This series originally ran in 2019. We are republishing it as The Matrix Resurrection hits theaters and HBO Max.
1. Our National Aversion to Reality
In an era when the president’s lawyer can go on TV and splutter, “Truth isn’t truth!” as if it’s something everyone should know, The Matrix is omnipresent. It’s not that the film was prescient. It didn’t anticipate our world. But it anticipated — and probably created — a new way of viewing that world. Since 1999, the real world has provided ample opportunity for people to turn The Matrix into the foundational text of a frighteningly thorough and self-adoring denial of whatever was in front of their noses, which roughly translates as, Reality is fake and I don’t have to listen to anyone about anything (plus maybe I know karate despite never having studied it). The Matrix concocted the perfect one-size-fits-all combination of flattery, paranoia, anti-corporate wokeness, libertarian belief in the primacy of the individual, and ideologically nonspecific anger at the system: a “Wake up, sheeple!” for its era and, even more, for ours. We live, today, in the anti-reality world The Matrix built.
Read more by Mark Harris here.
2. Red Pills, the Involuntarily Celibate Villains of the 21st Century
Misogyny, anti-feminism, and crude “pickup artist” dating advice have existed on the internet for a long time, but it’s the religious sensibility of The Matrix as translated into “the red pill” that combines these strands into a coherent cosmology: Feminism, the Red Pill theory tells its mostly young male adherents, is a cruel fabrication that causes personal unhappiness, societal disorder, daily chaos, global strife, and, worst of all, is the reason that you’re not having sex. Only through the red pill can you see the world for what it really is, and — finally! — get laid.
Read more by Max Read here.
3. … Plus a Whole Pharmacy’s Worth of Red-Pill-Adjacent Cyberideologies
The Matrix’s red pill has long been a symbol for the online misogynists of the men’s-rights movement. But over the years, it’s also inspired a whole pharmacy’s worth of other memes and cyberideologies — some playful, some hateful, some of which describe actual beliefs, and others used mostly pejoratively. Here are the more prominent and stranger ones.
Like red pill but less worried about feminism than reptilian aliens enforcing the New World Order.
Anti-materialist more concerned with personal enlightenment than with the Illuminati.
Ignorant of politics and global conspiracies. Hates reading and just wants to get laid.
Supporter of the Illuminati (or possible member). Thinks people need to be controlled.
Aware of the Illuminati and is certainly no fan, but isn’t getting worked up over it.
Into bodybuilding, the neo-Paleo diet, and the alt-right. Claims to have supernatural powers.
More nihilistic red pill, too dejected to even learn pickup-artist techniques.
4. The Breakdown of the Gender Binary
Trans women have claimed The Matrix as an allegory for gender transition since at least 2012, when Lana Wachowski publicly came out as a trans woman while doing press for the film Cloud Atlas. (Her sister Lilly followed suit in 2016.) The symbolism is easy to find: Thomas Anderson’s double life (he’s a hacker by night), his chosen name (Neo), his vague but maddening sense that something is off about the world — “a splinter in your mind,” Morpheus calls it. The Matrix is the gender binary. The agents are transphobia. You get it. And then there’s the red pill itself, less a metaphor for hormone therapy than a literal hormone. “Welcome to the desert of the real,” Morpheus intones after Neo takes it. Many have pointed out online that, back in the ’90s, prescription estrogen was, in fact, red: The 0.625 mg Premarin tablet, derived in Matrix-like fashion from the urine of pregnant mares, came in smooth, chocolaty maroon.
Read more from Andrea Long Chu here.
5. The Academic Case for Simulation Theory
In his 2001 paper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?,” Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom — who, funny enough, had not yet seen The Matrix when he wrote it — posited that if humanity does become capable of creating a Matrix-like simulation of reality, it will create many of them — meaning there would be lots of simulated realities and only one non-simulated one, in which case maybe it’s more likely than not that we’re living in a simulation right now.
Read an interview with Bostrom here.
6. The Not-So-Academic Case for Simulation Theory
Some people claim to remember TV coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death in the 1980s, even though he lived until 2013. Is “The Mandela Effect” proof that whoever is in charge of our simulation is changing the past? Or could the reason we haven’t met aliens yet be that the computer we live in only has enough RAM to simulate one planetary civilization at a time?
Here are 15 plausible and not-so-plausible reasons people think we live in a simulation.
7. Most of What Elon Musk Thinks
Is Elon Musk the real-life Neo? A former Tesla exec says he’s the One: “Watch The Matrix. Elon is Neo. He sees these zeroes and ones.” Musk himself says there’s only a “one in billions chance” that we aren’t living in a simulation, and he may have hired scientists to try to break us out. But he also owns a company called Neuralink that seeks to connect human brains to computers, which is a little Agent Smith–y.
8. The Rise of Superhero Movies
It was obvious even in 1999 that The Matrix had reinfused action movies with swagger. Evident only now is how it managed to do something even more monumental: teach Hollywood how to put superheroes on film. Comic books rely on people in ridiculous outfits routinely bending physics, two elements for which movies had not yet found a convincing visual language. The Matrix provided that language and, what’s more, made it look awesome. The film’s central conceit — that the characters exist within a computer simulation and, once they figure this out, are capable of miraculous feats — allows for a world where lithe weaklings can plausibly pummel muscle-bound goons and where Ted from Bill & Ted can punch Hugo Weaving a hundred feet in the air. This world conditioned us to believe in a fistfight between Tom Hiddleston and the Hulk.
Read more by Adam Sternbergh here.
9. Non-Muscly Action Heroes
In the wake of Neo’s slender poise, the notion of the “unlikely action star” became quite common. No longer did action films need to be anchored by chiseled, emotionally limited commandos like Stallone or martial-arts experts with expressive charm like Wesley Snipes. An action star could be James McAvoy stumbling headlong into great power and various conspiracies in Wanted or pure maternal fury like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill I and II. The saviors of a film could be as different as Michael Cera’s lanky, perennially awkward protagonist in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Matt Damon’s peripatetic amnesiac in The Bourne Identity and its sequels. Think of Kate Beckinsale sauntering and slicing herself a bloody trail in gleaming latex in the Underworld franchise, or Reeves’s previous co-star Charlize Theron magnificently glaring her way through the wildly uneven Aeon Flux and the bombastic Atomic Blonde.
Read more by Angelica Jade Bastien here.
10. Everything Kanye West Has Said or Done for at Least the Past 5 Years
Kanye has called The Matrix “the Bible of the post-information age” and said, “When the hundred guys come at Neo, those are opinions, that’s perception, that’s tradition … If you have a focus wide and master senseis like Laurence Fishburne and you have a squad behind you, you literally can put the world in slow motion.” Also, he claims to be writing a philosophy book called Break the Simulation, he got the Kardashians to wear tiny sunglasses, and the sweatshirts and bomber jackets from his Yeezy Season 1 fashion line looked like dead stock from the storerooms of the Nebuchadnezzar.
11. The Appeal of Donald Trump (at Least to Alex Jones)
Is Donald Trump the real-life Neo? Yes, according to whoever made the video above (and this one, and this one), but especially to Infowars’ Alex Jones, who says reality “is already an A.I. system that made the decision to have a post-human world, and Trump has jumped in with some others and they’re saying, ‘No, we’re not doing it,’ at the elite level.”
12. The Modern Movie Fight Scene
“The Matrix literally transformed the industry,” says Chad Stahelski, who was Keanu Reeves’s stunt double in the film and went on to become one of the busiest stunt choreographers in the industry. Nowadays, he’s best known for directing the John Wick films, also starring Reeves. But he’d be the first to admit that those movies, not to mention most of the others he’s worked on, would never exist without The Matrix. “Back in the day,” he recalls, “fight scenes were secondary to car chases and horse chases and helicopter chases and motorboat chases.” And what fights there were focused on “single-gun battle stuff or Arnold Schwarzenegger pummeling you to death with his hands.”
Read an interview with Stahelski here.
13. Our Unending Love Affair With Bullet Time
In 1999, before they were widely imitated, widely parodied, and finally old hat, the “bullet time” sequences in The Matrix were — what is a suitably retro phrase? — da bomb. Here was proof that we could no longer trust our brains to process visual stimuli. The last time I saw bullet time, it was used on the E! Network’s Golden Globes red-carpet show to give audiences a better view of the fashion and celebrities on display. Meanwhile, most big-studio live-action movies are no longer different in essence from animated ones, which are themselves becoming more three-dimensional, more “real.” In retrospect, bullet time seems like the crossover point, the bridge between the human and the not human, the real and the synthesized. It helped us get comfortable with no longer trusting our own brains.
Read more by David Edelstein here.
14. A Thousand Copies of This Shootout Scene
The Matrix thrilled audiences with this climactic (and in retrospect, extremely disturbing) vision of a trench-coated Neo and Trinity gunning down security guards and dozens of first responders in the lobby of an everyday office building. Movies still relentlessly chase the high of that notorious sequence, with can-you-top-this? massacres in every proudly disreputable Deadpool or Kick-Ass or Equalizer. There couldn’t be an Avengers franchise as we know it without the example of the Wachowskis’ staging, camerawork, EDM scoring, and slow-mo celebration of slickly violent teamwork.
Read more by Alan Scherstuhl here.
15. Barack Obama’s Post-Presidency
During the 2008 campaign, John McCain ran ads referring to Obama as “the One,” mocking Democrats’ Morpheus-like awe for their candidate. Ten years later, describing life after his second term, Obama said, “Everything moves in slow motion. You leave the presidency and you are like Neo, where bullets are coming at you and they are super-slow and you just put your hand up.”
16. Matrix-Style Fashion
For the past few years, celebrities, models, and street-style influencers have paired tiny sunglasses with black nylon trench coats, tactical belts, and even chest rigs. (“Bella Hadid Looks Like She Stepped Out of The Matrix,” read a Daily Mail headline from March 2018.) But the movie still has a grip on fashion — looks inspired by all four of its main characters could be seen on the spring 2019 runways.
Read more by Emilia Petrarca here.
When most people first saw The Matrix, they probably identified with Neo or Trinity. Lately, I find myself identifying more with the villain, Cypher. Not because I want to ally with the machines for the taste of nice steak, but because I spend most of my days, like Cypher, staring at nearly incomprehensible, endlessly scrolling arrays of information. In the movie, revolutionaries who have disconnected from the Matrix keep tabs on it by watching ever-falling green text on screens. Since the Matrix code is allegedly too complex to be rendered visually, the green text is the only way to monitor it from the outside. It’s called “digital rain.” We have something similar: Twitter, which is also an incredibly depressing, totally inadequate view into a simulated world. —Max Read
The Matrix’s soundtrack — featuring Rammstein and Rob Zombie — failed to anticipate the bursting of the late-’90s nu-metal bubble. But the movie may have changed the course of pop anyway: When Neo and Trinity shot, kicked, and backflipped their way through an office-building lobby, they did it to “Spybreak!” by the English big-beat electronica duo Propellerheads — instantly making dance music the province of impossibly cool action heroes and pushing it into the mainstream (and onto the soundtracks of lots of other blockbusters). Big-beat-style electronica would soon go the way of nu-metal, but it’s hard to imagine EDM permeating the national consciousness as easily as it has without the support of a generation of Matrix fans. —Craig Jenkins
In 2019, climate change threatens to decimate agriculture. In 1999, The Matrix showed us its own postapocalyptic future with no food, where humans who have freed themselves from the simulacrum survive on a “single-cell protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals.” The movie’s snot-textured gruel is uncannily similar to real-life meal-replacement shakes like Soylent, the insta-smoothie invented in 2013, which, the last time I tried it, tasted like milk left over after eating a bowl of Cheerios. Soylent can “replace any meal,” says the marketing, and it’s become the nutrient-delivery platform of choice for tech workers short on time, plus anybody looking to make an early transition before tastier, more traditional dinners go extinct. —Alan Sytsma
… Plus the One Thing The Matrix Got Wrong:
Where Are the Wachowskis?
It’s rare to see definitive statements about being done with show business, but the news from Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s Realtor in October that they were selling their Chicago production office and had no more projects in development was as close as you get. It’s tempting to make an “unplugging from the Matrix” joke, but the Wachowskis have always had a tenuous-at-best interface with the Hollywood grid. We could never have anticipated all the ways The Matrix would shape the world of 2019, yet one thing that seemed assured 20 years ago was a long, successful career for its creators. But maybe that kind of success matters only in the Matrix, and the Wachowskis never lived there to begin with.
Read more by Emily Yoshida here.
*A version of this article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
More From This Series
- How The Matrix Got Made
- The Matrix Taught Superheroes to Fly
- Neo’s Stunt Guy on How The Matrix Changed Action Forever