December 20, 2021

Lawrence Mattis, the long-time manager of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, studied philosophy at college. When, in 1994, he received the first draft of the screenplay for The Matrix, he couldn’t believe what he was reading. As he told the author Brian Raftery: “I called them and said, ‘This is amazing! You wrote a script about Descartes! But how do I sell this thing?’”

Mattis was thinking of the philosopher’s Meditation on First Philosophy, championed the importance of doubt by hypothesising that everything he thought he knew about reality might be an illusion created by an evil demon. Of course, The Matrix is about a lot more than that. The Wachowskis themselves have cited a litany of influences: ranging from Homer’s Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville to the cybernetics expert Kevin Kelly, Schopenhauer, Buddhism and Jean Baudrillard, whose 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation appears in the movie. The phrase “desert of the real” comes from its very first page, although the man himself sniffed that “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the Matrix that the Matrix would have been able to produce”.

Critics and fans have suggested numerous other influences: Plato’s cave, Hilary Putnam’s brain in a vat, Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine, Philip K Dick, Plato, Socrates, Kant, Marx, Hegel, Lacan, Dostoevsky, Sartre and even Doctor Who. The essays in the 2002 book The Matrix and Philosophy contradict each other to hilarious extent: It’s Buddhist! It’s Christian! It’s Marxist! It’s postmodern! Yet none are wrong exactly because the movie is a mash-up of ideas, not a thesis. When the Wachowskis were asked in a web chat how many of these perceived allusions were intentional, they replied in the teasing spirit of a Sixties Bob Dylan press conference: “All of it.

In the week that Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the franchise, opens, it’s worth remembering that before The Matrix was released in March 1999, it was unflatteringly compared to the 1995 flop Johnny Mnemonic, another film about virtual reality starring Keanu Reeves.

But it was no Johnny Mnemonic. Raking in almost half a billion dollars, it proved that Hollywood could tap into the new immersive nature of gaming, paved the way for the superhero imperium, and (to the immense benefit of Christopher Nolan) made explicitly philosophical non-franchise blockbusters a going concern. Better still, and despite two widely disliked sequels, it became a cultural touchstone. The Wachowskis talked about “making mythology relevant in a modern context” and they succeeded in spades. The Matrix has become a modern myth and, like any myth, it has been interpreted in radically different ways.

The brilliance of The Matrix is that it can make anybody feel clever. It signals that it is about something profound but the basic conceit is very simple. You could grasp it by knowing your Descartes or just by listening to Queen: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

Reeves’s character believes he is a coder called Thomas Anderson, living in a boring 1999. In fact, he resides comatose in a gooey pod in the late 22nd century, where he serves as an organic battery for humanity’s new AI overlords. His life has been a simulation, a dream, the Matrix. Waking up is a kind of rebirth. At the end, he tells those damned dirty machines that he will usher in “a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible”.

The Matrix was perfectly timed. The AI law enforcer Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) explains that the Matrix takes place in an infinite 1999 because it was “the peak of your civilisation”. Movie-goers in that period would have had a different impression. There were multiple examples of what the critic Joshua Clover calls “Edge of the Construct” movies, in which “reality” is revealed to be a hi-tech charade created for nefarious purposes: The Truman Show, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor. Then there were what you might call “Work sucks” movies: Fight Club, American Beauty and Office Space — in which the cubicle is a prison cell.

“That decade was so comfortable,” Mattis told Raftery. “The stock market was up, and people were making money. But there was a splinter in the mind’s eye: something felt wrong. In all of that comfort, people started thinking, ‘There’s something missing here.’” It’s no surprise that the film’s climactic song is Wake Up by Rage Against the Machine, the band who soundtracked the enormous protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle a few months later. Still, there’s a temptation to tell the filmmakers of 1999, y’know, things could be worse.

The Matrix also reminds us how new and raw the internet felt in 1999. Even with the first dotcom boom in full swing, online culture retained a freewheeling, anarchic energy. For many message-board users, the internet was an opportunity to craft a new identity from scratch and an online community could be far more rewarding — more real — than one in “meatspace”. Even within the Matrix, Thomas Anderson lives a double life as the hacker Neo, the hacker being the quintessential cyberpunk hero.

One consequence of online culture that was already evident in 1999 was the spread of conspiracy theories. The Matrix, in which everything Neo knows about his life is indeed a lie propagated by a malign conspiracy, was a timely text. The last movie to use imagery from Lewis Carroll’s stories so prominently was Oliver Stone’s JFK. “This world has the Matrix all over the place,” Lana Wachowski said at the time. “People accept ways of thinking that are imposed upon them rather than working them out for themselves. The free-thinking people are those who question every sort of Matrix, every system of thought or belief, be it political, religious, philosophical.”

These are worthwhile questions to ask but the answers aren’t always pretty and the cult of The Matrix has taken a sinister turn. In 2012, a group of men’s rights activists founded a subreddit called TheRedPill. In The Matrix, the human explication machine Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) gives Neo two pills and a choice. “After this there is no turning back,” he says thrillingly. “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more.”

Neo’s choice is a fable of courage, self-discovery, empowerment and radicalisation. To TheRedPill users, the idea of a world which favours men is the simulation and systemic bias against men is the reality. Feminists are the Agents, I guess. You can see why men’s rights activists might relate to Trinity’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) assessment of Neo: “I know why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why night after night you sit at your computer.” He’s the discontented nerd who becomes a kick-ass messiah.

The metaphor has achieved broader popularity on the Right, from incels to Infowars, and QAnon to full-blown neo-Nazis, so much so that when Maroon 5 called their 2017 album Red Pill Blues, they had to clarify that they were simply Matrix fans and not fascist conspiracy theorists. Ironically, the red pill represents being awakened, which is also the meaning of woke.

There are, of course, other readings. To one group of fans, the red pill bears a suspicious resemblance to the brand of prescription oestrogen that was popular in the Nineties. Lana came out as a trans woman in 2012 (after a decade of rumours), followed by Lilly in 2016. Inevitably, this gave rise to the theory that The Matrix is a trans allegory, in which the “splinter in your mind, driving you mad” is gender dysphoria, names and bodies are mutable, and Morpheus is Neo’s therapist, guiding him into his new identity.

In 2016, Lilly approved of this theory in the-more-the-merrier terms, “because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static” and “the ideas of identity and transformation are critical components in our work”. Four years later, however, she went further: “That was the original intention but the world wasn’t quite ready.” The androgynous character Switch was originally intended to be a man in the real world and a woman in the Matrix. “The Matrix stuff was all about the desire for transformation but it was all coming from a closeted point of view,” Lilly said.

Yet this alone doesn’t justify one Atlantic writer’s bald claim that the film itself is “an allegory of gender dysphoria, as its creators have repeatedly said”. In fact, I couldn’t find a single mention of a trans subtext in any of the books about The Matrix published prior to Lana’s transition. The tortuous passages about it in gender-critical feminist Helen Joyce’s Trans are a good illustration of the problem with taking this idea too literally. To quote the trans writer Andrea Long Chu: “Allegorically is the least interesting way to read anything. Nothing ruins a question like an answer; the world is weirder than that.”

An allegory is a story where the author’s message is coherent and undeniable. A myth is fluid and ambiguous, open to diverse and contradictory interpretations. In a revealing 2012 New Yorker profile, Lana Wachowski remembered being confused and frustrated as a child by the black monolith in 2001 until her father told her it was a symbol. “That simple sentence went into my brain and rearranged things in such an unbelievable way that I don’t think I’ve been the same since,” she said. “Something clicked inside.” It’s not just that the monolith is a symbol; it’s that Kubrick refused to explain what it symbolised. It is more myth than allegory. In a single interview, Kubrick could have made the movie half as interesting.

The Wachowskis are not so taciturn. Last year, when Elon Musk tweeted “Take the red pill” and Ivanka Trump replied “Taken!”, Lilly tweeted back: “Fuck both of you.” I can see why the sisters might want to reimpose some authorial control over the meaning of The Matrix now that “all of it” includes some horrific stuff. Like Matt Furie, the cartoonist who created Pepe the Frog, they’ve seen their work appropriated by the far-Right and that can’t feel good. But the price of creating a modern myth is that it can’t be controlled — and any attempt to do so can only diminish it.

As some viewers prepare to unravel the ideas in Matrix Resurrections, it’s important to remember that the first movie is not a philosophical treatise but a wildly entertaining Hollywood spectacle. Of all the answers the Wachowskis have given to the eternal question “What is The Matrix about?”, my favourite is the most flippant: “It’s about robots vs kung fu.” True enough. If it weren’t also about that, we wouldn’t be talking about it at all.