Is The Matrix Good?
Since my notes on pop culture in this space tend to be world-weary and critically dismissive (you’re decadent and you’re decadent and yes, Stephen King, you’re decadent too) I’m excited to have the chance to defend a beloved work of popular art against its highbrow-aesthete-snob haters — specifically Freddie deBoer, who is wrong, just wrong, about the quality of 1999’s The Matrix. He hates the style of the movie (“You’re indoors! Take your sunglasses off! Who walks around in all-black, all-leather everything?”), doesn’t care much about “bullet time” one way or another, as for the thematics, well —
[Its] pretensions mostly amount to gibberish. I’ve heard it said that, in light of both Wachowski sisters coming out as trans, The Matrix looks like a very obvious fable about transitioning. That may be so, and it’s interesting to think about. But I don’t think that reading changes the confusion of an immense amount of ideas getting thrown around in this series for what appears to be no coherent effect - causality, control, free will and the illusion of same, Buddhism, the occult. Into the Big Idea Blender they all go. I like heady action movies! I like blockbuster filmmaking that wants to explore big ideas. But at some point you actually have to say something. What is the position on free will of The Matrix trilogy? I have no idea. On causality? I have no idea. What’s the core theme of the first movie? “Ignorance isn’t actually bliss”? It’s all a mess, a muddled collection of deepities that are broken up by action sequences that vary between those that are visceral and affecting and those that are kind of floaty and consequence-less. (When Neo unloads a goddamn minigun into a room where Morpheus is sitting right in the middle, as part of an effort to save Morpheus, I just… what?) I don’t know. This might just be down to the mysteries of taste, but alternating between Zen kōans that go nowhere and frenetic violence isn’t my speed.
To the extent to which de gustibus non est disputandum I won’t argue about whether Laurence Fishburne doing mystical-initiation work in shades or Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss toting machine guns in black leather is fundamentally lame or fundamentally cool, and honestly I don’t really care that much about bullet time either. But the idea that the original Matrix, the first and best and only, the one that walloped people who thought they were just killing time for the real sci-fi event of ‘99, the Star Wars prequels (sigh), is just a muddle of empty signifiers … no, that won’t do at all.
Sure, the signifiers and allusions and deepities are there, but The Matrix isn’t Lost, stringing you along with clues and symbolism but fundamentally empty at the core. Instead it has a very simple, straightforward story at its center, blending the fears of the machine age with more ancient human anxieties. Basically it’s Gnostic Christianity in a Terminator world: The universe is a fake, a prison created by a malignant demiurge, except in this case the demiurge is the Strong A.I. of Silicon Valley’s worst imaginings, the fake world is a computer program and the messiah come to overthrow the archons must do so with the help of hackers and kung fu.
That’s it, that’s all you need to appreciate the story. You don’t need a definite view on free will versus determinism or whether the Oracle is telling Neo the truth, and the koans and literary allusions and all the rest are just window dressing. It’s only in the later movies that they become more essential to the plot, such as it is, and the Wachowskis get tangled in their own pretensions as they do. In the original, though, the story is simple and primal, the stakes clear, the plotting more or less straightforward, and the world-building a neat blend of old theology and futuristic tech. It’s not high art or even the Scorsesean high middlebrow but for a mass blockbuster it’s selling something at once evocative and streamlined, a vivid vision of a nightmare future and our fears about present "reality” collapsing into one.
Plus Hugo Weaving’s voice rules.
The main problem with the movie, to the extent that there is one, is that the very clarity of its gnostic world-picture yields a moral problem — a familiar one with gnostic cosmologies, unfortunately, where the revealed-fakeness of the world and the adept-messiah’s initiation into the higher mysteries often yields a contempt for the people left outside or behind.
Adam Gopnik once memorably described how a Gnostic gospel’s Jesus, “who never laughs in the canonic Gospels, is constantly laughing in this one, and it’s obviously one of those sardonic, significant, how-little-you-know laughs, like the laugh of the ruler of a dubious planet on Star Trek.” That’s not precisely how The Matrix’s heroes relate to the human beings still trapped in the toils of unreality, but they definitely regard them as expendable, for the reasons Morpheus lays out in the clip below: These people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy, which in practice means that if they can’t free their mind from the system the way Neo did then it’s okay to put a bullet in the head of someone who thinks they’re just doing a day’s work as a cop or security guard:
To the extent that you can see toxic tendencies connected to The Matrix’s influence in the culture they reflect this kind of gnostic separatism, this disdain for the blinkered ordinary world: For instance the arrogance of a certain kind of red-pilled right-winger, flush with the Revelation and full of contempt for NPCs, or the mix of hubris and self-loathing evident in parts of the trans-humanist left, where the body just meat to be manipulated.
But in the movie itself that contempt is an undercurrent, not the driving energy, and people have taken the darker aspect and run with it in part because The Matrix’s core conceit successfully anticipated certain then-building, now-omnipresent forms of end-of-history alienation — no less than the likewise-misappropriated but likewise-excellent Fight Club.
You don’t get dark ripples like that from the Marvel movies, it’s true; but that’s because, with occasional exceptions, they just aren’t very interesting movies. Whereas The Matrix is somewhat more unsafe and liable to misuse for the same reason that people are still interested in it twenty-odd years later: Because for all its flaws it delivered an interesting world and story and Idea inside its whoa, cool action-picture structure, and contra deBoer that’s enough to make it original, effective, rewatchable and good.