How the die disconnect became the new die
The year of release of “The Matrix” – 1999 – already had an air of science fiction. It was the year that Prince had envisioned as the preparation for the apocalypse, a premonition that would end up in the nervousness of the year 2000. And 1999 is just such a cool number; it’s like the other side of the coin from 2001. With its row of nine about to turn around, it looked like the future anchored in the present, and that’s kind of what 1999 felt. We knew we were entering the 21st century and we thought we had a good idea of what it was all about. The internet was only a few years old, but we could already see where it was leading: towards a digital world that would put everything (literally) at your fingertips. Everything could now be done at home, at the computer keyboard, including manipulating reality, which could now be whatever you wanted it to be.
The future would be digital, in all areas. It had already started to change our films, our daily communication, our purchases (it’s not nothing in America of late capitalism!), Maybe our souls. And “The Matrix,” heralded by phosphorescent green computer-coded raindrops, exploited all of that without necessarily coming out the other side (which was part of the edge of the film’s moment of charm). It was a movie about disconnecting from false reality and plugging into real reality. Still, the movie showcased that quest, especially in its second half, with the kind of digital effects that cares about what it means when it looks so awesome that would be used by Hollywood, in the future, to color the powers of comic book superheroes. Here’s a question: Are MCU movies, in their own way, part of The Matrix? Most MCU fans would say no; most reviews would say yes. Here’s a more interesting question: Was “The Matrix” part of The Matrix?
When “The Matrix” came out there was a lot of talk about what the Matrix was. What was the Great Metaphor of Everything really referring to? Some have said it was the internet – what I thought at the time was too literal a read, even though it is more water-retentive 20 years later. Was it the jumble of false images we lived in, the daily bombardment of advertisements and visual fictions that had become so ubiquitous that they colonized our imaginations? Was it the old enigma of the brain in a jar, first put forward by René Descartes, who said that life itself can be an illusion, a collection of sensory data provided to us without necessarily reflecting the reality that surrounds us? Simulation theory, which more and more people now believe in, says that we live in a computer simulation (designed, perhaps, by an advanced civilization). This idea is put into practice in Rodney Ascher’s documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix”, where Elon Musk is introduced as his biggest advocate – which made me think I have to add another bad idea to the list of bad ideas that Elon Musk believes in.
Yet, looking back two decades, the most telling dimension of the Matrix is that it exists, fundamentally, as a plot: a virtual reality designed to hallucinate us into good drones. The lasting legacy of “The Matrix” as a movie may be the perception that we’re living a lie – until we take the Red Pill and wake up, just like Neo. The “red pilling” has become an expression in the culture, driven by the shadow world of information on the Internet. The idea was this: the deeper the web dive, the more truth is embraced. Red-pilling meant unplugging from the fake media matrix. And, of course, each person who took that plunge would now be their own hero Neo, a raging rebel against the machine in their own mind.
The “Alice in Wonderland” imagery is, of course, tied to the 1960s, something director Lana Wachowski makes explicit in the best sequence of “The Matrix Resurrections”, which features a trippy remix of “White Rabbit” , the Jefferson Airplane song that told you to ‘feed your head’, so you can glimpse the mystery on the other side of the illusion. And it is the myth of the 60s that we have never given up: that the powers that be lie to us. They lied to us about the JFK assassination, they lied about Vietnam and Watergate and Iran-Contra and weapons of mass destruction, they lie about the chemicals in our food and a thousand other things. Out of all that has emerged a mythology: that we will be ruled by their lies until we are out of our trance.
“The Matrix” lent an action-head-trip cachet to it all. Yet by the mid-2000s, the conspiracy mindset had started to take rather bizarre forms. Of course, there had always been a butterfly dimension: “Paul is dead”, alien abductions, the idea that the moon landing was rigged with the help of Stanley Kubrick. But most of it sounded like gonzo chatter.
It was with the idea that 9/11 was a “job from within,” planned and executed by the deep state, that the insane side of conspiracy theories began to take hold of mainstream culture. Not that it was discussed in the mainstream media; it has been largely ignored. But the rise of the new right was to see both mainstream media and government as a cosmic source of toxic deception. This is why the red pill has become a popular notion among followers of figures like Alex Jones. What Alex Jones was selling and what QAnon was selling was the same thing “The Matrix” was selling: the idea that your “reality” is a tangle of illusions and only the red pill can set you free.
If you really watch it, the legacy of “The Matrix” isn’t that we’ve all woken up to the truth. It’s because a growing number of people no longer take reality at face value. I’m not suggesting that “The Matrix” in 1999 caused this. But he has channeled the change, in America and perhaps the world, from thinking based on reality to a state of mind where reality has become the enemy because it can no longer be trusted. I’ll leave it to critics to debate the pros and cons of “The Matrix Resurrections”, but what is clear about the third sequel to “The Matrix” is what it feels like in the news from yesterday. It runs on fumes of nostalgic paranoia.
In 2021, what a truly relevant “Matrix” movie would face is how breaking free from the Matrix has become the New Matrix: an excuse to believe anything you want to believe. Only now, The Matrix is something we design for ourselves: a do-it-yourself illusion that we create at home, choosing our own false prophets. The film spread a fantasy that even the most extreme politicians could only dream of. It took the prospect of systematically removing yourself from reality and made it cool.