Month in, year out, scarce a day goes by that across the transom some fearless Internet commenter doesn't scoff that Lindsay Shepherd is insufficiently red-pilled or that Douglas Murray and I are still clinging to our blue-pill delusions. I dunno about that, but I will admit to clinging to a certain weariness that, with virtually the entirety of human knowledge no more than a Google click away, all human communication appears to have dwindled down to the same dozen pop-culture references.
Nonetheless, it is an undoubted achievement to have created one of those dozen references and loosed it around the planet. And this one is celebrating its twentieth birthday this very month, introduced to the world in April 1999 in the Wachowski brothers' second film The Matrix. Neo (played with his endearingly hilarious self-importance by Keanu Reeves) is some computer programmer in an anonymous metropolis who gets his slumbers interrupted by the alleged terrorist Morpheus and offered a choice of pharmaceutical products. "You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill," teases Morpheus, "and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
Neo takes the red pill, and wakes up to find his so-called real life is a fiction. And so is everyone else's. All his chums are lying down in incubators wired up to the "Matrix", which feeds them a continuing simulation of experience. Humanity has been put in a collective coma by evil computers.
Really? That seems awfully complicated. Why don't the computers just kill us?
Well, it turns out they need us as an energy source. As the years go by, this seems more and more a prescient insight, made at the dawn of the Internet era, into the inertia of our time. Hooked up to the social-media Matrix, we flare into strange vicarious rages over some transgender athlete's pronoun only to subside into lethargy because the computer's draining all our energy. An eerie foretelling in 1999.
Meanwhile, the only real reality left is that of a small band of renegade humans holed up in an underground town called Zion and trying to figure out how to deMatriculate mankind.
The notion that reality is an illusion is a bit of a cliché, of course, but there are plenty of French philosophers willing to give it a bit of intellectual heft. The line in the screenplay about "the desert of the real" came from the eminent "Theorist" Jean Baudrillard, a great proponent of the notion that reality is simulation and the author of, among other books, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Instead, it was created and waged only on computer screens. "Since this war was won in advance," wrote Baudrillard, "we will never know what it would have been like had it existed." Did the Wachowskis seek permission to use the central thesis of his career? He could probably have sued for plagiarism - although, in turn, the film's producers could argue that his theory that reality is a simulation is itself a simulation and that their alleged film did not take place.
The point is Andy and Larry Wachowski figured they'd hit on the perfect wrinkle for a classic postmodern nerd franchise — the Star Wars of our generation. And if you say, "Hang on, old boy, surely Star Wars is the Star Wars of our generation?", I'd say, nah, it's too 1930s radio serial, and its grandiosity is plonkingly earnest and squaresville instead of as coolly meta as Keanu Reeves' too-bored-to-act acting style. The Matrix was quickly followed by The Matrix Revisited, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Recycled, and Neo got paleo pretty quick. None of the sequels could quite match the initial red-pilling of surface reality, and so they simply dug the rabbit hole deeper. Zion is the last outpost of humanity - but maybe it's merely a Matrix-within-the-Matrix? Ever consider that, huh? And what if Neo himself is a Matrix-within-the-Matrix-within-the-Matrix? He was supposed to be "The One" - but maybe one of the others is The One. Maybe The One flew over the cuckoo's nest.
By the sequel, the Wachowskis' "innovative visual style" (a Cecil B De Mille-scale computer game peopled by sullen pouters) was looking a lot less innovative: they did all the same things they did in the first film all over again, just more expensively and even more arbitrarily — the scene in which Keanu/Neo is fighting a hundred guys in black and doesn't win, doesn't lose, but just finds himself fighting vainly the old ennui and so buggers off after 15 minutes pretty much sums it up. By the second movie, Keanu had perfected his morose blank look, and fine actors like Laurence Fishburne were turning in performances so clunkily solemn you'd think they were auditioning for George Lucas. As usual, the subterranean city of Zion proved to be just another generic dystopian underground parking garage; and the orgiastic dance party looked like a weekend rave in Huddersfield.
But by then the Matricians or Matricists or Matrons or whatever they're called were hooked. In the original film, Neo discovers that the meaning of our lives is an illusion; in the first sequel, the meaning of the film is an illusion. It doesn't make much sense as it's flying by, and it makes even less if you pause the tape and copy out all the dialogue. The rabbit hole doesn't go deep at all; the buck stops about four inches down.
But in that sense it validates its own thesis: it has the illusion of meaning - and be honest, isn't that all most of us are looking for these days? Halfway through, at the moment when a severely cropped Monica Bellucci (in dystopian movies, there is, alas, no Charlie's Angels hair) asks Keanu to kiss her, I became convinced that my watching the film was only an illusion of reality, and that somewhere in a parallel dimension there was another me watching Monica Bellucci seducing Italian schoolboys in Malena and having a much better time.
If memory serves, Matrix Revolutions was the last instalment, the big final showdown between the denizens of Zion and the Sentinels, and a not altogether comfortable mix of your basic up-against-the-clock action sequences and celestial choirs on the soundtrack serenading Keanu as if it's consecration day and he's the last gay bishop on the planet. The romance between Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is barely less somnolent than the mass of humanity they're supposedly trying to wake up. The script could have used a rewrite by M Baudrillard, its dialogue full of turgid announcement: "I'm afraid hope is an indulgence I don't have time for." Or maybe it was "Indulgence is a hope I don't have time for". Or "Time is a hope I don't have indulgence for". Makes no difference, It's modular furniture. Say it portentously enough and it fills in the time until the giant steel bores tunnel into Zion and the explosions start.
I wouldn't have bet on The Matrix becoming a myth for the ages. But what do I know? All futuristic visions are products of their time - see Metropolis - and this one is almost brilliantly attuned to ours, an age when even "resistance" is virtual and passive and yesterday's red-pill reality is today's blue-pill boob-bait for the rubes.
Meanwhile, the Wachowski brothers have become the Wachowski sisters: Larry and Andy are now Lana and Lilly. That's some serious red-pilling right there. Lady Bracknell springs to mind, but she, alas, belongs to a pre-Matrix world. Six months ago, the Misses Wachowski closed up their production offices - because, said Lana (the cute one with the pink dreadlocks), she's "pretty much done". It turns out even movies are just another "desert of the real".
~Join Mark later this evening for another excursion into pre-red-pill sci-fi, with Rudyard Kipling and the Aerial Board of Control: Part Two of With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 AD airs tonight for Mark Steyn Club members in Tales for Our Time.
There'll be plenty of movie talk on the Second Annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise, sailing up the Alaska coast in early September. Among Mark's guests will be Dennis Miller, star of Disclosure, The Net, What Happens in Vegas and, of course, Bordello of Blood, as well as Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, producers of last year's Gosnell. And Kathy Shaidle, who covered for Steyn in Mark at the Movies last summer, will also be aboard. More details here.