Friday, December 08, 2023

The Matrix Revisited

Everybody knows that this reality's not real
So raise a glass to all things past
And celebrate how good it feels
                Fishermen's Friends

Just seen the Matrix on the big screen. For the first time in very probably twenty four years. I was rather astonished. It's actually a darn good film.

I think it had been overwritten in my mind, first, by the very bad sequel and second by the very, very bad third instalment; and, thirdly, by a certain irritating Matrix-chic that infested geek circles in the opening years of the third millennium. I had a friend who literally wore a long black leather coat and mirror shades in the streets. Even in Tescos. He swore he was doing it before the Matrix came out; but even so.

It's like Star Wars. You can't recover a sense of the film as a film; because its originality and tropes have been part of the language of cult cinema for twenty years. I don't think it necessarily invented "bullet time" but it certainly made it popular. At one level, it's plugged into a very specific pre-millennial moment; but at another it defined how we think about computers so definitively that it doesn't feel particularly dated.

Flash Gordon and Star Trek still dominate our thinking about space travel: space ships are still pointy missiles with fins and Beam Me Up Scottie is still code for the last word in futurism or impenetrable geekery. Space fiction conceptually froze at a moment when space travel didn't quite exist but felt as if it should. The Matrix freezes computers on the cusp of their ubiquity: when Usenet was still a thing and the Web had not quite been mainstreamed; when cellphones were cool but it was no longer irredeemably pretentious to own one.

The world has moved on. Computers no longer have green screens and strange >: symbols. Coders no longer exist in stylishly unkempt bedsits. Computer discs are no longer traded like hard drugs. Legendary individuals don't have mysterious handles. Computers live on kitchen tables and commuters pockets and are used to play angry birds and order groceries. Artificial intelligence is a predictive text system which kids use to cheat on their homework. But the Matrix still dominates our sense of what a computer is, in the same way that Big Ben dominates conceptual London. We quote it without knowing that we're quoting it. Red Pill. Blue Pill. Rabbit Hole. Glitch.

The Matrix feels like it has always existed. I very nearly found myself talking about its 80s vibe. I could swear it was part of the lingua franca of the role playing club at college. As a matter of historical fact it only came out in 1999, the same year as Phantom Menace. Neil Gaiman's Sandman (which still feels quite contemporary) had finished its initial run in '96. "Morpheus" is referenced in the same way that the Prisoner, the Wizard of Oz and above all Alice in Wonderland are referenced: as cultural touch-stones that Everybody Knows. Was it cool to have read Sandman in 1999, or was it already a bit passe, grandad?

I had stored the Matrix in my brain as a syle-over-substance movie which packaged the cool bits of Descartes for people who had never read Phillip K Dick. Or possibly vice versa. But I was only remembering two sequences. There's the conspiracy stuff in the beginning, when Neo gets weird messages about white rabbits, meets strangers who know things they couldn't possibly know, and has liaisons with improbably cool people under improbably rainy bridges. And there's the Bruce Lee stuff at the end, where Neo takes on Agent Smith in an American tube station and establishes that he is the Chosen One. Enlightenment through extreme violence.

It was real funny when it turned out that Elrond was being played by the guy in the black suit who says Miss TAH AND Er SUN. Fellowship of the Ring was only a couple of years after the Matrix.

But I'd pretty much forgotten everything that comes in between. The excellent characterisation of Morpheus's team. It's pretty unusual for characters who exist mainly to be killed off to be so individualised and likeable and funny. (How much easier Aliens would have been to take if all the space marine action figures had had personalities.) The quite sophisticated explication of the mind body duality and John Stewart Mills contented porcine, particularly around the subplot of Cypher's treachery. I did remember that there was No Spoon; but I'd forgotten how cleverly the oracle-in-a-kitchen uses the ideas of fate and prophecy to set up some genuine moral jeopardy.

It's astonishingly clever that the mysticism, the action and the idea of virtual reality are unified into a single concept. We kind of get that Morpheus can run up walls and karate chop bullets because he's a character in a film: the rules of the real world don't apply because up there on the big screen everything is a special effect. And we definitely get that he can bend spoons because he's in a computer programme and the spoon isn't real. But we also get the idea that we could bend spoons and run up walls in the real world if we believed we could. The oracle and Neo are doing the kinds of things that Jesus and Buddha and Uri Geller could literally do. So "realising that the world is a computer game that you could manipulate" (in a story where the world literally is a computer game that you could manipulate) stands as a metaphor for "the kinds of things you could do in the real world if you believed you could."

It's bothersome that the Matrix has been appropriated by actual fascists. But everything gets appropriated by actual fascists. I don't know how far it's the movies fault. There is a school of thought that says that Wagner's Nordic fantasies are in and of themselves perfectly innocent: they only become evil when a lunatic with a silly moustache starts to pretend they are literally true, or could possibly be made so. And there is another school of thought that says that blonde-haired blue-eyed kids beheading hook-nosed avaricious midgets was as Nazi as fuck even before Nazism even existed. I might go down the "syntactical potential" root: the Nazi appropriation of Wagner occurred because Wagner contained material that was capable of being appropriated. Aeschylus didn't write a story about a scientist collecting body parts in a graveyard; and he certainly didn't write a story about Romantic poets rebelling against the constraints of Victorian literature. But his Prometheus was definitely a rebel rebelling against the kinds of things that rebels always rebel against. 

The Matrix doesn't say that we literally live, or might live, in a computer simulation. It doesn't even say that your boss or the policeman is, or might be, an Agent of the System and that everyone else probably isn't an actual human being at all. But it certainly has the potential for actual fascists to read it that way.

I don't think it is about conspiracy theories. It isn't even about computers. It's certainly not about Kung Fu, except in so far as Kung Fu is a spiritual practice which attunes your mind to Higher Things. It's a rare example of someone having read Joseph Campbell and then done something interesting with him. George Lucas read Hero With a Thousand faces after completing Star Wars and retrofitted his B movie to the scam monomyth: a catastrophic error of judgement the repercussions of which we are still living with today. I think it is quite likely that the Wachowskis had got as far as the opening chapters of Masks of God.

The first layer of the movie certainly uses conspiratorial tropes: everything you think you know is a lie; the lie is being perpetuated by an all-powerful group that secretly controls everything; but a tiny group know what is really going on; and you (that is to say, me) by virtue of being really good with computers, are THE CHOSEN ONE who is going to free the drones from the Illuminati or the Woke Mob the Jews or whoever it is this week. Neo's final speech, after he has achieved Enlightenment, is couched in political language and could have emanated from anyone on the far left or the far right at any time in the last quarter century. I'll show the people what YOU don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world without YOU. A world without rules or controls. A world without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.

But the world without rules or control isn't about free love and tearing up your draft card and not having to go to school. Nor is it about abolishing political correctness and wokery and calling a spade a spade as opposed to an earth turning utensil and being once more proud to be white. What Neo experiences is a Gnostic revelation: this reality is not real and there is a higher, realer, truer world he can reach. The computers and the politics are a metaphor for the spiritual, not the other way round.

The mechanics are purely scientific: Neo and everyone else exists in what we'd now call Virtual Reality. The implications are philosophical: if our sense of taste is only happening in our head, the result of brain cells firing, then there is no difference between a virtual steak in the matrix and an actual steak. Particularly when the real world you awaken into doesn't contain steak, but only tasteless nutritious porridge. How can a tree continue to be when there's no-one about in the quad?

The visualisation of the "brain in a box" conundrum -- millions upon millions of womb-like tanks containing frozen humans in their virtual dream-state -- is genuinely arresting. Inside the Matrix is a world of obsolete cutting-edge cellphones and wires and oscilloscopes only one level up from the paraphernalia of Victor Frankenstein and computer screens that were looking dated even in 1999. Outside the Matrix -- in the "real" world -- George Lucas's shabby future has been taken to an extreme, with a touch of Ridley Scott in the mix, as if the Millennium Falcon had been occupied by undergraduate squatters for a decade. The mirror shades and shiny guns and black leather are part of the illusion: in the real world everyone wears badly knitted grey sweaters. Anyone who adopts Matrix chic as a fashion statement has seriously missed the point.

But that's what conspiracy theory does. Flips reality on it's head: tells us that the archaeologists who have studied the pyramids for decades are, just for that exact reason, unreliable, and the real truth about Egyptology is to be found in a shabby paperback or a mimeographed fanzine. There are increasing numbers of people who believe, or affect to believe, that the world is flat, not because they are ignorant about geography and gravity, but because their politics requires them reject all form of authority. I love Jesus more than you do, because I believe there were Tyrannosaurus at the court of Elizabeth I but you won't find that taught in mainstream schools.

The choice of the red pill over the blue pill, of grey jumpers over black leather jackets, is couched politically. But there is no implicit critique of the social order. Neo is the Chosen One because he has faith: faith in the fact that he is the Chosen One. He learns martial arts -- outside the Matrix, but inside a VR -- but is repeatedly told that he can't beat his dream-mentor because he doesn't believe he can. Neo's journey (like that of the nine hundred and ninety eight other heroes) is the same as that of Luke Skywalker. You don't win martial arts bouts by learning the moves. You don't become a guitarist by practising the chord shapes. You don't destroy armoured battle stations by going through a meticulous aeronautics course. You have to believe that you can do it; switch off your conscious self; sell your soul to Satan at the crossroads. The perfect marksman is the one who shuts his eyes and doesn't bother to aim.

Which, is admittedly and in itself, a right-wing trope. I think we've all heard quite enough from experts. Donald Trump will save us, not because he is a skilful and experienced politician, but because he quite definitely isn't.

Unless I have this wrong. Unless the movie does not intend to use politics as a metaphor for enlightenment but wants us to use enlightenment as a metaphor for politics. You can't really take on six men with guns in bullet time and then leap into the sky like Superman. But you can stick it to the man and make America great again, and that is what living without limits means.

Richard Bach's not-much-better followup to Jonathan Livingstone Seagull admitted that the little sea-bird who could was not Jesus. On the contrary, everyone is Jesus, or at any rate, Jesus is a metaphor for that which everyone is. Which may be very bad theology; but is really the only way to approach Chosen One myths. Luke Skywalker is the last Jedi and so are you; Harry Potter is the boy who lived and so am I. We are all Neo if we believe in ourselves; we can all bend the spoon once we realise it isn't there.

If we literally believe that there is a conspiracy and that "we" can reject "you" and live without limits, the Matrix is toxic. But not if what we take away from it is that we are all potential Siegfrieds who can go to the mountain top and slay our dragon.

So. There was clearly more to this film than I ever gave it credit for. That's mildly disconcerting. What would be severely disconcerting if I were to now see The Matrix Reloaded and realise that that's a perfectly decent film as well. Heck, if this goes on, it might turn out that there are redeeming features in Highlander 2.

Or perhaps that's just what they want me to think?


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Autolenaphilia said...

Lovely review, Andrew.

Honestly, part of why The Matrix has survived appropriation from fascists is probably the fact that the movie creators are both trans women. Like it's not good criticism to read art through the biographical details of its creators, but it's probably why the film has avoided being tainted by its fascist appropriation.

The far-right conspiracy worldview is anti-semitic at the core, but it's also deeply transmisogynist. I can recommend the article "The Eradication of Talmudic abstractions: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist project" by Joni Elizah Cohen which examines the connections in fascist thought between these two bigotries.

Like a far-right interpretation of the film would view "trans women are really women" as part of the matrix, the Jewish-created illusion oppressing the white man, but the Wachowski sisters being sisters will always suggest the opposite. The trans reading that the ideology of biological sex is the illusion that is keeping you oppressed, the patriarchy with its gender binary is the Matrix.

I actually think the Matrix sequels are pretty good, mostly because they deal with the problems you raise in this review. Although there are problems with execution, basically the Wachowski sisters treated the tie-in materials as necessary for understanding the story, and the films are kinda incoherent without at least seeing the Animatrix, an anthology film of animated shorts set in the Matrix universe. And the Animatrix is honestly better as a follow-up than the live-action films. I strongly suspect my understanding would be deepened even further if I finally read the comics and played the "Enter the Matrix video game, which is kinda absurd.

But basically the sequels work because they try to complicate the fairly simplistic narrative of the first film. The twist of the Matrix Reloaded is that the messianic idea of the One is just another layer of control by the machines. While the first movie affirms the mysticism of Morpheus's talk of the One, the second one establishes that religion and "spiritual" babble like Joseph Campbell's jungian monomyth can often be methods of control. And the third movie, "The Matrix Revolutions", tries to complicate the simplistic good-evil binary the first movie runs with, (Humans=good, machines=bad), by ending not with the eradication of the machines with a compromise to establish peace.

And again, this ending to the trilogy has often been criticized for not making sense, but it makes more sense if you have seen the Animatrix which shows you the backstory of the human-machine war and reveals that it's a morally complicated conflict.

I think the sequels are definitely flawed, but still overcriticized, and often criticized for the wrong reasons. Kinda like its contemporaries, the Star Wars prequels.

Achille Talon said...

A fine review, but ooh, these black lines hurt my eyes. I had to do funny things to my screen's luminosity to read through the article, though it was worth it. Is there really no way to preserve the gimmick but have a *solid* black background, rather than these black highlights that don't reach and clash against the white?

Anyway. Autolenaphilia brought in what I think is the elephant in the room: as much as the left-wing, right-wing, and religious readings of the film, it seems to me that the queer-metaphor reading deserves scrutiny in its own right. A right-winger would, of course, lump it in with leftist/"woke" readings, but that feels quite wrong to me; becoming the One is not the same thing at all if it means starting a social revolution vs. an act of ultimately *personal* transformation (albeit one which proudly announces itself to the world and invites imitation).

Oliver Townshend said...

Always enjoyed this movie, and I just blanked the awful sequels out of my mind. As I lived in Sydney, I got to see the sets many times, worked in the street where Neo used to eat at and launched himself into the air from at the end (which is always the cut-off point for me and leaves open any ending you want). I ended up working in the building he contemplated jumping from at the start - whenever I was bored I would wander over to the window and stare down and recreate the scene.