When it came out on March 31, 1999, The Matrix felt like no other film that had ever existed.
Yes, if you were the sort of film watcher who consumed everything, you could spot how indebted the film was to wuxia martial arts epics, to anime, and to the films of James Cameron (among other action directors). Its central moment of visual spectacle — time slowing down as the camera twists around, say, Neo dodging bullets — had been used a few months earlier in an ad for the Gap. (And versions of the technique used to create this effect had been used throughout film history.)
And, yes, its script drew heavily from philosophy texts, comic books, and classic sci-fi. Heck, the movie’s premise is almost identical to 1998’s Dark City, a very good film you should check out.
But I’m not talking about the movie’s component parts; I’m talking about how the movie felt. And the feeling of watching The Matrix in 1999 was almost overwhelming. In the minds of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, all of these elements blended and fit together seamlessly. And the movie’s masterstroke was setting its story in a world that felt very like the actual world in 1999, rather than an overtly fictional setting (as was the case with Dark City). The film captured a growing sense that nothing was real and everything was manipulated on some level, a sense that has only grown in the 22 years since the movie came out.
The Matrix has a complicated legacy. It’s probably the most influential American movie since Star Wars came out in 1977 (and it is now almost exactly as old as Star Wars was when The Matrix came out), and it’s by far the most popular piece of art created by trans people. But its sequels were divisive, and its ideas about questioning reality have influenced political reactionaries in dangerous ways. Now, with a fourth film in the series coming out on December 22, it’s time to go back ... back to the Matrix, across five eras of the franchise’s history.
Era 1: The Matrix comes out and is an instant smash (1999)
In case you’ve forgotten, The Matrix follows the story of one Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker who stumbles upon a massive secret about his reality: Humanity has been subjugated by machines, and the world is just a simulation we’ve all been plugged into, so we can serve as batteries to our robot overlords. With the help of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo claims his mantle as “the one” and begins the process of helping humanity rise up against its oppressors. Neo flies up into the sky, and Rage Against the Machine plays. It’s 1999, and nothing will ever go wrong again!
The Matrix is probably the most famous film out of a micro-generation of movies I like to call “end of history” movies, after the Francis Fukuyama book of the same name, published in 1992. Fukuyama argued that humankind had pretty much figured things out. Capitalism and liberal democracy were just the way to organize one’s society, and the end of the Cold War had “proved” that.
“End of history” movies tend to take as their starting point the idea that, yeah, everything seems like it’s great and is just going to keep getting better. And if that’s true, then why do these protagonists feel so dissatisfied? These movies clustered around the second term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and 1999 is rife with them. In addition to The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty, and (arguably) Being John Malkovich, among others, flirt with “end of history” themes. American Beauty even won Best Picture.
All these movies center protagonists who are white men or coded as white men. (Reeves, who plays the protagonist of The Matrix, is of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, English, Irish, and Portuguese descent, but Neo is coded as a generic, white-guy everyman.) And all these men are gripped by what might be termed a spiritual malaise. They’re supposed to be content, but they’re not. Something, somewhere, has gone wrong, and they lack the fulfillment they seek.
Notably, all these films place at least some amount of blame on consumerism. We’re trying to fill the voids in our hearts with money or stuff, the films argue. But when it comes time to look more closely at the void, all the films splinter off in different directions in answering the question of what might actually fill it. And The Matrix argues that what we need is to accept that reality is an illusion manufactured for us by powerful interests who are invested in keeping us from seeing how they don’t want anybody else’s hands on the tiller. It’s baby’s first introduction to leftism.
Don’t get me wrong. When The Matrix came out, its immediate and primary influence on the industry lay in how it completely changed the game visually. Its groundbreaking “bullet time” sequences — those ones where time slowed down so Neo could dodge bullets — were almost instantly imitated and parodied into the ground. (Here’s Shrek!)
The movie’s cool greens and slate grays immediately became part of the cinematic vernacular, and it’s not hard to see that much of a link between the aesthetics of The Matrix and those of the Dark Knight trilogy that began in 2005. And when you consider how much the Dark Knight trilogy influenced superhero movies, it becomes even less difficult to see The Matrix’s influence everywhere at your multiplex and preferred streaming service.
At the 2000 Oscars ceremony, The Matrix won all four of the technical Oscars it was nominated for, winning in three of those categories over Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace. The torch, as far as Hollywood was concerned, was passed. George Lucas’s hokey space opera seemed kinda corny. The Wachowski sisters’ cyberpunk opus was the future.
But cool visuals aren’t why a movie sinks into society’s groundwater and influences seemingly everything that comes after. What usually allows that to happen is some sort of thematic hookup with modern life.
Era 2: The sequels come out and are ... divisive (2003)
I need to come clean with y’all about something before we proceed: I truly believe the Matrix sequels are good. In fact, I think Reloaded (the second film) is great, and while I think Revolutions (the third film) is the Wachowskis’ weakest movie, I still find it an absolute blast for most of its running time. (The 2003 direct-to-DVD anime anthology The Animatrix, which features several short films set in the world of the movies, isn’t directed by the sisters, but it’s an absolute blast. Watch it if you haven’t.)
I don’t know if this is a minority opinion now, when it’s not particularly difficult to find defenses of the sequels. But it was a minority opinion in 2004, when I firmly defended these movies from the slings and arrows of a moviegoing public that felt like it had been sold a bill of goods. Reloaded came out in May 2003, riding a wave of hype that guided it to what was then a record-breaking opening. But it quickly became an object of ridicule (here’s Will Ferrell at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards), and when Resurrections followed in November, the two sequels were broadly seen as at least disappointing.
The two movies were filmed simultaneously, a mini-trend that seemed on the brink of taking over Hollywood at the time. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy were all filmed across one big shoot. That series, released from 2001 to 2003, is arguably the only other from the era to approach The Matrix’s level of influence. The Rings sequels were lauded along with the original, however. Reloaded and Revolutions were ... not.
The original Matrix was a sleek, efficient action movie machine, but the two sequels presaged everything that was to come from the Wachowski sisters by being really, really weird.
For instance, when the audience finally gets to see Zion, the last free human city, it’s a place where people give solemn speeches, then have rave orgies. (Also, Cornel West is there.) The evil Agent Smith can just take over anybody he wants. Neo is sort of Jesus, but so is Agent Smith, and anyway, they have to fight each other.
To be clear, The Matrix was also really weird, but its story was so simple and its characters’ goals so understandable that it could throw heady concepts at the audience pell-mell. The goal of Neo and his friends in the sequels is much harder to parse. They have to destroy the Matrix itself, which nobody knows how to do without, in essence, breaking reality. That seeming storytelling aimlessness turns the sequels into philosophical treatises occasionally punctuated by top-notch action sequences. (The highway chase from Reloaded might be the best action sequence in the whole trilogy.)
Chances are if somebody complains to you about the Matrix sequels, however, they’re going to talk about the rave orgy or something. Something in the movie just doesn’t quite click with a viewer, which leads them to point at surface-level plot stuff that doesn’t entirely work as “the problem.” I would argue something deeper in the films (something I love!) is what made so many people find them disappointing: Their themes essentially negate the big, exciting ending of The Matrix.
The Matrix is a “chosen one” story about the singular hero who can lift humanity out of its oppression and into the glorious sunlight. It is about the handful of people courageous enough to see through society’s bullshit and the guy they support in his battle for what is Good and Right. That’s one of the oldest, easiest narratives to glom onto, because everybody wants to be the most special person alive.
The Matrix sequels, however, instantly begin arguing that Neo’s status as chosen one is an illusion and, ultimately, another system of control the machines have introduced to keep humanity in line. Believe you have a savior, and you’ll become a lot more complacent in the face of oppression because now it’s somebody else’s problem. Revolutionary movements are so often co-opted by the forces they’re rebelling against. And so on.
Reloaded pushes you to question your assumptions about how chosen one stories work and how they might be used to dull whatever rebellious tendencies you possess. And then Revolutions all but asks its audience to participate in, well, the revolution.
Revolutions has problems, but I love how it resolves these ideas within the trilogy. Yes, Neo is tremendously important to the final peace that is struck between human and machine. But the big climax of the film gives an exciting moment to nearly every character in the story, no matter how minor. One person can’t change the world, but many can. That message can be alienating. If you’re not special and it’s on you to make the world a better place, that seems like a lot of responsibility! But the films’ emphasis on collective action has also made them wear well in a century that is more and more drawn to the idea that we’ll only solve our biggest problems by everybody working together.
Era 3: The Matrix becomes part of our cultural firmament (1999 to present)
One of the easiest and earliest ways to tell if a pop culture thing has struck a chord is to see how quickly and how often academics turn to it as an object worthy of study. By that metric, The Matrix was a smash success. Academic papers about the movie and its sequels started appearing almost immediately, and scholars continue to study the movies to this day. Just looking up writing about the films on Google Scholar brings up nearly 1,000 results, and my extremely crude search surely left out dozens more.
You can find papers discussing almost any aspect of the films in incredible detail, whether it’s filmmaking techniques or themes of gender or the Wachowskis’ major blind spots around race. (Morpheus and especially the Oracle, an old Black woman who serves out wisdom alongside cookies, have been cited as examples of the “magical negro” stereotype.) Long before either of the Wachowski sisters came out as trans, academics were writing about the transness of the trilogy.
The academics had just tapped into something everybody already kind of knew: The Matrix had changed everything.
Now, 22 years after its release, it’s almost impossible to understand just how immediately everybody sort of knew what The Matrix was and what it was about. This wildly original and weird sci-fi movie from two little-known filmmakers with just one previous movie to their names (the lesbian erotic thriller Bound, which really should have told everyone, including the Wachowski sisters, that they were trans women) radically altered the cultural firmament in a way original ideas almost never do anymore.
Within a month of The Matrix’s debut, commentators were blaming the Columbine school shooting on it. (And one of the things that has aged the most weirdly about the whole trilogy is its gun fetishism.) By the time the sequels were being released, ABC News was gravely intoning, “Does The Matrix inspire the disturbed?” There were lots and lots of other action movies with guns in them, but The Matrix was the one that made the sleek look of androgynous, leather-clad weapons experts seem effortlessly cool.
Hollywood took notice, stealing everything from the costumes to the color palette, and not even the relative unpopularity of the sequels dimmed The Matrix’s standing in pop cultural estimation. As the franchise itself mostly went dormant — disappearing into a handful of video games — every element of it spread throughout the culture. The influence of anime became more pervasive, and comic book superheroes (the very rough template Neo is built atop) became the dominant cultural characters of our era. The Matrix didn’t invent any of these trends, but it drew a clear “before and after” line in the sand.
It did so philosophically, too. And that brings us back to the idea of reality as an illusion.
Era 4: The Red Pill (2012 to present)
You do not need to know much about leftist politics to know that The Matrix trilogy was written by a couple of leftists. Again: Cornel West is just there, hanging out, in the sequels.
The movies’ themes of a broken modern world are explicitly anti-capitalist. Your consent in a system that actively dehumanizes everybody alive has been manufactured by the system itself, which is run by machines that fundamentally don’t care if you live or die, so long as you numb yourself to your existential malaise and let them feed off you. The trilogy’s politics often felt like a weird melding of Noam Chomsky-style capitalist critique and Nietzsche’s ideas about superhumanity.
But the politics and philosophies of the films are more complicated than that. Every time some philosophical concept or political ideal is nodded toward, the stories point out how trying to find any one form of meaning for the world is a flawed way to look at the way the world functions. People are complicated! Systems are always imperfect, because we are. The closest thing the films have to a central philosophy is “the power of love, I guess.”
Did people still try to boil down the philosophy of the movies to one singular thing? Oh boy, did they!
By far the most famous of these attempts at reduction was the idea of “the red pill,” a term that gained popularity within the online “manosphere” in 2012. First floated on (fittingly) the subreddit r/TheRedPill, the idea borrows the iconography of “taking the red pill” to be able to see the true nature of reality from the film to depict the moment in which a man supposedly has his eyes opened to the fact that society has been feminized and women are ruining everything. The idea is rooted in an aggressive misogyny, one that more or less argues women’s primary function in life is to serve as sexual conquests for men, and it entered the mainstream consciousness in 2014, when Gamergate brought the notion into the spotlight.
As a Matrix fan, I never know how to talk about the red pill business when it comes to the movie’s legacy. Lilly Wachowski has spoken out rather forcefully on the matter in a Twitter reply to Ivanka Trump and Elon Musk (the 2020s!), but the Wachowskis seem comfortable to let their work (which is, again, a movie trilogy made by two trans women with leftist inclinations) speak for itself.
Yet the red pill stood out as one of The Matrix’s most significant legacies in the 2010s, simply because misogynist trolls were impossible to escape in life on this planet throughout the decade. Indeed, for a number of my women friends who either had never seen the movie or who hadn’t seen it since release, The Matrix had been frozen in time as an accidentally anti-feminist work. That unfortunate reputation wasn’t helped by the fact that Trinity is a total badass in the first movie but is, nevertheless, sidelined for Neo’s arc by film’s end.
The manosphere’s reading of The Matrix is faulty, and it cuts against the film’s intentions. But I’m also not going to say it’s wrong, because it did tap into something deep within the film, then took that reading in an unfortunate direction. At the core of The Matrix is the idea that reality is an illusion, that some essential truth is being covered up for you by “them.” The film’s success at remaining in the zeitgeist when most other “end of history” movies fell away, then, stems from how much more central the idea that nothing is as it seems and everybody is lying to you has become to our lives in 2021 than it was in even 2011.
“Reality is an illusion” is the foundation of conspiratorial thinking. It’s not that hard to draw a line from “the machines are keeping the people subservient to them” to something like QAnon. The Matrix isn’t the font of conspiracy theories in general, of course. But it does work incredibly well as an all-purpose metaphor for the idea that something in life is missing and that someone is keeping a central, important truth from you. In the 2020s, just the idea that you could be given a pill or a piece of information that would suddenly wake you up and explain the seeming emptiness of our current moment holds a powerful sway.
But there are other ways to read that idea that don’t involve conspiratorial thinking. Did I mention this movie was made by two trans women?
Era 5: The Matrix is a trans narrative (2016 to present)
In 2019, an extremely smart person, who was about to come out publicly as a trans woman, a thing that scared her to death, wrote the following at the popular website Vox:
The sense of using the internet to find a true identity permeates every scene of The Matrix. In the movie’s first exchange between hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) and badass hacker girl Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), he says he assumed she was a guy, and she replies, blithely, “Most guys do.” The characters reject the names they were born with — in Neo’s case, Thomas Anderson — in favor of their chosen names. Their wardrobe grows increasingly androgynous and leather-bound. The entire movie is about transcending the limitations of the physical form to explore what the mind is capable of. Bodies are, at best, a suggestion. Your brain is what really matters.
Emily VanDerWerff, who wrote that piece (and who is also me), was speaking to one of the ideas academics had long highlighted within The Matrix: Its presentation of gender is really, really fascinating. Many writers on trans themes had singled out its presentation of gender identity as a topic of interest even before Lana Wachowski came out publicly as trans in 2012 and Lilly in 2016.
One thing that often seems to be true for trans people in my experience is that questioning the role gender plays in our lives leads us to question many more things about the systems that prop up society. A lot of trans people become diehard communists or enter polyamorous relationships, because it’s not that long of a walk from “the gender binary is mostly made up” to “capitalism and monogamy are mostly made up.” The Matrix is made in that spirit, I would argue.
But that’s just it: I would argue that. You might not. Trans women love to claim The Matrix trilogy as stories about our experiences, and because they were made by trans women, the argument that they’re elaborate trans allegories seems like it might hold water. Certainly I love these movies so much because I see my own early forays into figuring out my gender via online experimentation reflected in them.
Yet saying the movies are “a trans allegory” as though it’s a cut-and-dried thing strikes me as reducing them, too. They were made by two trans women, and as such, those women surely infused elements of their lives and interests into the stories. And certainly I’m thrilled that “The Matrix is a trans allegory” seems to have supplanted “The Matrix is accidentally misogynist” as the reading du jour.
But The Matrix didn’t so successfully penetrate the zeitgeist because it had a single, secret message. It’s a rich, multifaceted text about how badly we are being failed by modern society and what we might do to fix it by coming together as an enormous coalition of people working toward a common goal. It keeps avoiding simple reductions because it’s a slippery target, never about just one thing. In another 30 years, when our robot successors view it as a tale about our overwhelming cruelty and decadence, I hope they recognize that, too.