THE MATRIX As A Cyberpunk Artifact
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer
“When our masters' work is done, every living thing will have the status of a machine…We will cover the earth with steel and with concrete, this planet will be a factory farm producing morons to fuel and mantain the factory engines and feed our masters. There will be an electronic policeman in every head. Your children will be born in chains, live only to serve and die in anguish and ignorance…And you, like everyone else, will take your place on the production line.”
-Colonel Friday, The Invisibles
“There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” -Terminator 2
The cool glare of a computer screen flickers across a sleeping man’s face, cycling through various news reports of hackers and their crimes across the globe. The steady, ever-present hum of a network connection is accompanied by the industrial beats of Massive Attack, while the camera pans out to show the man, Neo, asleep at his keyboard. Wake up, Neo. Neo opens his eyes, blinking in confusion at the typed words on his screen. He’s awake, now. More words appear on screen as Neo watches with increased disbelief. The matrix has you. And indeed, it did.
It's been 20 years, but Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix was tangibly prophetic about the role technology plays in our lives - and our unwavering, fetish-like obsession and reliance on it. It's common knowledge that the pop-culture phenomenon boasts a wide array of philosophical, religious and dualist metaphysical themes, many of which have been hotly debated and transmuted over the years. The symbolic play-by-play of Plato’s cave, the hero-quest monomyth, and, most importantly, an allegory for being transgender—all of these and more can be gleaned from one or two viewings of the film. But The Matrix’s simplicity lies in the fact that it’s a direct reflection of its own cyberpunk influences that plays like a warning for our present time.
The term “matrix” was first introduced in the mid 1800s by mathematicians James Sylvester and Arthur Cayley in order to establish a specific branch of mathematics. Cyberpunk, too, has its roots in earlier times, most notably in the new wave sci-fi of the '60s and '70s made famous by writers like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. It was not until the godfather of cyberpunk himself, esteemed author William Gibson, invented the term "cyberspace" that solidified the movement as a new genre.
In Neuromancer, Gibson depicts a grungy Neo-Tokyo where humans and hackers alike can plug into a "matrix" and lead a life vastly different than their own. Featuring mercenary cyborgs, virtual reality, crime and villainous AI, the novel is a cultural touchstone that helped to propel the cyberpunk of the '80s forward and outward. Sound familiar at all? That’s because it is. The Matrix didn't invent the idea of "plugging in" but rather redefined what it meant to the human race, and how we could become enslaved (quite literally) to it.
The future according to the '80s was one that brimmed with flying cars, assassinating robots, and a virtual reality teeming with neon-lit adverts and poppy synth-wave beats. By contrast, The Matrix set a new standard for how the future defines tech, one that didn't offer technological ideas that complemented a character, but rather one that provided a dependent lifeline to it. It presented a future where the relationship between tech and humans becomes symbiotic, each unable to exist without the support and existence of the other. The machines quite literally feed off the energy exerted by the humans they have grown and farmed—and because the humans are nothing more than “unconscious” peas in a pod, their entire life as they know it is fed by the virtual reality the machines designed for them.
This aforementioned future-noir of the '80s spawned a movement of cyberpunk culture that spread its seeds worldwide, heavily influencing Japanese sci-fi in the '80s and '90s. This Japanese "low life, high tech" subgenre inspired its own wave of underground film, anime, manga and toys that later ended up influencing The Matrix itself. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior stands as an early example of this feedback loop (with Road Warrior inspiring Japanese works, Japanese works inspiring The Matrix, and both films in turn inspiring new anime like Blame!) that leverages the famous Joseph Campbell hero-quest monomyth into a post-apocalyptic warning tale.
The Matrix ran the gamut of cyberpunk influences, borrowing from both early to later year science-fiction films, genre-defining novels, iconic manga, Hong Kong action cinema, comic books and more. Hackers, Bubblegum Crisis, Total Recall, Akira, Yuen Woo-ping films, you name it—The Matrix is a hodge-podge medley of cyberpunk soup. Ghost in the Shell especially influenced a large number of the famous beats: the green raining code in title sequences, the idea of “human” bodies directly plugging into machines, the Bad Suits in Cool Dark Shades, even the re-birth of the “one”. Neo merges with a liquifying mirror in order to break free from the false-reality-system and be reborn into “the real world” while the soon-to-be titular character of Ghost in the Shell merges with a liquid substance that allows her to be reborn into a new augmented-cybernetic human. Even the eerily-prescient Strange Days has a hand here, with the depiction of Neo as a tech-obsessed outlier from society creating and selling illegal discs.
Yet, despite its miasma of influences, The Matrix paved the way for a new genre of film to be born—a film that became so well-known, loved and emulated over the years, that it’s not only a certified staple of the cyberpunk genre but an artifact. It breathed new life (and new ideas) into science fiction while still remaining the ultimate culmination of its cultural influences, a film whose meaning mutates into fresh philosophical ideas every year that passes by. It transforms the idea of “punk” in cyberpunk and adapts it for the decade for which it now inhabits.
The Matrix’s fictional prophecy is almost too unsettling in its probable accuracy. Articles like “In Order To Be Happy, Do This” to “You’ve Been Doing this Wrong Your Entire Life” in today’s tech-obsessed society all seek to show us that we’ve been missing out, living our lives the wrong way, living in the wrong reality. A week does not go by where a user does not tweet out a “pro-tip” or “life hack”, feeding into our already highly-dependent addiction to provide us with instant gratification on how to quickly improve our lives.
What started out as a privilege soon became a total and utter reliance—we need technology to plug into our world, to function as a basic working-class citizen. The Matrix showed us what would happen if we became too entrenched with improving technology; and a lot would argue that we’re already well on our way there. It is the question that drives us; we often seek the answers to what we’re capable of in the remnants of our past’s imagination. And in this case, our past’s imagination is The Matrix. Creating too self-reliant of technology could lead to the singularity, and subsequently, our demise.
The Wachowskis created a film that will forever house a cushy spot in science fiction’s time capsule—one that is both a reflection of the past and a mirror to the future. The Matrix does indeed serve as a warning, but it will also always work as a satisfying story, because it’s a classic one. The hero's journey is all about the separation one has from society, and how one must grow and master their own power away from it. Here, the separation exists not only from society, but from the disease of society (very punk rock), and the false existence of self. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s the truth that will set us free.