Photo by Ronald Siemoneit
Artillery Row

Red pill, blue pill

Is The Matrix best judged as cinema or cultural phenomenon?

Conspiracy theorists and lovers of trailing leather overcoats, rejoice: The Matrix has returned. Nearly two decades after the distinctly underwhelming third installment in the series, The Matrix Revolutions, a new film (snappily titled The Matrix Resurrections) has announced its imminent arrival in cinemas with a suitably enigmatic and mysterious trailer that nonetheless barely deviates from the established tropes of the earlier films. Keanu Reeves looks troubled; the dialogue lies somewhere between the gnomic and the simply impenetrable; there are glimpses of gravity-defying action scenes that make heavy use of hitherto unknown martial arts; and hints are dropped of a wider mythology that will explain many of the more cryptic details of previous films.

Like most viewers who saw the first Matrix film in 1999, I thought it was a masterpiece. I was the perfect age and disposition to respond warmly to it, being a reasonably misanthropic teenage boy who was given to speculating about the state of the universe in suitably pretentious fashion. I was thrilled by the action scenes, enjoyed the intellectual pretensions of the screenplay while barely understanding the wilder allusions and took especial delight in Hugo Weaving’s drawling antagonist Agent Smith, not least because Weaving did not appear to be taking the whole affair quite as seriously as his more earnest co-stars. Any man who can imbue the line “You help your landlady carry out her garbage” with such camp menace should have won every award going.

The Matrix series is pored over with a care that most films neither deserve nor receive

Weaving was, alas, a less prominent presence in the inferior sequels and will not be appearing in The Matrix Resurrections at all, unless he has been secretly cast in a surprise cameo. Such things are hardly unheard-of. Without him, it is far harder to care about the archaic lore of the universe that we shall be re-entering in a couple of months. There will be people out there who will carefully dissect each frame of the trailer with the care and scholarship that archivists traditionally devote to medieval illuminated manuscripts. To which the only thing I can say and this is intended in good spirit is “Get a life.”

There has been an inordinate amount of effort and attention devoted, usually online, to arguing about what the implication of this shot or this line of dialogue is. After a while, it is hard not to sigh and say, “For God’s sake, it’s only a film.” Even as fevered speculation exists as to whether such-and-such a character is returning in another form (a handy get-out clause if an expensive actor is loath to return), or who is really playing who, the Matrix series is pored over with a care and attention that most films neither deserve nor receive. To date, it consists of one excellent film, one middling film and one frankly diabolical, alongside endless apocrypha that has acquired the status of Holy Writ. By far the most intriguing aspect to the latest is the presence of the novelist David Mitchell as co-screenwriter, which will hopefully imbue it with a wit and humanity sorely lacking from the previous two films.

Yet I am judging the Matrix as cinema, rather than cultural and social phenomenon, and perhaps I am missing the point. It has become a staple of alt-right discourse to talk about “swallowing the red pill”, which leads the unwary to Reddit groups that promote misogynistic and incel views, but the red pill, and the films’ emphasis on characters transforming their corporeal status, is also a metaphor for transgender issues: throughout the Nineties, Premarin, the hormone pill prescribed for such hormone therapy, was itself a maroon tablet. It is no coincidence that the brothers Wachowski, Andy and Larry, are now the sisters Wachowski, Lilly and Lana.

Personally, I find all these ideas of omnipotence rather comforting

The central philosophical idea behind the Matrix films is that of simulation theory, namely that we are living in a fake world that has been constructed around us by artificial intelligence to hide the altogether grimier reality of human existence. This has been interpreted by many not to be a provocation, but instead an accidental revelation of what our lives are actually like. The documentary A Glitch In The Matrix, released earlier this year, interviewed many of the most vociferous proponents of such a theory, all of whom idolise Elon Musk as a truth-telling sage. Many of them don the “Matrix ensemble” of long trench coats and go about in a fog of body odour and paranoia, looking around for like-minded crypto-conspiracists to share their pet ideas with. It is rather like small children exchanging Top Trumps, but this time the cards revolve around the hidden evils lurking in society.

It is not overstating the case to say that there are those often supporters of Donald Trump who subscribe fully to the idea that The Matrix and the concept of red-pilling is documentary realism rather than imaginative fantasy. In its own way, this has become a form of religion, to be believed in without question. We thrill to stories of why vaccines are evil, of how Joe Biden’s election was rigged and of shadowy powers controlling our every action. Personally, I find all these ideas of omnipotence rather comforting. It would be splendid to believe that there was an international conspiracy controlled by George Soros and Bill Gates or robots that dictated our every move, rather than the more likely prospect of venal and selfish stupidity, mixed with incompetence, being the primary mover in contemporary society.

The Matrix Resurrections is guaranteed to be an enormous box office hit and to stimulate the discourse around reality and simulation for years to come. My greatest regret is that Lana Wachowski’s film  Lilly is not involved this time will not relocate its setting from a mysterious futuristic world to 1920s Oxford, and that the narrative will not revolve around a love triangle between Keanu Reeves’s Neo, Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity and Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, interspersed with knowing cameos by old favourites as dons. I can see it all now: the billboards shining at night, bearing the title The Matrix Revisited. Now that would be a film that I would be bashing down the doors of the local multiplex to see, rather than regarding its advent with mild anticipation and the hope that some excitable type doesn’t shoot up the cinema that I’ll be watching it in.

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