How Unplugging from the Matrix Became the New Matrix

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The year “The Matrix” came out — 1999 — already had a very sci-fi sound to it. It was the year Prince had imagined as the run-up to the apocalypse, a premonition that would be echoed in the Y2K jitters. And 1999 is just such a cool number; it’s like the other side of the coin from 2001. With its row of nines poised to turn over, it sounded like the future embedded in the present. And that’s kind of how 1999 felt. We knew that we were moving into the 21st century, and we thought we had a good idea of what that was about. The Internet was only a few years old, but already we could see where it was pointing: to a digital world that would bring everything (literally) to your fingertips. Everything could now be done at home, at the computer keyboard, including the manipulation of reality, which could now be anything you wanted it to be.

The future would be digital, in every realm. It had already begun to change our movies, our day-to-day communication, our shopping (no small thing in late-capitalist America!), maybe our souls. And “The Matrix,” heralded by raindrop streams of phosphorescent green computer coding, tapped into all that without necessarily coming out the other side of it (which was part of the film’s edge-of-the-moment charm). It was a movie about unplugging from fake reality and plugging into real reality. Yet the movie presented that quest, notably in its bullet-time second half, with the kind of who-cares-what-it-means-when-it-looks-so-fucking-awesome visual effects that would be used by Hollywood, going forward, to color in the powers of comic-book superheroes. Here’s a question: Are MCU movies, in their way, part of the Matrix? Most fans would say no; most critics would say yes. Here’s a more interesting question: Was “The Matrix” part of the Matrix?

When “The Matrix” came out, there was a lot of chatter about what the Matrix was. What did the Grand Metaphor Of It All actually refer to? Some said that it was the Internet — which at the time I thought was an overly literal-minded reading, though it’s one that holds more water 20 years later. Was it the welter of fake images we lived inside, the daily bombardment of advertisements and visual fiction that had become so omnipresent it was colonizing our imaginations? Simulation theory, something more and more people now believe in, says that we’re living inside a computer simulation — engineered, perhaps, by an advanced civilization. That idea gets a workout in Rodney Ascher’s documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix,” where Elon Musk is its strongest advocate, which made me think that I have to add one more wrong idea to the list of wrong ideas Elon Musk believes in.

Yet with two decades’ hindsight, the most telling dimension of the Matrix is that it exists, fundamentally, as a conspiracy: a virtual reality designed to hallucinate us into being good drones. The enduring legacy of “The Matrix” as a movie may be the perception that we’re living a lie — until we take the red pill and wake up, just like Neo. “Red-pilling” became a phrase in the culture, one driven by the shadow world of information on the Internet. The idea was: the deeper the web dive, the greater one’s embrace of the truth. Red-pilling meant unplugging from the Matrix of false images and fake media. And, of course, every person who took that dive would now be his or her own Neo, a rage-against-the-machine rebel in their own mind.

The “Alice in Wonderland” imagery is, of course, linked to the 1960s, something that director Lana Wachowski makes explicit in the best sequence of “The Matrix Resurrections,” which features a trippy remix of “White Rabbit,” the Jefferson Airplane song that told you to “feed your head,” so you could glimpse the mystery on the other side of the illusion. And that, in a way, is all linked to the ’60s belief system we’ve never let go of: the idea that the powers that be are lying to us. They lied to us about the JFK assassination, they lied about Vietnam and Watergate and Iran-Contra and WMDs, they lie about the chemicals in our food and a thousand other things. Out of all that has emerged a mythology: that we’ll be ruled by their lies until we red-pill ourselves out of our trance.

“The Matrix” lent an action-head-trip cachet to all of this. Yet by the mid-2000s, the conspiracy mindset had begun to bend itself into some rather strange shapes. Sure, there had always been a wingnut dimension to it: “Paul is dead,” alien abductions, the idea that the moon landing was faked with the aid of Stanley Kubrick. But most of that seemed like gonzo chatter.

It was with the rising belief that 9/11 was an “inside job,” planned and executed by the deep state, that the insane side of conspiracy theory began to take hold of mainstream culture. Not that it was talked about in the mainstream media; it was mostly ignored. But the rise of the new right was all about seeing both the mainstream media and the government as a cosmic source of toxic deception. That’s why red-pilling became a popular notion among the followers of figures like Alex Jones. What Alex Jones was selling, and what QAnon was selling, was the same thing “The Matrix” was selling: the idea that your “reality” is a tangle of illusion, and that only red-pilling yourself can liberate you from it.

If you really look at it, the legacy of “The Matrix” isn’t that we’ve all woken up to the truth. It’s that increasing numbers of people don’t take reality at face value anymore. I’m not suggesting that “The Matrix,” in 1999, caused this to happen. But it channeled the shift, in America and maybe the world, from reality-based thinking to a mindset where reality has become the enemy because it can no longer be trusted. I’ll leave it to critics to debate the pros and cons of “The Matrix Resurrections,” but what’s clear about the third “Matrix” sequel is how yesterday’s news it all feels. It’s running on fumes of nostalgic paranoia.

In 2021, what a “Matrix” movie that’s actually relevant would confront is the way that liberating yourself from the Matrix became the new Matrix: an excuse for believing whatever you want to believe. Only now the Matrix is something that we design for ourselves: a DIY illusion we create at home, choosing our own false prophets. The film spread a fantasy that even the most extreme politicians could only dream of. It took the prospect of systematically removing yourself from reality and made it cool.

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