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The Matrix: Hope, Fear, and Radical Liberation

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<i>The Matrix</i>: Hope, Fear, and Radical Liberation

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The Matrix: Hope, Fear, and Radical Liberation

"The Matrix" is, in some respects, the perfect virtuality film—a powerful exploration of the feeling that there's something not quite right with the world around us...

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Published on May 29, 2024

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Neo (Keanu Reeves) holds up a hand to stop a hail of bullets in a scene from The Matrix

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Matrix (1999) Directed by the Wachowskis. Screenplay by the Wachowskis. Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Hugo Weaving.


Some films make a big splash upon release but slowly fade into obscurity, while others cause barely a ripple when they are new but gain interest and audiences over time. Contemporary filmmakers, critics, and audiences aren’t always very good at predicting which films will remain relevant in pop culture. But sometimes the predictions are right. Sometimes a movie gets woven into the fabric of pop culture so immediately and so thoroughly that nobody even has time to imagine that it might have been any other way.

That’s what happened with The Matrix, which came out in early 1999 and more or less immediately reached a level of near-universal pop culture awareness. The film has been discussed, studied, critiqued, mimicked, parodied, and dissected endlessly since its release. Its visual style is instantly recognizable. Its fight choreography changed the way Hollywood movies approach action scenes. Its language and themes have been compared to and co-opted into any number of political, philosophical, and religious conversations. Its impact is so widespread, its cultural presence so prevalent, that when I was picking out movies for this month I was surprised to realize I hadn’t actually watched The Matrix since it was first in theaters 25 years ago. Nor did I ever see any of the sequels. I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to revisiting it.

Hey, good news! This is a great movie! It’s just as slick and stylish as I remember, but it’s also weird, dark, gritty, funny, queer, hopeful, and unabashedly radical in a way that world-weary middle-aged me appreciates a great deal more than clueless college-aged me ever could.

The film dumps us into the story in media res: Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) has to flee from the police and mysterious, besuited “Agents” (Hugo Weaving, Robert Taylor, Paul Goddard). This opening sequence sets the tone for the film in so many ways. The setting is a grimy, crumbling abandoned hotel; the character designs all inhabit the same grim look and dark color palette; the action is brutal and stylized. The Wachowskis have always been enthusiastically open about their cinematic influences. It was their love of Hong Kong action movies that led them to bring on Yuen Woo-ping as the martial arts choreographer. The “wire fu” style of action—in which wire work allows the actors to make suspended jumps, climb walls, and perform other apparently impossible acts during fight scenes—was already known to anybody who was into martial arts films, but in 1999 it was pretty new to American films. (Yuen was also the martial arts choreographer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which came out the following year.) In The Matrix, the effect is an immediate sense of unreality, one heightened when Trinity vanishes before she can be captured.

That’s when we meet Neo (Keanu Reeves), who during daylight hours acts as a dull corporate drone named Thomas Anderson, but in his own time is a computer hacker obsessed with finding a guy named Morpheus and learning the truth about a mysterious Matrix. Trinity approaches Neo to facilitate an introduction to Morpheus, but before that can happen Neo is apprehended and interrogated by the other Agents. Here the film swerves briefly into body horror, as the Agents fuse Neo’s mouth shut and implant a squirmy… bug… thing into his gut in order to track him.

Neo wakes up at home, as though the arrest and interrogation were a nightmare—but of course they weren’t. Trinity shows up again, this time with a few equally stylish and intimidating comrades. They remove the bug from Neo’s abdomen and bring him to finally meet Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who explains everything.

Which I very much appreciate. The movie drops us into a world that’s grim and bleak and violent, and it goes along not explaining anything while we get to know Neo and feel his fear and confusion. But it doesn’t try to keep that up indefinitely; it knows pretty well how long we’ll go along for the ride without getting answers. Thus the infodump of worldbuilding before things become too disorienting. Not every question is answered—Neo still gets an awful lot of “wait and see” replies—but the first meeting with Morpheus provides the necessary framework for us to know what kind of story we’re in.

Infodumps in sci fi have an unnecessarily bad rep, and this is an example of how to do it especially well. The key to making it work, I think, lies in two things. Well, three, but not every piece of media can employ the “get Laurence Fishburne to convey the important information” tactic. Everybody can use the other two approaches, though. The first is that sharing the knowledge is built into the character arcs; I say “arcs,” plural, because that exchange is about both Neo’s frightening choice and Morpheus’s unshakable hope. The second is the film’s rock-solid confidence that the world revealed by the explanation is going to be more interesting than the mystery teasing it has been.

Neo decides he wants to know the truth, he takes the red pill, and he wakes up with all kinds of ports in his body inside a pod filled with goo. He looks around in horror to find that there are countless pods with filled with goo all around him. After some disorientating unpleasantness while getting flushed out of the pod, he’s picked up by Morpheus and his crew aboard a ship called Nebuchadnezzar (which is the name of a Babylonian king who obsesses over his dreams in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel in the Old Testament).

This is when Neo learn that everything about his life up to this point has been a dream of sorts, a shared virtual reality inhabited by all those people wired up inside the gooey pods. That’s where the majority of humanity has existed ever since a war broke out between humans and the artificial intelligences they had created. The humans tried to defeat the machines by wrecking the atmosphere to cut off the solar power source, but the machines retaliated by capturing and enslaving the humans, wiring them up in those goo-filled pods, and using them as a power source instead.

Morpheus wants to fight the machines to liberate humanity, and he thinks Neo is the one to help him do that. Literally “the One,” the chosen one, a prophesied hero with the ability to reclaim the world from the machines and liberate humans from slavery. The story being centered on a hoped-for savior is just one of the many religious allusions in the film: Trinity, Nebuchadnezzar, the Oracle, the human city of Zion, plus a number of other names and references throughout. A lot of people have written at length about religion in The Matrix, but I tend to think the simplest interpretation of those elements is the most fitting. That is, the film is deliberately using the language and symbolism of religion (mostly, but not exclusively, Christian in allusions and iconography, but without an actual god) to tell an eschatological story, but also a story about hope and faith.

What happens after Neo’s first introduction to the world outside the Matrix is all very familiar now, because in the years since 1999 we’ve watched approximately one million superhero movies that took so much of what The Matrix popularized and remixed it in various forms. The training sequence, the very monomythic call-to-action-and-refusal back and forth, the mentor and allies in danger, the triumphant acceptance of heroic responsibility—The Matrix certainly didn’t invent these tropes, not by any measure, but we can’t underestimate just how much of an impact it had on the way Hollywood tells stories about reluctant heroes saving the world.

A huge part of that impact, of course, is in the action sequences and visual effects. I’m not going to get too deep into how The Matrix achieved its much-mimicked and much-parodied special effects, except to note that like so many things in the best movies, that iconic style required a whole lot of creativity and craftmanship. The famous rooftop scene in which Neo is dodging bullets, for example, was shot on a green screen set, with 120 still cameras and two video cameras arranged around Reeves in a sort of tilted oval. The still cameras would take pictures in rapid succession, and those still shots were then be linked together with computer-generated intermediate frames. This is what gives the scene that characteristic look of the camera’s perspective swooping swiftly around a subject that appears to be moving in slow motion. The purpose is to visually capture Neo’s point of view from the outside: to convey what he is seeing and feeling in relation to the Matrix around him. (You can see the test shots created by special effects supervisor John Gaeta in this article, and some short behind the scenes clips showing the green screen set in this one.)

There’s another aspect of the film’s visual style that I really like, one that isn’t about the action sequences or special effects. I know that by now calling a film “gritty” has almost become a joke, in this world of humorless gritty reimaginings and the like, but the gritty, grubby, run-down look of The Matrix serves an important narrative purpose. The artificial world within the Matrix is full of abandoned buildings, depressing locales, grid-like streets, and moments of unsettling sensory discomfort. One small scene I love is when Neo is getting scolded by his boss in the office. The boss is saying the most pointless, empty corporate bullshit, and Neo looks intensely uncomfortable in his bland business suit, and all the while the window washer outside is interrupting their meeting with these absurd little squeaks of squeegee on glass. It’s so funny yet so bleak, because the question is obvious: Why would you want to live this life? Is this supposed to be what life is about? That discomfort carries through to the costuming. When the gang enters the Matrix, they may look very cool in their shiny monochrome outfits and tiny sunglasses and sweeping coats, but it also looks stiff and awkward and uncomfortable.

The setting aboard Nebuchadnezzar, outside of the Matrix and in the “real” world, is just as dark and gritty, but there are subtle differences. The characters wear softer clothes, such as tattered knit sweaters, and exist in close quarters, tucked into small spaces, cluttered spots, cramped alcoves—a distinct contrast to the artificial world, where entire buildings stand empty. The camera crew also filmed the real-world scenes with longer lenses, giving the setting a softer look compared to the much sharper artificial world.

Then there is the contrast between the human world and the machine world. I absolutely love the design of the machines and their endless fields of human-growing pods. It has this wonderful art-deco-meets-H.R. Giger look to it that’s strange, beautiful, and oddly organic. And, curiously, the squid-like sentinel machines and goo-filled pods manage to look more alive than the black-suited, blank-faced Agents who play the role of both the literal machines as well as the metaphorical machine of authority.

The thing about a film like The Matrix is that a lot of people will see what they want to see in it, then critique it in those terms. While reading about it, I’ve found essays about how it’s a failed Christ allegory, a failed exploration of Plato’s cave, a failed discussion of Descartes’ epistemology, a failed understand of Baudrillard’s postmodern hyperreality; various groups have co-opted (and later reclaimed) the red pill symbolism to support all manner of political ideologies. The movie itself is, I think, both messier and more interesting than any of those reductive interpretations, as it’s a story that contains elements of a large number of ideas and influences, some complimentary, some contradictory.

One such element is, of course, the fact that it is a movie made by two trans women and is an allegory for being trans. Queer and trans readings of The Matrix were common even before Lana and Lilly Wachowski came out as trans; it has since its release been a movie beloved by trans audiences and written about by trans critics. In 2023, Lilly Wachowski confirmed that this was intentional all along, with some interesting nuance to her full answer: it’s a trans story told from a yearning, closeted point of view. That feeling of frightened, uncertain longing is portrayed mostly vividly in the scene when Morpheus first meets Neo, when he describes the lifelong feeling that something is wrong with the world, something out of place, something uncomfortable and ill-fitting like “a splinter in the mind.” It’s reinforced in an almost offhand way later in the film, when Agent Smith repeatedly calls Neo “Mr. Anderson” in spite of Neo correcting him with his chosen name.

Which brings me to one final scene I want to talk about. It’s not about Neo and his journey. It’s about Agent Smith. Hugo Weaving is brilliant in this role; he’s dryly amusing, he’s creepily menacing, he’s unsettlingly inhuman, and he’s constantly suppressing this very thinly veiled core of rage. That rage breaks through the surface when he’s interrogating a captured Morpheus. Agent Smith tells Morpheus how much he hates humans. He finds them disgusting, revolting; he compares them to a virus and loathes spending time among them. He states that the machines tried to make humans happy, but it is humanity’s own fault that such happiness failed.

It is not, perhaps, what we generally expect from the programmed representative of sentient machines; a more common science fictional approach is to go the route of portraying sentient machines as uncaringly choosing to subjugate humans because it’s logical or rational or efficient. Those justifications are also present here, but they certainly aren’t at the forefront of Agent Smith’s mind. What he focuses on, what drives his actions, is his disgust.

We all know the shape and tenor of moral arguments based on disgust, those arguments that take the form of “I find this revolting, therefore it is wrong.” These are the types of arguments used to ban books and drag shows, to criminalize health care, to shame and punish the poor, to put addicts in prison. Arguments that come from a place of disgust have been widely used against the legalization of gay marriage. It’s a well-studied phenomenon in sociology, politics, and philosophy.

But what it is most painfully, most viscerally, is familiar. Trans people, queer people, disabled people, people of color, impoverished and unhoused people—everybody who belongs to any marginalized community knows what it is to be bombarded by such arguments, and to live with the ugly truth that their freedom and their very existence is being denied by people who genuinely think that “it’s icky” amounts to a solid, defensible statement of absolute morality.

Watching that scene with Agent Smith and Morpheus, I had a record-scratch moment in my head, one of those mental little clicks where things fall into place. It’s the sort of thing that completely passed me by when I was a college student watching the film for the first time. But this time, I couldn’t miss it, how plainly Agent Smith reveals that the justification for the oppression of the humans is always going to be, “Humans disgust me, and it’s your own fault, so you deserve it.” We, the audience, can argue forever about whether humans make good batteries, but the rationality and efficiency of the system don’t matter. Within the context of the film, they never mattered. What matters is the hatred.

This is what I mean when I say The Matrix is both messy and interesting. There is a whole lot going on in this film, and any thread can lead down a rabbit hole of ideas and interpretation.

I think it also makes The Matrix, in some respects, the perfect virtual reality film. Virtual reality science fiction is one way we have of playing with concepts of what we know, how we perceive the world, how we perceive ourselves, how much freedom we have in our thoughts and actions, and what liberation looks like in a world controlled by forces we don’t see or understand. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that of the five movies we’ve watched this month, three were made by queer directors (World on a Wire and Open Your Eyes are the other two). Virtual reality is powerful premise for exploring that “splinter in the mind” that Morpheus mentions, the feeling that something isn’t quite right about the world around us, the desire to discover the reasons for that feeling, and most of all to find ways to escape it.


What do you think about The Matrix? Or the Matrix within The Matrix? Or its influence on Hollywood in the twenty-five years since its release? Or how great Hugo Weaving is as Agent Smith? We can just talk about how great it is. I’m okay with that. I have never seen the sequels and I’m not sure I want to, because I like this movie so much on its own.


Let’s Imagine the Bright and Shining Cities of the Future

This brings us to the end of May in the Science Fiction Film Club, so here’s a look at our next month! For once we’re actually going to take this chronologically and look at films from four different countries, spanning sixty years of cinema, that present differently bleak visions of cyberpunk futures.

June 5 – Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang
We begin with this totally implausible science fictional scenario in which there is a vast divide between workers toiling in drudgery and the wealthy elite who enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Watch: Amazon, Apple, Google, Hoopla, Kanopy, Tubi, and so many others.
View the trailer here.

June 12 – Alphaville (1965), directed by Jean-Luc Godard
French New Wave meets dystopian noir. This one is hard to find, but I like to give you a challenge. It is available through some library systems and in various uploads on YouTube and the Internet Archive.
Watch: Hoopla, Kanopy.
View the trailer here.

June 20 – Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott
Watch whichever version you like. Do you like voiceovers? Do you like unicorns? I’m not going to tell you how to live your life. (Please note, this column will publish on Thursday the 20th instead of in the usual Wednesday spot!)
Watch: Amazon, Google, Fandango, Microsoft, YouTube.
View the trailer here.

June 26 – Akira (1988), directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Fire up your motorbikes to finish the month with a visit to Neo-Tokyo. Whether you watch with subtitles or dubbing is between you and your conscience and whatever you find available to watch.
Watch: Hulu, Crunchyroll, Amazon, Vudu.
View the trailer here.

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About the Author

Kali Wallace

Author

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults, including the 2022 Philip K. Dick Award winner Dead Space. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Reactor, and other speculative fiction magazines. Find her newsletter at kaliwallace.substack.com.
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