The Matrix 20 Years Later: Same Story, Different Reality
I saw The Matrix Resurrections — all two and a half hours — in the IMAX theater yesterday afternoon. Somehow, more than two decades have passed since I first (and last) saw the original. I would have never seen the reboot had a friend not invited me — a reminder that diversity in friendships brings with it diversity in experiences.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal on February 12, 2000, when I was a 19-year-old student at Northern Arizona University, after having watched the original Matrix with my dorm roommate:
Yesterday was yet another Friday night spent alone at home. Brian and I watched The Matrix until 10 and then Cody called and asked if we wanted to go to a party. I just didn’t feel like getting drunk with strangers and trying to make new friends yet again.
Anyway, the Matrix is a great movie. I once wrote in here that life is a lot like a computer program — that we have certain limits, but not a restricted fate. Well, the Wachowski brothers took that theory one step further and explained how we’ve come to live in this computer program. It’s a movie that really gets you thinking — which made my Friday night alone even crazier. There is a great scene when an artificial intelligence agent tries to classify humans as a certain species. All mammals, he explains, are able to work within an ecosystem, but humans take it over until there is no more room left and then we move to a new ecosystem until we take that over too. “The only other species that acts like that is a virus. Human beings are a virus, a plague, a cancer on this planet. And we are the cure.”
Another part of the movie compares the cerebral cortex to the capabilities of a computer. Can we really design something as powerful as what we used to design it? One would think that there’s some kind of check against that. These were the thoughts that were flowing through my mind as I listened to Medeski, Martin and Wood alone on a Friday night.
I was a late-blooming 19-year-old, insecure about my personality and unsure what I wanted to do in my life. A year and a half into adulthood, I was still at the trailhead of self-discovery. I watched the original Matrix just a few weeks after declaring a double major in math and philosophy. Math was something I was relatively good at and philosophy was something I enjoyed. Without consideration of where they might lead me later in life, choosing both felt like a practical compromise. (Yes, I thought that double-majoring in math and philosophy was practical.)
I had learned by 19 that discussing the nature of reality and the meaning of life was no way to gain social status or new friends, and something better left to my journal. And yet, The Matrix was deeply philosophical and the hit movie of the new millennium. It explored all the themes I was interested in: What is authentic and what is mere mimicry and simulation? How much of what we experience is individually subjective versus shared experience grounded in some objective truth? Can human beings ever find empathic equanimity by living in harmony, or is it our inescapable nature to compete, exploit, and conquer? What is consciousness anyway and can it be constructed with code?
The popularity of The Matrix made me wonder: maybe others were actually interested in these questions too but reluctant to speak about them? What else could explain the movie’s popularity? Certainly not Keanu Reeves’ acting.
What was it like to watch the fourth installment of The Matrix in my 40s? Keanu Reeves’ acting is just as bad. The basic story is the same, as are many of the actors, and the special effects. There are all the usual fight scenes and motorcycle chases. So what has changed? The Wachowski brothers are now the Wachowski sisters, each having transitioned genders over the past decade — and there are subtle themes of transness throughout the movie. The screenwriting pokes fun at the pervasiveness of reboots, sequels, and spin-offs in contemporary culture, but also insists that all stories are incarnations of previous versions. After all, what is the original Matrix if not a modern reboot of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? And The Matrix of 2021 reflects a very different Internet from 1999, as David Sims observes:
The 1999 film reflected an online world made up of a series of databases, in which the enemies were emotionless machines intent on keeping humanity under control. In Resurrections, the Matrix has shifted to something more wildly emotional and provocative: a universe of constant distraction and intense energy, embodying the all-out sensory assault that comes with being logged on in 2021
Nearly three hours after entering, we streamed out of the theater unsure what to say and desperate to use the restroom. In the shadowless, bright UV lighting and smooth white marble of the food court below, the masked crowds of listless San Franciscans still felt sci-fi dystopian, especially when compared to the stunning, sunny aerial shots of the city scattered throughout the movie. We grabbed some pizza on greasy paper plates and beer in red plastic cups as if we were still two decades younger.
After fist-bumping goodbye at the parking garage, it took me 30 minutes to drive from SOMA, where much of the movie was filmed, through rain-soaked traffic to reach the Bay Bridge. As I inched along the onramp, I passed a Meta billboard of a young Black woman with a steampunk aesthetic wearing the new Oculus Quest VR headset. The background was gleaming white, any evidence of physical surrounding photoshopped away.
There is little difference between the original and latest Matrix movies when it comes to plot, special effects, or acting. The first Matrix was powerful because its speculative future felt so distant yet plausible. While the storyline has barely evolved, the future it portrays now seems more proximate and inevitable. My friends’ children grow up conversing with Siri and Alexa as if they are helpful, compliant friends. Google Docs and Sudowrite can predict what I’m going to write before the thought even enters my brain, stripping any illusion of original thought. Next year, Apple is expected to release its first AR headset, which according to its patents, “will use infrared heat sensing to detect when someone touches a real-world object, allowing the glasses to then project controls onto a real-world surface,” further blurring the line between digital and physical. With two weeks straight of forecasted rain over the holidays, my cycling friends are racing “together” in the virtual competitive world of Zwift, while cycling alone in their basements and garages. Pet cloning is taking off in Asia and attracting investment in the US. Already, a rogue Chinese scientist has engineered HIV-resistant babies and I can imagine plenty of parents opting for coronavirus-resistant babies if we have to suffer through another deadly variant. Future versions of the vaccine mandate debate will imply editing the human germline in order to protect the most vulnerable among us from disease. Finally, the most radical speculation from the original Matrix, connecting your brain directly to a computer, is now the mainstream of computer science and electrical engineering departments. Yesterday, Philip O’Keefe became the first person to use a brain-computer interface to tweet a message using only direct thought.
It has been 22 years since the first Matrix was first released in 1999. Google was new and gaining in popularity against Yahoo! Ecstasy was the drug of choice, warehouse raves the counter-culture. Over the next two decades: MP3s and iPods, digital cameras and YouTube, smartphones and Google Maps, social media and algorithms, podcasts & AirPods, AI, Bitcoin, self-driving cars, drones, and mRNA.
And yet my actual routine has barely budged. I still read and write in the morning, work out in the late afternoon, and socialize in the evening. And most days I still write in my journal short letters to a future me. I look forward to reading this one twenty years from now.