The Matrix turns 20: A look back at the everlasting legacy of The Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi action film
A handsome, somewhat taciturn hero goes about his wanderings in peace until one day he hears something that sounds a lot like the voice of God. Putting his entire belief system on hold, he blasphemes by following the voice, which tells him that his entire life has been a lie, just smoke and mirrors. Not only does our hero learn things believed to be impossible or even demonic at the time, he actually starts teaching them, embracing his role as a prophet of the new truth. That is, until he dies, is resurrected — and finally, dies again to save all of humanity, willingly offering up his body to salvage our souls.
The Matrix, which released 20 years ago today, certainly wasn’t shy about framing its protagonist Thomas Anderson aka Neo (Keanu Reeves) in Catholic terms (if Christ were also a hacker and jiu-jitsu expert, that is). In fact, the film, directed by The Wachowskis (trans women Lana and Lilly, then known as the Wachowski Brothers, Larry and Andy), was’t bashful about any of the pop culture biggies it channelised — several books by cyberpunk pioneer Neal Stephenson, the anime classic Ghost in the Shell, John Woo, the Jet Li kung fu films Fist of Legend and Man of Tai Chi, Alice in Wonderland and so much more.
What set The Matrix and its sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) apart was their irresistible style and faith in its own universe-building. 20 years on, it remains one of the most influential movies of all time.
Ushering in the VFX Era
It’s a little funny that some of the most famous VFX sequences in The Matrix — Neo stopping bullets with his mind at the end, for instance —were actually inspired by the anime cyberpunk movie Ghost in the Shell (1995), a story which also dealt with distinctly existential questions set against a techno-dystopian backdrop, like The Matrix. Clearly, it’s rather tricky to recreate anime sequences in live-action movies. But The Matrix did it in style, taking the John Woo aesthetic of super slo-mo and going wild with it, right from the first scene where Trinity (Carrie Ann-Moss) takes on about a dozen cops at once in a dazzling sequence. Several key gunfight scenes in the Matrix films are inspired from the John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat collaborations The Killer (1989) and Hard-Boiled (1992), where time seems to slow down in order to show us the heightened reflexes of the characters.
What The Matrix did was to open to floodgates for the VFX era of Hollywood blockbusters. In the two decades since, VFX-heavy blockbusters have been the biggest winners at the box office — whether it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avatar, the Harry Potter franchise or the Transformers films. The idea that one barnstorming film is enough to push the envelope visually began with The Matrix. And look where we are today — Captain Marvel just took down an entire starship fleet in outer space, all by herself, in an utterly spectacular scene, even by Marvel standards.
The real Fight Club
Hand-to-hand combat scenes shot in a style that invoked side-scrolling arcade fighting games (the Wachowskis were comic-book writers and video game fanatics) became a signature move for the Matrix franchise. That first training scene with Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Neo, the first time Neo fights Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and finally, that epic climactic showdown when Neo is resurrected and realises the true nature of the Matrix, allowing him to “bend some rules, break others”.
Jet Li, arguably the most influential martial artist of the 90s, was the single biggest inspiration (or in Matrix terms, the source code) behind those iconic fight scenes. Watch Neo’s training sequence, and his fights with Agent Smith closely, they have several shots recreated wholesale from the 1994 Jet Li classic Fist of Legend. And even beyond the mechanics of the fight itself, the framework also contains a bit of Li’s masterpiece. In Fist of Legend, set against the Japanese colonisation of China, Chen Zhen (played by Jet Li; the same character was made famous by Bruce Li earlier in Fist of Fury) fights for Chinese honour against a rogue general of the imperial forces, General Fujita (Billy Chau). The fight is always framed as one between technique/finesse on the one hand, and brute strength on the other, a dynamic recreated in the Neo vs Agent Smith battle. Fujita is even referred to as the “killing machine”, which is literally what Agents are in the Matrix universe.
If today, we have every single A-lister studying some form of martial arts or the other (krav maga for Gal Gadot before Wonder Woman, capoeira for Cate Blanchett before Thor: Ragnarok), a lot of the credit must go to the Wachowskis, who put Reeves and co. through their paces and did not compromise on this aspect of filming.
Interestingly, Jet Li was supposed to play the small but important role of Seraph (eventually played by Collin Chou) in The Matrix, to round off the Wachowskis’ homage. Li refused, and it wasn’t until 2018 that he revealed why — fittingly, the reason strikes at the heart of tech-paranoia, the very sentiment The Matrix has profited heavily off.
Apparently Warner Brothers wanted to shoot Li and his crew for nine months, certainly much more than a 10-minute part demanded. The idea was to capture Li’s fight moves digitally, preserving them for future use, something which Li opposed vehemently, for obvious reasons. As the man himself said in an interview last year, “I was thinking: I’ve been training my entire life. And we martial artists could only grow older. Yet they could own [my moves] as an intellectual property forever. So I said I couldn’t do that”.
Trans-coding the Hollywood machine
Lana Wachowski reportedly came out during the production of The Matrix Reloaded. She did not publicly come out as a trans woman until 2012, well after the series was done and dusted. And while the trans themes in The Matrix were not a secret for the trans community, trans-centric critical writing on the films naturally took off after 2012. The Canadian writer Mary Cook (a trans woman herself) detailed many of the trans coming-of-age themes in a brilliant 2016 essay for The Mary Sue.
Early in the film, when Neo, still Thomas Anderson at that point, is captured by Agent Smith, he is told that he is “leading two lives” and that “one of those lives has a future, the other does not”. When he tries to protest, Neo’s mouth is literally sewn shut, he is unable to speak in that moment, aptly called “trans panic” by Cook, reflecting the trans community’s rightful fear of legal and judicial processes (“Tell me, Mr Anderson, what good is a phone call when you are unable to speak?”) Then there’s the deadnaming reference with Agent Smith —“deadnaming” is the phenomenon of a cis person calling a trans man or woman by their previous or given name, rather than the one they’ve chosen for themselves, post-transition (for more on this phenomenon, read this).
When Agent Smith, mid-fight, continues to taunt Neo by calling him “Mr Anderson”, Neo growls back, “My name is Neo”, thus completing his transition from one life (cis, apparently “real” but in truth illusory) to another (corporeal).
It’s worth noting that circa 1999, there was no way Warner Brothers would have greenlit a high-budget Hollywood production headlined by a pair of trans siblings. And therein lies a lesson for the JK Rowlings of the world — queer and trans creators the word over have had to “code” their stories in normative terms in order to gain mainstream acceptance. And so her covenient “retconning” (retrospective conversion) of the Harry Potter novels along queer lines (while also keeping the visual depictions of her stories as straight as they come) smacks of hypocrisy and opportunism, and is deeply disrespectful towards creators like the Wachowskis.
The Curse of the Red Pill
It’s time to address the elephant in the room — the fact that part of The Matrix’s cultural legacy is Reddit’s notoriously sexist The Red Pill group, an alarmingly substantial chunk of the Internet closely aligned to the violent, misogynist Incel (portmanteau for “involuntary celibate”) movement. The Red Pill refers to the scene where Morpheus offers Neo two pills, one red and the other blue, with the caveat that the blue pill will return him to his usual, blinkered life as Thomas Anderson while the red one will “reveal the true nature of the Matrix”. In the context of the Red Pill subreddit, members believe that the red pill has revealed to them the way the world real works — a supposed feminist dystopia where vain, egocentric, power-obsessed women have denied them sex and companionship because they’re not alphas, so to speak. It’s worth noting that the Red Pill subreddit was created by Robert Fisher, a Republican lawmaker from New Hampshire who supported almost every popular alt-right issue from 2010 to 2015.
And while all of this is — for the most part — unrelated to the actual storyline of The Matrix, or any of the characters’ attitudes towards women, the Red Pill story has lessons aplenty. We cannot let narratives rooted in social justice (as the Matrix is, on several levels) be hijacked by the likes of Fisher and his fanboys. Even a cursory glance at some of these subreddits is enough to tell you how the lexicon of social justice has been perverted, co-opted in the service of a violent, misogynist worldview. Therefore, the fact that the Incel movement derives its name from a film directed by two trans women does not seem quite as surprising anymore.
In The Matrix Reloaded, the Oracle (Gloria Foster), who can see the patterns of the future, tells Neo, “We can never see past the choices we don't understand”. So while the Matrix’s legacy contains a lot of good, fans of the franchise must acknowledge the Red Pill mess as part of the package — even if we couldn’t have seen it turning out this way.
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Updated Date: Mar 31, 2019 15:29:30 IST