The Dream of “The Matrix” is Over

YO! Youth Outlook, Youth Commentary, Published: May 16, 2003

[Editor’s Note:] Not all young people are enthralled with the sequel to “The Matrix.” PNS contributor Russell Morse says the first film was released when sterile, bloated corporate culture was in full swing and myths of rebellion resonated. Now, with fewer jobs, slashed budgets and tuition hikes, the sequel falls flat — and that fake steak from the first film looks better than ever.

Four years ago, as I watched the first installment of “The Matrix” series, I felt a surge of hope. I thought to myself, “A life outside of this maddening conformity is possible! It IS all a sham!” But as I shifted in my seat on the opening night of the sequel, “The Matrix Reloaded,” expecting a similar charge, I realized that the dream was over.

In 1999, young people embraced the film with an almost spiritual enthusiasm. We thought we were being abused by our employers, trapped in the same sterile, corporate hell of the film’s hero, Neo. He presented us with an escape — the proposition that we could break away from the torture and form an army of cubicle liberators.

Now we’re happy just to have a job.

It’s not the movie that’s different. It’s me and my peers. It’s the world we live in — marked by soaring unemployment rates, school budget cuts and a lack of options.

The sequel, more so than the first film, centers around the idea of choice. Do you choose to live happy and ignorant –oblivious that your whole world is an artificially generated environment designed to pacify you as your soulless body sits in a bowl of strawberry jam, mined for energy — or do you choose to know the truth, to liberate yourself, even if that means wearing tattered clothes and dancing to bad techno?

As this theme presented itself, over and over again, I was reminded of how arrogant I was to identify with that choice. My hope for an alternate life wasn’t hope at all, but entitlement, one that came from the climate of the late 1990s — a carefree young life with employment options, stock options and weekly odes to excess.

It’s a lie to say that the sequel isn’t entertaining. I was engaged in the storyline, baffled by the fight scenes, wowed by the effects — especially those new ghostly, albino Milli Vanilli-looking bad guys. But I was no longer invested in the mythology. It became pure entertainment, a fun escape from what troubles me about the real world — war, disease, a sagging economy, a 25 percent increase in my tuition.

So if the film is just a distraction, how does that differ from the actual matrix it portrays? It doesn’t. “The Matrix” has become the matrix.

It’s a commercial empire of empty entertainment — video game, electronica soundtrack, film franchise.

If the only thing the Wachowski brothers wanted to do was make a fun movie and a truckload of money, fine. But it’s obvious they had higher aspirations. They wanted to change the world again. They wanted us to think critically about our lives.

The movie begins, curiously, as an analogy for Black America. Morpheus delivers a speech to a crowd of devoted revolutionaries, calling for a victory against the oppressive machines. If the word “machines” were swapped for “white people,” Morpheus would be Malcolm. The dance sequence that follows is absorbing — thousands of sweaty, sexy bodies writhing and grinding in a glorious celebration of raw humanity.

But what appears to be an intriguing twist quickly dissolves into an orgy of blatant, imposed, university-style liberalism. One scene, in which the council of human rebels is assembled, looks like a Berkeley town hall meeting -– drab-colored hemp clothes, old white women with dreadlocks and Cornel West as the keynote speaker (no kidding — he’s in the film).

(In one scene, a curiously French villain serves a dessert to an unsuspecting blonde as a display of his power. After just one bite of the cake, she has a sudden, powerful orgasm and runs off to the bathroom. Mind control or not, I’d forgo “enlightenment” to eat this cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s supposed to be oppression?)

After I saw the movie, I talked to some friends who tried to make the analogy between post-paranoia America (the Patriot Act, etc.) and “The Matrix.” They say even though the world has changed in the last four years, it has only grown closer to the fears of “The Matrix.” But all this invasion of privacy business has nothing to do with “The Matrix.” The matrix wants us to be happy and stupid. The Patriot Act wants us to be paranoid and stupid. I told my friends they were confusing Orwellian fears with neo-Neoism.

In a scene in the first film, the traitor of the human revolution shares dinner in a fancy restaurant with one of the evil machines, giving up info because he wishes he never knew the truth. He was happy in his old life, controlled by the matrix, oblivious. He eats a steak and says something like, “Even though I know this steak isn’t real, it’s delicious.”

I’m with him. After two years surviving on Cup O’ Noodles, I could go for a juicy, fake steak.