WE KEEP GOING BACK TO THE MATRIX
Reason magazine|February 2022
HOW A GENERATION WAS REDPILLED BY A NERD POWER FANTASY ABOUT DEFINING YOURSELF IN THE DIGITAL AGE
KAT ROSENFIELD
IN 1999, HUMANITY tumbled down the rabbit hole of The Matrix, and the world was never the same. The film followed a group of hackers battling the sentient A.I. who had enslaved the unknowing human race inside a simulation—the titular matrix, a Descartes’ demon for the digital age. There was a smorgasbord of ’90s-era cinematic points, combining Hong Kong–style martial arts action with the geek chic of Hackers and the murderbot apocalypticism of Terminator 2. But despite the familiarity of the elements, it became a cultural event of unparalleled resonance, both long-lasting and widespread.

At the time, the movie’s fandom comprised a motley crew of wildly disparate groups, each finding a slightly different meaning in its message. The nerds of the world went wild for the vision of a revolution fought in a virtual reality where their kind could live like kings. Evangelical Christians saw God in The Matrix, enthralled by the best modern-day Jesus narrative since Narnia.

Misfits and punks swooned for its goth-industrial aesthetic, then sneered at the late-coming poseurs who thronged to Hot Topic in its wake. And in the decades since, disillusioned cynics, from men’s rights types to fans of Donald Trump, have adopted the film’s catchall metaphor for self-chosen enlightenment— the decision to either take a blue pill and continue living in ignorance as a slave, or take a red pill and become awakened to the deep truth of the world around you—only to be hip checked by progressive activists pointing to the gender transitions of the movie’s director-siblings, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, as evidence that the film was always actually a transgender parable.

They’re all right—and they’re all wrong. That’s the thing about The Matrix, which, just like its titular simulation, doesn’t care much about the hearts or minds of the people who are plugged into it. Inside the matrix, you exist as a projection of whoever you believe yourself to be; watching it from the outside, you can project onto it to your heart’s content.

Like so many movies from the end of the last millenium, it’s about office worker angst, mindless consumerism, a world on the precipice of being transformed by tech and all the anxieties that go with it. But The Matrix has survived and surpassed its Y2K-era peers: This movie alone stands as a prophetic myth about freedom in the digital age, the way that technology can both trap and liberate us, and how difficult it is (and also how empowering) to choose our own lives and identities—especially in a world of unlimited virtual possibilities.

AS THE FILM’S script would have it, nobody can be told what The Matrix is. But for the uninitiated, here’s the gist: The movie follows Neo, an office drudge with a paranoid mindset and a secret life as a computer hacker. Shortly after the title credits, Neo is awakened to the horrifying truth that his entire life has been a hallucination, a digital simulation created by intelligent robot overlords to enslave humanity after a war between men and machines destroyed most of the physical world. But Neo might also be humanity’s shot at salvation, a prophesied chosen one capable of manipulating the simulation, known as the matrix, from the inside. (Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes, he is.)

After a lot of trippy action and novel-at-the-time visual effects—revolutionaries dodge gunfire in motion so slow you can see the air shimmer; a spoon warps like magic in Neo’s hands— our protagonist saves his friends, falls in love, fulfills his destiny, and ensures a big-ass budget for the next two Matrix films.

If you weren’t around for the film’s theatrical release, it’s hard to explain how groundbreaking it was—visually, technically, technologically. This was spring 1999: Television came into your house via cable, while the internet, if you had it, was a dialup connection that tied up your phone line for hours. Nobody you knew had a cellphone, and smartphones didn’t exist. Mark Zuckerberg was a 15-year-old kid in Dobbs Ferry, New York, closer to his Star Wars–themed bar mitzvah than his future as a Facebook founder. The slick digital world of The Matrix, a virtual reality better than the real thing, was a revelation.

Similarly, it’s hard to overstate the long-tail impact of The Matrix on popular and political culture. More than two decades later, with a long-awaited fourth film due in theaters in late December, this movie is the ghost in all of our machines. In the movie, Morpheus, a John the Baptist–like revolutionary guru whose search for a savior kicks off the story, explains the matrix by describing its omnipresence. “It is all around us,” he says. “Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television.” The same might be said for the movie itself, which has left a vast imprint on everything from action movies to fashion to how we understand technology.

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