This week, the guys on the Mr Sunday Movies channel made a video about The Matrix, as the start of a series about each of the movies in the series. Their frequent editor, Ben Chinapen, also made a video earlier this month about a scene he particularly liked with Agent Smith.
Watching these videos — made by two guys younger than me, and one guy much younger than me, with a significantly different taste than I have and a different frame of reference for everything, but still pedantic enough to correctly use “infer,” which is something I respect considerably — made me realize that my opinion of the whole Matrix phenomenon was set back when I saw it in 1999, and I haven’t done much to reconsider it since then.
Even though so much has happened in the years since then. The movie went from hit, to blockbuster hit, through endless parodies, through backlash, to become a cultural touchstone of the turn of the millennium. In case that seems overblown, remember that The Black-eyed Peas are also a cultural touchstone of the turn of the millennium. It turns out Y2K did bring about the downfall of society after all, but it had nothing to do with dates.
Something else significant happened over those years: I stopped being the target demographic for movies like The Matrix. Two times over! Which admittedly is only significant to me, and even then only because it’s forced me to think of it as something that wasn’t necessarily for me. And I’m starting to suspect that when I saw it back in 1999, I was so dismissive that I was completely missing the point of it.
I can assure you that I did not leave the theater awestruck. I vividly remember sitting uncomfortably in my seat as the movie ended, and when Rage Against the Machine started yelling “Wake Up” over the ending credits, I said, “Oh come ON.” More than anything else, I spent the movie getting increasingly irritated at its clumsy, ham-fisted symbolism; self-important presentations of watered-down philosophy; and insultingly on-the-nose allusions to Alice in Wonderland. But the bullet-time effect was already familiar enough by that point that it felt gimmicky. Most of the novelty of the martial arts sequences was undercut by the fact that Chinese martial arts movies were getting more widely available in the US. The CG felt like a sampler of Terminator 2 and trends in CGI of the previous 5 years. And the rest of the design and art direction felt like Dark City with the gamma turned up a few notches.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think I’d be nearly as hypercritical of the bulk of The Matrix if I hadn’t been so turned off by its embarrassingly vapid attempts to be profound. In fact, my secret shame was that I liked the second movie better than the first one, mostly because I just ignored every second they spent talking and paid attention only to the spectacle, and at least at the time, Laurence Fishburne slicing up an SUV with a katana seemed dope as hell. I still wouldn’t be able to tell the two sequels apart from each other, and I don’t remember anything else in the movies apart from an interminably long rave sequence and a room full of TVs and an old man talking for what felt like hours. But I was happier, because I’d been freed from having to spend any effort trying to parse it as if it had something interesting to say. I guess you could say I’d taken the blue pill, and could go back to just watching the action sequences.
Now that it’s been over 20 years, the movie’s not just freed from its obligation to say something profound, but also freed from all the hype surrounding it. And I was in my late 20s in 1999, at or near the peak of my snobbery; how did it play to people who were teenagers at the time? Or who didn’t see it until long after it had been established as A Cultural Touchstone Of The Early 21st Century That’s Not Super-Relevant Anymore If We’re Being Honest?
Pretty good, as it turns out. There are lots of little details I never really appreciated that much — the color grading distinguishing the Matrix from the real world, the deliberate timelessness of the design, the weird things they do with focus and artificial reflections, the commitment to diversity in the cast from the start, and how much it managed to establish itself as iconic. I’ve still only ever seen the movie once in its entirety, but the scenes and the overall design are overwhelmingly familiar. Like it or not, it’s shoved its way into the collective consciousness and is here to stay, ham-fisted metaphors and all. And what’s surprised me is that I’m not mad about it. I like the rotary phones, the douchey sunglasses, the trenchcoats, the mish-mash of imagery.
The Caravan of Garbage video makes a point of asking how much of the movie was “stolen” from other sources, which surprised me because it seemed to be completely irrelevant. I can’t believe that even the Wachowskis’ most fervent fans would suggest that its strength was its originality. I thought it was apparent that the entire reason for the movie to exist was to be a pastiche celebrating all the stuff in anime, film, comics, and science fiction that they thought was cool. Like Pulp Fiction and especially Kill Bill were for Quentin Tarantino. Faulting them for not being original would be missing the point entirely.
And with that in mind, I started wondering if my getting annoyed by the vapid philosophy was missing the point as well. Maybe it wasn’t trying to blow anybody’s mind? Maybe it was just trying to provide enough of a thematic through-line for its action sequences so that it would be resonant to as wide an audience as possible? What if the Wachowskis were more interested in making an accessible action movie instead of being really invested in a message?
On the other hand: Ben Chinapen’s video was the first I’d ever heard describing The Matrix as being at least partly an allegory of being transgender. What if the Wachowskis were interested in making an extremely meaningful movie, but its metaphors weren’t impactful for me since I didn’t have the same experience for context? What if I’d spent all this time judging it as a “you’re a very special boy!” movie, when in fact it had a (slightly) more subtle message about the importance of diversity and self-determination?
So either the movie wasn’t earnest at all, or else it was very earnest about a topic that isn’t all about me. Either alternative makes me appreciate the movie a little more.
My favorite of the Wachowskis’ movies is still Speed Racer. It’s not really what I’d call a good movie, and in fact I have a hard time calling it interesting, considering that there’s sensory overload in every single frame and yet it still manages to be boring. But what I like is that it feels undeniably, unapologetically, relentlessly sincere. It is a movie that has no reason to exist, but they just willed it into existence, simply because they wanted to see it. There’s no ambiguity to it, no question of what they were trying to say, apart from “Here is a movie about a weird Japanese children’s cartoon called Speed Racer.”
Everything in 1999 and 2000 felt like it had some significance attached to it just because of an arbitrary date change. It’s entirely possible that The Matrix‘s cultural cachet really comes down to good timing, plus a savvy marketing team able to build up an aura that it was a watershed moment in filmmaking. Even though I’m softening on the movie, I still don’t buy all the hype around it. But I do think there’s enough strong imagery that’s made it stick as a symbol of its generation, even as all the other dingy, aggressively color-graded movies of the same time period have been mostly forgotten.
And now that I’ve passed my own arbitrary date change, and I’m finally finding myself outside of any coveted marketing demographic, I’m developing a better appreciation for things that weren’t made specifically for me. I think I’ve finally fully appreciated that The Matrix probably wasn’t for me, and that’s made me like it a little more.