BY McKenzie Wark in Film , Opinion | 10 JAN 22

Unpacking the Hidden Meanings in The Matrix Resurrections

From the red/blue pill symbolism to the trans allegory, McKenzie Wark muses on the real-life narratives surrounding the simulated world of The Matrix

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BY McKenzie Wark in Film , Opinion | 10 JAN 22

My favourite meme from The Matrix film series (1999–ongoing) has an incredulous Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) ask: ‘What do you mean you took both pills?’ In the narrative arc, the blue pill takes you to the simulated world; the red pill is your exit. ‘Welcome to the desert of the real,’ as Morpheus says to Neo (Keanu Reeves) when he takes the red one, stealing a line from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981). 

To enjoy the world of The Matrix, we must accept this conceit of an exit from the simulation, within what is obviously a pure extrusion of it. In narrative terms, it’s red pill versus blue pill but, structurally, the choice is actually to take both pills – or neither. 

The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections, 2021. Courtesy: Warner Bros

A lot of reviews of the most recent film in the franchise, The Matrix Resurrections (2021), profess to take neither. They’re written with an ‘I don’t buy it’ tone. Which, of course, is a double-bind: even to acknowledge these films exist makes it impossible to not take a pill. If you accept that the films are real, then you accept that The Matrix exists, so you’re in it and, paradoxically, compelled to choose your pills. 

There’s a whole subculture that already imagines itself as ‘red-pilled’. It’s both ironic and not that the main subculture to have adopted this language is extremely online men, who want to believe that everything they’ve been taught about how the world works – and, in particular, how gender works – is all a scam to which they have woken up.

It’s ironic that the other subculture to have embraced The Matrix franchise is trans people, particularly trans women, for whom it’s a story about coming out. This was a thing even before the films’ directors, the Wachowskis, transitioned. At the time the first film dropped, in 1999, the most widely prescribed oestrogen for trans women in the US was Premarin – a red pill. 

The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections, 2021. Courtesy: Warner Bros

While in narrative terms, there’s a choice of pills, in structural terms, there’s no choice: viewers have to take both. The heroic, red-pilled revolutionaries end up spending most of their screen time back in The Matrix. For there to be a real world, there has to be a simulation, and vice-versa. 

The famously implausible reason The Matrix keeps ‘real’ humans alive is to use us as an energy source. What makes more sense is that it feeds on our creative, emotional and intellectual energy. The Matrix lives by extracting surplus information from us. The revolutionaries in and against it want the surplus information they generate to produce a simulation over which they have agency, built for their stimulation and pleasure.

The best image of this in the whole franchise – and my favourite moment – is in The Matrix Reloaded (2003). In Zion, home base of the revolution, the night before it goes into defensive mode against seemingly inevitable destruction, there’s a rave. It’s multiracial, intergenerational, if somewhat heterosexual, and hot as fuck. Now that’s closer to the simulation many of us want. 

The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections, 2021. Courtesy: Warner Bros

The Matrix Resurrections has call-backs to many moments from the first three films, but not the rave. Still, I think its pleasures have been under-appreciated. Lana Wachowski’s direction has become less tightly controlled. The meeting between Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in a coffee shop called Simulatte is delightful. It’s a lovely film about love, longing and regret in middle age. 

Maybe it’s just a me thing, but there’s also much pathos in it as a film about late transition. Like the Wachowskis, I came out as trans later in life, at which point my fascination with all their work made a new kind of sense. I see a lot of my pre-transition self in Neo’s deep sadness, his failed coping devices and how he learns to become the person he needs to be from younger people. 

It’s a film not particularly interested in narrative, but in playfully condensing and laminating together fragments of stories, characters, situations, feelings, ideas, moods, images and references. It’s a film that knows it’s in The Matrix, aware that its viewers perceive it as of a piece with what Hiroki Azuma in Japan’s Database Animals (2009) calls ‘database culture’. The grand narrative of the franchise is just background. What tickle my attention are things like the captain of the rebel ship looking like a ‘blue hair and pronouns’ enby. Or the crew member called Berg who has tattoos based on the logo for the Berlin nightclub Berghain. 

The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections, 2021. Courtesy: Warner Bros

Narrative is just the frame for a smorgasbord of curated detail. Big-budget franchises are the grand museum shows of our time. This film is less a story than a walk-through guided tour. It’s The Matrix: Retrospective. I believe it’s up there with Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) for the scale and style with which its thousands of artisans have fabricated the actual and digital artefacts of their particular formalist aesthetic worlds. If we must live in this simulation – and there’s not much choice about that – let it be artful, let it be self-aware. 

Main image: The Matrix Resurrections, 2021. Courtesy: Warner Bros

McKenzie Wark is the author of A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004), Gamer Theory (Harvard, 2007), Molecular Red (Verso, 2015) and various other things. Wark teaches at The New School in New York City.

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