The Matrix at 20: the enduring impact of the sci-fi sensation

After two decades, the Neo-featuring think-em-up is still one of modern cinema’s most influential films

Strange though it may seem now, there once was a time when The Matrix felt like a premonition. A heavy-handed allegory for the rise of technology, the corporate power structures behind it, and the impact such things have on the populace: its impact was seismic. Like The Truman Show before it, the Wachowskis’ filmic breakthrough was so influential it oversaw an upsurge in believers of simulation theory, the philosophical concept at the heart of its narrative. Throughout the early 00s, you were never more than a stone’s throw or a dodgy uni house party away from someone proclaiming that “We’re living in The Matrix, maaan.”

Twenty years on from its March 31 1999 release, the real-world impact of The Matrix is slightly less on-the-nose. Gone are the days of people fearing a robot uprising – in 2019, even The Matrix’s overly-complex depictions of a dystopian technological future pale in comparison to some of the real-life developments we’ve endured. Be it the rise in automation coming for the cashiers of the world, or the whistleblowing hackers aiming to take down corrupt governing bodies, there are countless ties between the real world the tale of Neo, Morpheus and Trinity. The impact of The Matrix might be less pronounced in 2019, but it doesn’t take much to see how far the rabbit-hole goes. 

Fear of the world wide web

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The internet was a very different place in 1999. Broadband internet was a pipedream for most – instead, we had to contend with dial-up, and the ear-splitting, robo-shagging noise of its connection ritual. Where today the internet is inextricable from our everyday lives, with each of us hopping in and out of it at a second’s notice through laptops, smartphones, home speakers, smart watches and more, back then there was a notable disconnect between the ‘real world’ and the online.

The Matrix rightly proposed a future where those barriers were dismantled – but it wasn’t something to celebrate. The physical connection to the internet Neo and his cohorts experience when entering ‘The Matrix’ is a brutal act – far from the utopian online ideal people were predicting around its release. In the creation of an avatar, it could even be argued that The Matrix predicted the rise of social media, and the social posturing that accompanies Instagram et al.

Today, there’s a rising suspicion in the internet – be it a fear of where your data is being harvested, or a simple desire to ‘disconnect’ and live a more naturalistic life. In 1999, the internet was still thought of as a great white hope (Y2K aside). The Matrix arguably sowed the seeds of that digital distrust in the public consciousness.

Fake it ‘til you make it

Long before President Donald Trump began taking breaks from quaffing cheeseburgers to mouth off about “FAKE NEWS”, The Matrix prompted viewers to question the reality they were being presented with. ‘til 1999, the idea of simulation theory – a core facet of The Matrix’s plot – had yet to be packaged in such an easily-digestible format.

In 2019, that feeling is everywhere. The aforementioned ‘fake news’ epidemic – something that’s gone from an easy soundbite for the US President to a very real problem across the board – has led to widespread disillusionment and distrust in the media, and the ‘reality’ it presents. While the idea that we’re all living in a simulation might still be a spliff too far for most, The Matrix’s theme of questioning the truth with which we’re presented has become an everyday experience for most.

Biting the bullet-time

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A more tangible impact of the first Matrix movie came in the widespread proliferation of ‘bullet time’ following its release. A filming technique that required hundreds of cameras all firing at once, and then stitching the ensuing images together to create a 3D map of a still scene, the technique was used to iconic effect during the latter fight scenes of The Matrix – most famously in Neo’s spine-bending bullet dodging (below).

In the years following The Matrix’s release, bullet time was everywhere. From Superman films, to slash-‘em-up 300, to Kung Fu Panda, the technique quickly went from ingenious invention to over-used cliché. Nowadays, you’re less likely to see bullet time thrown in willy-nilly. The market became so saturated with Matrix copycats that it was quickly shelved. Still, we’ll hold out hope for that bullet time revival any day now.

Transgender theory

Some circles have come to interpret the Matrix series as an allegory for transgender struggles. The Wachowskis themselves transitioned in the years after The Matrix’s explosion, lending credence to the theory that The Matrix was an extended metaphor for trans experience – one that positions those struggles as a battle between the ‘real’ and ‘fake’ worlds depicted in the movie.

“It seems you have been leading two lives, Mr Anderson,” states Agent Smith at the start of the movie. Smith himself is said to represent the repressed self, while Neo is his opposite – a character embracing their own reality as a trans person. As such, The Matrix is widely regarded as popular media’s first overtly transgender storyline – something that even present-day media has largely failed to catch up with. A scene-by-scene breakdown of how The Matrix can be applied to trans experience can be found over at The Mary Sue.

Far-right fallacy

Another group who’ve co-opted the Matrix’s narrative are the anti-feminist Redditors that comprise a huge proportion of the alt-right. The concept of the ‘red pill’ – in the movie, a means for Morpheus to liberate Neo from the fake world of the Matrix and show him “how deep the rabbit hole goes” – has been refashioned into an alt-right buzzword, ostensibly about opening minds to the ‘reality’ that women run the world, and men are an oppressed group, slave to the whims of the ruling female classes. The popular subreddit TheRedPill is rife with anti-feminist rhetoric.

The aforementioned transitioning of the Wachowskis has even entered the crosshairs of the Red Pill community, and been met with ridicule and disgust – evidence of how readily these groups will turn on their supposed inspirations, and refashion the realities of the movie’s content and context to fit their own ends.

Hacktivism and everyday heroes

Back in 1999, hackers were typecast as the nerd supreme – speccy teenagers in their parents bedrooms, clattering away on wall-filling computers. Neo changed all that. A slick, suave (and admittedly somewhat gorky) character with the technological nous to bring down governments if he so wished, he refashioned the hacker stereotype into something far more palatable.

The parallels between Neo and the slick, ‘right on!’ cyber warriors of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange and the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower (who himself looks more like a Soundcloud rapper than a computer nerd) are numerous. The actions of these people – who, like Neo, were once normal, unsuspecting citizens –  are directly comparable to the ‘little guy vs. corrupt big government’ storyline of The Matrix, too – only with far bigger real-world impacts.

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