire could ever be truly escaped. This is, after all, the same hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker, two decades later. Neo, like Luke, is just an ordinary worker Joe who finds he is special, more special than anyone else in his universe. Instead of a farm worker, he’s glued to a keyboard. Instead of a Ben/Yoda to guide him, he has a Morpheus (“Don’t think you are. Know you are”), who also notes that those as old as Neo is are rarely suitable candidates for training in the ways of the Matrix, while this stage of victory against “the Empire” comes through using the equivalent of the Force, marshalling the energies of the environment to his disposal (“He’s beginning to believe”).

If The Matrix has a failing in terms of the telling, it’s one that won’t become a cross to bear until the sequels; the real world of the machines simply isn’t very interesting, divested as it is of super powers and magic, a world of borderline heroin-chic holey knitwear rather than designer leather and shades. It’s easy to see why Cypher makes the “Ignorance is bliss” choice from that aesthetic perspective, but the knock on is that it will eventually cause the actually plotting to become sluggish, the sisters unable to disguise their own disinterest, no matter how many machine onslaughts or slow-mo raves they throw in.

The casting is, of course, peerless, with the ever-youthful Keanu still able to pass himself off as a young hacker (he’d turn 35 soon after the film’s release), Laurence Fishburne making the most of a rare attention-grabbing turn (his last great one had been Deep Cover), Carrie-Anne Moss seeming like a fresh discovery despite having been in constant work for nearly a decade (she’d appear to disappear of the radar again almost as quickly after the trilogy finished), Joe Pantoliano bringing his patented weasel perfectly to life and Hugo Weaving’s delivery defining the film as much as bullet time (one of Spaced’s less successful manoeuvres was the fan-gasm of the second series’ opener homage).

And then there’s the hook. If the movie isn’t the topic of conversation it once was, in an ever-spiralling and all-consuming digital environment, it remains the defining popular term for the idea that we are all together in an artificially designed, nefariously constructed simulation, a fake reality, a hologram, and it’s one that, with the theoretical endorsement of actual scientists (and Elon Musk), and not a little from many in the conspiracy field, has only increased in credibility/cachet as the grip on the concrete and material and familiar becomes less demonstrably certain and unswerving. Everyone knows what the Matrix means as a shorthand (even if Doctor Who used the term not dissimilarly twenty years prior) and it’s been David Icke’s go-to expression for our proposed manipulated realm for almost as long as the movie itself.

It’s also found endorsement as not merely science fiction and so a warning of our unchecked ambitions come to bite us in the arse, but also fact, via a strand of claimed insider testimonies that veer remarkably close to the Wachowskis in a number of respects (or not so remarkably, if you view the insider, or whoever MK-Ultra’d them with that information, as having been inspired by these texts). The sisters themselves have shown an evident affinity for questioning the nature of existence and whatever hierarchies may or may not be controlling it – well, Speed Racer aside – albeit not with the degree of success of The Matrix (Jupiter Ascending was a contrastingly massive flop dealing with hybridisation and the covert control, manipulation and feeding off – looshing, if you will – humans by shapeshifting, reptilian extra-terrestrials).

Aug Tellez, purportedly ex- of the (covert government) Special Projects and partial to media reinforcement of his experiences in such works as Rick and Morty and Black Mirror – most media depictions of such material represent soft disclosure, from his and other insiders' perspectives, which would naturally include the Wachowskis and their predilections – provides an immensely involved and often difficult to follow narrative, due to both the denseness of the information, language and concepts, and his facility for rambling digressions; it’s one that’s a mixture of The Terminator, The Matrix and HP Lovecraft, with a splash of Gnosticism and reverberations of the Montauk Project; our reality is a simulation, one engineered by time-travelling humans from the future and advanced AI (shades of the actual present in The Matrix being one hundred years in the future); later in the trilogy, we’ll learn that there have been six earlier iterations of the Matrix, the same number Aug professes there have been hitherto of this simulation within a multiverse.

AI in his conception is more insidious and less concrete than the machine world of The Matrix, though, and while he’s partial to the “humans were the demi-urge all along” conceit, he allows for holes in that fabric with a fallen creator being (Gnosticism again). What’s notable about Aug’s account is that it doesn’t really provide an answer – other than that, if we all get wise, this fake reality will reset as something presumably more tolerable – any more than Icke’s does, rather it relocates it one remove away. All our troubles are troubles because this reality isn’t the real reality. But since the real reality is, logically, the source of all our troubles – except that, as a paradox, it was ever thus, so we don’t really know – the advisability of putting faith in that one as the solution to all our troubles is debatable.

Aug gets frustrated that, aside from the devoted thousand or so YouTube followers, a portion of whom seem to want to marry him more than they want to appoint him their personal prophet of doom and salvation, few seem to be taking up his message that we need to avoid the encroaching AI hive mind apocalypse that has previously, via time-travel, already perpetuated this realm (albeit, we’ve already won too, depending on his mood), but the real surprise should be that he or his handlers thought that he could gain sufficient traction with his idiosyncratic content and mode of delivery (even Icke soft pedals the simulation and demi-urge side of his message for more immediate and tangible – political – concerns). Or maybe he has gained traction; now Alex Newald, whose Co-Evolution abduction experience first gained attention thirty years ago, is promoting hitherto unrevealed nuggets of a very similar bent that he kept to himself “because it would have jeopardised what (he) promised to do upon returning to Earth”. Which is very convenient.

From Aug’s point of view, and many in the conspiracy sphere, the reason the great unwashed aren’t taking notice is simply that they are, as Morpheus puts it “not ready to be unplugged”. We're all capable of tending towards a dissociative, objectifying attitude in the face of those with strongly oppositional views to our own (usually in the particularly divisive arenas of science, politics and religion), but here, the encouragement comes from seeing those who aren’t awake as frequently “other”, not even really ensouled individuals (see Jordan Peele’s Us for a fairly uninspired recent envisioning of this idea).

The term NPC – non-player character – has been cottoned for those who go about oblivious to the true nature of reality and the artifice of this realm, suggestive of a chicken-and-egg dilemma in conceptualising and dealing with subjective existence; the NPC is effectively, like the pagan of old, going straight to hell through wilful ignorance (excepting that those going to hell need to have souls in the first place; NPCs may be essentially constructs, as per The Matrix), but one has to ask what does the better job of eroding our abilities to discern reality, if the price of being awake is seeing as inferior those around us who fail to see the world as we do; it reads as an unnerving brand of quasi-spiritual fascism. Then again, the flip side is that Tellez and his ilk can be dismissed with a casual “LARPer” label, what with the floodgates of conspiracy lore irreversibly opened and awash with ex-super soldiers, contactees, MK-Ultra victims and secret space programme whistle blowers, as if all the Merovingian’s playthings, designed to provoke and tease with the not-quite-knowable and seemingly fantastic, have been unleashed portentously at once to spell imminent disaster.

The Matrix halted technological advancement at ’99 standards, so those cool (now retro) flip phones are so last millennium; by the rules of that reality, we have now gone past the point tech-wise where we can be lulled into thinking reality is concrete, the argument being that we will ever-more suspect our malaise is suss en masse. In its way, The Matrix is simply the next step on from Terminator 2: Judgement Day in cinematic depictions of the AI threat, becoming more streamlined, interior and less overt each time. There’s no need for physical war when it can take place on the plane of the mind and implants. One wonders how Terminator: Dark Fate will address this in a manner that seems contemporary, particularly since Terminator: Genisys (un) spectacularly failed to feel fresh with its nano-tech (although, it did jump headfirst into multiverse concepts, which deserves a grudging respect); the only other picture to attempt something similar was another turkey, Transcendence. There are occasional rumblings of a Matrix reboot, but it would likely be inadvisable for the same reasons the Terminator sequels have largely floundered; the concept is very zeitgeist, finite and of its era. After all, even the sequels were exhausted for inspiration by the time they concluded…



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.