10+ Years Later: Would We Still Take THE MATRIX's Red Pill?
Have you ever found yourself defending a movie, going out of your way to articulate its many strengths, before gradually realizing that you haven't actually viewed it in a decade or more? Do you ever say “oh yeah, that movie is amazing!” before pausing to reconsider, internally, “or at least I thought it was...ten years ago”? Perhaps then a feeling creeps over you. The feeling that if you watched this movie today, you may not like it at all. Your tastes might be significantly different, or you've just seen so many more films to which you could compare it unfavorably.
This feature is all about revisiting the movies we used to love and champion. The only requirements are that we have not (re)watched the film in at least 10 years, and that we do so now with an open mind and a willingness to critique it with fresh eyes.
For the inaugural edition of 10+ Years Later, I decided to choose the film that originally gave me the idea: The Matrix (1999). I didn't actually see it in theatres when it came out. Rather, it was 2001 when I blind-bought the DVD. It was the first DVD my family ever owned, and we bought it at the same time we bought our spiffy new DVD player. The medium represented a whole new world of possibilities, chief among them the ability to select a scene!
The Matrix, a martial arts-heavy sci-fi hit that kids at school frequently referenced, seemed like an obvious choice to break in a DVD player, but I didn't expect to love it. I was positively enamored, however, and proceeded to wear that disc out with multiple rewatches—probably daily for a stretch there. My brothers and I could endlessly quote both verbose Morpheus and monosyllabic Neo. It was also this viewing that set into motion a celebrity crush on Keanu Reeves that lasted much longer than it had any right to last. But somewhere along the way, I became preoccupied with exploring the wider world of cinema, and that trusty DVD began to gather a whole lot of dust.
Originally, like many, I was enthralled by the action set pieces. Bullet-time was brand-new, and, let's face it, cool as hell. While it's hard not to groan at the innovation now, after seeing countless tiresome parodies or weak imitations, I remember a time when it was thrilling. Bullet-time aside, the classically-filmed action sequences are exhilarating in their own right; intriguingly unbound by the laws of physics but visceral enough to feel high-stakes. While not quite able to elicit the giddy delight they once did, they're still pretty darn good, and Hugo Weaving's nasal drone remains effectively scary in a cartoon-villain way.
The philosophy of the film was little more than a cool conceit to me. My mind was never blown by the concept of the Matrix itself, and I tended to glaze over during the scene where Morpheus explains the true state of humanity and the earth for Neo. Indeed, I didn't fully remember much beyond the notion that our world as we know it is a constructed computer program (the eponymous one), and human's physical bodies are actually chillin' in pods full of liquid in the dystopian real earth.
To briefly paraphrase Morpheus' explanation: we created AI, and of course that AI formed an army and went to war with us (or maybe it was vice-versa—we don't know). He vaguely notes that the earth was “scorched,” despite the fact that humans “blocked out the sun” thinking it would kill the solar-powered AIs. That seems like an extreme, self-destructive move, but hey, 2016 happened, so maybe. Now, humans are no longer born, but are grown en masse in stretches of land known as The Fields. The reason for this? To harvest us as energy sources—a revelation Morpheus demonstrates with a visual metaphor that is completely terrifying and not at all hilarious, by smugly producing a Duracell in his hand.
Pleasingly, that relatively brief scene (and one following it that expands slightly on what it means to be 'The One') is really all we get in the way of self-indulgent exposition and overly-elaborate backstory. From what I can tell, the Wachowskis' filmography has been bogged down by endless complex world-building and convoluted philosophies. The Matrix, on the other hand, is tight and sleek. It provides enough ideas to give the characters a reason to tangle with the deadly Agents, but the theoretical scenes mercifully don't overstay their welcome. If you're looking to sink your teeth into some Matrix subtext, though, there's good evidence for Neo's storyline being a trans narrative.
So, what of Keanu's performance? Okay, I'm not in love with him anymore, and I can admit it: he truly doesn't have the charisma and gravitational pull typically required of characters who are chosen one archetypes. At the same time, though, it works for Neo. Neo is a bland office worker who moonlights as a hacker (I maybe wouldn't buy that Keanu can hack computers, granted...). He is willing to toss away his non-life and have a bunch of crap downloaded into his mind because he didn't have much personality to begin with. He can be everyone's idea of The One, because he's such a blank slate. His lack of acting talent is, then, sort of irrelevant.
Lastly, I was rather struck by just how 90's this film felt. The club scene, which blares Rob Zombie's “Dragula” over a pan of writhing bodies clad in leather, is probably the most dated moment in the whole movie. The tattered sweaters worn by the real-world crew on the Nebuchadnezzar could have been plucked from a Kurt Cobain estate sale. While upon its release it was ostensibly futuristic and ushered in a new era of tech-chic polish, it now obviously bears many remaining hallmarks of 90's grunge and Gen-X's residual resistance to authority.
Verdict? I still dig it. Yes, it's silly, but never to the extent that it's not in on the joke. There are moments when the seams are visible (sometimes literally) during certain effects, but the energy and enthusiasm outweigh any cheese. The philosophical aspects are dull bordering on stupid, but restrained enough to be easily ignored. It's hard to separate how much of my enjoyment now comes from nostalgia, or genuine response to seeing a good film—but I haven't been disillusioned by this revisit. Personally, that's more than good enough for me.