Flip phones; clunky desktop computers; leather trench coats — many things about The Matrix scream 1990s relic. And yet, in the two decades since the cyberpunk smash first graced cinema screens, where we first witnessed Keanu Reeves’s computer hacker-turned-prophesised saviour Neo dodge bullets and dispatch agents in a blaze of martial arts-inspired visual wizardry, there remains something strikingly relevant about the Wachowskis’ vision of 21st century existence.
Much of what makes up their terrifying vision of the future rings remarkably (and more than a little unnervingly) true 20 years on. And, later this month, such foresight will get a 4K restoration when The Matrix gets a 20th anniversary re-release in Cineworld cinemas. This is far from the nostalgic trip back down the Wachowskis’ warren, however.
"You take the red pill" pronounces Laurence Fishburne’s stoic mentor Morpheus; "you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes" — little did we know just how deep it really goes. Here are five things The Matrix correctly predicted about the future back in 1999...
1. Plugging In
The Matrix isn’t real. The titular techno landscape is but a simulation: a bleak truth that the film’s hero, Neo, quickly learns in the aftermath of some red pill popping. Once aboard Morpheus’ hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, the only way the crew can venture into such a world is by, quite literally, plugging themselves in.
In 2019, and in only a slightly less literal sense, millions ‘plug in’ every day; be it for socialising, gaming, dating, or a weekly shop. For some of the crew — namely, the traitorous Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) — the lure of the Matrix is too great and the reality of the real world too hard to stomach. For others, it is a hive of information, but one thwarted with danger and unpredictability.
Put simply, the Matrix is a hyperbolised version of the internet.
2. The Age of Machines
Smartphones; self-driving cars; robots that deliver post straight to your door. Whether we like or not, the age of machines is well and truly upon us. And The Matrix saw it all coming.
Of course, you need only cast your mind back to Arnie’s T-800 in the Terminator movies, Ridley Scott’s dystopian LA in Blade Runner, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to know that robots — both sentient and not so sentient — had been doing the rounds in sci-fi long before The Matrix came kung fu-kicking onto the big screen. And yet, the world engineered by the film’s machines — one where everything feels unnervingly real; where you can, quite literally be someone else entirely — hits a lot closer to home.
With less-than-subtle similarities to an existence defined by immersive gaming, social media and online personas, the Wachowskis’ vision of virtual reality certainly wouldn’t look out of place as a downloadable app for your iPhone.
3. Breaking Down Binaries
Much has been written about The Matrix as trans allegory. While such a reading carries significant weight — the Wachowskis, for instance, have both undergone gender transition since the film’s release — the story is also about a much broader liberty.
Neo, Trinity and Morpheus’ fight is one for freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from lies; freedom from their own limitations. Morpheus teaches Neo to become someone new; someone greater, and in doing so, Reeves’s character is able to leave behind his former self: the lonely, frustrated Thomas A. Anderson — the inconsequential cog in the corporate machine shackled by a dead-end office job.
The desire to embrace who you want to be holds real resonance in 2019. With identity politics firmly at the forefront of global social discourse, The Matrix’s famous metaphor involving the flexibility of cutlery — "only try to realize the truth...there is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself" — becomes even more poignant, and strikingly pertinent.
4. The Modern Superhero Blockbuster
In many ways, the modern superhero movie owes a debt to The Matrix. After all, once the postmodern bells and whistles are stripped back, what is left is a story about someone learning to become more than they ever thought they’d be: a hero who could just as easily be shooting web from his wrists or sporting a shield made of vibranium.
The Wachowskis saw potential in a new brand of superhero movie; one dealing in gritty themes and deep-rooted philosophical musings, spearheaded by a protagonist not defined by the size of his biceps or the sharpness of his one-liners, but by the power of his own self-belief. Neo is complex and conflicted, nerdy yet nuanced, battling both the weighty force of responsibility and the painful truth of his own existence. In other words, he’d probably fit in quite well in Gotham City.
5. Climate Change
"It was us that scorched the sky," Morpheus reveals to Neo part way through his expositional spiel about the Matrix. While he’s referring to a fictional war that took place sometime during the 21st century, audiences in 2019 will draw eerie parallels to today’s current socio-political climate. Extinction Rebellion; veganism; the fight against single-use plastic – battling climate change is very much happening now.
In The Matrix, the world — the one outside of a simulation, that is — is left decimated, desecrated and absent of both light and life. Humans are now artificially grown by machines, and those who’ve escaped the grip of artificial intelligence eat nothing but a porridge-like substance made up of a single-cell protein. Of those humans born naturally, the majority live deep underground, unable to exist on the surface of a world destroyed by their own hand. It’s so shocking because the sense of foreboding feels so familiar.
George Nash is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.