Friday 4 February 2022

Back to The Matrix

The summer of 1999 was all about George Lucas' Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Britney Spears.

Then there was a glitch in the Hollywood studio system. The Matrix happened.

I went along to The Picturehouse to see the much-heralded movie (ironically using a free complimentary ticket following a disastrous first screening of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) with a friend (from work) and we found ourselves immersed in a high-octane version of Dark City. We were spellbound. The next day, I went back to see The Matrix with another friend to ensure I wasn't suffering from celluloid false consciousness.

Like the original Star Wars, The Matrix sent seismic shocks through popular culture. At the time, I was coding my first-ever website on an iMac DV SE (using a free copy of Claris Home Page included with Macworld magazine) and always regret not reviewing it.

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions soon followed with diminishing returns. I still haven't seen the latter for various reasons.

Can The Matrix Resurrections reboot the franchise like Star Wars: The Force Awakens did for a galaxy far, far away..? Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, plugs back in.

Guest post by Nick Smith

In 1999 the information superhighway was a scary place for many. There was a genuine concern over the Millennium Bug, where computer errors seemed likely as data ran the risk of resetting for the year 2000. Raised on a diet of The Terminator, The Lawnmower Man and, most terrifying of all, You’ve Got Mail, we knew computers – and more specifically the internet they served – could only be trusted with a very long barge pole.

The Wachowskis tapped into these fears with The Matrix, a movie that blended action with existentialism, loss of identity with the finding of faith wrapped up in a wham-bam Hollywood package.

Although the internet was still new to the public, they had been using and exploring it for a few years. America was Online and it had questions. How did the internet fit in with the real world? Could a second life be lived in cyberspace? How did this almost abstract tech fit with other abstract concepts, like unconditional belief?

23 years later, some of the fears expressed in The Matrix have come true. We have given up our identities, or at least our personal information, to white men in suits – companies like Google and Amazon – in return for a discount on a nice juicy steak or distractions from the real world.

Educational, collaborative sites such as Wikipedia reflect the internet’s original intention. But Wiki continues to beg for money while social networks like Twitter and Instagram share its Top 10 popularity as some of the world’s most-visited websites. We all want to live our best lives; if some of us can’t do it IRL, we can Photoshop ourselves to succeed online.

There are plenty of benefits to our souped-up society. Access to information, digital technology, TikTok. You’d have to be crazy to question your existence in our slipstream Eden. But that’s just what Keanu Reeves’ character, Thomas Anderson, does in The Matrix Resurrections.

When I saw The Matrix in the late ‘90s, it had been hyped up as a great movie. I was impressed with the special effects but disappointed by the acting and derivative storytelling. A lot of the narrative seemed to come from comic books, Hong Kong action flicks, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I was not surprised when I later learned that the Wachowskis developed the concept as a graphic novel before it became a film – the main characters crashed around like superheroes.

I noted, sadly, that it continued a filmmaking trend of rehashing previous ideas, an inclination that could only lead to creative bankruptcy. Sure, Hollywood has done that since it started cranking out feature-length versions of its silent shorts but surely there were other avenues to explore?

The sequels took a twist, focusing more on the dystopian ‘real world’ than the made-up matrix built by machines to keep humans in a dream state. The third film wrapped up tightly with the death of some major characters but a hopeful future for the rest. How could the Matrix be resurrected?

The new film is not a reboot, although it comments on the rebranding of similar franchises. It’s more of a celebration of the original trilogy, using classic clips and new footage that echoes memorable footage from The Matrix (bullet-time balletics; casings falling from a helicopter gun). Its framework takes a meta look at the franchise’s success, with characters looking back on it fondly and trying to rebrand it in a corporate meeting. ‘Our beloved parent company, Warner Brothers, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy,’ says a boss called Smith, ‘…they're gonna do it with or without us.’ By rooting the film in a ‘real world,’ the filmmakers are able to comment on the way technology is used to distract an apathetic populace from what’s really important, like empathy and thoughtfulness.

Keanu Reeves returns as Thomas Anderson, struggling to discern what’s real and what’s digital. There’s a sense that this reluctant hero mirrors Reeves’ own reluctance to return to the role of Neo.

Director Lana Wachowski uses the new movie as an opportunity to spend more time in the matrix, develop strong female roles and give the whole saga a more positive spin. After the original trilogy ended on a real downer in its attempt to mirror the Jesus myth (saviour sacrifices himself to save mankind, does not pass Go, does not collect £200), Resurrections is an enriching addition to the series.

Rather than a cynical cash-in or retread, it adds a new layer to the saga and the climactic fight scenes look really good. That and Reeves’ performance make this movie much more than just a glitch. Go ahead, take the pill. Revisit The Matrix.

Have you seen The Matrix Resurrections? Let me know in the comments below.

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