“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,” says Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus in The Matrix. “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
That scene and those lines have seeped into our collective consciousness over the last couple of decades, more so even than the bullet time sequence, which in and of itself proved highly influential in advancing visual effects. Online, to be “red-pilled” is now a verb, meaning to awaken to a vast conspiracy that only a select few can see.
The trailer for The Matrix Resurrections also uses Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” to ram the hallucinogenic point home.
Today, the film’s influence is everywhere: “from fashion and philosophy to the shape of our technological anxieties, the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the political tumult of the past five years,” writes Samuel Earle in The New Stateman, sensibly skating over the two sequels from 2003, which joylessly pulverized audiences and created their own kind of cinematic dystopia.
“The directors, Lilly and Lana Wachowski, foresaw contemporary tensions online: between the internet’s tendency towards freedom and conformity, anarchy and authoritarianism. More remarkably, through the sheer force of the movie’s prescience and popularity, they shaped those tensions.”
It the transgender agenda of the film that has become more apparent over time. “That was the original intention but the world wasn’t quite ready,” said Lilly Wachowski, who came out as trans along with her sister after the films were released.
Earle notes that the film’s title referred to an early word for the internet, the rebels use phone lines to move between real and virtual worlds, and inside the simulation, you can manifest a truer version of yourself The movie’s diverse and androgynous cast suggests a world beyond gender and race. When Neo meets fellow super-hacker, and future lover, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in person, he is surprised: “I always just thought you were a guy.” “Most guys do,” she replies.
Speaking to the BBC last year, Lilly Wachowski said, “The Matrix stuff was all about the desire for transformation but it was all coming from a closeted point of view.
“We had the character of Switch — who was a character who would be a man in the real world and then a woman in the Matrix.”
Lilly said she doesn’t know “how present my transness was in the background of my brain as we were writing” The Matrix. “But it all came from the same sort of fire that I’m talking about.”
The original film also captured the mood of excitement about the possibilities inherent in the nascent internet and paranoia about the rise of the machines.
Earle notes that the fear that reality is a hoax pre-dates the internet — Plato’s allegory of the cave and René Descartes’ ‘evil demon’ are famous examples — but, popularized by The Matrix, it is now a cultural mainstay.
Yet the reality or unreality of our world was not the central concern of The Matrix, he says. While it’s filled with philosophical references, the most overt is to the French theorist Jean Baudrillard.
The directors made Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” (1981) required reading for the cast: Neo holds a copy, and Morpheus quotes the theorist. Baudrillard was even asked to assist on the sequels but refused. The simulacrum hypothesis deserved better than to become a reality, he said.
Writing when the internet was in its infancy, Baudrillard’s principal idea was that under a deluge of what we now call “content” — news articles, photos, movies, adverts, television — anything as singular and concrete as “reality” ceases to exist. Representations of the world saturate society.
Earle extrapolates this idea to our current politics where conspiracy theories flourish: “Donald Trump’s rise remains one of the starkest symptoms of our collective descent down the rabbit hole. Trump was a conspiracist who called every truth into question: from the size of his inauguration crowd to his predecessor’s country of birth, to the weather on any given day.”
The red pill was even appropriated as a symbol of the alt-right, and an entire industry now surrounds the idea that reality is a hoax imposed by a politically correct, feminist cabal determined to subjugate men.
READ MORE: How The Matrix made us (The New Stateman)
“Trump was cast as Neo. In edited clips, he dodges bullets marked ‘fake news,’ ‘Hillary Clinton’ or ‘CNN.’ TheRedPill, a notoriously misogynistic forum on the social media site Reddit, became a hotbed for support. The forum’s creator, later revealed to be a Republican lawmaker, used the alias ‘Morpheus Manfred.’ ”
The newest installment, The Matrix Resurrections, arrives into a world riddled with paranoia and sapped of whatever techno-optimism once existed. It’s also a world, writes Earle, where the system hardly permits original films, let alone novel futures.
An article in The Guardian also bemoans Hollywood’s abandonment of original film-making for box-office certainties. There is trepidation that Resurrections will be any good — although surely not worse than Revolutions and Reloaded.
Fans will take solace in the belief that Lana Wachowski, who directed the new movie without her sister, would not return unless she thought it was creatively worthwhile.
As reported by Looper, a (conspiracy) theory has recently taken off online that suggests that James Cameron’s Terminator movies are in fact prequels to The Matrix, and that the Wachowskis intentionally wrote The Matrix to take place in a future after Skynet has taken over the planet.
The reason why the victorious machine race then establishes the human simulation is explained in the film by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). He explains how the machines first simulated “a perfect human world” without suffering, but humans rejected it. “Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this,” Smith says, dryly. “The peak of your civilization.”
To that we say, welcome to the metaverse. Red pill or blue?