The Matrix After 20 Years – A Retrospective: A Different Kind of Hero, a New Kind of Science Fiction

The MatrixThe year was 1999 and all any sci-fi fan could think about was: finally, another Star Wars movie. Had Phantom Menace come out in the age of social media it would have been, well, pretty much what we’re seeing with Avengers: Endgame right now.

But, I remember reading an article online — I don’t recall the source — that essentially said: if you think The Matrix is just a sci-fi appetizer to watch while you wait for the The Phantom Menace main course, then think again; this year of 1999 will be known forever as the movies that came out before The Matrix, and the movies that came out after The Matrix. #Truth

Remember the first scene of the movie — Trinity, stylishly clad in black leather, alone in a dilapidated room, typing on a computer. Contrast was everywhere: Trinity’s sleek appearance with the grungy room; her calm demeanor while being handcuffed with the nervousness of the police officers; and then, with the ease of a video game character playing in god-mode, she struck.

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The Trinity character was instantly elevated to the level of superhero, then seconds later she was running scared for her life. We had no idea, but these men in bland suits were on another level completely.

Then, the payphone rang and Trinity sprinted to answer it — before being crushed by a massive truck.

What Just Happened?

In medias res (in the middle of things) hasn’t been done better, before or since.

The movie doesn’t relent for a moment. The audience is left as stupefied as the main character, wondering what is the Matrix, until Morpheus finally explains it to Neo: the Matrix is a prison, for your mind.

There’s a risk to building expectations in a movie plot, because it isn’t enough to meet those expectations; they must be exceeded. More often than not, stories let us down when the veil is lifted. You know those movies that succeed because you remember the titles: Inception, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Sixth Sense…The Matrix. Movies that don’t exceed their own expectations litter the movie timeline, like irrationals between the integers.

All the story elements of The Matrix had been explored, to one degree or another, by previous stories. It’s nearly impossible to come up with a meaningful trope that wasn’t worn ragged by the time the Greeks got around a campfire.  But, all through my adolescence and early adulthood every superhero story left me slightly dissatisfied. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what.

A great superhero movie needs a suitable balance between hero and villain. The vast majority of these stories end with the hero winning, because the heroes want it more…usually because they are fighting for something bigger than themselves. The villain usually fights for their own ends.

The closest these stories ever came to satisfaction was when the superhero discovered and accepted who they were, and let go of perceived limitations. But these limitations always centered on physicality or some superpower.

And then we watched Neo die. The unmistakable hero of the story lay dead on the hallway floor,  simultaneously dead in the chair holding his real physical body.

We’ve seen this before. This isn’t new.

What was new: Neo awoke/metamorphosized into a new state of understanding. He wasn’t faster, or stronger than before — he showed those traits of speed and strength already. Only now he had knowledge (gnosis) of everything in The Matrix. He was The One.

Neo distractedly fought Agent Smith, gazing in wonder at the surroundings he truly saw for the first time. There was no fight left to fight. Neo stepped through the doors of perception and saw infinity. This was the hero I was waiting for.

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