The Matrix review – barnstorming sci-fi still calling our reality into question

Estimated read time 3 min read

To paraphrase Apu in The Simpsons, this was the year filmgoers were partying like it was on sale for $19.99; it offered the vintage of American Beauty, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense and more. But The Matrix seemed to me then – and seems to me now – more exciting than any of them, first among equals in the previous century’s final graduating class. Rereleased for its 25th anniversary, this barnstorming sci-fi paranoia thriller, produced by action veteran Joel Silver and written and directed by the Wachowskis, holds up tremendously well. The martial arts sequences choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping are gripping and nothing about the bullet-time effects or production design feels dated. Even the ringing payphone – an unexceptional detail in 1999 – now looks like an inspired steampunk touch.

Keanu Reeves, inscrutable, adorable and eccentric in his utterly individual way, plays Thomas Anderson, a talented young software programmer by day, and by night a mysterious online figure on global networks with the handle “Neo”. He has attracted the disapproval of shadowy government forces, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) who are worried by Neo’s anti-establishment posts and technical savvy, and his intuition that the government is keeping secrets, or just one big secret, from the people. But Neo is also being pursued by rebel activists, including Trinity (played with icy severity and style by Carrie-Anne Moss) and led by the charismatic Morpheus (a suavely assured Laurence Fishburne) who, despite his name, wants the whole world to wake up. Morpheus confronts Neo and offers him a fundamental choice in a now legendary scene: a blue pill which will return him to his current state of befuddled but basically placid ignorant acceptance, or the red pill which will irreversibly reveal to him just what is going on: the reality behind the illusion.

Since then, the Wachowskis’ red pill has inspired a million social-media conspiracists, largely on the right, who are complacently #redpilled and can see how the deep state and its complicit mainstream media liberals on Epstein Island are hoodwinking the people. (Slavoj Zizek, on typically bullish form in his documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, said that he wanted a third pill, to enable him to see, not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality within the illusion itself, to see how our fictions and narratives give shape, structure and grammar to our physical existence and so make it real.)

The metaphorical properties of The Matrix are part of what makes it so seductive, along with the no-filler-all-killer action. But watching it again now, it seems to me that maybe this is obtuse. What if the metaphorical approach is blue-pill thinking? What if the point of The Matrix is not that it’s a metaphor but literally about what it says it’s about? The invocation of artificial intelligence, which passed almost unnoticed in 1999, made me sit up and take notice in 2024. Is this the logical endpoint of machine learning and ChatGPT? Did The Matrix actually have something to tell us which we couldn’t hear, for all its colossal popularity? It’s a glitchless pleasure.


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