The Matrix: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

If the first act of The Matrix calls to mind eXistenZ, with Pikel licking Allegra’s bio-port and sucking gristle and skin from a gun, its third act is as antiseptic as a bad Star Trek rerun.

The Matrix turned ten in 2009. And that feels about right, actually. But consider this: when The Matrix first arrived in theaters, Tim Burton’s Batman was ten years old. Put another way: not a single student in my third grade classroom was alive when The Matrix began its theatrical run. (If you delight, as I do, in such examples of morbid mathematics, try this exercise: starting at your birth year, move backward as many years as you’ve lived, then marvel in horror at the year you reach.)

Earlier this year, my friend Josh asked me about The Matrix. He had refused to watch it in 1999, owing to nothing more, I suspect, than his distaste for its star, Keanu Reeves. A decade later, he was curious to know whether he’d really missed much. I was dismissive, not because I thought The Matrix was a bad movie (I hadn’t seen it in several years, at any rate), but because I felt somewhat self-conscious about the unabashed enthusiasm I’d felt for the film in 1999.

“I doubt it holds up” was my hasty verdict.

More recently, another friend, with the poor taste to have enjoyed my bloated, meandering study of the six Star Wars movies, suggested I tackle the Matrix trilogy as a follow-up. The challenge struck me as daunting and tiresome, for each of the filmmaking innovations from the first Matrix movie had grown stale sometime around 2001; the “bullet time” effect quickly became not merely a tired crutch but an outright punch line (see the Shrek and Scary Movie series.) Further, the sequel, 2003’s Matrix Reloaded (now as old as Titanic and Men in Black were when Matrix Reloaded was first released) was such a deflating experience for me that I never found the will to complete the trilogy by watching Matrix Revolutions, also released in 2003.

Still, part of what was so intriguing for me about revisiting the Star Wars franchise was that I did so from the perspective of an outsider; I had never been enamored with the original trilogy like most people, and I didn’t see Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith until this year. To look back at The Matrix, I reasoned, might help me to grapple with my embarrassment at having so fawningly celebrated it in 1999; to study its sequels, one of which I barely remember and the other I’ve yet to see… why, wouldn’t that give me a sense of how my friend Josh might feel if he finally opts to give The Matrix a chance?

The answer, of course, is no. Whatever its faults or merits, much of what helped to make The Matrix become such a capital-E Event in 1999 was the low expectations with which the public regarded what was, let us not forget, a science fiction movie starring Keanu Reeves. (His first science fiction movie, indeed, since the maligned Johnny Mnemonic in 1995.) My buddy Josh endured the giddy Matrix hype of 1999, and he has seen the various parodies and he has surely detected, to some extent, the world’s collective disappointment at the sequels (which I may still address in a future installment of this column.)

So Josh can never come to The Matrix with the same unassuming innocence we all did in 1999; he’s got the film’s cultural baggage to contend with. Remember how you’d watch a movie from the '30s or ‘40s, and suddenly a forgotten, nonsensical gag from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon you'd seen years prior would make sense for the first time? Today, for Josh and for anyone else who has yet to see it, The Matrix would be, more than anything else, context for a series of cultural punch lines.

The question, then, is this: Ten years later, what does The Matrix mean to someone who was there for the ride back in 1999?

For my part, some of my contrived aloofness and indifference dissipated as soon as the DVD menu loaded; chaotic strings of binary code-like symbols give way to Lawrence Fishburn’s Morpheus looking down at the viewer as if the viewer is waking from a dream. “Welcome to the real world,” Morpheus says. It’s a surprisingly stirring little teaser.

Alas, my partner was not moved. Indeed, she repeatedly offered derisive replies to the film’s stilted dialogue. I assumed at first that she was compensating for her own lingering embarrassment from 1999; she’d been, at that time, even more gee-whiz impressed with The Matrix than I was. But instead she admitted, not 15 minutes in: “I don’t remember any of this. I have no idea what happens next.” For all her sarcastic comments and forgetfulness, however, she did say, at about the halfway mark, “I’m actually pretty into this.”

And so was I.

The film’s monomyth structure is more by-the-numbers and obvious than I’d remembered (can we agree to a ban on the Reluctant Hero trope? Please?), and its pseudo-philosophy is at once ham-fisted and half-assed, lacking even the provocative punch of Fight Club’s “you are not your job, you are not the contents of your wallet” sermonizing. (Fight Club, like The Matrix, arrived in 1999.) Also, there are simply more moments of awkward, contrived posing in The Matrix than you probably remember.

Still, The Matrix retains some of its charm. Trinity, for example, remains a winning triumph of post-Buffy feminist asskickery… if only for the first act. (Roger Ebert hilariously notes in his Chicago Sun Times review of The Matrix that, “Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity, has a sensational title sequence, before the movie recalls that she's a woman and shuttles her into support mode.”) Even in 1999, I did not care for the notion that, while Neo gets to be The One, all the Oracle says to Trinity is that she will fall in love with The One. This reduces a capable heroin of the Ripley and Sarah Connor tradition to little more than a sexy Disney Princess waiting for True Love’s Kiss to save her. That her kiss instead saves Neo changes nothing, just as Pretty Woman’s lofty suggestion that the princess rescues the white knight does nothing to change the fact that Pretty Woman teaches girls that consumerism is the path to happiness and prostitution leads to exciting opportunities.

And yet Trinity’s Barbie-awaiting-her-Ken arc is almost preferable to what happens to Neo’s character development in the third act, for if anything is more wearying than a Reluctant Hero, it is a character who knows (or even begrudgingly suspects) that he is special. The worst example of this phenomenon might be the first Harry Potter movie, wherein the plucky trio of wee wizards contends with a giant chessboard before Hermione (or perhaps it was Ron) tells Harry that he must proceed alone through the remaining challenges, at which point Harry concedes with a grim nod, as if to say, “Yes, you’re spot-on, I am uniquely equipped to meet this challenge, for I am The One.”

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