Reloaded Questions

Hacking the 'Matrix' Master Code

Two demographics enjoy pondering the philosophical intricacies of The Matrix: stoners, and everyone else, excepting a few killjoy anti-intellectuals. Someone around here is writing a whole book on the first film, and it won't be the second or third such offering. So, at the risk of inviting letters from the dude-it's-just-a-movie club, what makes The Matrix the picture worth a billion words?

Let's start by reminding ourselves that it is just a movie. It's not a textbook, and it's not a Beckett play. The Matrix took what makes cinema cinematic—the array of image manipulation we mean when we say "movie magic"—and pushed it forward a generation. It's a wire-fighting orgy riding a new wave of special effects. It's that rare sci-fi film that actually looked like it was from the future. "It's about," in the deft analysis of one of the directors, "robots vs. kung fu."

But it's also about blue vs. red pills, reality vs. the hypervirtual, Big Ideas both pre- and postmodern. Gnosticism! Meanwhile, every grad student with a pause button has determined that Neo owns a copy of Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation; those who've actually read it know said heretic of unreality is being quoted when Morpheus intones, "Welcome to the desert of the real."

The finesse, the fuck-it-all, to fuse HK martial arts and French theory into a synthetic nightmare everyone wanted to have, secured the reputations of director-writers Larry and Andy Wachowski. Most everyone who's passed through their sphere calls them "the Brothers" in reverential tones, inevitably garnished by the word "genius." Only producer Joel Silver has the paternalistic balls to call the boys "the boys." Perhaps he noticed that their only pre-Matrix outing was the lesbian noir Bound; is anything more boyish than a creative scope extending from trippy sci-fi to hot girl-on-girl action?

But that's not to devalue the conceptual world of The Matrix, a net of allusions and structures defying any simple account. Consider the messianic thread of "The One." As much as we all like a good Christian allegory, The Matrix doesn't decode like The Old Man and the C Drive. When I asked Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus, if he followed the first flick's philosophy, he announced he'd mused plenty in his life about "all that, you know, spiritual fucking voodoo fucking mumbo jumbo kind of shit." He said this in his Othello-goes-drinking voice, tinged with the gentle irony of someone who has actually gazed long and hard at his navel and come out the other side. For him, the religious reading wasn't the film's hard core. As he put it, "The idea that machines are using us for batteries is pretty fucking severe."

Marx thought so, though in his matrix the master class of machines was just called the master class, the enslaved humans just the workers, and battery power was called labor. Same shit, different name (though not very different: Matrix is just Marxist avant la lettre s). That's another story, but not an implausible allusion. When I asked Keanu Reeves what homework the Brothers assigned him for the new installment, he said, "They told me I could look at Schopenhauer and Hume and their old pal Nietzsche." Reading Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, he felt compelled to return to Hegel, and then to Kant, until, he conceded "I'm, like, dunno, I have to do some stretching and some kicking." Meanwhile Joel Silver blustered that if Keanu and Jet Li rumbled in the alley, "I just think Keanu could take him."

Now most of your movies aren't built on such a solid foundation of Continental philosophy and chop-socky. Coincidentally, most movies don't promise to outboffo the box office of any R-rated release to date, while debuting at a French film festival. But it's 2003, and Reloaded is here to open a Cannes of whup-ass.

There's something desperate about Reloaded. If being ahead of the curve is your calling card, a sequel dares the curve to call back with a vengeance. Beneath the tingling anticipation of fans and financiers lies the fear that yesterday's futurism is already an obsolete technology. After all, for all its visionary gloss, The Matrix was very much of its moment. Its future is so 1999.

It was the time of the boom, as everyone has bothered to point out—symbolized by the computer jockey with his sudden status, abashedly balancing Nintendo console and stock options. Sitting at his monitor like Keanu's dayjobbing Thomas Anderson, of course he fantasized about being a hacker; on his behalf, The Matrix fantasized hackers were the kung-fu-fighting superheroes of the new world. So went the dreamlife of the boom. But straight wish fulfillment it wasn't. The first movie wasn't merely the symbol of an era (like flappers or asymmetrical coiffures) but its ultimate product: a massively capitalized, wickedly digitized convergence of industry and desire. When the go-go tech workers of 1999 drank up The Matrix (Life's an ideology. Drink it up!) in their few Mountain Dewy moments of downtime, they were consuming their own ecstatic achievements.

It's alluring to look back at the moment as a bright city. There was a darkness at the edge of town, even before the stains of recent history blotted out the landscape. Despite the promises of technology, we were laboring more than ever, and all over the place. The new economy had shrugged off the eight-hour day like an old husk. If the iconic image of the time was the programmer coding 26 hours and nodding under the workstation, its flip side was the itinerant data temp, hustling a week here and a project there, wherever some start-up needed an IPO crash crew. The shock troops worked at a dozen cubicles in a month, at home, at the café next to the microbrewery; they had cells and laptops but no medical or weekends. They were free to go anywhere, as long as the work could follow. These were halcyon days for the empire of work, in its colonization of everyday life.

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