20 years after The Matrix opened, how many humans choose to live in the Matrix, after all?
I remember chaperoning some Canadian teenagers in Serbia some years ago, and being shocked that most of them had never seen The Matrix. Then I thought about it, and realized that they were babies when the movie came out. Nowadays, there are adults who can join the army and vote that were born after this movie came out. How many movies have I seen that came out before I was born? And how many did I consider to be amazing or important? (Well, more than a few…)
The Rio recently did a late-night screening of The Matrix, and I was pleased to attend. I never managed to see the movie in a proper theatre, I hadn’t seen it in awhile, and I was in the mood for some root beer and buttery popcorn.
It did not disappoint. It was still a good movie (I will make a point here of not discussing the sequels) — it is still a good movie. But when I was getting my popcorn refilled, I heard a woman expressing her shock that some people hadn’t seen it. I could only nod to myself. I’d been there.
To put its age into context, this was the 20th anniversary screening of The Matrix. It came out in 1999 — before 9/11. Do you remember airport security before 9/11?
In 1999 I did not have a cell phone. i’d only had an email address for a few years. Google did not exist. Google did not exist. My friends and I still rented movies from a video store, and the internet wasn’t fast enough to allow for viable streaming services. When you think about the subject matter of the Matrix, it was incredibly relevant at the time. “Social media” didn’t exist. No facebook, no twitter, no instagram, no snapchat, no youtube. Not even myspace! The Matrix was coming out before the cusp of our entrance to our current lifestyle.
Think about it: the presence, location, and distribution of payphones was a vital element of the plot. What would Trinity and Neo have done today, if they were looking for an exit? The only reason some people can even recognize those things as phones these days is because they saw Stranger Things.
People were in favour of the red pill, and the idea of living in the matrix was unsettling. This is where some of the power of the movie comes from. A lot of its tension depends on us being the way we were back then. Or at least being able to remember how things were back then.
Because people born after The Matrix came out grew up in a world where Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube already existed. They have digital lives in addition to their ‘real’ lives. Some of them even prefer their digital lives and even shun their ‘real’ ones. They already live in the Matrix. They choose the blue pill every day… and just like one of the villains of the movie, they want to forget that the real world even exists. From this angle, The Matrix may seem to be more of a preachy relic, than a cautionary tale.
What would people think of Orwell’s 1984, if they were part of a world where everyone already loved Big Brother?
The difference, of course, between our current state and the world the Matrix warns of, is that (as far as we know) people are still given the choice. We don’t have to live in the online world, and the knowledge of the difference between the two worlds is not hidden from us. The most depressing outcome would be if we present a clear choice, educate everyone about the costs and benefits of each lifestyle, and everyone chooses to leave the world behind and step into the prison, and give themselves up to the Matrix anyway. In that case, the movie will seem even more ridiculous to future generations: “Why did the machines go to so much trouble to fool the humans? If they would have just told us the truth, we would have just hopped right in those pods! Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity? What troublesome assholes! Viruses in the system! Thank goodness we don’t have any of those!”
All that aside, it was still a great movie. I still loved it. It was excellently placed, there was a lot of style and great cinematography. Say what you want about Keanu Reeves, the movie still holds up after two decades. And even the people that come after us will likely admit that its fun, and maybe even thought-provoking.
But watching it now, in the world we live in, one can’t help but wonder if living in the Matrix was really so bad. Is it our bias, due to the pre-internet-dominated world we grew up in? Is there really a problem, if some people choose to leave the real world, and live in The Matrix, or in Ready Player One‘s Oasis? Is that just the next step, inevitable, but incompatible with the culture, world, and lifestyle that came before? Perhaps something like the Matrix will more readily enable the coexistence of those that prefer the red vs the blue pill, and they can more easily stay out of each others’ way. It is reasonable to imagine that there is some great cost to choosing to turn one’s back on reality; the retort of course is to beg a functional definition of reality, and relate the relevance of that definition to the limitations of human perception. How many worlds can’t we see, and what are the consequences to our selves to turn away from what we know is there?
When you turn on the screen, do you see a window, or the world?