The Matrix was written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, who are known as the Wachoswski brothers. The Matrix explores the potential consequences of the digital explosion: it proposes that the real world could be usurped by a digital copy of itself. This responds to our fears that we’re overly dependent on digital media.
The film stars Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson, a computer hacker who uses the alias Neo. He encounters the cyber-terrorist Morpheus, who reveals that the ‘real’ world is in fact a computer simulation designed to conceal the fact that humanity has been enslaved by sentient machines. Neo awakes in the estimated year 2199 and discovers that the real world is a decayed, derelict wasteland with biomechanical machines farming humans as an energy source.
The Matrix was released in 1999, at the end of the millennium. The transition to the 21st century was marked by millennial anxiety, much of which focused on technology and digital media. Society started to panic about the millennium bug: it was predicted that in the year 2000 computers wouldn’t be able to manage the changeover of dates, resulting in a global crash of information systems. Nancy Schaefer states in her book Dreams of Paradise, Visions of Apocalypse, ‘Explanations for the coming disaster among beliers generally fell along two lines: Y2K was either divinely-ordained punishment or a human-engineered conspiracy.’ (Verheul, 2004, p189). Eventually, these fears proved to be unfounded, but the panic does illustrate the fact that a large part of our civilisation depends on digital media.
The film is full of literary references, particularly to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Neo follows the white rabbit, as Alice does in the novel. The discussion of rabbit-holes, blue pills and red pills, and the mirror are all references to Alice in Wonderland. The film also abounds with mythological references. Morpheus is named after the Greek god of dreams. His name is ironic, since Morpheus’s role is to awaken the sleeper. His ship is named the Nebuchadnezzar, after the Babylonian king who dreamed of the destruction of his kingdom.
The rise of digital technology is the ultimate fulfilment of postmodern theories. The Wachowski brothers drew on ideas from postmodern philosophy. At the beginning of the film, Neo sells a computer chip in a scene that’s clearly meant to be reminiscent of a drug deal. He hides the chip inside a book: Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard was a French philosopher; he was one of the major theorists of postmodernism. In his book he writes:
The matrix remains binary. It will never again be the matter of duel or open competitive struggle, but of couples and simultaneous opposition.
From the smallest disjunctive unity (question/answer practice) up to the great alternating systems that control the economy, politics, world co-existence, the matrix does not change: it is always the 0/1 binary scansion that is affirmed as the metastable or homeostatic form of the current system. This is the nucleus of all simulation processes which dominate us.
This was written in 1981, so Baudrillard anticipated many of the ideas in the film. Baudrillard argued that reality is being displaced by simulations. For example, he claimed that the Gulf War of 1990 never really happened. He was being provocative here; of course it happened and it destroyed many lives, but in global terms that war was experienced via TV. Media coverage consisted of on-site reporting, military night-vision footage, satellite images and footage of smart bombs. There was a lot of footage from a missile’s point-of-view as it hit its target. So the war was played out on TV as a hyper-real simulation. Baudrillard argued that the war was a fiction that usurped the reality.
If you think about it, much of our knowledge of the world depends on news footage that has been beamed to us by satellite or information relayed via the internet. Much of our ‘reality’ is in fact a simulation or a digital construct. The Matrix simply imagines the logical conclusion to this scenario: that the world is itself a simulation.
The film creates a binary opposition between the real world and the virtual world of the Matrix. This is evident in the cinematography. The scenes in the real world have a cold, grey light, suggesting that this is grim reality. The scenes in the Matrix have a green tinge, suggesting that this is a simulated world constructed from the green Matrix code. The design of the code itself is revealing. It’s a fusion of Western and Asian characters, reflecting the postmodern idea of a hybridised civilisation.
The film is set in New York, but it was shot in Sydney for budgetary reasons. The architecture resembles the classic skyscrapers of Manhattan, but it’s not the real thing. The Australian cityscape functions as a ‘copy’ of New York, giving us a sense that something isn’t quite right: the world is a simulation. I said that cyberspace is usually represented as a 3-D grid. The mise-en-scéne of The Matrix is pervaded with grid patterns in buildings and office spaces. This suggests that we’re seeing an artificial world constructed from the basic architecture of cyberspace.
The comic book artist Geoff Darrow was hired to design the sentinels, the biomechanical machines that control the real world. The machines are sentient beings – they’re self aware like the machines in The Terminator – so Darrow used a biomechanical aesthetic. The machines combine the attributes of insects and crustaceans. The Agents administer a parasitic bug that crawls into Neo’s stomach. This biomechanical aesthetic is very similar to the work of H.R. Giger on Alien. Technology is portrayed as a living thing because it represents true artificial intelligence.