We Keep Returning to The Matrix

How a geek power fantasy about distinguishing oneself in the digital age redpilled a generation.

The world was never the same after mankind fell down The Matrix's rabbit hole in 1999. The film portrayed a squad of hackers as they battled a sentient artificial intelligence (A.I.) that had enslaved the unwitting human race inside a simulation—the titular matrix, a digital version of Descartes' devil. There was a buffet of '90s cinematic references, blending Hong Kong–style martial arts action with Hackers–style geek chic and Terminator 2–style murderbot apocalypticism. Despite the ingredients' familiarity, it became a cultural event with exceptional impact, enduring and ubiquitous.

The film's fandom at the time was made up of a motley crew of radically divergent groups, each deriving a somewhat different meaning from its message. The idea of a revolution waged in virtual reality, where their type might live like kings, enthralled the world's geeks. The Matrix attracted evangelical Christians, who recognized God in the finest modern-day Jesus story since Narnia.

Misfits and punks swooned over the goth-industrial look, then scowled at the latecomers flocking to Hot Topic in its aftermath. Disillusioned cynics, from men's rights activists to Donald Trump supporters, have adopted the film's catchall metaphor for self-chosen enlightenment—the choice between taking a blue pill and continuing to live in ignorance as a slave, or taking a red pill and becoming 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 film's director-siblings, Lana.

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.

It's about office worker anxiety, mindless consumerism, a society on the verge of being altered by technology, and all the fears that come with it, like so many other films from the turn of the millennium. However, The Matrix has outlasted and outperformed its Y2K-era contemporaries: This film stands alone as a prophetic tale about digital freedom, the ways in which technology can both cage and liberate us, and how difficult (and yet liberating) it is to select our own lives and identities—especially in a world of limitless virtual possibilities.

Nobody can tell what The Matrix is, according to the film's storyline. But here's the gist for the uninitiated: Neo, an office drudge with a paranoid attitude and a secret life as a computer hacker, is the protagonist of the film. Neo is shocked to learn that his whole existence has been a delusion, a digital simulation constructed by sophisticated robot rulers to enslave mankind after a conflict between men and machines destroyed most of the actual world. Neo, on the other hand, may be humanity's last hope, a prophesied chosen one capable of manipulating the simulation known as the matrix from within. (Spoiler alert: it's true.) He is, indeed.)

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.

It's difficult to convey how innovative the picture was aesthetically, technically, and technologically if you weren't present for its theatrical debut. It was the spring of 1999: Cable brought television into your home, but the internet, if you had it, was a dial-up connection that clogged up your phone line for hours at a time. Nobody you knew had a cellphone, and there were no smartphones. Mark Zuckerberg was a 15-year-old child from Dobbs Ferry, New York, who was more concerned with his Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah than with his destiny as the founder of Facebook. The Matrix's flawless digital environment, a virtual reality that was better than the actual 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.

There's the super-slow-motion "bullet time" effect that turns action scenes into time-bending works of art; the wire work that allows a single punch to send a character flying through the air; the posed and choreographed fight scenes that define the contemporary action movie landscape and particularly the tentpole superhero films that make box-office millions every year. All these visual tricks are old hat now, but they were born, or at least popularized, in The Matrix.

The term -pilled is frequently used to indicate an ideological awakening, just way the term -gate is used to describe a scandal. It's not only that getting "red-pilled"—a term used frequently but not usually to signify a right-wing or reactionary political awakening—has become a cliché in internet forums. Tryhard left-leaning political observers have begun to refer to getting "Shor-pilled" in the last year, after pollster David Shor, who claims that the Democratic base isn't nearly as stridently awakened as the party's urban, college-educated leadership—another kind of political awakening.

There are also some foreshadowing elements in our present debate: Agent Smith, a sentient computer program, had humanity's number two decades before the COVID-19 outbreak produced a million "we are the virus" jokes.

The Matrix, however, provided more than just cutting-edge VFX and GIF-ready viral memes. It presented a new picture of cultural and personal power, one based on the capacity to control information rather than plain physical might. Consider the film's protagonist, who learns kung fu by downloading the curriculum straight into his brain rather than sweating in the dojo for hours.

Individuals with large balls but greater brains, men who, like Neo, could rebuild the world via code, would emerge over the following 20 years to realize the promise of technology. Smartphones and social media would change everything, from how we connect with one another to how we think about ourselves: Even if Zuckerberg is trying to harvest personal data rather than literally turning humans into batteries, Facebook's recent pivot to a suite of virtual reality products known as "the Metaverse" won't live up to The Matrix's seamless, reality-bending, all-consuming simulation, but they share an underlying idea.

Part of the appeal of The Matrix's nerd power fantasy was its highly stylized aesthetic, which the fashion world has now recycled twice over. At the time of the movie's release, it spawned a veritable style revolution, particularly for a certain type of person, usually male, often socially awkward, who had never thought much about clothes before.

When I went to see a high school acquaintance who had always been, well, sort of a geek, a few months after The Matrix came out, I found him transformed.

I'll never forget seeing him in a floor-dusting black trench coat, combat boots, and wraparound shades walking through the doors of the Greyhound bus station in Albany, New York—a grim, fluorescent-lit setting with the same greenish tint that alerted viewers they were in The Matrix's simulation—in a grim, fluorescent-lit setting with the same greenish tint that alerted viewers they were in The Matrix's simulation. It wasn't simply the clothes he was wearing, though. He appeared six inches taller, and his slouchy stride had been replaced with an action hero's swagger.

When I contacted to see whether he remembered the same thing I did, he admitted that the Neo-themed makeover wasn't his idea—the clothing were provided to him by a girlfriend who had a love for goth chic—but the boost it gave him in confidence was genuine. He admitted, "I was such an uncomfortable child." "The thought of being able to recreate oneself was fascinating to me."

You could also be able to recreate yourself. Fashion was like physics in the movie's matrix: it was based on laws that could be bent and even violated. As anyone who's ever attempted to perform a split kick in a pair of pleather trousers knows all too well, this was an aesthetic that could only exist in a simulation.

That hasn't been lost on our present-day cultural commentators. The writer Freddie deBoer savaged it in a hilariously cranky essay-length complaint about the film: "Doesn't this look like some 11-year-old's vision of what cool people look like? Who walks around in all-black, all-leather everything? Can you imagine how they must smell on a warm day?"

He's right, but only if you forget how geeks used to dress before Neo became a fashion star. Even though all-black, all-leather everything looked ridiculous, it was a step forward from the aesthetic disaster that was pleated khakis and gigantic, goofy basketball shoes. The Matrix and its industrial goth hacker chic introduced countless young men to the wild and wonderful world of tailored clothing, and it was good. Years before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy unleashed its metrosexual tyranny on the wardrobes of aging, schlubby Gen Xers, The Matrix and its industrial goth hacker chic introduced countless young men to the wild and wonderful world of tailored clothing, and it was good.

Meanwhile, the leather-clad crew brings up an interesting paradox: Neo and his friends have been freed from the simulation, but it is still the only place where they can express themselves. There are no leather hotpants in the real-world desert, where the battle for existence takes precedence over fashion.

This is the strange asceticism of The Matrix, one that explains its appeal to devout Christians and digital kids alike: As much as it indulges certain excesses in virtual space, it positively repudiates hedonism in the real world. Liberation is abnegation; the truly free folk spend their days eating amino acids and wearing rags.

Consider the scene where the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar sit around a table discussing the glop in their bowls, and the youngest of the bunch says it reminds him of a dish he had as a kid. "Did you ever eat Taystee Wheat?" he asks. Someone answers, "No, but technically neither did you."

Everyone is amused, but that isn't the only thing our lovely young lady has never eaten (ahem, wink, nudge). Technically, everyone who is still connected to the simulation is a virgin, but those who have been freed appear to live in a world without sex. These folks, it's claimed, confine their closeness to virtual rendezvous with the woman in the red dress, a digital sexbot who "doesn't say much" but will meet your wants. (She doesn't appear to have a male equivalent, either.)

And what about the film's one and only sensual pleasure? Cipher, the wicked Judas figure who chows down on a digital steak while making a bargain with the robots to betray his teammates, not only sees everything happen within the simulation, but he also enjoys it. Despite its fetishization of liberty, The Matrix has no tolerance for libertines.

The Matrix's lengthy tail is all the more amazing given how conceptually generic it was when it was released. The late 1990s' entertainment—"the pinnacle of your civilisation," as Agent Smith puts it—was distinguished by an existential boredom that could only exist in a time of relative peace and prosperity. From the slacker comedy Office Space to the midlife navel gazing of American Beauty, from eccentric entrants like Being John Malkovich to gritty thrillers like Fight Club, Hollywood films from this time often ask, "Is that all there is?"

That latter one went on to become a cultural phenomenon in its own right, but with an ideological taint that The Matrix escaped. It's worthwhile to ponder why.

Two films, both scathing of mindless commercial excess and providing an escape from the Sisyphean monotony of daily life and white-collar office job, were marinating in the same late-'90s nihilism. Even yet, if you locate it among your boyfriend's DVDs, merely one of them is meant to be a red sign.

Is it because The Matrix encourages its fans to embrace freedom and significance rather than meaninglessness? Is it about males, or is it about women? Where Fight Club dealt with a manhood issue, The Matrix saw a far larger one, affecting mankind as a whole. And, unlike Fight Club, which smacked you in the face with a subversive message—one that said that violence might not be the answer, but it was surely an answer—The Matrix produced a picture of the future in which physical power was not only overvalued, but unimportant.

Nerds reign and jocks drool within the simulation. "Do you believe that my being stronger or quicker has anything to do with my muscles, in this place?" Morpheus said, wearing an immaculate black gi in a virtual zen dojo.

Even in the midst of the 1999 film boom, which often cast a critical eye on American consumerist culture, this film's unequivocal rejection of meatspace's sensory delights, up to and including meat itself, set it apart. Consider that 1999 was also the year of American Pie, the raunch-culture blockbuster about sex-deprived adolescent guys that generated a multi-film series, as well as a slew of knockoffs, and dominated the comedy scene for years. However, since our lives have become more online over the last two decades, this may be the component of The Matrix that has the most immediate and unique applicability.

Let's look again at the movie's fashion choices, the most striking of which is all that leather, which is so evocative of BDSM. Yet in the world of The Matrix, wearing these clothes—which, remember, you're not really wearing—is less about sex than it is about signaling your membership in Morpheus' tribe of enlightened outsiders. It's identity as aesthetic. Inside the matrix—and indeed, in the year 2021—the question isn't "How do I want to live?" It's "How do I want to be perceived?"

We are living in an era where one's identity is important. But, in this digital age, what really is identity? We don't know who we are because we don't know who we are. It turns out that who we profess to be is more important than what we do. Labels that we have created. Our articles. Our biographies. Our alter egos. Our declarations of self—I am this—might only become genuine after they are validated by others, who then repeat them back to us in the form of a like, a remark, or a retweet. We might lose track of time by peering into the antiseptic mirror of social media, all in the hopes of seeing a pleasing view of ourselves.

We are both the spoon and the spoonbender in the online world, where many of us live part-time—and perhaps too much of the time—here to tell each other what is real, here to distort or be warped by each other's views.

Our own matrix not only tells us who we are; it tells us that this is the only place where we can safely connect, be seen, and be ourselves. It begs us to keep scrolling, keep clicking, stay plugged in. It tells us, increasingly, that the real freedom is in here. Like Neo before his red-pilled revelation, it sometimes seems as if we might actually believe it.

We constantly returning to the matrix, which might explain why we keep watching The Matrix.

Neo experiences the mind-bending experience of returning to the simulation shortly after his release from virtual jail, this time with the knowledge that none of it is real. He holds a spoon in his hand—except that he doesn't, not really, since there is no spoon, as a conveniently philosophical toddler explains him—and watches it warp to his command.

He remembers his existence in this location as being nothing more than a dream, an illusion. He enquires as to what it all signifies. What is the solution? "That you can't determine who you are from the matrix." That's a lovely and strong idea, not just of free will or self-determination, but of a core humanity that the intelligent robot masters of this bleak future can't touch. The cage may restrict you in The Matrix, but it does not define you.

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