Blog Directory CineVerse: Welcome to the desert of the real

Welcome to the desert of the real

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Few movies over the last two decades are as philosophical and thought-provoking as "The Matrix," released back in 1999. On the surface, it plays as a visually dazzling epic adventure, but beneath the CGI veneer lies a virtual reality noodle bender that encourages watchers to ponder deep questions about the nature of existence and our connection to technology--messages that are more relevant today than 20 years ago. CineVerse examined "The Matrix" in depth last night and discussed the following:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?
  • It has proved to be enormously popular, influential and thought-provoking. It also spawned two sequels.
  • It still matters because it set a new standard—first set by 2001: A Space Odyssey—for films with a dystopian setting and that explore the dangers of artificial intelligence.
  • The special effects still hold up very well, and The Matrix’s myriad philosophical themes keep it evergreen and relevant.
  • The Matrix is also imbued with timeless elements borrowed from fairy tales, religion and philosophy, comic books, and classic science-fiction, that appeal to the child, the geek, and the true believer found within all of us.
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • Its visual effects were groundbreaking, particularly its presentation of bullet time—which is defined as the visual impression of detaching the time and space of a camera (or viewer) from that of its visible subject. The Matrix didn’t invent bullet time, but it perfected this technique, and inspired many later video games and movies to adopt this approach. Examples include 300, Superman Returns, Watchmen, Spider-Man, I Robot, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, V For Vendetta, Kung Fu Panda, and countless others.
  • Its action sequences, fight choreography, and wire fu techniques inspired copycats in subsequent films. “Wire fu” signifies a style of Hong Kong action cinema, popularized in pictures like those directed by John Woo and starring Jet Li, that combines thrilling kung fu moves with wire work involving stunts accented by hidden pulleys and wires. These copycats included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charlie’s Angels, X-Men, and Daredevil; these techniques were also lampooned in other movies, like Shrek.
  • It stimulated several subgenres: dystopian films, cyberpunk movies, alternate reality fantasy films, and movies that examine the risks of AI; think of Minority Report, Avatar, Inception, The Maze Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Limitless, Snowpiercer, Ex Machina, Ready Player One, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, and others.
  • The complete Matrix trilogy and its success encouraged Hollywood to make more fantasy, superhero, and action/adventure trilogies.
  • The Matrix also spurred more interest in many philosophical and religious teachings, as it borrows liberally from the works of Jean Baudrillard (author of Simulacra and Simulation); Plato (and his Allegory of the Cave); Immanuel Kant (author of the Critique of Pure Reason); the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi; Christianity (consider how Neo is a Christ-like messiah figure and Trinity’s name conjures up the Father, Son and Holy Spirit trinity of Christian theology); Buddhism (and its message of living in the now and attaining enlightenment); Gnosticism; and Hinduism.
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in The Matrix?
  • Freedom vs. fate, and destiny vs. free will. Consider how the world inside the actual matrix is the opposite of free; humans think and live as the machines program them to. Ponder, as well, how the Oracle can predict what’s going to happen, suggesting fate. Yet think about how, despite her saying Neo is not “the one,” he proves to be the one after all. This suggests that his free will and determination overcame fate or destiny, which is why the Oracle couldn’t see it. It’s also possible that she tells Neo he’s not the one as a lie to get Neo to discover his own truth for himself; recall that Neo said earlier that he doesn’t believe in fate.
  • The nature of reality. What is real? Is our life real and authentic or an illusion based on what we’ve constructed and what we perceive to be real? The philosopher Descartes theorized “I think, therefore, I am.” But what if AI has programmed you to think a certain way—do you truly exist unto yourself? What if the world we think is true is a fantasy built to trick us—a “matrix” that we don’t know exists?
  • Awakening from a stupor into a new reality. The character of Neo and his progression symbolizes how we can change our lives and escape our personal prisons and what others expect from us. 
    • In his book, “But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past,” Chuck Klosterman astutely wrote: “In some protracted reality, film historians will reinvestigate an extremely commercial action movie made by people who (unbeknownst to the audience) would eventually transition from male to female [Klosterman is referring to the directors, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who were previously Larry and Andy, two men, when the film was made]. Suddenly, the symbolic meaning of a universe with two worlds—one false and constructed, the other genuine and hidden—takes on an entirely new meaning. The idea of a character choosing between swallowing a blue pill that allows him to remain a false placeholder and a red pill that forces him to confront who he truly is becomes a much different metaphor. Considered from this speculative vantage point, The Matrix may seem like a breakthrough of a far different kind. It would feel more reflective than entertaining, which is precisely why certain things get remembered while certain others get lost.”
  • The relationship between technology and humans. In this film, it’s ironic that the human characters often act more robotic and non-emotive than the Smiths, which seem more capable of creativity, emotional expression and adaptation. There’s a blurring line here between humanity and technology and how each is dependent on the other. Even the way humans talk to other humans in this film implies that they have robotic-like qualities: “He’s a machine,” “you need to unplug,” “Listen to me, Coppertop.”
  • The mind-body connection. Morpheus says that the body cannot live without the mind; we see evidence of this in how, if you die inside the matrix, your real body dies. The mind also cannot live without the body.
  • The power of true love. Trinity’s confession of love for Neo, and her kiss, magically bring him back to life, much like the kiss of the prince does in the classic children’s stories Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty.
Who do you think this film appealed to initially when it was released in (original year), and who do you think it appeals to today? And if that appeal has changed, what does that say about the film’s impact, influence and legacy?
  • Recall that The Matrix received an R rating from the MPAA, so it would have had a more limited audience of adults during its original theatrical release. Those adults were likely predominantly male science-fiction/action/adventure/fantasy fans.
  • Today, however, 20 years later, it’s likely that The Matrix has a much wider appeal and, despite its “R” rating for violence and profanity, is probably considered by parents to be more acceptable to their preadolescent and teenage children. In other words, we’ve become more desensitized to the kind of violence shown in this film, which is probably considered more of a PG-13 kind of movie nowadays; plus, the deeper philosophical and existential questions it forces audiences to ask could motivate parents and adults to allow more kids younger than age 17 to watch it.
  • Additionally, because AI and its threats are increasingly being reported on and depicted in pop culture today, it’s safe to assume that The Matrix is more widely watched and appreciated today by a more diverse array of viewers.
  • What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • Arguably, most of the special effects still look fresh and are effectively realistic, and the movie’s sound design remains exceptional.
  • Its cyberpunk esthetics—which feature high- and low-tech elements as well as an overlap between sophisticated technology and what Bruce Sterling described as “the modern pop underground”—still resonate and are being mirrored in other films; contemporary examples that fit within the cyberpunk subgenre, which may have drawn influence from The Matrix, include Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, Elysium, Tron: Legacy, and the remakes of Ghost in the Shell and Robocop.
  • Yet, in a world with increasing gun violence, this film’s reliance on high body count artillery, an ample supply of bullets, and innocent bystanders getting shot to pieces can turn some off—particularly in an age where we hear about horrific mass shootings on a regular basis.
What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • Its greatest gift is that it’s a rare combination of a thrilling science-fiction/action/adventure movie that also makes you think. And think hard and deeply. It has rich text as well as rich subtext, plenty of eye candy and pyrotechnics, as well as themes and messages that linger long in your mind. That’s the mark of a good and memorable film worth celebrating.
Do you think this movie will still be widely watched and considered relevant in another 20 years? Why or why not?
  • Absolutely. Special effects may improve and, by comparison, make this film look more dated in the realm of fantastical visuals. But as AI progresses in the real world, the issues this movie tackles about our dependence on AI and its associated risks will remain relevant, if not somewhat prescient.
  • You could make a case that this movie will remain relevant indefinitely for all the reasons already stated. It serves as a cautionary tale that will never grow old in a world increasingly reliant on technology.

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