The promotional materials for The Matrix asked befuddled consumers a single question: What is the Matrix? The query referred to the fictional MacGuffin within the film itself, but of course, it had a meta-textual layer: What the heck was this movie, and why should we care? In the minds of the Wachowskis, the film’s auteurs, there were a multitude of answers. The Matrix is a grand metaphor for consumer capitalism; The Matrix is a cinematic homage to William Gibson and Otomo Katsuhiro; The Matrix is the beginning of a fictional universe that will be revealed in platforms ranging from prose to anime — and, perhaps most important, The Matrix is just the first installment in a franchise that will keep delivering beloved sci-fi pictures.
As it turned out, there were really only two answers. The Matrix is something that has a cool conceit and The Matrix is something that has a cool look. Those are not small achievements. The Gnostic notion that reality is an illusion perpetuated by sinister actors titillated a paranoid public on the verge of the millennium, and the film’s rich stew of visual ingredients, from the black leather of costumer Kym Barrett and the bullet time of John Gaeta to the satanic machines of concept artists Steve Skroce and Geof Darrow proved iconic. A culture was changed; a legion of imitators set off running. It seemed the golden age of The Matrix was upon us.
And then … well, can you recount the plot of The Matrix Revolutions? Can you remember the titles of any of the shorts in The Animatrix? Did you ever play The Matrix: Path of Neo? If your answer is yes, you’re part of a very small corps of fans who saw the 1999 original as a jumping-off point for a shared Matrix universe. The rest of the public, for the most part, saw it as a stand-alone film, one whose big idea they processed and whose aesthetic they enjoyed, but which was then best left on its pedestal as a fun artifact of the late-20th century.
So why, then, would anyone want to see the Matrix reboot that The Hollywood Reporter says Warner Bros. is developing? Sure, nostalgia and morbid curiosity will always get a certain number of butts in seats, and there’s always a chance that some brilliant creative minds could take the kernel of the original idea and grow something wild and fresh. But that’s a challenge to imagine. The fact is, The Matrix offered us a concept and an aesthetic, and once they were out in the world, nothing could make people care about the mythology of the universe. It’s hard to imagine what a new Matrix could offer — every subsequent revisitation has seen diminishing returns, even when the brand was still hot. There’s very little gas left in the tank of the Matrix franchise.
Indeed, the very notion of a Matrix franchise was already a nonstarter. The list of spinoff properties is a litany of products that failed to capture the popular imagination: two sequels, nine animated shorts, three video games, and more than 300 pages of comics and short stories.* Top-notch creators were put on these things (did you know that Neil Gaiman wrote a Matrix story?), but there just wasn’t anything to grab onto. The false reality and the techno-organic structures had been established, and precious few gave a crap about how the robots came to power. The last element, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game The Matrix Online, was shut down in 2009, at which point it had fewer than 500 active players.
If whoever Warners puts in charge of the reboot (the Wachowskis are not currently attached) hews to the original archetypes, we would be sold a story about a reluctant journey from mediocrity to heroism, which was already tired in 1999 and even more so in a world that has subsequently seen four Star Wars movies and three different Spider-Men.
Earnestly cautionary tales about technology are a cliché at this point, too. If they stick around in the cyberpunk genre — and what other genre could they use? — they’ll be playing with an aesthetic that is even more archaic now than it was in the late ’90s. And no matter who they get to play the hero, replacing Keanu Reeves would be like remaking A Clockwork Orange with someone other than Malcolm McDowell in the lead — an unsatisfying revision of a rare actor-character combination. (Plus, no one could be as awkwardly funny as Reeves was in the role.)
Right now, there’s allegedly only talk of a single film. But given that Warner Bros. needs all the help they can get on the franchise front — not to mention Hollywood’s general hunger for multi-picture brands — one has to imagine there’s talk about a Matrix Cinematic Universe. In addition to the been-there-done-that failure of that notion, there’s also the problem that there’s so little to do in the Matrix universe. While you can have one Marvel movie about fighting aliens and another about exposing government corruption, you can’t really have any other plots in Matrix-ville besides fighting robots. (The same reason the Terminator franchise seems to be in a creative holding pattern.) The basic plot of every flick would likely be the same — the same thing that happened the first time around. Plus, there’s only so much thematic territory to mine out of characters who spend the majority of their day as kung-fu-expert digital avatars.
Maybe a Matrix reboot (wouldn’t it be great if they just called it The Matrix Rebooted?) will be just as inventive in its setting and visuals as the original. But to be inventive would mean taking a wildly different direction from the original — just doing the old catsuits and virtual reality would hardly constitute innovation. And if you do that, then is it really The Matrix anymore? If Warner’s aim is to electrify people the way the Wachowskis did nearly 20 years ago, they might be better off taking a page from their playbook and just building something new. The Matrix was great in no small part because it wasn’t build on existing and familiar intellectual property. It would be a shame to treat it like that kind of intellectual property now.
*This article has been updated to reflect the box-office performance of the original trilogy.