The Matrix – Twenty Years On.
By Andrew McKissock
Upon discovering that The Matrix is twenty years old in 2019, I was reminiscent of protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) as he learns he’s been living inside a computer simulation. He panics, shouting “I don’t believe it. I want out!” before eventually vomiting. As Neo’s world unravels, so do my attempts to cling to my youth.
So what’s behind the longevity of The Matrix? The story can be read allegorically in ways which remain relevant today. You could interpret the machines turning humanity into batteries as a metaphor for mankind being enslaved by capitalism. There’s also the notion that Neo’s awakening is an analogy for transitioning – Lana and Lilly Wachowski both came out as trans after the trilogy released.
The opening five minutes of the film set the scene perfectly; Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) runs along walls, jumps impossible distances and swats two police units aside before fleeing in terror from Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his cohorts. She’s demonstrably capable of remarkable actions and yet she doesn’t entertain the thought of attempting to battle the Agents, which establishes their threat. She escapes by answering a ringing phone before Smith smashes a truck into it. The action is jaw dropping – whilst hinting at a greater, more complex threat.
That threat is the Matrix itself. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) and Trinity attempt to free Neo, the man they believe to be the saviour of humanity, Smith and the system race to prevent them. When Smith arrests and interrogates Neo, the allegory for transitioning starts to take shape. He denies any future for Neo if he refuses to return to his life as Thomas Anderson, a part of the status quo. This evokes parallels of refusing to acknowledge trans identity, instead choosing to identity them by their deadname – a theme which continues through to Neo’s final confrontation with Smith.
We later learn that the Agents can manifest themselves in anybody plugged into the Matrix. If we continue to apply a trans reading and the Agents represent transphobia, it suggests that anyone plugged into the system is a potential threat to Neo and his comrades’ existence – that fear and hatred can appear when you least expect it.
As Morpheus teaches Neo about the simulations origins, he reveals that humans are now grown – serving as a power source for the Matrix. Humans are born into bondage with the system, propping it up with little reward and are easily replaceable. Oxfam recently revealed that the 26 richest people in the world own as much as 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population. It’s easy to see the similarities between populations sustaining two systems, capitalism and the Matrix, with scant reward for their enormous contribution.
Whilst strands of religious symbolism, morality and philosophical questions are woven seamlessly into the film, it’s possible that The Matrix still resonates because it’s a kick ass movie bursting with slick fight scenes that ooze style rarely matches in the modern films it helped inspire. As Neo and Trinity attempt to save Morpheus, Neo reveals to security guards that he’s armed to the teeth under his leather overcoat. It’s as iconic a moment as the slow motion ‘bullet time’ battle which follows.
The film’s climax is a masterclass in tension. Everything the film sets up in the first two acts are paid off in the final as Neo faces off against Agent Smith in the Matrix, whilst Morpheus and Trinity battle machines in the real world. The Wachowskis consistently blend moments of levity with outrageous action and high concept philosophy. They manage to package them into something easily digestible for the audience; something which, twenty years later, few sci-fi movies readily achieve.
In celebration of its twentieth anniversary The Matrix is being screened at the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival on February 22nd. Tickets are still available, offering moviegoers the chance to free their mind at the Argyll Street Arches, with the promise of an after party to unplug – hopefully without the threat of Agents crashing by.