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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

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.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
(SPOILERS) Alexander Salkind (alongside son Ilya) inhabited not dissimilar territory to the more prolific Dino De Laurentis, in that his idea of manufacturing a huge blockbuster appeared to be throwing money at it while being stingy with, or failing to appreciate, talent where it counted. Failing to understand the essential ingredients for a quality movie, basically, something various Hollywood moguls of the ‘80s would inherit. Santa Claus: The Movie arrived in the wake of his previously colon-ed big hit, Superman: The Movie, the producer apparently operating under the delusion that flying effects and :The Movie in the title would induce audiences to part with their cash, as if they awarded Saint Nick a must-see superhero mantle. The only surprise was that his final cinematic effort, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, wasn’t similarly sold, but maybe he’d learned his lesson by then. Or maybe not, given the behind-camera talent he failed to secure.

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

On a long enough timeline, the survival of everyone drops to zero.

Fight Club (1999)
(SPOILERS) Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.