The 20th-anniversary rerelease of The Matrix this week marks the rare occasion of a popular film that also had political effect. The sci-fi hit grossed $172 million (a pittance due to recent Marvel-dominated bookkeeping), but the pop-culture significance of The Matrix goes beyond box-office statistics: It’s the movie that gave our culture the “red pill” concept.
Computer hacker Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is recruited by a group of rebels to fight mysterious agents who seek to destroy humanity by turning people into energy sources (batteries) for the dystopian world’s computer grid. This terrifying concept appeals to Neo’s young-adult nihilism, and he must choose to accept or deny it by swallowing either an anesthetizing blue pill or a red pill that allows him to see the truth behind a situation. It anticipated the blue/red division of Millennial political partisanship.
The real subject of The Matrix is hegemony: the rule of authority that hides ideology from people accustomed to simply accepting and following social conventions. The real point of “red-pilling” — a term sometimes abused by zealots today — is the need to rouse people from their acceptance of uncontested, pre-set rules. The true objective of red-pill stimulation is release from the dictates of media influence, especially the media whose real goal is political control.
This awareness — so important to our current culture wars — should make The Matrix more relevant than ever, but the film’s comic-book characterizations lessen its impact. Reeves is used for his androgynous remoteness — not a sense of political curiosity. He has rapport only with Gloria Foster as The Oracle, who brings an unexpected comic, human touch. The sleek, film-noir imagery (based on green binary-code digits, a motif that predates David Fincher’s chromatics) achieves graphic-novel stylishness, but it doesn’t equal the deep mythos of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman. Visionary passion is beyond the Wachowski siblings who conceived The Matrix (and then went on to the unfortunate boondoggles Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas and the cable TV series Sense8 about sex and gender ambiguity).
In the Wachowskis’ fevered speculation, the state of the world just before the threat of Y2K is explained as “The Matrix,” a pattern of social organization hidden from most people’s consciousness. It’s really a grab bag of paranoid fantasy clichés, borrowed largely from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with its consciousness-changing edibles.
The Matrix’s many sci-fi antecedents — or steals — were cited by critic Gregory Solman in a 1999 review titled “Y2 Keanu,” as ranging from 2001 to Disclosure, The Net, Dune, Johnny Mnemonic, Terminator, Total Recall, Dark City, The Crow, Blade Runner, even Star Trek. As a directing-writing team, the Wachowskis added fashionable academic flavor by referencing cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, which made their juvenile gallimaufry (including vague biblical allusions) seem highbrow. They also seduced Afrofuturist and Afropunk bohemians who were flattered by the white-rabbit guide being updated into black rebel Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a dreamer, freedom fighter, terrorist, and glorified butler. Morpheus tells Neo, “I can show you the door, but you must walk through yourself.” (In terms of audience manipulation, The Matrix’s slavery metaphor anticipates the New York Times’ subversive 1619 project.)
It’s rare for a pop-culture work to benefit conservatives, who too often succumb to the temptations and conformity of the commanding heights — that is, Hollywood hegemony itself. But the red pill of The Matrix is a distinctive symbol for independent thinking such as the #WalkAway and #Blexit movements; it advances necessary skepticism about how the biased media present the world.
Morpheus spells it out:
The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. . . . It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. . . . All I’m offering you is the truth, nothing more. People who are part of the system, most of them not ready to be unplugged. Many of them are so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.
Now that the term “woke” has corrupted the idea of enlightenment and invalidated the notion of raised consciousness, The Matrix’s red pill reminds us of an alternative course for information. Unfortunately, the Wachowskis have made a fantasy without morality. Politically simplistic, its once-popular but superficial relevance lacks the sophistication to be truly compelling — such as we find in Jean-Luc Godard’s still profound sci-fi film Alphaville (1965). Godard addressed dystopia as a matter of ethics, faith, and love (spiritual and romantic), but the Wachowskis are stuck in juvenile excitement and intellectual confusion. Is there a red pill for reviving a classical perspective?