Enter The Matrix
The Matrix (1999) established itself as the definitive movie of the 1990’s CyberPunk culture. Building on concepts shown in movies such as The Lawnmower Man (1992) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995), The Wachowskis told a surreal story that was different to anything the world had seen before.
What is The Matrix?
The story was written and directed by The Wachowskis. 2 Americans of Polish descent born in 1965 and 1967. The siblings grew up in Chicago, went to separate Colleges in New York and Boston, but both of them dropped out and returned home to run a business together. In 1993 the Wachowskis became writers for the Ectokid comic. By the mid 1990s their first movie script had been purchased and the writers became Directors. Their first movie was Bound (1996), a Mafia inspired crime thriller. Their second movie turned out to be a movie that won them the Saturn Award for best Director, picked up 4 Academy Awards and made over $450 million in the Box Office – The Matrix.
The Matrix is a story set in a distant future where mankind is at war with machines. Unlike the war we saw in The Terminator movies released prior to The Matrix, this war is being waged on 2 planes. One is the real world and the other is a virtual world. By the time the first movie starts, the war had gotten so bad, mankind had been forced underground due to inhospitable conditions on the surface. The machines became desperate for a power source and decided to capture humans to harvest them as a source of bioenergy. Captured humans had their minds thrust into a simulation of the real world. This virtual world is known as The Matrix – The place where the story begins and where we encounter the main characters Neo, Trinity and Morpheus.
The Matrix mythology is vast. So much rich subject matter to explore that the story could be told over various forms of media: A trilogy of movies, video games and a web-based comic series (later condensed into two physical volumes). There is also an animated series. All the forms of media added something new to The Matrix mythology. The Animatrix gave us the backstory before the movies started – The story of how the war between Humans and machines began. That backstory alone made the Animatrix my personal favourite non-movie Matrix media. Check out the following link for a glimpse at the official licensed book which includes incredible storyboards that formed the basis of the mythology: The Art of The Matrix.
Follow the White Rabbit
The Filmmakers are very open about their numerous influences. Alice in Wonderland is an obvious one that likens Neo to Alice – someone going down a rabbit hole to a whole new world. Actors were instructed to read Simulacra and Simulation (1994) by Jean Baudrillard. Amazon’s #1 best seller in Academic Philosophy even appears in the movie.
In a 2013 discussion at DePaul University, The Wachowskis mentioned books by William Gibson had a huge influence on them. Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is widely regarded as a pioneering book in the CyberPunk genre.
Blade Runner (1982) vs ET (1982) was an interesting talking point at DePaul. ET was the hugely popular family-friendly movie of the time. Blade Runner was a darker, more niche adult movie. The Wachowskis tell us Blade Runner was initially criticised due to having a completely different aesthetic to what was currently popular. However, it went on to change the happy and family-friendly narrative of Science Fiction movies in the 1980’s. The popularity of movies such as The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987) attest to the post Blade Runner shift in Sci-Fi aesthetics.
The Directors continue to talk of how important aesthetics are in their movies. Lana tells us the goal of The Matrix is to be a framework of meaning and the audience is meant to decipher this meaning.
Lilly speaks of ‘genre bending’ in her 2020 Netflix interview. Reflecting on the Matrix, she ponders on possible Trans influences and the character ‘Switch’. A Wiki page has an insight into why Lilly’s character didn’t quite play out with the residual self-image she might have wanted. She also touches on wanting to have moments in the movie that felt like an Anime, a Western, or a Kung Fu movie. John Woo and Hong Kong action movie wire work can also be added to the list of Matrix influences.
The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?
Amongst the numerous other themes, The Matrix addresses the problem with VR and the potential pitfalls facing an entire society plugged into a simulation. Going back to their 2013 interview, the filmmakers talked about an ‘aesthetic genealogy’, which I interpret as a philosophy that builds on other philosophies. So what are these other philosophies?
Should a person have the right to choose or should a person be given orders? Dictatorship or Democracy? Fascism or Socialism? Choice is a continuous theme throughout the Trilogy. A theme highlighted in the iconic scene where Morpheus asks Neo to choose his destiny. The Architect reveals the importance of choice when he tells Neo that previous versions of the Matrix failed until Humans were given a choice. If you think about it, would you like to live in a world where all outcomes were predetermined? Or do you want the ability to choose how things turn out? Choice is important, even if we only have the illusion of choice.
The Merivignan’s conversation with Morpheus delves into the topic of Causality – cause and effect. The Oracle tells Neo not to worry about breaking the vase. This information startles Neo causing him to react. His reaction knocks the vase over causing it to break. After Neo breaks the vase, The Oracle asks him to ponder if he would have broken it if she didn’t say anything. Causality has been accredited to Aristotle. A philosophy that lies in the realm of metaphysics.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is woven into this story. Cypher chose the red pill but regrets his choice and wants to return to the Matrix. He is akin to the prisoners in Plato’s Cave. The prisoners do not desire to leave their prison even after one of them breaks free and returns with news of their deception. Adam Curtis’ documentary HyperNormalisation (2016) applies the Allegory of the Cave to modern-day life and discusses how the real world can be hidden away from us. An artificial world can be constructed to keep us compliant. Much like in The Matrix.
From Greek philosophy to Greek Mythology, the subtleties are no accident. In Greek Mythology, Morpheus is a God who takes human form when appearing in dreams. A fitting name for Laurence Fishburne’s character. Rama Kandra (the exiled program) speaks of Karma in his conversation with Neo at the train station. Rama is a Hindu deity known for chivalry and virtue.
Matrix Explained has a great series that takes a deep dive and reveals more philosophical meanings in the movie that casual viewers may have missed. They uncover Hermetic principles from The Kybalion like ‘As above, so below’. This can be tied to the duality between The Matrix and the physical world. Another interesting find is their explanation of the child program with no purpose, whose parents try to save her. That story showcases the themes of love and consciousness.
Neo’s death and resurrection with superpowers draw inspiration from Christianity. It was only through death that Neo could be resurrected with so much power that he could fly. Much like the resurrection of Jesus Christ allowed him to ascend to the Heavens. Christ the Redeemer, the Saviour and Messiah. He died and was resurrected.
The main protagonists Neo, Morpheus and Trinity have similarities to the Holy Trinity of Christianity. The Son (Neo), The Father (Morpheus) and the Holy Spirit (literally named Trinity). Salvation would not have been possible without the miraculous acts of all three characters. The Telekinetic child monks allude to an influence from Buddhism. The link to religious symbolism is a clear and obvious one.
The Desert of the Real
The phrase was coined by Sociologist Jean Baudrillard and quoted by Morpheus in the movie. Fishburne’s character used it to describe the real world, as it has become a post-apocalyptic desert but was also alluding to Baudrillard. However, the Sociologist might use this term in a different context.
You could say there is a dearth of reality on Social Media where people use filters, photoshop images and create a facade – The desert of the real. I believe this is closer to Baudrillard’s original concept.
However, the desert of the real could also be describing The Matrix. A place where nothing is physically real. But of course, Morpheus questions Neo on what real means. The Captain of the Nebuchadnezzar states that the electrical impulses experienced by your brain are what makes The Matrix real and if you die in The Matrix then you do die for real. If nobody lives on the surface of the Earth in the real world and they live in The Matrix, then The Matrix is real and the physical world is the desert of the real.
As revealing as it is, dialogue only contains a fraction of the film’s messages. The team behind Matrix Explained dissect the trilogy and reveal the abundance of visual symbolism. From hand gestures to numerology, lighting, colours and props. Anything and everything can have a hidden meaning in these movies. Even the music.
In his article Simulcara, Simulation and the Matrix (2006), Sven Lutzka wrote ‘The Matrix has triggered off an avalanche of studies focussing on different aspects of the movie’. Some of those studies can be found in Jacking In To The Matrix Franchise (2004). This is an anthology of Matrix writings from a number of contributors. In this book, Matthew Kapell discusses a number of themes that the film trilogy and multimedia story encompasses: Gender, Race, Philosophy, Epistemology, Ontology, Ethics, Post-Humanism, Mythological and Religious Studies, Feminism, Radicalism, Cosmology and Theology. This is not a definitive list of all the themes covered either. One could easily add war, peace, control and rebellion too. The subject matters covered are broad and complex.
Kapell writes of the dark overtone encompassing the Matrix franchise – Human beings being subjugated to a programme of exploitation, treated as commodities and drained of their natural resources by an elaborate system. One could liken this fantasy theme to how citizens feel they are exploited by governments and corporations in the real world today. The Matrix attempts to connect with the audience in this way.
Jean Baudrillard wrote of simulation theory. The Matrix adapts his ideas and asks us the question – is everything as it seems? I remember watching the Matrix in 1999. The movie blew my mind. As I left the cinema I was looking around and questioning reality. Are we in a simulation?
In Making of The Matrix (1999) Andy shared his belief that their biggest visual effect came from having Hollywood stars perform authentic Kung Fu like in a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie. Before The Matrix, the norm was to use a stunt man for fight scenes. The Wachowskis actually made the stars learn Kung Fu and perform the fight scenes themselves.
Making of The Matrix is a fascinating watch that gives you the complex ideas of the movie from various people involved in the production. The shots on set give you a sense of the camaraderie they shared. Recruiting John Gaeta to be the Special Effects Supervisor and create the Bullet Time VFX proved to be a wise decision. As was Hiring Yuen Wo Ping to do the Fight Choreography and Gun Fu. Illustrated storyboards cut to narration from the cast and crew help to complete the understanding that a lot of thought went into these movies and everyone felt like they were doing something exceptional.
Laurence Fishburne said they trained in Kung Fu daily for around 6 months. The directors revealed they saw CyberPunk as a way to convey a sense of disconnection or alienation. Such was the mood of the CyberPunk culture. One of the narrators notes how he thought the Wachowskis were unusually meticulous and unlike most Directors, they knew exactly how they wanted things to be.
According to Jonas Ceika, Jean Baudrillard declined the opportunity to work on the Matrix sequels. His involvement could have drastically impacted the final cut of Reloaded and Revolutions. In contrast, Laurence Fishburne said he signed up for Reloaded without even reading the script. Everyone from the first movie signed up again for the sequel and the filmmakers tried to outdo what they did in the original. Sets were bigger and more extravagant than before. Stunts were more ambitious than before. Carrie-Ann Moss said she broke her leg in the 2nd week of training.
The actress who played the Oracle (Gloria Foster) passed away during the production of the 3rd Matrix movie. The script had to be rewritten and another actress (Mary Alice) was brought in to replace her. The 3rd movie in the trilogy contained an epic fight scene between Neo and Agent Smith. They were fighting in mid-air like something you’ll see in Dragonball Z. This was no easy feat. In order to replicate Z fighting in real life, the actors were filmed in a zero-gravity device used to train astronauts.
As mentioned earlier, the Wachowskis were inspired by William Gibson books when they made The Matrix. Gibson is said to believe that The Matrix is the ultimate Cyber Punk artefact. It’s no coincidence that a CyberPunk video game starring Keanu Reeves (CyberPunk 2077) went on to win various awards and became the highest selling digital game launch at the time. This is the legacy of The Matrix. With such a strong legacy in place, why would they need another movie?
In a discussion at the International Literature Festival of Berlin, Lana shares her story of a personal tragedy that inspired the continuation of a once concluded masterpiece. It was the demise of her parents that brought back her connection to Neo and Trinity. Lilly felt like she was done with the Franchise so for the first time, we will see a Matrix movie made by just one of the Wachowskis.
At the time of writing, two Matrix Resurrections trailers have been released. In trailer 1 Neo appears to be back in the Matrix and seeking therapy for bad dreams that he thinks are real. The black cat appears at the start of the trailer. Neo thought he was experiencing Deja Vu in the first movie when he saw a black cat. He meets with Trinity and they appear to not know each other. Have they lost their memories? He meets a younger-looking Morpheus and seems to go through the awakening process all over again.
If it was only a hint in the first trailer, It’s unmistakable that Agent Smith has returned in the second trailer, except he doesn’t look how we remember him. Neo starts to recollect being in the training simulation. We get a glimpse of an aged Niobe looking like she’s been in a war and also speaking of war! Neo displays an ability to manipulate force and Trinity displays powers of her own. It definitely looks like Neo is on a journey to find his memory. Some old characters have new faces and brand new characters appear too. From what I saw in the trailers it looks like Resurrection will introduce new elements but also have a continuity of the old story.
In fine Matrix tradition, another form of media has been utilised to give participants an interactive Matrix experience. The Matrix Awakens is a brief and free to play open-world game exclusively available to owners of a Playstation 5 or XBox Series X. Fans of the franchise will be treated to a cinematic intro before they are thrust into some frantic Arcade style action. After completing the mission the open world is yours to explore and it looks fantastic. You can download The Matrix Awakens here.
Keanu and Carrie-Ann discuss a number of topics in a post Resurrections interview by The Verge: The plasticity of images and Intellectual Property, Cryptocurrencies and NFTs, even the use of their likeness in Virtual Reality and Pornography. They also share their thoughts on The Matrix trilogy and the new movie too.
More than a movie, The Matrix is a philosophical story told across various forms of media. I found it transformative in the same way a good book can be. I was not the same afterwards. The journey through multimedia is a unique and interactive experience. The story covers thought-provoking themes like reality, faith and the very ideas that societies are built on. We explore consciousness, examine Humanity, Artificial Intelligence and see there may not be that much difference between us.
The Matrix tells a tale that peaks into the future of Transhumanism. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is currently developing Brain Interface technology. Will this tech allow us to download a program to learn Kung Fu, or fly a helicopter like the movie showed us 20 years ago? The timing of the latest instalment in the franchise couldn’t be better. The biggest Social Media company in the world have transitioned into a Metaverse company. The Matrix is a movie about a Metaverse from 20 years ago, resurrected for release in UK cinemas on December 22nd.