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Saturday, April 06, 2024

We entered The Matrix a quarter century ago this week

I had seen the commercial that ran during the Super Bowl.  While browsing the magazines at Barnes & Noble I flipped through the pages of Starlog and ogled the photos, which had to be the most abrupt juxtaposition of images from a single movie I had ever beheld (martial arts, Giger-ish metal, what?).  But none of it made any sense.

Then about a month after The Matrix came out, I was having our weekly discipleship meeting with a friend.  And he was raving about seeing it the night before.  Brent tried his darndest to explain what he had seen, but it all went way over my head.  Something about Nebuchadnezzar and agents and red pills and... he went on.  I tried to reconcile it with everything else I had overheard others saying about The Matrix.  And there were quite a few who were talking about it.

Suddenly I felt like there was some arcane secret that I hadn't been let in on.  And I realized that here was something that I just had to understand.  To see for myself.

That came on Sunday night, two days after our discipleship time.  Brent wanted to meet up at the now-closed West End Cinema in Burlington.  We got there for the 9 o'clock show.  And for the next two hours my senses were assaulted by the most jarring spectacle that I could recall seeing on the big screen in quite a long time.  Without warning any of the buildup I'd had for Star Wars Episode I was a fast receding dot on the horizon.

I had seen The Matrix.  And nothing from the realm of filmmaking would be the same again.  I drove home that night, trying to digest it all.  But it was too much to take in.  I think it was for a lot of people.  My best friend from college saw The Matrix five or six times during its first run and made it the basis of a paper he turned in for a class.

Maybe I should have watched it a bit more too, instead of going to the theater to see The Phantom Menace nine times that summer.

The Matrix is arguably, and quite much so, the most influential movie of the past quarter century (geez, just sayin' it like that makes it seem like a lifetime ago... which I guess it is).  Did the word "unplugged" carry as much potency as it did before March 31st, 1999?  To say nothing of how the term "blue pill" has entered into the modern vernacular as derogatory slang.  And of course there were the action sequences: imitated but never duplicated.

I wound up buying a VHS copy of the movie.  The summer of 2000 found me working as a reporter in Asheville, North Carolina.  And then I was the one trying to explain The Matrix, this time to my editor.  I let him borrow my copy over the weekend.  He came into the office on Monday morning raving about how The Matrix was so much like what the mission of our weekly magazine was all about.  He had a light in his eyes, that I hadn't noticed before.  The Matrix became the topic of many a discussion we had in the weeks and months after that.  And come to think of it, I can't think of any other movie that has ever precipitated nearly as much conversation and reflection and argument as that film did.

I hadn't planned on getting a DVD player just yet, but my sister received one for Christmas and she won me over with its image clarity.  So the day after the holiday I splurged on a player too.  The very first DVDs that I bought were Blazing Saddles and The Matrix.  I've still got them, and the other night I put in The Matrix.  The quality of that standard DVD is still so sharp that the movie looks almost as good as would the Blu-ray or 4K editions.

I won't say that I became a fan of the Matrix saga as much as I did Star Wars (though I'm nowhere near as much into that as I used to be, no thanks to Disney's bungling).  And I'm kind of past the point where any franchise will probably grab me anymore.  But the world of the Matrix grasped hold hard and fast that spring night in 1999, and it hasn't let go.  I'll even vicariously defend the sequels except for The Matrix Resurrections because I haven't seen that one yet.  I think the biggest reason that The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions got panned is because they didn't end the trilogy as many if not most people wanted it to.  They wanted to see the machines completely destroyed, and that would have been wrong.  Neo came to understand that humans and machines shared too much in common than to see one side or the other obliterated.  The trilogy ended as well as is it could have: with the humans wanting out of the Matrix free to leave, and hopefully humanity and machines in a place where they can cooperate with each other.  It wasn't a perfect conclusion for all involved but it was the start of something hopefully better for the two factions. To me, that was a great ending to the saga.

So much else I could say about this movie.  But I would be remiss if I did not touch on a final thought:

Have we truly taken the Red Pill?  Or are we still plugged in, afraid to leave comfort and security?

As Neo said at the end of the film, "Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you."