May 28, 2015

Queer Review: The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix
Directors: The Wachowskis (Credited at the time as The Wachowski Brothers)
Writers: The Wachowskis (Credited at the time as The Wachowski Brothers)
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker

What is The Matrix but the greatest science fiction film of all time? Few films can match what The Wachowskis accomplish here, in this tale that takes some of the densest metaphysical questions that have ever been asked and uses them as the basis for a high octane, adrenaline fueled action flick, which also happens to serve as a modern re-telling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programer in search of the elusive Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who Neo (Thomas's hacker alias) believes holds the answer to the question: "What is the Matrix?" On his journey to see Morpheus, Neo manages to make contact with Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), a female hacker whom everyone thinks is a guy. When Neo finally manages to meet with Morpheus, he finds that the answer is more complicated then he imagined and that the reality he has believed in his whole life has been a lie.

The Queering
A the time The Matrix was first released, Lana Wachowski was still going by the name "Larry" Wachowski and the film was credited to "The Wachowski Brothers" rather than the moniker "The Wachowskis". Looking at the first Matrix movie now, it's possible to see a great many transgender subtexts that were not as obvious when it first came out. For starters, there is Trinity, a female hacker whom everyone thinks is a man (as commented on by Neo when the two first meet). The fact that people think Trinity is a man in the Matrix, is also brought up in The Animatrix short A Detective Story, where the titular detective assigned to track down Trinity, constantly refers to Trinity as a man. This essentially makes Trinity a women who is in the process of either escaping from or attempting to destroy an artificial reality where everyone thinks she is a guy.

Other examples are more subtle but definitely are there. Take Neo, a hero who -- outside of scenes where he is required to fire off endless rounds of ammo from a variety of firearms -- is not generally presented in overly macho terms, at least if one were to compare him to the mold created by 80's action heros like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. As it is, Neo has to deliberately reject his old, gendered name of Mr. Thomas Anderson and has to correct Mr. Smith (Hugo Weaving), who constantly insists on using the old name. Then there is Switch, who in earlier drafts of the script, was supposed to change gender upon leaving or entering the Matrix. In the version that made it to screen, the character is instead presented as androgynous in both worlds.

These trans subtexts I would argue, tie directly in with the films' main themes regarding the nature of reality. As the Oracle points out to Neo, all knowledge begins with knowledge of ones self. In order for Neo to be able to do anything as "The One", he must first know what he is and what he is capable of. As the story progresses, a key plot point revolves around Neo being unable to access his abilities until he has knowledge that he is the one. In other words, Neo becomes "The One" through self actualization and increasing his self awareness of who he is.

Of course by now, it has been pointed out by others that The Matrix is basically a modern day retelling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The story of Plato's cave is one where an entire group of people is kept prisoner for their entire lives, forced to stare at flickering shadows on a cave wall. Because these shadows are all these prisoners experience, they assume that the shadows are all that there is to reality. One day, a prisoner finds himself able to escape his chains, and makes his way up out of the cave. As he travels out of the cave, he becomes scared and disorientated by the new experiences he undergoes. Once outside, he is blinded by the bright light of the outside world. Eventually his eyes adjust and he sets out to explore the new world. Afterwards he returns to the cave and attempts to free the other prisoners, only for most of them to not understand his story about the outside world.

Many of the elements of that story are present here. Neo is the prisoner who manages to escape and like the Prisoner, he is blinded by the bright lights of the outside world. "Why does the light hurt my eyes," Neo asks Morpheus. "Because you've never used them before," Morpheus answers. Presumably, the reason the Washowskis use white transition shots so frequently is to reference this element of the story. Furthermore, as Morpheus mentions to Neo in the scene with the Women in the Red Dress, many people who are kept prisoner in the Matrix, will fight to stay a part of that system, rather than accept the truth.

While what The Matrix ultimately offers up is primarily a cerebral experience, it is also worth mentioning that the action scenes are pure visual spectacles, (the film is still famous for introducing the world to the Bullet Time technique). While the sequels were disappointing, the first film in The Matrix Franchise still holds up today.

It would be worth doing advanced math problems involving matrices, if the reward was being able to see The Matrix

The Rating
4 stars out of 4.


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