It was meant for the very same people whose “synaptic WTF lights” have been switched on in 1999 – and who got older since.
In 1999 I was not old enough to watch The Matrix but no one checked our age. It was also my very first time in a cinema, ever, as it was a two-hour drive from home and I was too young to drive. But my friends took me and thus started my decade-long fascination with cinema. And at such a high note!
1999 was the best year of cinema and The Matrix was not simply a movie – it was a phenomenon. I still remember how the entire audience gasped in horror at the sight of that super cool Nokia flip phone being dumped in the trash. That single product placement created Nokia’s subsequent market domination.
As a teenager I was probably way under the age of the target audience of The Matrix. According to internet speculation Mr. Anderson was around 36-37 (Keanu Reeves’ age at the time of shooting) when he was extracted from the Matrix and they even mentioned how it was unusually old and how they don’t extract people from the Matrix beyond a certain age because they are just too settled in.
And that makes sense. We work so hard to understand the rules and to try to make them work for ourselves that by the time we finally begin to master them we are reluctant to let them go. Becoming dependent on our cages is a story as old as time.
But Mr. Anderson was easy enough to identify with even for a teenager like me. I may not have worked in an office (yet) but the images of cubicles and printers triggered a visceral feel of an impending life crisis: Working in an office and having a stable salary might have been an aspiration at the time – but I knew that once I got there, once I got settled there, I will want out. (1999 was also the year ‘Office Space’ came out and the British original of ‘The Office’ started in 2001.)
In your twenties you are open because you are no longer tied down by dependence and not yet tied down by dependents. But by the time you reach your 30s you are likely to have entered a few bonds of dependence: work for a salary, tied in a mortgage, maybe even children or parents to care for. The infinite number of possibilities you once felt ahead of you are disappearing one by one and those cubicles are suddenly closing in on you as the ugly shape of the rest of your life. The idea that all this is not real comes naturally. It is a welcome idea. We are afraid of letting go – but we hate what we have.
If the reference to life phases was not clear enough in 1999, The Matrix Resurrection drives that message home. The men and women who sat in the dark cinemas in 1999 are exactly 22 years older now. Many in their 40s and 50s, having children that demand their full attention, all their time and resources – some regretting parenthood. They now have the shared experience of spouses who form a claim over them, and maybe even a divorce.
I was watching The Matrix Resurrections with solid skepticism until the 30-minute mark when I realized that Trinity would live the dream in this movie and punch Chad in the face at some point. And that was the moment I put aside skepticism and started to enjoy myself.
This is not another story about the nature of the Matrix. This is a story about the people in it. And it is a middle age prison break.
Metaphorically speaking punching Chad is the secret dream of those who watched the original movie in a dark cinema in 1999. The story feels empowering because Trinity can abandon her family and start over. And she can do so because it never really happened. Not only can a 50-something female be a bona fide action star, she will be the one with the choice this time. She may have fallen for what she was supposed to want – but she can correct her path, it is not too late. Life is not a one-way road.
In the sequel Trinity left her meek, predestined love storyline of the 90s behind and came into her own, being The Important One, this time. Lana Wachowski could not have sent a kinder and more liberating message to the franchise’s old fans (and no doubt to herself).
It is not about the Matrix for Neo either. It is about ageing as a long-ago revolutionary. Both in reality and in the Matrix, as the once-revolutionary game designer. His personal Matrix was not a family, that chain is for women, but being tied down by his own success. Or being swallowed up by the same evil he once fought when he was young – depending on how we look at it.
It is still a story of conformism and breaking out of it – but not for the young and not-yet-compromised. It is for the suckers who walked into our own matrices thinking that the only reason others seemed miserable in it is because they were doing it wrong. But we told ourselves that we would be different. We would be free or we would die trying. But we did neither. We just languished, forever wondering what could have been, being consumed by a growing anguish at the thought of it, staring into the meaninglessness of what fills up our whole lives.
Once I knew a city kid who came to the village and saw a rooster for the first time. Then the rooster crowed and the little boy’s “synaptic WTF lights went on”. He was mesmerized. A few days in the rooster was still just a rooster and it still just crowed. It didn’t begin to speak Spanish, it didn’t play the viola and it didn’t get a pilot license. It was boring. The little boy was monumentally pissed and disappointed.
Of course, the boy’s disappointment was misplaced and the joke was on him, expecting a rooster to be something else, something new and exciting again. Somehow this boy came to my mind every time I read negative reviews of The Matrix sequels pointing out that it has not been original etc. (The positive reviews smacked of paid PR.) But how could anything be as original as The Matrix was in 1999?
The concept of the Matrix can’t be introduced more than once. From this angle it was even foolish to shoot the second and third parts of the saga, especially considering that all they tried to do there was elaborating on the nature of the Matrix – and leaving the characters without any room to change or to grow. Those two movies were essentially a protracted chain of tedious action scenes with minimal story in-between. (Indeed, they have come dangerously close to dilute the original concept to the point of irrelevance. Remember when Neo seemed to bend reality outside of the Matrix?) It would have been foolish to aim at an “original and fresh” fourth instalment as the movie calls itself sarcastically.
But the sequel still delivers – just not what the single-minded reviewers irrationally expect from it. It is not about the Matrix or its upgrades. It is about our characters – and about us, by proxy.
The Matrix Resurrections is a tale of how even a rebel can be sedated into the lull – but also of how she breaks out of it again. It is a warning that a well designed cage would contain any of us but sometimes we let ourselves to be found. It is a story of middle age – to a middle aged audience. The very people who watched it 22 years earlier.
For a newbie 20-something critic the entire franchise is old news and the story line about middle age is emotionally invisible. But for us? Having a self-image younger than what others see when they look at you? Check. Seeing the Matrix but having stepped right into it intentionally? Check. Successful but still feeling dissonant? Check. Regularly daydreaming about dislocating the jaws of our handlers? Check.
And finally, don’t we all exert the greatest amount of energy in existential anguish, yearning for what we don’t have, while dreading losing what we do? Of course we do. Entire industries (all scams) feed on it, like the Matrix feeds on Neo and Trinity, and draw their energy from our desperation. Where would we be if we spent as much energy on moving on as we do on enduring staying still? Of course there is a cottage industry to harvest that desperation by giving us tools to remain motionless.
An army of life coaches, therapists, self-help gurus, ideologies, religious and non-religious cults feed on the gap we experience in life: We feel we could be and do so much more and yet… “Is this all?”
Something drains all our energy but doesn’t give anything in return. Something claims all our attention and life force, but it is not a meaningful thing. We try to see meaning where we are supposed to but maybe it is simply not there. We feel harvested.
It is as if a sadistic mastermind locked us into a video game that we can not win – but we also can not escape. And the rules are set to drain us and only reward behavior that benefits the system – not us. “Is this all?” is the dominant sentiment of anyone past our dependents-free youth.
I especially appreciated the character of the Analyst because of that. (Neil Patrick Harris is a treasure.) Calling out the entire profession of therapists as potential manipulators was a nice touch that we rarely see. Cinematic depictions of therapists are almost entirely positive. Therapists are always such a self-evidently a good in movie characters’ lives. They are anchors, a voice of sanity, someone whose guidance should be followed – we just sometimes fail to follow but only because we are fallible and defiantly wrong. I always felt a bit off about that.
I never understood how one can choose a therapist without testing them first. How do I know if the therapist that I happened upon is intelligent – or she just has a degree? How do I know what her values are – and whether they are the same as mine? How do I know what his definition of normalcy and mental health is? Is it a therapists that guides me towards my goals – or his? Does he only consider me healthy if I end up with two children and a mortgage?
How many sessions do I have to pay for and how many times do I have to make myself vulnerable and expose myself to their subtle and invisible manipulation before I can ascertain that my therapist is actually a good person and our ideas of mental health align?
The Matrix narrative has always suffered from one, lethal fault right at its core: determinism.
Being The One, or a Chosen One is the storytelling definition of determinism. It goes against the idea of free will – the very thing The Matrix is trying to sell us. So why did people put up with this glaring inconsistency?
Storytellers of every age and time know from experience that audiences get uncomfortable from too much free will. Stories with a chosen one at their core thus galore, lulling the audience into the comfortable feeling that nothing is up to them, the average folk, but a hero will do all the hard lifting and bring happiness to them. Storytellers use this sentiment to pull audiences in. They let them sink into the comfortable belief that they could never have been the heroes themselves, not even of their own lives. That they are not in control – but it’s okay because they could not be anyway.
But who chooses The Chosen Ones? In a world that was written in code, even the rebel must have been written, perhaps to let tension off the system. The original trilogy also struggled with this inconsistency but only the fourth movie discusses at any length the disempowering nature of the notion of a Chosen One. It gives an excuse for complacency and resignation. It deflects blame. It makes us not even try.
The Matrix Resurrections chips away at this problem. This time it is the woman who makes the choice. This time it is her view of the world that matters. This time it is her choice and her effort. This time Trinity flies. It doesn’t fix the original sin of a Chosen One, but it softens the limits of it and opens the world for all of us to be heroes. Chosen by ourselves.