The Matrix still has you: the lasting legacy of a cyberpunk masterpiece

Revisiting the film that made philosophy sexy and Keanu Reeves cool

Image: The Matrix / Warner Bros.

FYI: This post was first published on Gizmodo UK in 2019, but now the site no longer exists I’m republishing it here with permission from Future Publishing.

On Easter Weekend 1999, The Matrix debuted in US cinemas. Written and directed by the Wachowskis, The Matrix starred Keanu Reeves as Neo, Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity, Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. It was a box office hit, received widespread critical acclaim and went on to win four Academy Awards.

Two decades later and the film is still as smart, entertaining and rich in meaning as it was on opening day. Each rewatch can provide a deeper appreciation of not only its unique aesthetic and technical savvy, but also the numerous philosophical debates that are woven throughout, including a prescient exploration of society’s relationship with technology.

“More important than what, is when”

I was only 12 years old when The Matrix was released, which meant I had to wait until it came out on VHS before I got to see it. Having grown up on a mind-expanding diet of Star Wars and Star Trek, when I finally did sit down to watch The Matrix, it ticked many boxes for me. It was science-fiction, sure, but it was unlike anything I’d seen before with slick action, evil robots and a depiction of rebellion that felt dangerous and exciting.

Viewed solely as an action film where the hero saves the day, gets the girl and little else, The Matrix is still highly enjoyable — that’s why it made more than $460 million at the box office. But the rabbit hole goes a lot deeper.

Watching The Matrix again in my late teens, my 20s and again today it’s a completely different experience each time. I’ve been surprised by just how rich the film is in philosophical exploration, spiritual imagery and parallels with stories from myths and legends, revealing new perspectives with every watch.

“Tumbling down the rabbit hole”

The Matrix is set in a dystopian future around 2199 in which sentient machines are farming energy from humans. Kept in a state of comatose within pods, humans are fed a constant virtual simulation called The Matrix, which they believe to be the real world.

A group of freed humans, led by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss), help to free Neo (Keanu Reeves) from The Matrix because they believe him to be the prophesied saviour — ‘The One’ — they’ve been searching for. They must fight The Matrix, and its AI gatekeepers, through confrontations with virtual agents, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).

Image: The Matrix / Warner Bros.

Over the past 20 years, The Matrix has been continually mined for imagery and meaning. Philosophy, media and film studies lecturers have discussed it at length in seminars, countless essays have explored its themes and more than a few books have been written about it.

Culture critic Slavoj Zizek suggested: “The Matrix is a kind of Rorschach test, setting in motion the universalized process of recognition.” Essentially, we see in it what we want to see, including feminist readings, Cartesian parallels, religious imagery and virtually every philosophical -ism you can think of.

This means what I took away from The Matrix is likely quite different from what resonated most deeply with you — it’s part of its lasting appeal and by design. In the booklet that came with The Ultimate Matrix Collection DVD release in 2004, the Wachowskis wrote: “We encourage the consciously curious to flip back and forth going from complexity to simplicity, from internal to external, and somewhere between the search and the denial of meaning, we ask the curious to ‘make up their own damn mind.’”

“So, you’re here to save the world”

I’d always viewed Neo as a Christ-like figure — he’s constantly referred to as The One, after all — and The Matrix as a Christian allegory. But, after further reading, the character appears to be more heavily steeped in Buddhist and Gnostic principles, both of which are concerned with attaining inner insight and deep knowing, as well as the power of innate divinity instead of worshipping a separate, external God or individual. The ultimate goal? Spiritual knowledge, liberation and awakening.

Neo is constantly waking up throughout the film — literally and metaphorically. There’s Neo’s first appearance, when he wakes up at his desk to Trinity’s messages on his computer screen. He wakes up to his alarm clock, late for work after meeting Trinity in person at the nightclub. He wakes up in bed after being interrogated by the Agents. We also see him wake for the first time in the ‘real’ inside his pod. And so on, as each time his understanding is nudged forward and his awareness is grown, he literally wakes up.

But although his awakening ultimately meant he could master lots of kung fu moves and manipulate The Matrix, he didn’t transcend into the spiritual realm, which is the ultimate goal in Buddhism. Nor did he become a God or Messiah. This has prompted a lot of discussions online: was he even intended to be a Messiah, Buddha or God in the first place?

Maybe he became more Superman than super deity. And maybe that’s okay. His story certainly followed Joseph Campbell’s classic hero’s journey, just like Frodo from The Lord of the Rings and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, and all of your favourite comic book heroes.

Neo is a hero, yes, but maybe it left more of a lasting impact that he was portrayed as a man-turned-hero instead of a religious saviour — that’s a stronger message for everyone because by that reasoning you and I could, metaphorically, wake up too.

Image: The Matrix / Warner Bros.

“If you don’t like it, I believe you can go to hell”

Neo may be the de-facto hero of the movie, but let’s be clear about one thing — he wouldn’t have even made it out of his apartment without Trinity.

She’s the first character to appear in the film and she makes one hell of an impact — which is the one consistent opinion I’ve had every time I’ve watched The Matrix over the past twenty years.

When Trinity introduces herself to Neo he recognises her handle as that of an expert hacker: “Jesus, I just thought, um, you were a guy,” to which she adroitly replies; “Most guys do.”

The gravity-defying beatdown she delivers in the first five minutes of the film is made that much more satisfying by following the police lieutenant’s dismissal of her as any kind of a threat: “I think we can handle one little girl.”

Since The Matrix was released, the term Trinity Syndrome has been coined to describe when strong, capable female characters get a great opening scene but then don’t become fully formed in their own right.

Is Trinity used as a prop to push Neo’s story forwards? Sure, but she’s also a truly fantastic character in her own right and tips the kick-ass sci-fi representation scale in the right direction, along with Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Princess Leia.

Her role in The Matrix narrative is pivotal. The Oracle tells her she’ll fall in love with The One, which is how she is able to recognise with certainty Neo’s true potential. She is the first to make contact with Neo, telling him to follow the white rabbit before introducing herself at the nightclub. She yanks a nightmare surveillance bug out of his navel. She stops him from getting killed by agents more than once. In the real world, she informs him that she’s the ship’s captain in Morpheus’ absence. Oh, and she literally kisses him back to life. Her actions may work to elevate Neo to his archetypal hero status, but she still wields plenty of authority throughout.

When she kisses Neo to bring him back to life, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the scene was a perfect Sleeping Beauty switcheroo. It’s Trinity who brings Neo back to life and who wakes him up from the Matrix in the first place.

Given more time and character development there’s so much more Trinity could have done, but I’m happy to have had Trinity to not only push representation forward but to have been the driving force behind some of the most phenomenal female action hero sequences of all time.

“How do you define real?”

Image: The Matrix / Warner Bros.

If you watched The Matrix and started to question whether everything around you was actually real, you weren’t alone. I’ve taken a detailed look at the history of simulation theory already this week, but attitudes to some of these theories have changed since the film’s release.

There are many allusions to Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulation throughout The Matrix. It literally appears in Neo’s apartment and Morpheus refers to the world outside of The Matrix as “the desert of the real”, a term Baudrillard used to describe what modern society has become after images, symbols and simulations have hijacked our thinking and replaced reality.

Interestingly, when asked what he thought of The Matrix in a 2004 interview, Baudrillard said: “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.”

But The Matrix didn’t just invite audiences to question their reality, it also suggested anyone could be betrayed by their senses. This is summed up well when, on the Nebuchadnezzar, Mouse asks: “Because you have to wonder now: how do the machines really know what Tasty Wheat tasted like, huh? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like uh… oatmeal or uh… or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things.”

This is the same way many philosophers over the years have questioned whether what we think is real based on what we perceive about the outside world can be trusted. It’s a line of thinking popularised by Rene Descartes, who suggested we have no way of knowing if an evil demon is manipulating our senses.

The Wachowskis likely drew upon more recent thought experiments from Hilary Putnam who took Descartes’ idea and proposed we could all be brains floating around in vats being manipulated by electrical impulses. Sound familiar?

Popular thought about simulation theory and the nature of our reality has moved on since 1999. Four years after the film’s release in 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper called Are you living in a computer simulation?.

Bostrom’s work has since made simulation theory a palatable mainstream idea, which is now debated among tech entrepreneurs and scientific circles. But would Bostrom’s idea have become as popular without The Matrix? There have been plenty of movies about simulated realities before, but The Matrix may have provided a much-needed, albeit fantastical, visual reference point for Bostrom’s ideas.

“Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony”

The Matrix might tell the story of an imagined future in which AI rules, but that doesn’t mean the moral of the story is to be fearful of technological developments. Instead, we could more productively view The Matrix as a lesson in how our current use of technology might need to change for the better.

Corporations and social networks already have our attention, they’re already selling our data and draining our time. Watching The Matrix in 2019 makes us ask: are we already victims of the Matrix? The Wachowskis likely weren’t aware just how much technology and the internet would become an integral part of our lives over the course of two decades, but the message was prophetic then and should serve as a warning now.

Because The Matrix imagines a dystopia in which robots have taken over, yes, but it also tells the story of Neo, a person who searches for truth and is resurrected, or reborn, with knowledge, clarity and a renewed sense of purpose and power.

This is a relevant tale for our current times, a rallying cry for those who have the luxury of tuning out and plugging into their own personal Matrix to wake up.

“Ignorance is bliss”

Image: The Matrix / Warner Bros.

As well as motivating us to ‘unplug’, the film also tests our morals and willingness to embrace the truth ourselves. Cypher is a character in The Matrix who, on the surface, is playing a villain. But he offers an interesting counterpoint to Neo’s revolutionary optimism.

He’s the typical movie bad guy and yet his decision isn’t entirely unrelatable. Knowledge may lead to truth and power, as we’ve learned from Neo and epistemological schools of thought, but, the reality is a desert. The world outside the Matrix is brutal. The food is bad, there’s constant threat from the sentinels and everyone is living with the trauma of finding out the lives they lived were fake.

“Which pill would you choose?” is an enduring and important thought experiment proposed in The Matrix and it’s not an easy one to answer. When I first saw the film I’d have, without a doubt, chosen red and been very much #TeamNeo. But, after multiple viewings, I now find myself much more sympathetic to Cypher’s observation that “Ignorance is bliss.” What’s the difference between the me of today versus the me of twenty years ago? The world-weariness that a 12-year old cannot begin to guess at, perhaps? But anyway, I’m still #TeamNeo.

“I know Kung Fu”

Image: The Matrix / Warner Bros.

The film’s philosophical and spiritual readings may still be timely, but the way it looks holds up remarkably well too. Fans have debated which of the film’s action shots are the most impressive for years, from the foyer scene that’s one of the most iconic shoot-outs in film history to Neo’s back-bending, bullet-dodging skills on the roof, which have been copied a thousand times over

Bullet time is one of the most technically daunting, but visually rewarding, effects in the film, which slows down the action and separates time from space, allowing the camera to pan around a subject while the rest of the shot appears to be moving in slow-motion. It’s a signature of The Matrix and although it’s been spoofed many times since, it hasn’t been employed with the same dramatic effect, which makes watching it again on screen all the more special.

Before filming began, the Wachowskis insisted that the actors learn a lot of the fight sequence moves, which they felt provided a more realistic and seamless experience for the audience instead of relying on stunt doubles. This meant lots of training, wirework and choreography from renowned Hong Kong director and stunt choreographer Yuen Wo Ping. He worked to coordinate all of the elaborate fight sequences in The Matrix, and also served as a personal martial-arts trainer for the four principal cast members. Not only did this thorough and rigorous training and planning result in some of the most memorable fight sequences in film history, but it set a precedent for action films to come.

The overall aesthetic of The Matrix is still stunning two decades on. This is likely down to the melting pot of influences the Wachowskis drew on for the development of the film’s unique visual style. They relied heavily on Anime (especially Akira), Hong Kong Kung Fu films and comic books to create a unique feel for the world of The Matrix. To ensure every shot was executed precisely to their vision, they also created a detailed comic-book-style storyboard with the help of the renowned comic book and conceptual artist Geoff Darrow.

The result is a film that looks stylised and distinct, expertly creating a contrast between the world of the matrix — with its green hues and grid patterns — and the ‘real’ world of the film — packed with cool tones, cyberpunk tech and minimal styling.

The world within the Matrix is set in the 90s, which some may argue dates the film. But the opposite is true. The Matrix imagines a 90s world, yes, but that’s the world created by the machines. It’s not real by default, but a simulation. The year in the ‘real’ world of the film, which we mostly see in the first film from inside the Nebuchadnezzar, is in 2199 — or at least that’s Morpheus’ best guess. Although the matrix simulation may be suspended in the 90s, the viewer can project their own modern-day experiences onto it now 20 years later.

Image: The Matrix / Warner Bros.

“Free your mind”

Since the film’s release, both Wachowski siblings have come out as transgender women. This has led fans to ask whether the themes within The Matrix spoke to their experiences in a gender binary world.

When Lily Wachowski delivered a speech at the GLAAD Media Awards, where she accepted an award for Sense8, The Mary Sue reports that she said: “There’s a critical eye being cast back on Lana and I’s work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static. And while the ideas of identity and transformation are critical components in our work, the bedrock that all ideas rest upon is love.”

There’s certainly no shortage of imagery that could be retrospectively viewed through a lens of transness, including the red pill, which some have suggested could be representative of hormone therapy. The fact that our hero lives a ‘respectable’ life as Thomas Anderson and the agents — who possibly represent transphobia — refuse to acknowledge his second, truer identity as ‘Neo’.

“If you change just about every instance of the words “the Matrix” in the movie with “gender binary,” you get a very interesting take on the movie,” The Mary Sue suggested. “One that resided just under the surface, waiting to be discovered… kind of like the Matrix, eh?”

It’s also been interesting to revisit the careers of the Wachowski siblings. The second Matrix film, Matrix Reloaded, also performed well at the box office. But the third movie, The Matrix Revolutions, received lukewarm reviews and didn’t perform as well in comparison

They have since produced and directed a range of movies, including Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, as well as the award-winning Sense8 television series for Netflix. Although none of their later projects were considered a failure, they didn’t reach the same level of success as they did with The Matrix. Both Lily and Lana Wachowski are extremely private, so it’s impossible to draw conclusions about how they view The Matrix now. But, given their passion for the movie and ambition to both write and direct it, we can assume it had the same lasting, magical impact as it did for audiences.

“It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes”

Two decades on and The Matrix remains as impressive and relevant today as it was in 1999. The action scenes have aged remarkably well, the comic book-meets-kung fu film aesthetic is still visually-stunning and the moral and philosophical debates are just as important to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

The narrative also feels eerily prophetic in an age where we are ruled by our technology, but instead of sentient robot overlords it’s safely tucked in our pockets (for now…).

The Matrix gave us something rare in mainstream blockbuster fare — the opportunity to expand and refine our understanding and enjoyment on every repeat viewing. It delivered a crash course in philosophical debate wearing leather and sunglasses and firing semi-automatic weapons. It showed us that the big questions, like The Matrix, are all around us.

UK-based journalist specialising in tech, science & the future. Author of SCREEN TIME (out Jan 2021).