Twenty years ago, we saw the lightning flash of The Matrix, an entirely new form of action movie for American audiences. It combined science fiction with noir, mixing in Japanese apocalyptic manga/anime and Chinese fight choreography, hinting at post-modern intellectual pursuits—all of this wrapped up in impressive new cinematic technologies. The movie seemed destined to change movie-making and won four Oscars, mostly in sound and visual effects, but also the very important editing award.
This turned out to be all lightning and no thunder. Cinema didn’t really change and pretty much all the movies that imitated The Matrix failed and have been forgotten. The Matrix was only the 5th highest grossing movie of 1999 with $171 million in America, and $463 million worldwide. The franchise as a whole proved to be both commercially and artistically disappointing.
The Matrix appeared to combine all four ambitions of avant-garde modern art: Intellectualism, visual technology, music, and political revolution.
That the Wachowskis set out to make an intellectual kind of action film is striking because it defies the conventions of the genre. Indeed, before shooting the movie the writer-directors had the cast read one of the important works of postmodern thought, Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 Simulacra and Simulations, and they placed the book prominently in the movie itself. They even had a major character quote from its famous opening: Welcome to the desert of the real. This, of course, suggested a radical criticism of prevailing conditions and social arrangements.
Next, the Wachowskis availed themselves of new technologies. The hope was that film would redefine itself in the digital age as the only adequate representation of our quest for self-understanding, fully employing the powers of visual effects. What society makes invisible or even unthinkable—our very imaginations—could now be adequately represented on the screen. The Matrix works with the premise that technology might fulfill its ultra-modern purpose, to make man fully malleable by computerizing our experience.
Music would then provide the animating power necessary to connect the people—indeed, mankind as such—to the ideas of revolution. From Marilyn Manson to Rage Against The Machine to any number of forgettable angry urban youth bands to club music—The Matrix was supposed to be subversive, transgressive, popular, and futuristic all at once.
This was all intended to add up to political revolution. Like my friend Pete Spiliakos says, Matrix is a Marxist awakening story. Everyman hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) lives a banal and dissatisfying life in a modern metropolis, replete with corporate cubicle work, and he thinks that’s what freedom is. Then he learns that what he takes to be capitalist democracy is in fact the worst form of slavery known to history, since it has enslaved not merely the body but the mind as well. Then Neo awakens to fight the capitalist oppressors!
But there’s something off here: Is a singular hero required to fulfill the Marxist fantasy of destroying the oppressors? Well, if he’s just an everyman, then we’d all have solved our political problems by now. And if he’s only able to accomplish this with magic, as Neo does, that’s no solution at all.
The story has a double character: it depicts an unremittingly grim political situation alongside the promise of great personal power. The class conflict has men fighting machines in a distant future where technology has erased human freedom and, indeed, become a new god that demands the ongoing sacrifice of our bodies and minds. Our wildest expectations about Progress are overwhelmed! In accordance with Marx, the machine proves to be the agent of the revolution—technology is real, ideology is fake. But the dream of Progress turns into a nightmare because human beings are stuck being human and therefore an inferior being.
There’s no denying the inferiority, but then there’s no accepting it, either. To be human is to be perplexed: Keanu asks questions all the time and seems surprisingly dim-witted. Human beings are limited by their bodies in a way the machines are not and the human form of freedom, imagining a world unlike the real world, is itself turned against them by the machines. Everyone ends up trapped in an illusion, because it beats the miserable reality of their enslaved mortal bodies. In the case of Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), we find a character who consciously chooses slavery of body and a pleasant illusion for the mind, the nearly universal condition in this technological tyranny. Therefore, liberating those bodies becomes imperative. Freedom to be who we really are, turns out conveniently to coincide with the fight for survival. There is no difference between mere life and the good life here. So the personal situation turns out to be much better than the political situation—mankind may become extinct, but Neo and his fellow rebels can explore their identities and acquire shocking powers in the process, albeit only when they reconnect themselves to the Matrix.
The film tells an important truth: Nothing can make people content to be as they are—nothing stops them from imagining things that might be better. And in the Matrix, such self-transformation is limited only by one’s imagination and ability to manipulate the system.
This is how the Marxist uprising against capitalism turns into the wonders of gender-bending. The only strangely prophetic thing about this movie was the androgynous romance where you had to try hard to tell Neo apart from Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). This is, of course, the story of the writer-directors, the Wachowskis, who were two brothers when they made this movie and are now two sisters. Discontent with the world becomes most personal in discontent with the body which, since it is not chosen, is not part of one’s identity, but part of the given world. Radical liberation is not just liberation of bodies, but liberation from the human body itself.
The movie also formulates an idea that doesn’t fit the excitement of magical powers and a Marxist uprising. It implies that the engine of history isn’t violence or power. Desire drives us: Human freedom is driven by eros, and the demand of eros is for fulfillment and completion. But the characters don’t live in a world defined by human nature or its limits. Every limit is thus overcome and the power of chance is ultimately conquered, which is of course the modern project. In a dark world like Matrix, this leads to the negation of ordinary human life itself: hence androgyny, hence adding machine powers to human powers, hence adding virtual reality to disappointments of everyday life.
This story, which fascinated so many people, failed because it shares the modern aversion to tragedy and therefore offers a strangely flat image of humanity. You cannot take seriously the struggles of those fated to win. Moreover, the writer-directors didn’t have the courage of even following their main idea and putting an unchained eros at the core of being human.
The Wachowskis suggest through The Matrix that, deeper than the political conflicts obvious already in the late 90s, individualism made people feel deeply wounded—radically incomplete, unable to be human merely by themselves, but also unable, given their search for something or someone to complete them—to dedicate themselves to any political community. Bold ideas became necessary just to get by. The Wachowskis wagered that fantastic identities would get people to act when politics wouldn’t. Mythology, not ideology, would create a perfect human-machine combination, but this hasn’t quite come to pass.
Through the film’s characters, the Wachowskis suggest that the human body might be ruled by the most demanding and ambitious desires imaginable, by tyrannic dreams we enact while awake. Our bodies make us mortal and unwise. We’re stuck chasing things we cannot have—immortality, perfection. Power encourages our delusions; it does not offer a cure. Only the power to radically alter the body and free ourselves from our bodily limitations could fix our pained awareness of incompleteness.
Politics on the basis of absolute individualism ultimately involves a desire to do violence to oneself to achieve a fullness that politics itself can never provide. This was the darkest, most dangerous suggestion of the Wachowskis, and the one we are seeing play out today.