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How we destroyed The Matrix Incels and trans activists are both fooled by its myth

Keanu Reeves the "kick-ass messiah". Credit: IMDB


December 20, 2021   7 mins

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.


Dorian Lynskey is an author, journalist and UnHerd columnist.

Dorianlynskey

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Terence Fitch
TF
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

It’s a film.

Nicolas Jouan
Nicolas Jouan
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

That’s quite literally what the last paragraph says.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicolas Jouan

I’m here in Finland so I’m becoming succinct.

George Glashan
GG
George Glashan
2 years ago

the first matrix is genuinely a great film, like said in the article lots of different ways to interpret, a solidly plotted hero’s journey. I think it matters what age you saw it at too, its built from the ground up to appeal to lonely teenage boys. The Wachowskis also proved to be a bit of a busted flush, the sequels are 2 of the worst films I’ve seen. The action and exposition aren’t blended like the first film, its just a lump of one then the other. The cleverness present in the first film is just absent, its hard to believe they were written by the same people.
The Wachowskis  have far more stinkers than hits, so they are not going to skin me for the price of a ticket just for a hit of nostalgia. If anyone is looking for something similar, the film Dark City came out around the same time as The Matrix, it has a similar premise – a man resisting a simulated world conspiracy but where the first Matrix message amounts to break the simulation, Dark City ends a lot more hopeful and is more like build a better simulated world to live in.

Last edited 2 years ago by George Glashan
Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Yebbut why was it good? Like Howard Jacobson’s piece today about “Michel” Kundera, nothing in the article explains what’s so great about the subject. Between its apparent fascination to incels, and the part about the Wachowski brothers having apparently decided they are in fact sisters, it feels like it’s an exposition of the mental landscape of some very unfortunate but not especially interesting people. Why would anyone who’s not an incel or otherwise confused man enjoy this?
It may be an age thing. When I was in my teens to mid-20s, the kind of sci-fi I was watching was stuff like Blade Runner, The Thing, The Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Robocop, Total Recall, and so on, bookended by Alien and Jurassic Park. All of those were well-written and expertly directed by people who had impressive careers before and since (ok, maybe not John McTiernan so much), who as a result produced coherent, rewatchable stuff, and who did a better job with similar ideas (in eg Blade Runner and Total Recall, of which The Matrix is clearly if feebly derivative).
In what sense is The Matrix 10% as good as any of those? I imagine it’s very popular among the denizens of places like housepricecrash.com and so on. But really, if you were older than about 17 or you had an IQ above room temperature, chances are that in 1999, you thought it was a stupid and forgettable waste of 2 hours. The dimness of the audience is best illustrated by the fact that they wrung 2 sequels out of it that even its fanbois consider to have stunk, but still went to see.
Somebody explain this to me. If I were about to be marooned on a desert island and I could choose one film from among those mentioned above, why would I choose The Matrix over the least of them?

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I think your right Jon, I saw the Matrix when I was 15yo with an IQ to match, I hadn’t seen or heard of those better films at that age, I’d have dismissed them as too old to be of interest . I’ve seen all of them since and like you say, each of them is a more coherent, better told story with more substance than the Matrix (probably not Predator though). I think the fist matrix is very good though, it steals from lots of better sci-fi’s but stole widely and wove it together well with manga inspired kung-fu, robots and a state of the art cinema technique in bullet time. It also pre-empted the first batch of superhero films, which basically follow the same structure / formula for their origin stories.
The sequels were a triumph of marketing, I got fleeced to see those in the cinema, that life lesson was worth the price of admission, losing £20 on those dog s$£”t sequels has probably saved thousands in the years after from the cynicism that experience instilled.

chris sullivan
CS
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Jon, it is popular because many people FEEL as if they are living in the matrix – all the kung fu stuff is just peripheral crap – many also feel that staying in the matrix is getting harder and harder and as in the ‘opting/dropping out ‘ of the sixties it is a rerun of that for the generation of the 90’s. However in this day and age BOTH the pill choices are increasingly unpleasant so that that choice is at the back of many thinking person’s mind hence the Matrix is the eternal existential struggle given a modern idiom .

Norman Powers
NP
Norman Powers
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I love the Matrix! I think, frankly, the Wachowski’s nailed the art direction and script. It’s one of those films that has an unfairly high density of memorable lines and scenes compared to most others.
The article quotes some of the best known ones but really the whole film is just teeming with great moments and unique styles. The film is a meme factory for good reasons.
Of course we must not forget the revolutionary bullet time effect either.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

The Matrix has been as culturally influential as Star Wars and as visually influential as Bladerunner. If not more. All films owe something to their predecessors but as far as I am concerned the 00s were riddled with Matrix references, I even saw it in Buffy the Vampire Slayer which is influential in its own right.

Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I saw all the films you mention in my teens. Massive fan. Aliens and Bladerunner are perhaps my 2 favourite films of all time. I wrote a dissertation on Ripley as a female hero. The Matrix blew my mind. I thought it was cool and thought provoking. I guess that makes me feeble minded does it?

Aleksandra Kovacevic
Aleksandra Kovacevic
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

‘…some very unfortunate but not especially interesting people’.

An apt summary of both the incel and trans communities, excellently put.

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago

How do I get out of this Metaverse Mr Suckerburger ?
Answer: The Machine Stops by E.M.Forster
Throw away your telephone.
Simples.

Linda Hutchinson
LH
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Blinde

This reminds me of the time I got on a local bus and looked down the aisle only to see, literally, everyone wearing head phones and either staring ahead with a glazed look or texting someone (in one case I noticed, when I sat down, a young girl texting another girl sitting across the aisle). At this point I remembered Forster’s book and thought if only the machine would stop.

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago

I do a country walk most days, and pass one woman who goes by without tearing her eyes away from her smart telephone or yapping into it. Beauty all around her she ignores (and me too of course).
Every – single – time.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Blinde

Maybe she’s shy. Surprise her and say ‘good morning’, see what happens……

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Tried that. Like water off a duck’s back.
Maybe I will shoot a water pistol and try to short out the phone

chris sullivan
CS
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Blinde

That is because she IS living in the Matrix -and you are not…

Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Blinde

Sad isn’t it. Personally I make a point of NOT doing that. I don’t want to be a phone clone. And besides, it’s dangerous. I’ve nearly run over a couple of automatons staring at their screen who just walked out into the road without looking. Apparently *I’m* supposed to stop for *them*.

David Batlle
DB
David Batlle
2 years ago

The Wachowskis mention all sorts of influences except, of course, the most obvious one, the Bible because on the Left only unsophisticated rubes are influenced by the Bible.

Neo awakens on the vessel “Mark III No. 11″, which alludes to the Bible verse Mark 3:11: “And, whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God'”. The One.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Batlle
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  David Batlle

Oh I saw religious allegory all over it when I saw it. Same as The Phantom Menace. Saviours. Chosen Ones. Resurrections. Special powers. Healing the sick.

David Batlle
DB
David Batlle
2 years ago

Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump are “far Right”, according to the author, who despite his eloquence on the matter, enjoys his steaks juicy and delicious.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Batlle
Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  David Batlle

LOL. Yeah I thought that too. Doesn’t take much to be ‘far right’ nowadays

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
GH
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

It was unflatteringly compared to the 1995 flop Johnny Mnemonic“.

Johnny Mnemonic predicted a pandemic in 2021. It is not as bad as people think.

Peter Kriens
Peter Kriens
2 years ago

I must say that I was falsely prejudiced. It was quite a surprise to me that the Matrix had been written by 2 females!

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

“females”

David Lewis
DL
David Lewis
2 years ago

The thing that spoiled the Matrix for me, as with so many similar films, was the central premise. The notion of propagating millions of comatose human beings to generate electricity is just……silly! An idea that would embarrass a Bond villain, never mind an advanced artificial intelligence.
Also, I was disappointed there was no mention of the three years of intensive physiotherapy that would be required to allow a human being raised under such slimy circumstances simply to stand. (This last observation applies equally to Minority Report.)

Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  David Lewis

Yeah I thought that too. I still loved it though.

David Lewis
David Lewis
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Have you seen Oblivion? A sci-fi film that does pass the Credibility Test.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

waiting for approval – got blue pilled because Phillip K Di* k’s name is suggestive – the mods should read the Pooh Perplex one done as by a Freudian analyst. Am re-posting with ** redacted.

Last edited 2 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

PKD has been mined more prolifically and without attribution for book and movie ideas than any other writer I can think of.
The villain of Terminator 2, a shape changing robot, is prefigured in a PKD short story called The Claws, in which a machine shifts its shape to disguise itself as things it sees, including a woman and child. The premise of D M Thomas’ 1982 novel The White Hotel is the hysteria of a Freud patient that originates not as he thinks in her past, but in her future, because she has second sight. The same premise is found in an earlier PKD short story about an analyst’s patient who’s inexplicably afraid of heights, for the same reason.
PKD seems to have thought of everything before everyone else did. I am sure if one went through his stuff, one would find the plot of The Matrix in something he wrote in 1960 or something.

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

PKD ideas are indeed fabulous. However, when I read his books and short stories they came across as too ‘religious’ for my taste

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Love good literary satire – . Back in the early 1970s I remember reading a book still – ‘The Pooh Perplex’, a literary satire of finding deep meaning – and then expanding on it, and using it, allowing a writer their bias and agenda all by interpreting a common story.

He chose Winnie the Pooh, and had a dozen stories, each writing by another camp – Freudian, Marxist, and so on, all use analyzing Winnie the Pooh stories to demonstrate the truth of their thinking.

It is much like this article. In fact I am sure the writer could write the same article after a real good digging through all the writings of Milne, but with Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, and especially Eeyore to explain the red pill/blue pill concept of Descartian Philosophical existence..

“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,” “Plato’s cave, Hilary Putnam’s brain in a vat, Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine, Philip K Di* k, Plato, Socrates, Kant, Marx, Hegel, Lacan, Dostoevsky, Sartre” “‘This is amazing! You wrote a script about Descartes!”

pierre.piquemal
pierre.piquemal
2 years ago

Completely agree with this part: “A myth is fluid and ambiguous, open to diverse and contradictory interpretations”. My take on all of the theories about the movie: we live in a time where we don’t like complexity, we want simple answers, right or wrong, black or white, red or blue (pill!). It seems to me that in all these theories about this movie the same thing is happening, people want a simple, straightforward reading of it and don’t want to go into the more complex questions that the movie ask.

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Like everyone else I sat through The Matrix in 1999. I retained no impression of it at all, and so this year, I watched it again for the first time in 22 years. I lasted about three quarters of an hour before becoming so bored I switched over and watched a repeat of The Repair Shop instead.
My general impression is that this was most people’s experience. Admittedly, everything with Keanu Reeves in it has the same effect on me.

Milos Bingles
MB
Milos Bingles
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

cool story mate. I bet you’re great fun at dinner parties.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Watching paint dry would be less brain rotting than watching the repair shop. You’ve sunk the depths of emotional manipulation on that one.

Guy Pigache
GP
Guy Pigache
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You are very entitled to your own view. However, “My general impression is that this was most people’s experience.” drifts from fact to hard to support supposition

Christina Dalcher
Christina Dalcher
2 years ago

This may be the finest article I’ve read in UnHerd to date (and I’ve read a ton of good pieces). Wow. Wow. Wow.

ken wilsher
ken wilsher
2 years ago

Sarcasm at last – thank you!