On The 25th Anniversary Of The Matrix: A Retrospective.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of The Matrix's release, a particular conundrum has been bothering me for a long time; like a splinter in my mind, driving me mad.

What is The Matrix? What is it really? What does it truly represent as a pop-cultural phenomenon? Why has it been so repeatedly and so cynically misappropriated and misinterpreted by the worst kind of people? Why was the message of the sequels so completely rejected when they were first released?

Obviously the importance of The Matrix and its sequels to the Trans community cannot be overstated. And, before really I get into this: there are a certain number of people who were never going to take the fact that The Matrix was on some level a Transgender allegory very well, once they'd applied their own warped misunderstanding of the film into the mindset that would later become the basis for the "Men's Rights" or "Manosphere" movement. And, to be clear - it was never *just* a Transgender allegory. That was just one level of it, or one aspect of it (though Trans people and Queer people definitely took note.) But it was never meant to be a male chauvinist allegory like the manosphere dorks want it to be.

20 years ago, my friends and I were calling ourselves "Redpills" for rejecting the Bush administration's Iraq war propaganda, and for being what would be called "Woke" on today's internet. While this is probably not a reflection of the Matrix's true themes either, it's probably a lot closer to the mark than the so-called "men's rights activists" and their bullshit.

They did not respond well to the idea that they had misunderstood the film on a basic level, and that it was never really for them. Like all Reactionaries, they're determined to claim what isn't theirs, and to try to rub their stink all over it - in this case, referring to themselves as "Redpills," etc. And this is something that fans of the films have just had to deal with over the years.

They loved the first Matrix film. They embraced it, they made it a part of their psyche, they breathed it into their very souls; because it seemed to affirm their cultural narcissism. But when the Wachowski Sisters said "wait, there's more to this story, the prophesy isn't what it seems to be," they lost their shit.

And when Lana came back after 18 years and reiterated that same theme, they wasted no time in "throwing their toys out of the pram" over it again. It didn't matter that her other stated reason (besides having to make the film or Warner Bros would do it without her) was the need to reach out to two fictional characters she created for comfort in a time of intense grief. No, according to the haters "it was a cynical cash grab," or "she made it suck on purpose so she could give Warner Brothers and her fans the finger" (and presumably get her phone call.)

But this doesn't answer the question that I've been wrestling with. "What is The Matrix? What does it mean, really?"

And there's a scene within Matrix Resurrections that appears to poke fun at all of the time people have spent analyzing these films and their meaning. And I don't really think this is meant to be an insult to the fans, as so many people seemed to think after seeing the fourth film. I think it is meant to maybe suggest that a lot of this analysis is missing the point. Which was that The Matrix was a love story. And the sincere emotional bond between Neo and Trinity was the most powerful force of all, in the face of The Analyst's cynicism.

The Matrix is a film. But it's also a "vibe." One that has come and gone from my life several times over the years. Maybe it's difficult for me to communicate it; but I know it when I feel it.

For me, The Matrix also represents a time and a place. That's what I would have said, if I were sitting with those game developers at that table in Matrix Resurrections. A time and a place separated into two phases, taking place from 1998 through 2004.

The first phase of time is an era that Gen Z calls "Y2K." For me, this also includes all of 1998-1999; because the "vibe" that The Matrix film expressed, the cultural zeitgeist, really had its heyday starting in 1998. Then it proceeded through 1999-2001 - right smack into the double whammy of the Dotcom Bust and the events of 9/11/2001, when the world changed forever for a lot of people. A period of time in which people felt optimism and hope, before that innocence was lost forever.

This time period is also excellently expressed in musical form in Massive Attack's album Mezzanine, which was released in 1998. One of the tracks on Mezzanine, "Dissolved Girl," appears in the first Matrix, over Neo's earphones as he naps at his desk right before getting the fateful message to follow the White Rabbit.

And lest I forget: it was also one of many films which came out at around the same time (1998-2001) with very similar themes. At turn of the century, Generation X was strugging with the idea of "selling out" and "leading lives of quiet desperation," i.e. giving up on youthful, rebellious ideals, assimilating into the workforce, and becoming obedient, reactionary consumer-serfs like their parents had.

At that time, a lifestyle full of material comforts and financial security that was devoid of any actual spiritual growth or individual expression seemed like a horrifying dystopia: and this was the crisis that turned up again and again in the media of the time. We had no idea how bad the dystopia would actually be, or that even basic necessities would be beyond the reach of many of us.

I saw The Matrix during the first week of its original release in 1999. I was 21 years old, in between stints at college, and still living with my parents and working in a movie theater in Dallas, TX. My job made it possible for me to get free passes for my friends.

I feel like it's relevant to mention that I went and voted in a local election (and was stared at for an uncomfortably long period of time by a little girl who was there with her mother - like, shocked, gape-jawed staring - possibly due to my gothic attire) before driving up to Bill's Records And Tapes on Spring Valley and Coit RD, and calling my friends from the payphone outside the adjacent grocery store to arrange how we were going to meet up. Considering the role that payphones played in the first film, I smile to think about that now.

The film blew my mind, as it did with so many others - and like the film Dark City had done a year before. I know people have made a ton of comparisons between the two films, that they share a lot of similarities and themes, and even some similar aesthetics. I know they were shot on some of the same sets. And I feel like both films informed a lot of my "subconscious programming" (if that makes sense) in the years that were to come.

The second phase was the time after that, during the hype which began once the sequels were announced. A hype, and a feeling of excitement and anticipation which was sorely needed as the world seemed to spin more and more towards danger and disaster, into wars that no one but the worst people among us really seemed to want. Yes, everything was a whole lot worse than it had been just a few years before, and showed no real signs of getting better. But hey! There were going to be more Matrix films!

When Matrix Reloaded was released in May of 2003, I was working a series of temp jobs after having been laid off from my first tech support job, and barely scraping by in an apartment with a roommate in Plano, Texas. Matrix Reloaded was probably one of the best movie viewing experiences of my entire life, despite the crying toddler in the theater (that movie was LOUD and that kid's parents should have known that it would be) and some technical snafus that happened with the projector at one point. The energy of it, the electricity, the shared cultural experience of it was that powerful.

It may be difficult to explain this to people who weren't there, but the high from seeing Reloaded lasted for months. So much so, that I literally did not care about being let go from my temp gig (for the sin of reading The Onion when calls were slow) a week later. I was hired back by the company that had laid me off within six weeks anyway.

And I don't think it was just me. There was an outpouring of fan enthusiasm and fanworks that persisted well beyond the release of both Reloaded and Revolutions, and continued into the next year. At least, until grumbling about the sequels and the ending reached critical mass, and that enthusiasm just seemed to dry up - just as the MMO was being released. Though it seems there was enough of it left to keep the MMO going for at least a few years.

I saw Matrix Revolutions with a friend who worked for the same company that had just hired me back. I snuck a baguette and brie into the theater out of some weird declaration of allegiance to to the Merovingian's Exile faction. (I loved the Exiles so freaking much and wanted a spinoff just about them.) I remember that audiences were immediately divided, with many expressing shock and dismay at the ending.

Matrix Reloaded is one of the highest-grossing R-rated films of all time for a reason. Not just because it's actually good (which it is.) But because it was a beacon of hope (and escapism) that people desperately needed at that moment - right up to the point that it sat them down and told them (via an Old White Male Authority Figure) that the prophesy wasn't true. And then Matrix Revolutions didn't have the 100% bummer-free victory complete with happy ending that audiences were used to seeing in this kind of escapist action-fantasy.

And this goes into something else that I started to notice during that period, but was never really able to articulate until recently - this was the era when it really felt like "Fandom" had arrived. Not as subculture, but as culture.

Because as the terrible things that started happening in the early 2000s just kept right on happening, it really did feel like we had little power to affect or change or fix or stop any of it; though a lot of us did try. This was the era when I was at anti-Iraq war protests almost literally every week. But as necessary as escapist fiction can be - I think there is an element of the human condition that requires it for us to be ok at times - it was very tempting to just try and disappear into escapist media while the world burned. And I think that's what a lot of us ended up doing.

This was the peak era of Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, (decades before we knew that Joanne K. Rowling was a raging Transphobe,) Pirates Of The Caribbean, (remember when that had a fandom?) Buffy The Vampire Slayer, (decades before we knew that Joss Whedon was a predator,) and numerous other...I hate to say "media franchises," but yeah. All of them with growing, dedicated fanbases congregating in fandom communities, and writing reams and reams of fanfic. That's right, an activity which had until that point been considered to be a shameful pastime for obsessed weirdos only, and for which I had been shamed for nearly my entire life, was now being normalized.

And as I had already been doing this myself since childhood, I suddenly felt as though I was being affirmed and validated for my disassociation and escapism, instead of being judged and berated for it.

I know a lot of people have reservations about the proposed fifth Matrix film, particularly if the Wachowski sisters are not involved creatively. So do I.

And it makes me wonder what would happen if any new Matrix film were to ever be created that pandered to the so-called "Redpilled" Reactionaries, specifically. And if all this would mean is that another Matrix film finally existed that they could burrow into, escape into, disappear into, and be as happy and distracted as they were with the first one - while we vote in more Leftists, work on greater civil rights protections for marginalized people, expand Medicare in all 50 states, legalize pot and psychedelics, de-gerrymander the country and protect voting rights, pass Universal Basic Income, actually deal with climate change, reinstate Roe vs. Wade, and codify it into Federal Law.

And all while, they would be crowing that they "won the culture war" because the new Matrix movie "got it right this time." Because that's what their fussing is really all about. As we've seen, one of the "Redpilled" folks's main complaints is that the increase of greater representation and inclusivity in media means they are no longer able to disappear into it; that it is no longer representing or reflecting them exclusively.

Their burning need to have media affirm their cultural narcissism, and for it to keep doing that without fail - and to have that be the default, always - was the cultural cancer at the heart of Gamergate, after all. (I could go into a whole other tangent about how we've basically become a society of media "Lotus Eaters," but yeah.)

(I wonder if lot of them are taking exactly the wrong lessons from Denis Villenueve's second Dune film - namely, that Paul Atreides's resignation and surrender to prophesy and the complete lack of agency this represents, and the resulting Jihad, is some kind of victory for him instead of a horrific tragedy; that it makes him a "Redpilled Alpha Chad" or whatever.)

Let me be perfectly clear: I don't want this to actually happen. I want any future Matrix film to be true to Lana and Lilly's original vision and story and characters. But it's something to think about, isn't it?

But The Matrix during the "phase two" time doesn't just represent escapism for me. It was the sense of community on Livejournal, where a lot of my fandom engagement was happening (well, before everything started to go terribly wrong.) It was the ghosts of "Y2K" culture and fashion that were still clinging to relevance into the early-to-mid 2000s.

But it was also somehow very much tied to a feeling of hope that a "correction" would take place before long. Surely, people would toss Bush Jr out and elect someone actually good at foreign policy, once he really started to fuck up the wars he'd gotten us into. Surely, the worst people among us would be told to sit down and shut up, and let the adults in the room begin to try and fix the messes they were making and get the car back on the road so to speak.

(Surely, once George W. Bush was out of office, we would never elect anyone like him ever again - much less someone who was actually even worse. Surely, that wasn't even possible. Then 2016 happened, and people fucking did it again.)

I've said elsewhere that the fact that this "correction" did not happen in 2004 broke me psychologically. And The Matrix was there for me, in my brokenness. And it was there for me when I started to pull myself back out of it.

But there's an underlying theme there, of this idea that people seem to have that the right media will somehow save the world. That the right media, released at the right time, will cause a paradigm shift that will cause everyone to come around to a certain way of thinking - essentially, a "red pill" to "wake up the sheeple."

But changing the world takes work. It's hard. For many, the thought of it is overwhelming.

We have to try, anyway. The "correction" isn't happening without us working for it.

The sequels have been taken back out and re-examined in the years since they were released. I don't know if I can find it again, but around five or so years ago someone from the MxOEMU Discord linked me to a video where the Wachowski Sisters (it was from before Lilly started transitioning, but yeah) explain the actual theme of the sequels - that Neo realized that his agency, his choice, had been taken away. And when that happened, he made the only choice which was still left to him - to keep fighting.

And in the video, they just looked so depressed, and so dejected, that people hadn't caught on to this theme. I remember feeling so bad for them. They'd created something beautiful and sincere, and people had rejected it. I'm glad that the sequels seem to be finding their audience now, and I'm convinced it will eventually be the same with the fourth film.

I bought tickets to a 25th Anniversary showing of The Matrix for my birthday. And for me, it feels like an attempt to redeem the parts of the last 25 years that can be redeemed, to salvage what can be salvaged - and to realize that escapism to the point of disappearing into media completely 24/7, all day every day doesn't solve anything. It's a coping mechanism, a reaction to feelings of powerlessness and a lack of agency. Sometimes you just have to choose to keep fighting when it's the only actual choice left.