What if I told you that The Matrix was first released 20 years ago?
That can’t be real, you think. I still remember seeing it in the cinema! Morpheus would just look at you and say “What is real? How do you define ‘real’?”
In this reality, The Matrix was indeed first released on March 31, 1999. Yes, we are that old.
For those younger readers, it is very difficult to describe what a game-changer The Matrix was, how much it influenced cinema, fashion, clubbing, and music. It is easy to forget just how mindbogglingly cool it all was. The music, the costumes, the obvious anime influences, the visuals, the special effects, and even the hokey philosophy loosely based on Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation.
I just watched it again, and it has aged surprisingly well for a film that is so badly acted (with the exception of Lawrence Fishburne, who always shines effortlessly as Morpheus). It is perhaps because of Morpheus that the film has retained such an enduring meme imprint (memeprint? memability?) It’s perhaps no coincidence that some of the most salient parts of the movie are precisely related to his explanations of what is The Matrix.
For those not willing to watch it and who may still be reading this, the Matrix tells the story of Thomas A. Anderson (hacker name Neo), who is a programmer at a successful software company by day, and masterful hacker by night. After an encounter with the evil Agents, Neo is taken to meet the most dangerous man in the world, a hacker named Morpheus, who tells him that the world is not as it seems. The Matrix is the reality that surrounds, “a prison of the mind”. In order to break free and learn the truth, Neo must make a choice between two pills, the blue pill will keep him trapped, while taking the red pill will show him “how deep the rabbit-hole goes”. Neo takes the red pill, only to realise that The Matrix is a computer simulation that keeps humanity trapped, machines have enslaved humanity and harvest them as an energy source. What follows is typical of the hero’s journey: learning, crisis, success.
Many terms of the above paragraph may seem familiar even to those who have never seen the film. It is a testament to the strength of the narrative that the story continues to resonate even to this day. At the time it was released, the idea of a rebellious small group of people trying to awake humanity from its slumber had more radical political undertones, the machines portrayed a monolithic establishment comprising the press, the government, and the corporations, all intent on slaving the mindless masses. “Most brains are not ready for the truth”, Morpheus tells Neo, so only a small elite of cyber-warriors is left to try to uncover the truth and destroy The Matrix. It’s no coincidence that at the end of the film Rage Against the Machine scream at us to “Wake up!”
Today’s political reading of The Matrix is quite different. While the enemy remains the establishment, The Matrix has become real, it is the lies told by the mainstream media to keep us away from the truth. And the truth of course is anything that the group of brave resisters oppose: the evils of a globalist elite composed of the European Union / the Feminists / the Jews / Multiculturalism / Islam / Environmentalists / Cultural Marxists (delete as appropriate). To take the red pill has become a shorthand to describe mostly right-wing groups that have access to reality. While it started life as a metaphor for the rebellious techno-anarchists, the Red Pill has now been fully appropriated by the alt-right, the incels, and all similar groups.
But while some of the imagery has taken a darker tone, it is important to remember its origins come from a world before 9/11, a more innocent time where rebellion meant dressing in black leather, wearing shades inside, and listening to techno. But we need to reclaim its core message, not the puerile belief that there are elites controlling our every thought, but that we are indeed living in The Matrix, an online environment full of lies and deceit. The machines are sometimes bots, but are most likely to be shared and spread by your racist neighbours and opinionated uncles than by a shadowy cabal intent on world domination.There is rampant disinformation online, but for the most part it comes from users. But for the most part, we must wrestle Matrix’s rebellious and cool imagery, and make it ours again.
Make The Matrix Anarchic Again.