Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Matrix at 25

Filmed in the first half of 1998, released in 1999, The Matrix is now 25 years old. The movie that was once considered the exemplar of avant-garde pop cinema has become déclassé. In his Variety review of The Matrix Resurrections (21 December 2021), Peter Debruge observed, “a property that was once so appealing for being cutting-edge is now being mined for its nostalgia value.” Clearly, in the pop cinema world, a quarter of a century is a long time: heavy-handed symbols such as red pills, blue pills, and disposable batteries have aged as poorly as non-fungible tokens. Few of those born after 1999 understand what a phone booth was for, the purpose or function of a (telephone) “operator,” or why this “operator” has to search for an available telephone in order to enable a character’s “exit” from the matrix (or “insertion” for that matter). The dial-up internet access that informed The Matrix is now as antiquated as a 1960s telephone switchboard. The green numerals of the opening credits, inspired by archaic CRT computer monitors, now appear self-consciously arty, and the greenish hue that influenced the color scheme of the film now seems quaint and affected. The virtual reality plot can now be seen for what it is, a variation of the time-travel plot, or asynchronous parallelism—co-existing parallel worlds on different time tracks—one time track being “subjective” reality, the other “objective.” The cumbersome dial-up access to the matrix occasionally gave rise to narrative implausibility, for instance, the betrayal scene, in which Cypher secretly meets with Agent Smith: how is Cypher able to insert himself into the matrix without the aid of an operator, and subsequently extract himself from the matrix without an operator’s assistance? However, given that its plot shifts are as abrupt as someone cutting the hard line, and given that its visual stylizations (e.g., "bullet time") take precedence over narrative coherence, one lasting achievement of The Matrix has made asking such questions seem improper.

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