Photo via Wikipedia Creative Commons
March 31 marked the 15-year anniversary of the release of the first film in the Matrix trilogy. A few outlets marked the occasion with hagiographic looks back at the "enduring legacy" of the movie, its themes, and memorable iconography, but for the most part, no one gave a shit. What the hell happened to a movie that once defined a generation?
I was 14 when The Matrix came out, and far more interested in the upcoming Star Wars prequel to give much of a shit about a movie in which the guy from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure wears sunglasses for two hours. I heard from friends that were brave enough to sneak into a screening how "fucking sick" The Matrix was, and that it would "blow your mind, dude." It would be another few years before I finally knew the touch of a woman, but this movie sounded like a cinematic consolation prize.
Being that I was already a professional cynic in training, I tried to ignore the bro-tastic bluster and hyperbole. It didn't dawn on me that maybe there was something to their rhetoric until I found myself walking to my showing of The Phantom Menace and happening past an auditorium screening The Matrix. Between the gun shots, bombastic score, and earnestly delivered philosophical dialogue, there were audible gasps coming out of the theater. The last time I heard people gasp during a movie was the poolside sex scene in Showgirls, and that was me—alone in my room—while masturbating.
The Matrix became a pop culture phenomenon that spawned video games, cartoons, merchandise... and two ignominious sequels we'd all pay money to forget. It was the ideal film for the society in which it was birthed. That's great in the moment, because it means The Matrix could dominate the zeitgeist that spawned it. There's an ugly side to that momentary relevance, and that's how a movie like the Wachowskis' magnum opus fares with later generations. The Matrix was perfect in 1999, but watching that movie in 2014 isn't much different from listening to a Limp Bizkit album in 2014—as in, I highly recommend not doing it.
The Matrix soundtrack includes such "legendary" artists as Propellerheads, Deftones, Monster Magnet, Marilyn Manson, and Rammstein. The soundtrack for the sequel naturally ups the ante and commissioned Linkin Park and POD (responsible for this risible, horseshit music video above) to submit tracks. The pop music in these movies was like the world's worst Ozzfest lineup, since there's actually an appearance by Dave Matthews Band on the Reloaded soundtrack. Dave Matthews Band! It's almost appropriate, since their body of work is like a computer simulation of music. In 1999, the most popular man in America was Stone Cold Steve Austin. Things were tough all over, but especially in music. The Matrix soundtrack totally embodies this dark time.
Photo via Flickr User Peter Taylor
From the crap music to the dubious fashion choices, The Matrix is hopelessly dated. "Yeah, so what?" you say, scoffing. "All soundtracks and costumes become dated one day. That's why you think The Matrix is lame?"
Hardly, though the below screenshot from that POD video might make me reconsider:
Cowabunga, dude! Oh, wait, wrong movie.
The music (and the fashion) is actually the easiest target for ridicule, but if you dug deeper into the "rabbit hole" (see what I did there?), you'd realize that this film is trapped in a causality loop of endless anachronism that it can never escape.
Before The Matrix, pop culture really had no way of knowing how to acclimate itself to the new paradigm created by constantly improving computer-processing power and internet connectivity. "Evil technology" movies were a dime a dozen in the 90s. There were movies like that Sandra Bullock–Dennis Miller stinker, The Net, which was the cinematic equivalent of one of those scary local news stories about how there are razor blades in Halloween candy. "Hackers will steal your credit cards... and your soul!"
Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days predicted that by 1999, people would be watching virtual reality recordings of snuff films for kicks. In reality, we still hadn't figured out how to make 3-D movies palatable, let alone pump video directly into someone's head. Before that was Bigelow's ex-husband's seminal film, The Terminator, which told the tale of a future war between man and machine. The Matrix shook that formula up by making computers and the internet a conduit for humanity's eventual evolution—a blank canvas of unlimited possibilities. It actually found a way to envision technology as something that seemed exciting. With computers you can fly, dodge bullets, and learn foreign languages—in addition to being enslaved by giant squid monsters, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's reset.
If you don't know the story of The Matrix because you're 12 and your favorite movie is Frozen, allow me to break it down for you: Keanu Reeves is a nerdy computer programmer being chased by cool people in leather jumpsuits and IBM programmers from 1957 who always wear sunglasses. The IBM programmers seem way more evil, probably because they wear ties. The cool people in leather jumpsuits seem like good guys because they hang around raves and can do karate. It turns out that the world Keanu lives in is actually a computer simulation of the year 1999. In the real world, he's strapped to a machine that extracts energy from his lifeless, comatose body. This is the fate of the entirety of humanity, as sentient machines have taken over the planet and use people to power their evil machine society. Why do they hate humans so much? You'll have to watch a totally separate cartoon prequel DVD to figure that out.
Anyway, the IBM dudes are actually computer programs whose job is to keep humans from discovering the truth. The leather karate ravers are freed humans who go back into "the Matrix" to release other humans from this psychic prison. Keanu is their messiah, predicted to free humanity from bondage, but before he can do that, he has to learn to believe in himself.
Sounds like an awesome movie, right? Well, not so fast, true believer. Beyond the bad fashion, nu-metal atrocities, and over-reliance on the color green, The Matrix suffers from being yet another goddamn movie where evil computers want to destroy the planet. Sorry, but in 2014, we're all much more aware that it's not technology that will destroy us, but the wealthy industrialists who seek to wield it for their own personal gain. Recent Johnny Depp poop-nugget Transcendence was a throwback to this late-90s mentality of computers corrupting man's boundless capacity for magnanimous action. Yeah, right. There's nothing truly shocking about the notion of squid robot monsters turning humans into batteries, because we're all already someone else's tool anyway. The future sucks, but a guy who knows kung fu isn't going to save us.
The Matrix isn't technically terrible, though. It's well-paced, suspenseful, clever in places, and visually stimulating. It's just that from the design all the way up to the basic plot, it's all trapped in the year 1999, just like Thomas Anderson before he became Goth Jesus. It's simply the recycled offspring of everything that preceded it.
There aren't many sci-fi/fantasy films that can claim to have the same level of impact as The Matrix, but there are a few. Star Wars, the first modern blockbuster (and yet another classic hero's journey about a reluctant messiah saving the day), easily plops into this category. The fact that a picture of a bunch of people sitting in a living room reading a script can merit even a little media attention is a testament to the everlasting reverberations of the first movie's release in 1977. Without Star Wars, the world—not just movies—would be different.
On the other end of this rarefied spectrum is Blade Runner. A critical and commercial disaster when it was released in 1982, Ridley Scott's dystopian thriller could not be considered on the level of Star Wars in terms of popularity, but its unique vision of the future (cribbed from numerous sources from French comic books to Japanese manga) smudged its filthy fingerprints all over every sci-fi movie that came after it—including The Matrix.
The Fifth Element, Judge Dredd, Dark City, The Crow, and just about every pre-Matrix comic book/sci-fi/fantasy movie from 1982 onward is a pale copy of Blade Runner's rainy, industrialized aesthetic nightmare. Blade Runner and Star Wars couldn't be any different in look, theme, pace, or tone. And yet the Wachowski siblings got them both drunk, made them screw, and nine months (or 20 years) later, they had a baby called The Matrix—a dark, ominous, rainy, bleak Christ allegory about the battle between good and evil. The only thing that truly separates The Matrix from its forebears is a bunch of annoying songs by horrible bands and bullet time. Imagine putting a Donna Summer song into the cantina scene in Star Wars.
Come on, imagine it. OK, don't just imagine it. Listen to this while you watch the cantina scene on mute:
With all of that said, please, for the love of God, do not remake The Matrix. It's a cultural artifact of a different time, like RoboCop, Seinfeld, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Monica Lewinsky. Let's leave those things where they belong. It's actually OK for stuff to get old and lame. My children are going to absolutely loathe the Hunger Games and Twilight (with their soon-to-be-dated soundtrack albums), which kids today swallow like eager baby birds. Some things are not "timeless classics." Admitting that is step one in the healing process.
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