FRANCHISE REWIND: The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix, 1999 (Keanu Reeves) Warner Bros.

“There is no spoon.”

How much of The Matrix makes sense and how much of The Matrix doesn’t make sense? Let’s try to break it down from the perspective of a computer (at least what I understand about computers). If you want to be stupid about it, computers speak languages, and all of those languages are derived from different combinations of “ones” and “zeroes.” This is what’s known as binary language—”one” meaning “on” and “zero” meaning “off.”

The word, binary, is defined as “relating to, composed of, or involving two things.” “On” and “off” can also mean “yes” and “no” or “true” and “false.” That’s all the computer understands. That’s all the computer can understand. By its nature, anything that a computer can compose would be simulacrum without regard for taste, feel, or clarity, and any hope for a relationship between the computer (the “hard drive,” specifically) and the human brain would have to be dependent on the computer’s ability to fool the human brain by making a world so real, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

The only way this can work is if you have no established criteria from which to compare a conceivable utopia from a realistic dystopia. Therein lies the fundamental problem with the Matrix franchise. Keanu Reeves plays computer programmer Thomas Anderson, known in his hacker circles as “Neo.” Neo discovers repeated references to a “Matrix,” and before he knows it, he is captured and interrogated by “Agent Smith” (in reality, a construct of the Matrix) played memorably by Hugo Weaving (easily the franchise’s greatest asset).

Smith wants to use Neo to get to what he considers to be the real power, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), as well as his associate, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). The first few minutes of The Matrix are incredible with 360 degree views of balletic fighting sequences; hands, fists, and legs frozen in time for seconds, as well as gravity-defying walks on walls and spiraling kicks. Other than the initial credit sequence, you wouldn’t know the movie had anything to do with computers.

You would just think it was a particularly snazzy approach to martial combat and gunplay. Morpheus and Trinity rescue Neo, sit him down, and unravel some dirty truth on him. It turns out his whole life (everyone’s life) is a lie. In one of the last ever iconic scenes in cinema, Morpheus shows Neo two pills, one blue and one red (again, two choices—binary). If Neo takes the red pill, he goes further down the “rabbit hole.” If he takes the blue pill, it’s back to business as usual. Neo is adventurous.

He takes the red pill. I don’t believe the pill itself has any powers. It’s really more of a symbol than anything else. I do believe that Neo chooses “reality” (whatever that is) and thus when he pops the pill, his universe changes almost immediately. The fears are very specific to readers of William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison among many, many others in which we don’t necessarily live a life of our own construction.

Instead, we live at the pleasure of machines that use our bodies (our minds specifically) as fuel for their metallic empires. We would all be “God’s creatures” if God were a machine. Humans are confined to pods like constructed placental sacks with cables like umbilical supports connected to their bodies. Our natural electrical impulses are stolen from us by the machines to power themselves while feeding us computer-generated illusions of our lives.

Morpheus pilots the Nebuchadnezzar, a ship that travels inside the real world, which appears to be a dystopic environment (called “Zion”), beset by machine-controlled Sentinel ships. Everything up to that point in the movie makes sense. It’s only when we go outside that logic and start embracing “chosen ones” and “oracles” that The Matrix gets silly in a big hurry. Once he is liberated from his prison, Neo visits the so-called Oracle (Gloria Foster), and this is where the movie starts to lose me. I know the computers construct the fantasy, so I wonder how an Oracle could exist within that fantasy without being terminated.

“Cypher” (Joe Pantoliano) betrays the group to “Agent Smith” who wipes out most of Morpheus’ team within the Matrix. Smith captures Morpheus and demands the access codes for the central computer in Zion, and Neo and Trinity must rescue him. The Matrix was (you’ll forgive the word) destined to be a very simple story. You’ll recognize beats from other (better) stories and movies, and as long as you don’t take the whole thing too seriously, as well as recognize that there isn’t a single original component to the story, The Matrix should be a rewarding experience.

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