Some movies are such a perfect match for their moments that they end up providing the language and concepts we use to understand the world for years to come. “The Matrix,” the Wachowskis’ science-fiction epic about a hacker who discovers that the world is not as it seems, is such a movie. Released 20 years ago this past spring, “The Matrix” has returned to theaters, and a fourth Matrix movie is in the works. To mark the occasion, I got together with Act Four contributor Sonny Bunch and Reason’s Peter Suderman for a discussion of “The Matrix” and its moment.

Hi, Peter and Sonny!

Part of the promise of a movie ticket is that it takes you not just into a theater but on a journey to somewhere else. And when we learned that “The Matrix” was returning to theaters, I felt a transporting fizz of delight that sent me all the way back to 1999. For all the mournful discussion of how the movie’s now-famous “red pill” has become the rhetorical tool of misogynists and racists; or the contemplation of its stylistic influence; or the attempts to understand what happened with the Wachowskis’ sense of the zeitgeist, the idea of getting to see “The Matrix” on a big screen again took me back to the summer before my sophomore year of high school and to the simple sense that the movie was cooler than anything I’d seen before.

The three of us belong to a particularly narrow generational band. We got online during our teenage (ish) years, and while we remember what our social lives were like before they were conducted in chat rooms and over AOL Instant Messenger, the Internet dramatically expanded how much of the world was available to us at precisely the age when we were starting to think about the world more expansively. I was part of a hypercompetitive high school debate team, and the ability to do research and maintain friendships online was revolutionary. Not only did I have access to vastly more information than I had ever thought possible, but the people from schools across the country whom I saw at tournaments 15 or 20 weekends a year could suddenly be present at my house or in my school library every day. Of course the Internet felt a lot more satisfying than real life, especially real life as a hopelessly nerdy high school student with a truly awful haircut, and “The Matrix” reflected sensibility and magnified it at blockbuster scale. I don’t know that any movie will ever capture what it felt like to step over that divide between life before the Internet and life after it better than “The Matrix” did.

And for me in particular, an essential part of the coolness of “The Matrix” was not its main character, Thomas Anderson, also known as Neo (Keanu Reeves), but Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Neo’s Charon on his journey from delusion to truth. Plenty has been written about “The Matrix” as a metaphor for trans identity in the years since its release, and the trilogy’s stylistic nods to BDSM were much-noted at the time. But I think it’s worth noting just how different Trinity was from the other images of women that dominated pop culture at the time. Britney Spears’s debut album “...Baby One More Time” dropped in January of that year, and plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirts and pigtails were everywhere. Tops were cropped. Slips were dresses. Body glitter and plastic heels were big. If you were a teenage girl, you were supposed to be a baby and a stripper simultaneously. It was — a lot. Trinity was more than the opposite of all of those expectations: She was their inverse, and without apology or justification. Given the choice to be anything when she manifested in the Matrix, Trinity chose to be strong, sleek, efficient, effective. She might have been a character, but she didn’t present herself for consumption. That was a kind of cool I didn’t even know it was possible to be before “The Matrix.”

How do you two remember it?

Follow the white rabbit,

- Alyssa

*

Hello, friends!

Thinking on Alyssa’s point about “The Matrix” and going on a journey, part of me wonders if the generation of film fans terrified of spoilers wasn’t born during the marketing campaign for this picture. There was something revolutionary-feeling about the ads, with their cryptic hints and teasing notes, one of the characters literally telling us, the viewer, that “no one can be told what the Matrix is.” Or, at least, that’s how I remember it more than 20 years later — a sense of confusion and excitement, one ginned up by quick cuts and strange imagery and leather-bound actors telling us they had a secret — and judging by the description of the film’s Super Bowl teaser spot as “befuddling” by a writer for the Chicago Tribune, I’m not far off.

Part of the appeal of the film was entering the world of the movie with Mr. Anderson as he tried to find Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity and figure out the answer to that cryptic tease. Learning what the Matrix was was half the fun, and I would have, frankly, been kind of vexed if someone had explained it to me before I had a chance to see it in theaters. Of course, that wasn’t the only — or even the main — joy of “The Matrix,” given that I wound up seeing it twice more in theaters after learning the answer on that first excursion.

No, the main joy was discovering a whole new cinematic style. And yes, yes, I know: The Wachowskis just ripped off the martial-arts action of Hong Kong filmmakers, and there wasn’t anything that revolutionary, and anyway why hadn’t I, a teenager in suburban Virginia, bothered to familiarize myself with world cinema beforehand? But that was one of the great things about “The Matrix”: In addition to minting new disciples of Jean Baudrillard and René Descartes, “The Matrix” offered new avenues of discovery for the nascent film-hound, hints of where to go searching for something a bit more aggressive and interesting than the average multiplex movie. Granted, it would be a few more years before our own Matrix in the real world became capable of streaming those movies directly to our homes, but anyone with a decent video store could start looking for the film’s predecessors.

Peter, I assume you’re a Baudrillard stan now and forever?

- Sonny

*

If I say, “Hello, Alyssa and Sonny!” am I actually offering you a greeting? Or just a symbol that we’ve all agreed to understand as a greeting?

I distinctly recall stepping out of my first viewing of "The Matrix" in the spring of 1999 and saying to a friend, “That just might have been the greatest genre movie ever.” Not only did it nod to French philosophers and BDSM style, it borrowed from and synthesized a huge number of cinematic influences, from the machine takeover of James Cameron’s Terminator films to the balletic gunfights of John Woo to the then-edgy hacker culture depicted in films like “Sneakers” and “The Net,” all of which were video store mainstays in the days when “cult film” often meant “a movie lots of people watched repeatedly on VHS.”

The result was a movie that felt like a comprehensive riff on the previous decade or so of outsider culture. And its success — both at the box office and as a cultural touchstone, the kind of movie that very offline people might deploy as a casual conversational reference — was a kind of announcement that the outsiders had won. Their world, the world of technology and foreign action films and nontraditional sexuality, was about to become mainstream.

It’s worth remembering, as Alyssa writes, how new and unfamiliar the Internet was when “The Matrix” came out. It was less than a year after the release of the Starr report, which people were amazed to discover you could download at home as a PDF. (As I remember, it took a long time.) For many users, the online realm was still mediated by the reassuring crackle of dial-up modems and the comforting soundscape of AOL. The more-online among us spent a lot of time in niche-interest chat rooms, and the idea of publishing your own content online was still primarily the domain of geeks and nerds.

The point is, when “The Matrix” hit theaters, people didn’t really know what the Internet would become or what it would be for. And the movie’s big idea was that it would be everything. It would be your entire life, a place you could live and be all the time. Twenty years later, that seems about right. We all live in the Matrix now.

Alyssa, how are you enjoying living in the Matrix of 2019?

- Peter

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Hi, Peter and Sonny,

I’ve generally enjoyed my time in the Matrix, which turns out to have a lot less leather and a lot more jokes than “The Matrix,” though also a lot more misogyny and racism! “The Matrix” does, in the form of Agent Smith, acknowledge that machines are inevitably affected by their contact with humanity. But in its uncompromising, often dour vision, the movie doesn’t quite anticipate the ways in which humanity changes technology, often taking it far afield from its intended purpose simply by using it, and the extent to which the society we’ve built online is sillier, grubbier, hornier, meaner and sadder than anything in the Matrix.

One of the reasons I’m anxious about the announced fourth movie in the Matrix franchise is that I don’t quite know what story they would tell or how Lana Wachowski and her collaborators Aleksandar Hemon and David Mitchell intend to grapple with how the Internet has changed since “The Matrix” was released. The Matrix as they imagined it remains frightening in its own way, but it’s not nearly as engaging, or as scary, as what humans have done to ourselves with the technology available to us in the years since. Folks are subsiding on Soylent in the real world, and doing it voluntarily, for Pete’s sake! It’s probably worth noting that the Wachowskis have captured that spirit of enthralling, scary, vibrant weirdness in a lot of their post-Matrix projects, most of which have been flops of some sort or another.

And, of course, Hollywood itself has become a lot more like the Matrix in the years since the Matrix trilogy concluded. Disney has swallowed vast quantities of the entertainment ecosystem whole, absorbing them with the speed and ruthlessness of Agent Smith and presenting us with bland, reasonably bewitching visions in which we voluntarily subsume ourselves. Everything is a franchise. Most stories are predictable and just entertaining enough to keep us from revolting. It’s depressing enough when talented indie directors get sent through this homogenizing machine. But the idea of even Wachowski getting assimilated is just heartbreaking. I hope she’s going back to the Matrix because there’s something she truly wants to say, not because she thinks she hears the sound of inevitability.

- Alyssa

*

Time is always against us, so I shall keep this brief.

One of the reasons I fear the forthcoming Matrix movie is the suspicion that the thing Wachowski wants to say is, “Hold up, we’ve got nothing to do with THOSE people” as she gestures at the red-pilled MRA contingent, casting a side-eye at the undesirables who have adopted one of the film’s iconic images for their own political ends. If it is purpose that pulls us, that guides us, that drives us, I hope she and her collaborators are not driven by a purpose as empty as a reaction to reactionaries.

There’s a line of critique aimed at the red-pilled hordes who cite “The Matrix” and have meme-ified its red pill/blue pill scene that runs something like this: “Well, it sure is strange that these men’s rights reactionaries are inspired by something created by a pair of transgender siblings who created a diverse world aimed at overthrowing an established order.” But this isn’t a critique so much as a sneer or possibly a lament that the wrong sort of people like the right sort of art. It’s also deeply shallow, a reduction of art to the basest sort of identity politics that ignores the power that story and subtext have to inspire.

Hopefully Wachowski, Mitchell and Hemon can resist the urge to get didactic, because the struggle between man and machine left off in a modestly awkward way. There’s an interesting and subtle shift between “The Matrix” and its sequels, “Reloaded” and “Revolutions.” What began as a film about humans trying to throw off the bondage of evil oppressors winds up as a lesson about symbiosis and learning to get along. What is it that Neo asks for from the machines when he travels to their city? “Peace.” What is it that the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) promises the Oracle (Mary Alice) once the Matrix is rebuilt? To free those who “want out.”

But what sort of choice is that, really? Life in underground caves subsisting on meal replacements vs. the option to be plugged in, made comfortable and offered a simulation of humanity’s peak? What if Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) had it right all along? Peter, if you were given that “choice,” wouldn’t you prefer to be plugged in — especially if you could come back as someone important, such as an actor. Or a journalist!

- Sonny

*

Greetings, fellow spoon denialists,

Sonny, the question you pose is interesting, but I think it’s the wrong one. It’s not: Would I choose to live in the Matrix? Instead, it is: What if I (or you or Alyssa or the rest of us) already did?

And if you think we’re already living in the Matrix — not in the literal sense of existing in some vast Iain M. Banks-style simulation, but in the sense that we are all choosing to live online lives, mediated through our phones and screens and Internet-connected kitchen appliances — well, the answer becomes clear. Like Morpheus tells Neo in the first film, “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. … It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

That’s one reason I am tentatively hopeful about the sequel: The world of 2019 has gone much deeper down the technological rabbit hole than the world of 1999 in ways that should offer plenty of opportunity for reflection on the state of technology-mediated existence.

When Morpheus tells Neo that the Matrix makes us slaves, born into bondage, he could just as easily be talking about the perception many people now have of social media. That’s not an idea I agree with, but it’s not too far from the argument that people like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are now making about the addictive properties of big tech.

What I’d like to see the next Matrix film reckon with, then, is precisely the issue Sonny raised: choice.

We’ve chosen to spend our precious waking hours on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and (Neo help us!) Twitter. We’ve chosen to build both our daily routines and our economy around the conveniences that online life affords, from same-day delivery to easy rides across town to the electric scooters piled up on every city sidewalk (that’s one the Wachowskis didn’t see coming). And while there are certainly trade-offs (fewer people tripped over scooters in 1999) these innovations have also made our lives better — richer and easier and more connected than ever before — in real and tangible ways that complicate simplistic anti-tech narratives.

Finally, I’m hopeful about the sequel precisely because it could represent an antidote to the Matrix-ization of Hollywood that Alyssa describes and the competent, bland blockbusters that are now the mainstays of studio filmmaking. The Wachowskis have made some messy films and even some bad ones. But they’ve never made a dull film or one that comes across as personality-free. “The Matrix” has aged so well not only because of its cultural prescience but because of the startling force and clarity of its cinematic vision. Forget what it told us about the real world: It was just a superbly crafted, incredibly entertaining movie.

So if nothing else, I hope that Wachowski and her co-conspirators produce a movie that is daring and distinctive — a glitch in the Hollywood Matrix that helps us remember what blockbuster filmmaking can be.

In the meantime, I’m just excited to see the original on the big screen again with y’all.

- Peter

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