Even Neo Can’t Log Off

The Matrix Resurrections makes a convincing case that the Matrix franchise is keeping us plugged into the Matrix. Unfortunately, it exhausts the viewer in doing so.

What many people were looking for in a new Matrix film was a little nostalgia to ease our very real collective anxiety. But watching the proverbial snake eat its own tail for almost two-and-a-half hours, it’s easy to lose your appetite. (Warner Bros.)

In the early aughts, Jean Baudrillard was asked to pontificate about The Matrix.

The French philosopher’s work was among the countless influences and references that the Wachowskis had stuffed into the code of The Matrix — along with Christianity, Buddhism, Alice in Wonderland, and various science fiction and martial arts movies. Early in the first film, Keanu Reeves’s Neo hides illicit software in a hollowed-out copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus echoes one of its most notable lines when he introduces the postapocalyptic world outside of the computer simulation as “the desert of the real.”

Baudrillard, himself a kind of Cheshire Cat of media theory, refused to follow audiences down the rabbit hole. He believed The Matrix promoted a false dichotomy between the artificial world of computers and the real world of flesh and blood that had long since collapsed into a state he dubbed hyperreality.

Worse, the films reified modern systems of control by pantomiming resistance to it. “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the Matrix that the Matrix would have been able to produce,” Baudrillard concluded in 2004.

But a funny thing happened. A third sequel was born — one that makes it clear that the creators of The Matrix have finally conceded Baudrillard’s point.

A Cinematic Red Pill?

The original Matrix trilogy is still arresting to rewatch these days, but not necessarily for its prophetic insights. The special-effect-driven kung fu action, cinematography, and stylish leather outfits are still fun, but the dialogue that once sounded profound to my younger self now feels leaden and the story fairly juvenile. In retrospect, these were glorified superhero movies cosplaying as thought-provoking cyberpunk.

Context is important. Part of the reason that The Matrix struck so many moviegoers like a lightning bolt is because the first one was released in 1999. It tapped into a growing apprehension over the internet — that was just then on the precipice of transforming our day-to-day existence — and articulated a growing malaise many felt about life at the End of History.

By 1999, markets and liberal democracy had finally crushed their opposition, leaving a bitter aftertaste as American institutions and social order continued to crumble. Could anyone imagine an alternative to the hypercommodified soul-crushing status quo other than to bury our heads into screens?

Instead, the Wachowskis did Gen X’s dreaming for us. The Matrix centers around a hacker named Thomas Anderson, aka Neo, who discovers that his reality is actually a computer simulation. Morpheus’s red pill sends Neo headlong into “meatspace” — as it sometimes gets called now — and propels him to embark on a hero’s journey in which he must embrace his destiny as “the One.” By the end of 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions, the final installment in the original trilogy, this trench coat–wearing Messiah leads humanity’s resistance to the machines one AI-killing punch at a time, paving the way for a new and free society.

In addition to the first two sequels, there was an animated series, several video games, and a cultlike following on the internet devoted to deciphering the franchise’s mythologies and meanings. The concept of being “red-pilled” is perhaps its longest-lasting legacy — a metaphor for emerging out of a narcotic-induced slumber and discovering the concealed Truth of a powerful system, whether it’s capitalist realism, the gender binary, the origins of COVID-19, or the “true winner” of the 2020 presidential election.

To their credit, the writers of The Matrix Resurrections (Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon) are fully aware of the franchise’s lasting legacy, and, well, they’re somewhat embarrassed by it.

For much of its first act, Resurrections doubles as an extended apology tour for itself. Much like Star Wars’ divisive sequel The Last Jedi, it’s a self-aware pop culture product that defies fans’ expectations and deconstructs its own mythologies while flaunting the breaking of the rules that were supposed to dictate it. Hey, machines aren’t all evil anymore, some of them are actually helpful and cute! Neo is an aging middle-aged dude who can’t fly and isn’t even the One. And is staying plugged into the Matrix really the worst thing in the world?

The film opens with Neo’s alter ego Thomas Anderson back inside the confines of the Matrix, but this time stuck in a listless existence as a famous video game designer, one who created a highly successful game called — yes — The Matrix. While Anderson expresses ambivalence about the game’s omnipresence in the culture (it “entertained some kids,” he remarks to Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity/Tiffany character with a shrug), everyone else seems to be living in The Matrix’s long shadow. One hilarious early scene features young video game developers who hotly debate the Matrix while sipping coffee from a nearby shop called “Simulatte.” Is it an allegory about trans rights? Capitalist exploitation?

To the Man Who Would be Neo Again, it seems counterintuitive for the Matrix (the enslaving computer program) to put The Matrix (the cultural product), at the center of a virtual prison meant to trick human beings into believing it doesn’t exist. But this upgraded 2.0 version of the Matrix keeps humans stuck in suspended sacs of slime better than ever, says its creator, an AI called the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris). The secret sauce? The robots observe people’s real “fears and desires” and then sell them back to us.

In one poignant scene, the character Bugs admits as much to Neo:

They took your story, something that meant so much to people like me, and turned it into something trivial. That’s what the Matrix does. It weaponizes every idea. . . . Where better to bury truth than inside something as ordinary as a video game?

This quote is one of the movie’s many acts of self-immolation, but it reflects Baudrillard’s view that our rage against the machine actually strengthens the machine’s grip on us when it’s packaged in the form of Rage Against the Machine (™), a capitalistic product in a universe where that’s the only thing that matters, a pacifying media spectacle among spectacles. Why organize a messy revolution when you can just consume one on your phone instead?

Even the character of Neo somehow fits into the Baudrillard extended universe. “Just as medieval society was balanced on God and the Devil, so ours is balanced on consumption and its denunciation,” Baudrillard once wrote. As such, Neo represents both the old and the new fused into one — a fictional Jesus figure for the faux-resistance against mindless consumption, with the Oracle character serving as his Holy Spirit.

Thus, the twisty meta-narrative of Resurrections ultimately asks us to confront a provocative and uncomfortable question: What if The Matrix movies and the media ecosystem that created it is the closest thing we have to the Matrix . . . and we’re already trapped inside it?

“You’re getting warmer,” Baudrillard might say. For the French thinker, the pacification of everyday life happened way before Mark Zuckerberg ever uttered the term “metaverse.” It’s through the processes of becoming an information-based and consumer society — the mass adoption of mass media. Movies like The Matrix, he said, “are to culture what life insurance is to life: it is there to ward off its dangers.”

Maybe so, but the problem with making a new meta-Matrix movie about how The Matrix is the new Matrix is that it makes for exhausting, often tedious entertainment. In the spirit of being meta, I probably had more fun thinking about Resurrections and writing this essay than actually watching it.

The truth is, plugging ourselves into the illusory comforts of HBO Max, Zuckerberg’s virtual reality playground, or something like the original Matrix looks ever more tempting these days. Over the last two years, millions are dead from a pandemic, many more are sick, depressed, or ridden with anxiety. Too many of us are fighting over masks, vaccines, and politics, uploading every uncomfortable moment with another person on social media in the hopes of digital mob justice all while a homicide wave continues to wreak havoc across the country, breaking records in cities like Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Austin.

The tension is palpable: the social fabric has frayed further due to isolation, alienation, and a lack of material security, and we’re starting to treat people in real life like we do on social media — terribly.

What many people were looking for in a new Matrix film was a little nostalgia to ease our very real collective anxiety, as the new computer version of Morpheus smartly posits in Resurrections. But watching the proverbial snake eat its own tail for almost two-and-a-half hours, it’s easy to lose your appetite.

And as a pop culture corrective, Resurrections’s message is likely to fall on deaf ears. Much of the political energy these days, on both the Left and the Right, is obsessively focused on the power to control flows of information and making sure that everyone has a healthy media diet free of disinformation. The Right, for instance, wants to outmuscle Big Tech’s liberal bias and dispel all mentions of race and gender in education, while the Left’s street protests for racial justice got subsumed into woke book clubs and Netflix’s “Uplifting Black Voices” playlists.

At the same time that Neo and Trinity boldly returned to the cinema, so too did Spider-Man: No Way Home and Don’t Look Up. The former blockbuster flick was seen by many social media commentators and critic types as yet another mindless superhero sequel-cum-reboot cash grab by Disney/Marvel, one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world. The latter? A refreshing, even important, satire about our collective inaction on climate change.

Yet both exist in the cold, electronic light of the mass media whose ultimate function is “to neutralize the lived, unique, eventual character of the world and substitute for it a multiple universe of media which, as such, are homogeneous one with another, signifying each other reciprocally and referring back and forth to each other,” which Baudrillard wrote in The Consumer Society, some thirty years before the debut of The Matrix. Sound familiar? In the end, Spider-Man isn’t a blue pill, and Don’t Look Up and Matrix Resurrections aren’t cinematic versions of red pills. All of them offer nothing more than a placebo effect.