The Matrix and rubber reality

Writing in June 1999, Kim Newman saw The Matrix as a new, extravagant kind of 'virtual reality' cinema, more kung-fu than Cronenberg.

The Matrix (1999)

“What’s the matter with you guys,” asked a straight bystander of an acid-hazed Peter Fonda in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), “isn’t the real world good enough for you?” Posed in a film today, that question would still be rhetorical, but the many layers of irony would be more onion-like still. As the Fonda of the 60s suspected and as so many recent movies reveal, the apparently mundane everyday can sometimes be of even more doubtful provenance than escapist or nightmare worlds.

If one cluster of films will eventually be said to have caught the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist, it may be those based on a particular concept of ‘virtual reality’. In these films – of which the Wachowskis’ new box-office hit The Matrix is by far the most extravagant – a quotidian reality that conforms to the conventions of the action movie (or sitcom) is revealed to be a construct designed either to entrap the mass consciousness of humanity or to enslave a single representative specimen.

The form coalesced in the 90s with Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990), a slapdash but epic elaboration on the themes of the subgenre’s prophet, author Philip K. Dick. The protagonist duped into living an ordinary life which disguises something really sinister is Dick’s great trope, and the Dick text most often cannibalised for modern use is his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint, in which the hero gradually comes to realise that his contemporary reality is an idyllic fake constructed in a hellish future. David Cronenberg was the first filmmaker into the Time out of Joint tunnel with the virtual-reality snuff of Videodrome (1982), and his eXistenZ (1999) suggests the most likely shape of rubber reality for the 21st century – elevating gameplaying over Videodrome’s pornography as the dominant fantasy mode. Many of Cronenberg’s themes were also sketched by Alex Proyas in Dark City and Peter Weir in The Truman Show.

The Matrix too begins inside a fake world resembling a North American city and lets the clues drop so the audience starts to question what’s on screen before the protagonist does. A stunning action opening sequence has a cadre of fetish-gear fascist cops closing in on hacker outlaw/leather babe Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and being felled by a display of kung-fu gymnastics. In order to escape her pursuers who are directed by the sharp-faced Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) — she has to reach a ringing telephone before its booth is destroyed by a truck and, apparently, disappear down the receiver.

Office drone Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who works by night as a hacker called Neo, is contacted by Trinity. She represents a faction that wants him to throw in his lot with the mysterious rebel leader/terrorist Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who has been searching the city for a prophesied saviour known as “the One”. The narrative feint of the first act suggests this will be yet another film about a cyberpunk hacker on the run from faceless corporate baddies. And it works well considering the risk taken in casting Keanu Reeves as the man on the spot, evoking the dread memory of Robert Longo’s bungled William Gibson adaptation Johnny Mnemonic (1995). A more focused, trim and haggard Reeves here delivers one of his most committed, gimmick-free performances. (These cyberspace everyman roles are tricky to cast since there’s now a genre requirement that the hero must have a mannequin quality, so Reeves sometimes seems stiff when Neo plays stooge to others who can bring him up to speed plot-wise.)

The Matrix (1999)

An early twist is a delightful take on Mad Magazine’s “Scenes We’d Love to See” feature: told he has to choose between escaping from a building by clambering around a tiny ledge or surrendering to the Men in Black-style goons, Neo refuses what would be for most action heroes a minor bit of daring and meekly lets himself be taken into custody. The ‘not in Kansas anymore’ feel is strengthened when Neo demands a phone call and the hawk-like Smith takes away his mouth and implants him with a nightmarish creature that is at once an insect bug and a tracker bug.

Quite why a tracker bug would be necessary in an artificial reality maintained by Smith’s AI masters is as beside the point as asking why Morpheus’ rebels can escape from fake reality via old-fashioned land-line phones but not through the mobiles they carry around all the time. The Wachowskis evidently developed The Matrix as a comic book before it was a script, and a great many ‘just because it’s cooler that way’ decisions override the rigours you’d expect from a film based on a novel. Dick would have worked out the levels of reality with more consistency and Cronenberg takes more care with how his characters are affected by their unreal actions, but those cerebral artists could never have delivered The Matrix’s non-stop kung-fu action. The sustained chain reaction of climaxes score to pounding techno (with soundtrack gunshots worked into the music to a precise beat) includes a John Woo set-piece as Neo and Trinity walk through a skyscraper lobby blowing away the guards, Neo and Smith battering each other in a fight scene that sprawls over many locations and the rebels’ travelling headquarters being breached by laser-wielding robot-squid sentinels.

Given the teaser campaign and early scenes revolve around the question-cum-slogan ‘What is the Matrix?’, it’s also a cunning move to reveal the answer at a relatively early juncture. Morpheus snatches Neo from the forces of repression and divests him of his bug, then offers him a choice between two capsules, one which will induce amnesia and one which will reveal reality. Neo takes the reality pill, and wakes up in a tank of goo with a bio-port in the back of his skull. We learn that the real world is two centuries in the future and that almost all the human race are enslaved, living “batteries” for a vast artificial intelligence which maintains the Matrix, a simulation of 1999 reality that distracts the humans it grows, harvests and uses as an energy source. Morpheus and a crew of like-minded rebels travel the world in a submarine-like giant hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, working against the Matrix on behalf of Zion, an underground city where the last free humans live.

When it gets to ‘reality’, the film breaks with the cold, monochrome look of the Matrix sections and comes up with a succession of images that could have come from vintage Metal Hurlant bandes dessinées: robotic creatures harvesting bubble-grown babies and plugging them into a giant circuit; the Nebuchadnezzar flying through the post-holocaust murk. Unforunately, characterisation too is at a comic-book level: excellent fight scenes are punctuated by a great deal of kung-fu wisdom (catchphrase: “there is no spoon”), and the tangle of plot complications is undermined by our knowledge that much of what we see isn’t ‘really’ happening.

The ending, as with most previous films in the artificial-reality genre, is a conceptual breakthrough as the world wakes up, but The Matrix refrains from depicting the global upheaval that must surely follow Neo’s predictable ascension to godhood. Concealed inside the package like a ticking bomb is the decision of Morpheus’ crew member Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) that eating pretend steak is better that real-nutrient glop, and Morpheus’ musings that maybe most people would prefer the dream to the reality. And while it’s hard not to be impatient these days with the rejection of vibrantly colourful Oz in favour of sepia-miserable Kansas at the end of The Wizard of Oz, it is also somewhat disturbing that The Matrix should embrace a desperate solipsist wish-fulfilment vision which proposes that everything, mundane or magical, is just scene-setting for a kick-‘em-in-the-head computer game in which ultimate enlightenment can be attained through skills which have been downloaded from file rather than learned.