‘The Matrix’ (1999): 20 Years On, We’re Still Tumbling Down The Rabbit Hole

‘What is the Matrix? Control.’

We find Morpheus explaining this to Neo in the Construct; a blank, white space used by him and the Resistance to simulate any situation they require when training to take down the Agents.

He’s referring to the farming of human beings to provide power for a dominant race of robots – which we hope is a while off yet – but to look at the society we’ve built for ourselves, you can’t help but wonder if we’re lost in the green and black ether right now.

Everyone knows the iconic red pill/blue pill scene, and the image of Neo waking up plugged into a pod. In the real world, there’s a privileged kind of awakening that humans are going through every day that is a little more subtle, and a lot more insidious – but just as oppressive.

I’ve changed a lot since I first watched this movie. Back then, it was easy to see (or assume) what the Wachowskis were trying to say with this seminal sci-fi work; that ‘the man’ is keeping us down, capitalism is the enemy, and we’re all too distracted trying to win at the system’s game to actually step back and challenge it. Rewatching this movie now, even 20 years on, its relevance astounds me.

We are much further forward in some ways, and much further back in others, than we were in 1999. Capitalism is crushing, and the gap between rich and poor is widening; diet culture is rampant, evolving into slimy new forms like ‘wellness’ and ‘clean eating’; racism continues to go unchallenged in positions of authority and beyond; misogyny and sexism are seeing headlines, but not much progress.

Neo is driven to discover the Matrix because he ‘knows something. What you know, you can’t explain, but you’ve felt it your entire life. There’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind’. Neo doesn’t feel right in the world. Is it him, or his surroundings, that are the problem? Until he sees the Matrix, he can’t be sure.

Often an oppressive structure, be it the patriarchy, racism or anything else, can make us feel like we’re the ones in the wrong. We are the ones responsible for our situation and only we, alone, can pull ourselves out of it, if we just do and say and buy the right things. For Neo, as for us, it’s the world around him that is the enemy – but that world will try to tell him that he is the one to blame.

A lifelong dieter that blames themselves for ‘falling off the wagon’, even though the wagon was never going to lead her where they said it would; the woman who didn’t get chosen for promotion and is told ‘she just needs to work harder’; the billion dollar skin-lightening industry that capitalises on the idea that ‘lighter is better’ and sells people of colour the way to achieve it – the systems that keep us down make us feel like we’re the problem because we don’t fit in, but it’s their unachievable moulds that need to change.

Not everything in ‘The Matrix’ ages as well as its core concept; the fact it’s a straight cisgender man that is ‘The One’ is enough to set your eyes rolling, and Trinity’s value being almost entirely diminished to only her destiny to be in love with him is maddening.

Despite this (and the far inferior sequels), the Wachowskis’ ‘The Matrix’ is a cinematic masterpiece. The visuals, the message, the pure unadulterated action; every element combines to solidify this movie’s spot as my personal all-time favourite.

As the film reaches its climax, Neo absorbs the Matrix itself in order to defeat the Agents. He stops their bullets in mid-air; jumps right through them. He no longer sees the world in colour and texture as we do, instead only as shapes made up of the Matrix’s code. He swallows it whole so as to break it down; sees it in its true form, and ultimately destroys it. We must do the same. We must look our oppressive structures in the eye, see just how far the rabbit hole goes, and then take action to tear them down.

The Matrix, and oppression, is all about control. It’s about damn time we started taking some of that control back.