The Matrix Retired

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New at Reason: As Neo becomes Paleo, Jesse Walker salutes the passing of the Platonist irreality genre.

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  1. when does the Return of the King come out?

  2. December. But be warned, the passing of the Matrix and LoTR series leads to Episode III of Star Wars.

  3. Ah, but there’s still the new Stephen King Dark Tower novels. The most recent one came out last week, and there’s two more next year. So 2004 won’t be a completely barren year for escapist fantasy, even if we’ll have to obtain it via books rather than the big screen.

  4. from the article: “For whatever reasons, audiences at the turn of the century were receptive to paranoid thrillers about inauthentic realities.”

    Remember, we did have a president at the time who didn’t know what ‘is’ is not having sex with that woman while trying to fight a vast right-wing conspiracy. I don’t if it’s enough to make you paranoid but there was plenty of inauthenticity going around.

  5. There’ll (seemingly) always be Harry Potter. My favorite part of this article is the smarmy “You are all suckers because you fall for it while we *get* it” feel. Though I think I would have been more interested in a discussion of the ideas that are explored in these films (but that’s all been done before I suppose), or perhaps a suggestion of *why* these films popped and fizzled rather than a declaration that they did.

  6. I see ‘The Matrix’ as sort of a Liberal post-modernist fantasy. Nothing more, nothing less. The first one was also a pretty good movie. The second one flat out sucked.

  7. I would also like someone to address the question of why the Matrix films tanked. Mentioning that there were a lot of movies about artificial realities as the internet peaked is pretty obvious. You could more entertainingly blame it on the college graduates of the late 90s who were 12 when Star Trek introduced the holodeck.

    These movies aren’t out of touch. We live in the world of Bester, Asimov, Gibson, and Ellson. The interesting trend isn’t that SF movies have already quit dealing with our new electronic shared reality but that SF movies finally gave up westerns in space to do what literary SF has always done- deal with the consequences of technology on society. Let?s face it, the first Matrix movie was most popular because it was an overgrown Twilight Zone episode, not because of it?s comment on the internet or computer generated realities. But it WAS commenting on the internet. The brothers just abandoned Phil Dick and followed Herbert as inspiration for the next two and found that a harder sell to the general public. The real story here is not that the movies are cautionary tales, it?s that SF is becoming mainstream just in time for the 21st century. (I wonder if Jessie Walker has read any SF other than Tolkien and Dick? Or was he careful not to get geeky enough to ruin his street cred.)

  8. While I have yet to see the third one, Reloaded was much better than the first Matrix. The Matrix’s ideas and theme were very simple in comparison (though lightyears beyond most action and sci-fi movies). From most of the reviews I’ve read, it seems critics were expecting to see further exploration of the true reality/false reality of the first movie, and when they didn’t find it they assumed the sequel was shallower. I’m going to wait to see Revolutions to draw conclusions about the themes of Reloaded, but it seems they focus alot on predestination vs free will. Much of the gnostic symbolism serves to obsfucate the central ideas, like the “christian” symbolism in the anime masterpiece Neon Genesis Evangelion (which elicits a similar love/hate response from viewers)

  9. I would also like someone to address the question of why the Matrix films tanked.

    Excellent article over at Slate on this (sorry, too lazy to find the link).

    Basically, I thought the Matrix movies were good as long as they were in the Matrix. The more time the movies spent in Zion or physical reality, the more they blew. The first movie was mostly Matrix, the second about half, the third hardly had any of that hot Matrix action at all.

    Tim, you left out “Total Recall.”

  10. Jon: Evidently I didn’t make myself clear. I wasn’t arguing that “there were a lot of movies about artificial realities as the internet peaked.” I was arguing that there’s a tension between the desire to shrug off artificial realities (on display in those movies) and the desire to enter them (on display online and in fan cultures). There’s a libertarian point in there somewhere too, about how one sort of artificial reality is more voluntary than the other, but I guess that’s kind of obvious.

    I’m not sure why you bring up Herbert (I assume you mean Frank); I didn’t see many traces of him anywhere in the trilogy. I think there’s a lot of Dick’s influence (direct or indirect) in installment #2; he doesn’t really disappear until the third movie, which feels more like a bad George Lucas imitation. I’m also not sure why you want me to list all the science-fiction writers I’ve read. But, to answer your question: I’ve read quite a few of them.

    Citizen: I don’t understand your comment. What is it that I’m supposed to be accusing everyone else of falling for?

    As for an explanation of why the genre’s waning: Hey, when I come up with a theory that I think makes sense, I’ll share it with you. I have a few hypotheses, but none that I was confident enough about to put in the column.

  11. R.C.: Total Recall came out too early (it was released in 1990) to be part of the cycle, though it’s obviously a precursor. So is Jacob’s Ladder. Hell, there was an old episode of Doctor Who (how’s that for ruining my street cred?) where the Doctor enters a virtual world called “the matrix” and battles the villainous intelligence that controls it.

  12. jacob’s ladder was the hotness. 🙂

    the first film was great. the second film was, i thought, weak on action but it’s nice to see an action film explore free will vs. determinism deliberately, rather than accidentally (The Mechanic comes to mind, rip bronson.)

  13. er, and the third film was a piece of shit, really. you can see the arc as “the matrix” went from movie to franchise.

    being a robert anton wilson fan it was nice to see some of the grail mythos hidden in plain view. that’s something i wouldn’t mind seeing continue as a trend rather than all this bullet time stuff.

    hey all – is the animatrix worth seeing for someone who could more or less not give a shit about japanese animation? (outside of ghost in the shell)

  14. the only thing animatrix illuminates is how the matrix came to be (stupid humans) and where the annoying kid in reloaded & revolutions came from.

    rent – don’t buy.

    don’t forget Lawnmower Man. The first one.

  15. I thought it tanked cause it was too shallow for anyone who actually bugged out with their friends on alternate realities/this is all a dream/solipsism stuff, and too deep for folks who want to see Neo kick some of that agents ass in slow motion.

    Also, the first wmovie was really cool cause of the multiple camera angle technique. now they’re using it in commercials for Nickolodean.

  16. I’ve seen most of ’em; I’d say it’s worth a rental. But then, I like Anime.
    As for old-school precursors, there’s always the “A, B, and C” and “Living in Harmony” episodes of The Prisoner, both of which put Number Six in dream-realities for much of the episode. (If you’re really stretching, you might also include the penultimate “Once Upon a Time,” though in that one the viewer is seeing the “stage” and the illusion is mostly in Six’s head.)

  17. And if you really want to stretch, there’s always “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge.”

    dhex: The Animatrix includes one very good film, called “The Beyond.” The rest are mediocre or worse, story-wise, though the animation is pretty.

  18. Animatrix:

    The second-to-last (“Matriculation”) was by the same animation team behind MTV’s Aeon Flux. About time they got back to animation…

  19. Basically, people are too hard on the Reloaded and Revolutions; they were bothered that they didn’t make them “feel” the way the first film did. I think its an unfair metric. I enjoyed all three movies and found them equally appealing; I did not judge one against the other. And to be frank, despite what reviewers said they liked about the Matrix – its exploration of hyper-reality, religious motifs, etc. – what they really found compelling was the F/X. The other two movies could not deliver another paradigm leap in F/X, so they were disappointed; who were really shallow were the reviewers in other words.

    As to the issue of “hyper-reality,” well, its easy to see why people are fond of it. Because we live in a world which is “hyper-real.” I think the various scandals that rock US politics are a perfect example of this; or better yet, the accounting scandals – here you have a few firms hammered for their activities, yet, the real truth is that all firms act this way (the same for politics and its scandals). The reality is hidden, masked, etc. behind the exposure of the hyper-real; the scandals that exposed. All of our lives are this way; it is part of the essence of modernity I think.

  20. someone’s been reading too much baudrillard.

  21. One can never read too much Baudrillard. 🙂

  22. Ah, for JB’s amusement, a Debordian analysis of the 2nd movie from a while back:
    http://www.juliansanchez.com/2003_05_01_notesarch.html#200314221

    But the 2nd flick certainly had flaws beyond the absence of a new special effects innovation. (Though, come to mention it, the FX in that one seemed pretty cludgy: the Neo/Smiths fight looked too obviously CGIed, like a Playstation game.) Most obviously, and as any number of reviewers have noted, you lose a certain degree of dramatic tension when your protagonist is a de facto god.

  23. Speaking of hyperreality, there was a great essay (called “Adventured in Hyperreality” or something like that) by Umberto Eco.

    What would be neat is if someone would make a movie riffing off of Julian Jaynes’ “Consciousness as the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Best explanation I’ve ever read of how the human mind and religious mythos came to be.

  24. Julian Sanchez,

    Well, I enjoyed the dialogue in Reloaded; a lot of American critics from what I have read of them disliked that. As to F/X in Reloaded, yes, they could “push the enveloped” so far. Though frankly the “burly brawl” had me very tense; de facto God or not, it was obvious at a point that Neo would lose the battle if he stayed in it. “He is only human.”

    Thankyou for the link. 🙂

  25. Julian Sanchez,

    I very much enjoyed your article; I loved this turn of phrase – “…archetypally spectacular pageant…”

    BTW, the “Revolutions” soundtrack is very good. 🙂

  26. I just finished watching “The Matrix Strikes Back” (oops, I mean “Reloaded”) on video. I was really disappointed.

    The first installment is one of my all-time favorites, easily in the top five. The “false conciousness” theme was pretty straightforward, at least after I watched it a couple of times, and I found it quite appealing. Richard K. Moore did a great article along those lines, “Escaping the Matrix,” that echoed a lot of my reactions to it.

    But “Reloaded” completely undermined the picture of reality presented in the original movie.

    On a purely aesthetic level, I was expecting Zion to reflect some kind of Rasta theme, but instead got a lousy rave.

  27. Honestly, I very much enjoyed the first matrix and not just for the f/x (which every film has copied from Shrek to charlie’s angels) but for the philosophical implications. Reloaded had my hopes up, though it could only match the f/x of the first, the philosophy/hyperreality was the thing that pushed the envelope. Sadly, the third completely bombed. The only reasoning I can figure is that the W brothers are not nearly as good of philosophers as they are film producers. It’s easy to be descartes and say everything is fake. It’s near impossible to describe reality without relying on the matrix reality. Plus the lines were cheesy.

  28. After reading the article, I’d say the part in the “two towers” were gandolf describes his death and “resurrection” has more potent imagery and potential than the last matrix. just a thought.

  29. “In Revolutions I thought that Neo’s goodbye to Morpheous was very poignant.”

    If you can, by some articular miracle, boot yourself in the podex, please do so.

  30. The first Matrix was a morality play.

    If you discover that you are living in a fantasy, do you have a responsibility to throw off the fantasy and live in reality? Do you have a responsibility to help others see that reality, as well? The clear answer was Yes.

    When the Joe Pantoliano character tried to reenter the Matrix, there was no moral relativism. It was portrayed as weak, cowardly, traitorous, and evil. There was no value in the concept of willfully choosing to live in a fantasy world.

    Yet in the last Matrix, that is just where we find ourselves. The movie ends with “You know, you are going to have to let anyone out who wants out.” The clear implication is that the choice to remain in slavery and fantasy is a morally equivalent choice to freedom and responsibility.

    Maybe Jesse is right. Maybe after the boomers’ experience with “reality” in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the now just want to get plugged back in to the fantasy of the “ideal” world they have so far been unable to create for themselves. Maybe they really do want to check out of society (legalized drugs, anyone?) Maybe all choices are really morally equivalent.

    I’m not a boomer, so I cannot speak for them. But I can recognize a morally distasteful conclusion when I see one. God forbid these “heroes” lived in the mid-19th century. “What do you want?” “Peace” (And by the way Mr. Machine ruler, with that peace, you can continue to enslave all the human race who opt out on a life of freedom, self-determination, self-discipline, and responsibility in favor of a fantasy world.)

    I better shut up before I start getting all political and philosophical. Sheesh, what a bad movie!

  31. Way too much latex in those movies. Yuch.

  32. I didn’t see TTT until May, when I saw it at a dollar theatre. After seeing Fellowship Of The Ring, I read the whole damn book to see what all the fuss was about (and reread The Hobbit, and read The Silmarillion too). Having the book freshly in my head completely ruined TTT for me, because so much of the movie was a deus ex machina compared to the book. Where did that fucking army of Elves come from? Why is Elrond a whiny bitch? Why did the Ents almost pansy out of ripping up Isengard? The book is long enough already without adding inexplicable plot twists.

  33. To Mr. Walker- I believe your article was plain. I chose to ignore that point because in half your examples there was no coercion to enter the artificial reality (or Mr. Malkovich) in the first place. The amazing thing to me was that a crop of SF movies were dealing with a societal change brought about by technology as that change was occurring. That people are captive or something winds up going wrong in each of the plots is a convention of drama. If Frankenstein animated his monster and then they all went to have tea there wouldn?t have been much of a story.

    Didn?t see (yeah, Frank) Herbert in the third movie? SPOILERS Blind messiahs moving by their otherworldly vision alone; losing the one they love before having to face their own sacrifice? You could stretch it and say Neo followed a golden path to his metamorphosis. Actually I was referring more to the storytelling style. The first movie was like a Dick book in that everything you thought was going on was proved wrong when the Matrix showed up (one of those ?house of cards? moments like in EYE IN THE SKY when they realize they haven?t died and gone to the Christian afterworld). M2 and 3 are more like the Dune novels- you know what is going on but the plot is revealed only a little at a time and what you think you know is constantly called into question. Everybody?s machinations are pretty much out in the open. Less existentialism, more SF.

    Didn?t mean turn turn this into a scifi newsgroup or to impugn your SF credentials. (Didn?t really want a list, just to know if you were a hobbyist or a fan. There?s nothing wrong with not reading SF.) Cult movies and cyberpunk are made for each other because in both the interesting stuff is at the edge of the frame. BTW, the comparison of the second Matrix to a progressive rock concept album was the best EVER.

    Mr. Sanchez, loved the article. The movies, like all good SF (and the Matrix itself), are a playground for ideas.

  34. Concerning the first matrix and the last. Am i not right to believe that when someone dies in the matrix, they die in “real life”? That seemed to be true for everyone, but neo. And all the machines depend on people for energy, right? So if that is the case then it seems to me that when neo did his great shining white light thing that he killed everyone in the matrix (mr. smith having “possessed” everyone like a virus). So wouldn’t that mean that the machines are limited to the energy they have stored up and there really isn’t anyone left to free? In addition, doesn’t that mean that they would need to start enslaving the zionists as quickly as possible?

  35. THE FAKETRIX

    HOLLYWOOD INT. DAY

    DWARFIUS (A Studio Exec.)

    I’m telling you boys, the big money is in sequels. Forget this anime crap. I don’t care if your contract *does* green-light you for another art-film. That stuff’s strictly Saturday morning and video sales. You struck gold in “The Matrix” — don’t ask me how, what with all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but you boys have a *franchise* on your hands!

    THE WHATJACALLIT BROS:

    But we shot our wad on “Matrix”! We’re tapped out! If we have to take another philosophy course at the community college, it ain’t worth it!

    DWARFIUS:

    Never mind that. Listen, this is show business, and the important word is ‘business’! You guys don’t have to write squat, that’s what we’ve got a stable of would-be novelists with degrees from Ivy League schools for. All you have to do is start talking about how “The Matrix” is only the first part of a grand vision you always wanted to do in the first place. Let the tension mount. Hell, I don’t care if it takes five years to come up with the next script. What difference does it make? The important thing here is *marketing*!

    THE WHATJACALLIT BROS:

    But that wouldn’t be honest?

    DWARFIUS: (Washing his hands at the wet bar)

    Honest schmonest! What is truth? (Winking) Like I have to tell *you* fellas that! Tell you what. There’s two contracts sitting there on the desk. Sign the red contract and we’ll go ahead with your artsy-fartsy little anime project with a ten million dollar budget and not a penny more.
    On the other hand, sign that blue contract and the sky’s the limit!

    (The BROS look at each other as DWARFIUS casually cleans the lenses of his wrap-around sunglasses. Finally, one of the BROS picks up a pen, leans over the table so the camera can’t see which contract is being signed, and scribbles his signature.)

    TO BE CONTINUED, COPIED, CLONED & COMMODIFIED

  36. I’m surprised neither the article nor any of the comments mentioned Heinlein’s “They,” one of the most famous “the world we think we see is fake” stories in history.

  37. There was also the Fritz Leiber novella “You’re All Alone”. It too features a protagonist who realizes his world is an illusion. It’s one of Leiber’s best stories, but it has unfortunately been out of print for years.

  38. Apropos of the letter Bertrand Russell is alleged to have received from a women who wrote “I’m a solipsist, and I don’t understand why more people aren’t”?

  39. Jon: You got me with the blind messiahs thing — that’s such a familiar religious trope that I forgot I first saw it as a kid reading the Dune series. Which is probably where the W brothers got the idea. Point granted.

    I would argue, though, that Reloaded is closer in spirit to Dick — you don’t know what’s going on, and the rules you thought governed the movies’ world look like they’re starting to crumble.

    I tried to make a distinction in the piece between the films where characters are trapped in the artificial reality (the list that begins with Dark City and The Truman Show) and the films where they enter other realities at will (The Cell, Being John Malkovich). The line may get a little blurry at times, but I think it’s real.

  40. It’s a little late, but to clarify my earlier statement: we get the irony. That in The Matrix people are struggling fighting dying to escape a false reality and now people are paying big bucks to emerge themselves in a false reality via video games, fan fiction, puzzles, games, etc. We also get that what passed for revolutionary philosophical posturing is really a shallow repackaging of classical metaphysics; and we mock those beholden by it.

  41. The “Two Towers” was annoying because it was not faithful to the book; and even in its unfaithfulness it failed to help the narrative. The Ents, for example, are not “tricked” into war; they go willingly; and the fact that the army of Saruman do not flee at the first sight of Gandalf, et. al, is also bothersome – the whole point is that evil is cowardly.

    In Revolutions I thought that Neo’s goodbye to Morpheous was very poignant.

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