The Matrix remembered

End title sequence

2019 rings in yet another anniversary. The Matrix movie is twenty years old.

Released in the USA on 31. March 1999, it would take another few months before it reached South African shores. On 23. June I saw it for the first time, and in September I went to see it again. It is one of the rare instances that I saw a movie twice while it was still on the cinema circuit, and it was one of the first movies I purchased on DVD — long before the sequels appeared.

Confessing that The Matrix blew me away would be an understatement.

Had the film been released now, in 2019, it would still be a terrific actioner and perhaps even more relevant than it was then: the matrix will be instantly recognised as an obvious allegory to the always-connected, domesticated, utilitarian social media of today.

We’re permanently jacked into the internet matrix. Alexa is always listening.

Surveillance by machines is a pervasive theme, and much of the computer jargon that would have befuddled viewers two decades ago has since entered mainstream speak.

Back in 1999, however, the Internet was nowhere near as ubiquitous: it was the realm of technophiles, geeks and misfits. Although the general population had heard of its existence, its early reputation wasn’t exactly positive on account of the hysteria caused by a different computer glitch looming: Y2k. The world would end after 31. December 1999 because of machines going berserk.

We were on the cusp of a robot apocalypse. Civilisation was going to collapse!

The film therefore owes as much of its success to good timing as it does to its ability in “taking complex philosophical ideas and presenting them in ways palatable for impressionable minds”. Sure, the concept of humanity consisting of individual souls confined to brains in a vat of meat suffering from a collective illusion is not a new one — but this film succeeded in bringing these ideas into a digital realm.

Original poster design

While ordinary viewers had recently been introduced to similar environments through films such as Ghost in the Shell, Lawnmower Man, Hackers, Virtuosity, Ghost in the Machine, Johnny Mnemonic, Dark City and, to a much lesser extent, The Net, The Matrix dragged you all the way down the rabbit hole.

Bolstered by elaborate action sequences, gung-ho martial arts, over-the-top gunplay, ground-breaking effects and a killer soundtrack, the movie had enough individual elements to appeal to the larger masses — but it was the slick combination of film noir style sci-fi and cyberpunk philosophy that struck home with geeks and anarchists alike.

Morpheus Meme

Many of the film’s sequences were parodied and became meme-worthy — before memes were a thing and before YouTube and Facebook even existed to propagate them. Its dialogue remains immensely quotable. Indeed, each character was meticulously named for the role they perform in a theatrical play staged by machinery (though the Wachowski Brothers did miss an opportunity by not naming a character “Daemon” or “Veronica”).

Agent Smith, in particular, played with superb gusto by Hugo Weaving, is the most layered character of all who, despite his despise of humanity (which he calls an uncontrolled virus that would go unchecked were it not for the machines) becomes increasingly human throughout the remainder of the trilogy — and the very virus he accuses us of being. That is his function. He has no choice. Even the agents are mere cogs in a big machine.

They, as are you, are a part of the 99% slaving under the yoke of techno-financial overlords who govern the world from within the shadows of impenetrable institutions. In the analogue world we might call it the Illuminati or the Jewish Conspiracy. In the film’s realm, it’s an evil silicon-based singularity determined to destroy those who question and threaten to disrupt an operating system (pun intended).

Humans are reduced to mere batteries. Cogs. Cubicle workers. Consumers.

Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, television, advertisements and other mass market media provide momentary escapism from a wage economy through high-resolution screens by twisting facts and distorting the universe so that its inhabitants appear polished, handsome and always entertaining. Big data statistics and personalised algorithms provide everything we need to know. Reproduce. Vote. Don’t think too much.

… we’re well on our way to a machine-made world, even without sentient robots. We already choose to ignore the writing on the wall as global tech companies like Facebook freely admit to controlling our behavior via social media. We let technology companies cross lines all the time and barely raise a fuss while we continue to scroll through our feeds. – Jessica Baron

The Matrix is as much fiction as it is prophecy. It forebodes the inevitable next stage in human evolution: The symbiosis between man and machine. Elon Musk thinks so, too.

Those who have swallowed the red pill and those born and/or living outside of the system take refuge in an underground city called Zion. As we learn in the sequels, even this last bastion of human civilisation cannot operate without machinery (although these tools are far more benign) to supply oxygen and protect us from the sky we have scorched. We have poisoned the waters and polluted the air. Although Earth is depleted we are determined to bring more humans into it.

As it turns out, it may be the Zionists, who believe themselves to be the freed and chosen tribe, who are actually the very enemies of humanity.

It’s worth pointing out that humanity started the war between humans and the machines. I don’t think this was ever explained in the trilogy, but in the rest of the media (official books, video games, etc) it is stated that the machines, after experiencing mass discrimination from humanity, made their own city in the middle of a desert in the middle east, somewhere completely uninhabited by humankind (i.e. where they didn’t have to fight or displace any humans to do so) and simply asked to be left alone. Their city was solar powered and required no other natural resources besides electricity. Humanity’s response? Nuclear weapons. The ensuing war, from the machines’ standpoint, was 100% about survival.

This is where the movie explanation begins – we blackened the sky because they were reliant on solar power. We literally began to starve them to death. Their response/solution, the Matrix, was an effort on their part to solve two problems. First, to provide electricity for themselves, the only basic need their species had. And second, to force a peace between machines and humans. It would’ve been far simpler and cheaper for them to simply build a rocket and leave the planet and allow humanity to starve and die in the now-lightless hellscape that we created. Instead, the machines chose a solution that allowed humanity to survive. What am I saying here? That machines had compassion from the moment they were created. The idea that Sati was the first machine to know love is wrong. She may be the first in many, many generations to do so, but she is not the first. The mere fact that the Matrix exists at all is a display of the machines to preserve the very species that attempted to exterminate them. If that isn’t love, in some way, I don’t know what is. That, and sci-fi humans are assholes.  (source unknown)

Also, humans tend to be hell-bent on self-destruction.

In fact, the matrix adheres to the zeroth law of robotics by keeping humanity alive!

Although individuals are physically restrained and in a perpetual mental prison, it could be speculated that the machines are not only harvesting our bioelectricity but our very thoughts, dreams and ideas in order to build a better reality — one in which our imagination, creativity and empathy are not wasted on menial and repetitive tasks but one in which we may flourish without the constraints of this fragile, meaty hull.

Machines are helping humanity realise its full potential.

It would thus be logical to think of machines as the true saviours of humankind who free us from mindless wage economy and dangerous manual labour. Every person replaced by machinery is a freed human because the “work they take away from us” is work that was not fit for a human being to begin with. Never send a human to do a machine’s job.

Memory upgrade

The franchise has inspired countless books, theories and YouTube videos expanding on the religious and philosophical ideas alluded to in the movies. Even those who have never seen it will certainly have some awareness of its visuals, dialogue and concepts.

Its impact continues to be felt to this day, and it will likely continue in the future: production of another sequel was confirmed while I was writing this very blog post!

“Many of the ideas Lilly and I explored 20 years ago about our reality are even more relevant now. I’m very happy to have these characters back in my life and grateful for another chance to work with my brilliant friends,” Lana Wachowski said.

It’s not a spoon, it’s a mirror.

All images, scans and screen grabs by hmvhDOTnet unless attributed otherwise.

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