‘The Matrix’ series may lose interpretive malleability with new film

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 9/24/19 2:00am

Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of “The Matrix” this year, Warner Brothers recently announced that Lana Wachowski — the elder of the Wachowski siblings behind the original classic — would be reuniting with actors Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss to direct a fourth “Matrix” film. 

On the one hand, this announcement felt more inevitable than anything else. As a direct result of Hollywood’s capitalistic and monopolistic tendencies, studios are creating an unsustainable model by increasingly focusing on a small selection of aspiring blockbusters that need to rake in exorbitant sums to justify the cost. Thus, the hunt is on for reliably lucrative intellectual property — hence the current glut of remakes, reboots and sequels to films from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. It was only a matter of time until “The Matrix” got swept up by this trend. 

On the other hand, the specifics of Warner Brothers’ announcement are nothing if not surprising. The possibility of a “Matrix” prequel or reboot has floated around for years, but a direct sequel to the original trilogy always seemed impossible, especially with the involvement of the Wachowskis. Flawed though those first three films may be, they also feel like they are born from a genuine thoughtfulness and even self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers.

“The Matrix” is defined by its interpretive malleability. At its core, the narrative is extremely basic, even conventional. Office drone Neo lives a secondary life online and thereby encounters a group of freedom fighters who reveal that his life is a lie; the world surrounding him is actually a massive computer simulation called the matrix created by robots who use human bodies as an energy source. These freedom fighters free Neo and intend to free everyone plugged into the matrix by essentially blowing up the entire system. You’re not wrong if you notice parallels between this premise and a dozen other similar films. But that’s kind of the point; the Wachowskis kept the outline for “The Matrix” broad but filled it with dozens of crucial world-building details and philosophical beats, thereby sustaining thousands of in-depth analyses of the film for decades. 

This is important because that broadness can sometimes undermine a necessary acknowledgement of the fact that “The Matrix” is also among the most personal films in the entire pantheon of game-changing blockbuster cinema. In general, I am loathe to start any reading of a film with auteur theory, a branch of film studies which more or less views the director as the ultimate arbiter of meaning; however, sometimes it is essential to acknowledge the role of creators, and such is the case with “The Matrix.” In 2010 and 2016 respectively, Lana and Lilly Wachowski came out as transgender women. Thus, reinterpreting their work from this perspective is, to my mind, not simply possible but absolutely essential. 

To be clear, as a cisgender, heterosexual white male, I have no true authority to speak on this subject. I would, however, like to respectfully borrow from the many members of the LGBTQIA+ community who have extensively addressed this topic and who do have the authority to speak on this subject, including YouTuber Jamie Maurer (Rantasmo), critic Emily Todd VanDerWerff and blogger E.A. Lockhart. As both Maurer and VanDerWerff point out, Neo’s character arc succinctly mirrors the experiences of many trans individuals, especially in the late 1990s. Neo feels dissatisfied with his life and subsequently finds a group of like-minded friends via the Internet. These friends not only help free his mind but also encourage him to accept his former reality as a lie designed to oppress him. Indeed, Maurer notes that the film ends when Neo manages to break free from the illusion created by binary computer code, just as he must allegorically break free from binary gender norms. 

But there are also more specific details littered throughout the film. VanDerWerff notes that like many trans individuals, the protagonist is born with the name Thomas Anderson but adopts the preferred identity of Neo as he comes to increasingly accept himself. Yet Agent Smith — the film’s villain and an overt embodiment of patriarchal machismo — mocks Neo by insisting on referring to him as “Mr. Anderson.” Moreover, Lana Wachowski revealed in 2012 that her sense of denied self-worth as a trans teenager nearly drove her to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. During the climactic battle of “The Matrix,” Smith nearly kills Neo via an oncoming train, once again referring to him as “Mr. Anderson.” Yet Neo breaks free, saving himself and proudly declaring, “My name is Neo.” 

Ideally, none of this should be news to fans of “The Matrix.” But I felt it was necessary to provide a brief summary of transgender interpretations of the films to remind everyone how deeply personal “The Matrix” probably was to the Wachowskis and why the film helped trans viewers like VanDerWerff and Lockhart. Only the Wachowskis can assert how much of this subtext was overtly intended; regardless, these various parallels might at least explain why the directors chose to tell this particular story in this particular way. 

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, the key to how the Wachowskis told the story was to keep it maximally open to interpretation. Which means we have to talk about the awful “Red Pill” men’s rights movement; just as Neo swallows a red pill to learn the truth about the matrix simulation, these troglodytes seem to think that they have learned a profound truth about how oppressive gender roles really disadvantage them rather than women. The problem with painting in broad strokes is that “The Matrix” can be read as a touching trans allegory about self-acceptance, and it can also be read as a problematically juvenile “Fight the Man! Blow up the System!” narrative that might appeal to the “Red Pill” crowd. 

In fairness, I don’t think this reading was intended by the Wachowskis; rather, I suspect they had ideas for some incredible action set pieces and never really bothered to reexamine the implications of how they had opted to justify these action scenes from a narrative perspective. This is where the sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” become essential to the discussion. In the video “The Matrix — Really That Good,” Bob Chipman posits that the sequels might be read as a refutation of the original film’s more troubling aspects. Indeed, “Reloaded” reveals that Neo’s revolution against “the Man” was all part of the plan for the machines. They were aware that not all human subjects would accept the matrix simulation and thus coopted the inevitable revolution as another form of control. Thus, “Revolutions” ends not with the destruction of the matrix simulation but instead with Neo brokering a truce with the machines so that all human subjects can choose whether they want to remain in the matrix or leave it.  

Thus, the narrative of the “Matrix” trilogy might look something like this: The Wachowskis made a deeply personal film that reflected their experiences as trans women while also managing to appeal to a much wider audience. Certain members of that audience read the film as support for their self-serving notion of pseudo-revolution, prompting the Wachowskis to make two immensely flawed sequels which nevertheless attempted to correct the narrative by presenting a more nuanced view on oppression and revolution. In short, the sequels tell people like the “Red Pill” goons that their efforts to “rage against the machine” are simply another cog in the machine. Likewise, VanDerWerff notes that the sequels also manage to expand the trans narrative from the first film by using this added nuance to explore the topic of intersectionality in relation to trans issues. 

In 2016, Lilly Wachowski discussed people reexamining their films in light of the sisters coming out as trans; she said, “This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static.” No art is static. But the Wachowskis are special because­ they go out of their way to make art that constantly evolves and grows. Perhaps a fourth “Matrix” film won’t be “static”; I want to be cautiously optimistic given how much I want the Wachowskis to succeed. 

But given the failure of their most recent film “Jupiter Ascending” and the scathing reaction to the “Matrix” sequels, it’s hard not to worry that Lana Wachowski and her collaborators will be strong-armed by the studio and fans into making a regressive nostalgia work that simply exists to remind audiences of everything superficial they loved about the first film. For another franchise, such an outcome would be disappointing but survivable. But for this franchise, it would be another reminder of how many people have — intentionally or otherwise — refused to fully understand what makes the Wachowskis and the “Matrix” films truly special. 

I don’t believe in the sanctity of art, but I do think it’s important to be aware of who finds certain works important and meaningful and why. So, maybe, just maybe, this is finally where we should draw a line when it comes to Hollywood nostalgia.