The Matrix: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

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.”

Humanity is a Virus

Humanity is a Virus

The One is almost always the least compelling character in a given story. More intriguing by far is the ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. This is why I still enjoy The Matrix; Neo does little for me, but Thomas Anderson (Mr. Anderson) is a worthy protagonist. It is only during those early scenes starring Mr. Anderson that The Matrix avoids the stick-up-the-butt sexlessness of most science fiction and channels, instead, the unsettling, carnal horror of David Cronenberg’s best work.

First, Thomas Anderson finds that his mouth has become a mucky web consisting of sticky strands of flesh. Then his mouth seals completely and seemingly irrevocably, calling to mind the title of an old Harlan Ellison story: “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”. Then Mr. Anderson is held down by men who proceed to penetrate him with the help of an electronic insect that skitters across his exposed, boyish stomach in a somehow fussy manner before thrusting itself into his belly button. When Trinity later removes the device, it is sucked into a glass tube with a wet, clicking slap; it is coated with Anderson’s blood.

Finally, Mr. Anderson wakes in a semi-transparent mechanical womb, where he finds himself immersed in a sticky embryonic slime that permeates his pores and lungs alike. He is pale and hairless and blind, and he is more profoundly naked than you or I will ever be. Anderson then discovers that cold tubes are embedded in the flesh of his arms and spine, with the largest tube planted deeply into the back of his skull. Anderson is a baby, then, born of an industrial nightmare; later, this symbolism is revisited in a more overt fashion, as an actual infant twitches and kicks on a vast bed of H.R. Giger machinery while a dark liquid cascades over eerie tubes and tentacles. We are told that this liquid is human remains. This is what the baby is fed: our dripping, black remains.

This is what Mr. Anderson, too, has eaten. All his life.

But of course he’s not Mr. Anderson. Not anymore. Once he is rescued from his prison/womb, he is Neo, and we never have cause to care about him again, not least because the movie quickly devolves into a stylish but hollow series of fight scenes and shootouts. That these violent scenes are in fact too stylish is not the issue, nor is it the fact that a movie that dares to introduce an asskicker and turn her into Cinderella also ventures to clumsily engage us on a philosophical level only to solve its mysterious riddles with bullets and fistfights. (I am reminded of the Karate teacher from The Simpsons, who advised Bart that, “First you must fill your head with wisdom. Then you can hit ice with it.”)

No, the issue is that The Matrix never dares, in its third act, to be carnal. If the first act calls to mind eXistenZ, with Pikel licking Allegra’s bio-port and sucking gristle and skin from a gun, the third act is as antiseptic as a bad Star Trek rerun. Curiously, the only scenes to retain some measure of the earlier horror-of-the-body are those starring Hugo Weaving as the computer program known as Agent Smith, just as, paradoxically, the early scenes set inside the Matrix (before we know it as such) feel somehow more real than those set aboard the Nebuchadnezzar ship in the “real world”. Agent Smith’s monologue likening humanity to a virus is arguably the best writing in the movie:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.

More arresting still is the scene wherein Smith’s interrogation and torture of Lawrence Fishburn’s Morpheus turns startlingly surreal and intimate; Smith uses his fingers to trace fascinated, disgusted patterns in the sweat on Morpheus’s head and complains of the man’s revolting “stink” as Fishburn’s eyes roll up into his skull. Part of what makes this scene so fascinating and uncomfortable is that the science fiction genre has long been sexually stifled, added to which the Wachowski Brothers are fully aware of the ignoble roles African Americans have traditionally suffered in the genre’s history (when they have been offered roles at all.)

The brothers imbue this scene, then, with a nearly violent charge of homosexual undercurrents and racial tensions; Smith hates what he calls, significantly, “this zoo”, and when Smith’s two computer program colleagues enter the room, looking proper and groomed and impossibly Caucasian, they see Agent Smith looming over Morpheus. Here they behold a white “man” holding the face of a black man in his hands; they are so close they could almost be kissing. The black man is bleeding from his nose and mouth. His head is covered with sweat.

One of Agent Smith’s colleagues, brow furrowed, asks, “What were you doing?”

It’s a simple question. Understated, almost. And yet it is at this moment, more than any other, that The Matrix feels truly alive. There is accusation and disapproval and fear lurking in those four words: “What were you doing?”

Ultimately, of course, Agent Smith never answers the question; just when things start getting interesting, he runs off to exchange poses and banter with The One.