The original Matrix takes the following question—What comes to mind when you think of opulence?—and revises it into a statement: opulence is what comes to mind when you think.
Take the omni-white brainspace of Neo, as played by Keanu Reeves. This mental landscape is, famously, not visited by a single gun, nor a single shelf of guns. When Neo requests “guns, lots of guns,” the blankness is then populated by whooshing, endless shelves of weaponry.
For many movies, this everything-store onslaught would be the signature visual achievement; the entire plot might take place within that vacuum. In The Matrix, Neo’s brainspace comprises two scenes. There are simply too many other distinctive visual cues to introduce, each of them jamming the frame with…more. This is not a movie interested in showing you merely one influence or even one object, be it a slow-motion bullet or a squeaky line of green code or those godforsaken pills. In the sequel, there are not one but two dreadlocked shapeshifters. For all the talk of Neo being “the one,” The Matrix is plural and then some.
Yet you don’t need an abacus to fully process the opulence of these films. I’d argue that you don’t even need the sound on, which is a trick I pointlessly recommend to the skeptics who find The Matrix too dense or philosophical.1 When you settle your mind, it becomes easier—and downright moving—to process the opulence of these films via Keanu Reeves’ blinks. Neo blinks when Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus first shares his conviction that Neo is “the one.” He blinks when staring into a shattered mirror reassembling itself. Anybody can (and has) whispered, “I know kung fu”; nobody breathlessly exhales and then double-blinks before delivering the line, because nobody can give blink as good as Reeves.
The blinking, not the kung fu, is the point. It’s the central story. Throughout The Matrix, Neo blinks; in the final scene, he dons sunglasses, can ‘see’—voila, there’s your character arc. The release of The Matrix Resurrections has led many a reviewer and podcaster to reference the frowny critical reaction to the sequels, a reaction that makes perfect sense if the first movie is framed as an opulent blinkfest and the ensuing two as, shall we say…squintfests. In the original, when Neo asks why his eyes hurt, Morpheus intones, “You’ve never used them before.” In the second film, when Neo asks “Why am I here?” the Architect’s response includes phrases like “remainder of an unbalanced equation” and “eventuality of an anomaly.”
Of course the first one is more beloved. It gives a great blinker great stuff to blink at, and he blinks on behalf of thee.
Opulence is a seductive, tricky thing. On the one hand, it causes blinking, and blinking is healthy. Blinking both clears debris and oxygenates the eyes, and so opulence, particularly that oh-so-plural opulent style of The Matrix, can, quite literally, be like an infusion, an enrichment—a way for style to sneak more life-sustaining air into a viewer’s body through the eyes.
But blinking also blinds you; we miss things when we blink. When a big audience is shown a big list of big shiny aesthetic choices, all of the ensuing blinking that ripples across the audience causes them to catch and process different aspects of the movie. This is partly why, traditionally, interpretations of opulent movies from the 20th century tended to split into rather neat groups—one seeing an attractive, desirable lifestyle depicted in, say, a gaudy gangster film; the other the moral decay underwriting all those glitzy decorations. With so many sheeny, stylish choices pulling the narrative sleigh in The Matrix—On, leather! On, sunglasses! On, syrupy syllables from Hugo Weaving!—it’s as if these neat, traditional interpretive camps form around individual details as opposed to the movie at large.
Now: the omni-directional interpreting prompted by The Matrix isn’t new. Other richly stylized movies created similar frenzies, most notably The Shining, whose theory-obsessed devotees are interviewed in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, Room 237. I have taught Ascher’s film numerous times as a way to introduce close reading and also the potential perils of it, particularly in a world home to QAnon’ers. Each semester, I become less interested in any specific detail or theory and more interested in the documentary’s silent side character named Technology. Each of the theorists casually mentions how acquiring a new form of The Shining accelerated their theorizing. For example, to Juli Kearns (“Maze Lady,” to my students), the DVD release was central, allowing her to slow down individual frames and thus reveal new details and interpretations. Kearns acquired the DVD almost two decades after The Shining’s 1980 release, and it’s worth pausing to really visualize and appreciate the slow, rumbling growth of Shining-related theorizing—multiple viewings in a theater, then on VHS; decades later, there are DVDs as well as new online forums in which to discuss these ideas that you have been mulling in private for much of your adult life.
By comparison, the theorizing around The Matrix was as quick and intense as a data probe shoved upward into our collective cultural headjack. The Matrix premiered in March of 1999, arrived on VHS and DVD in December, and quickly became the first DVD to sell a million copies. In December of 2000 alone, 4.7 million copies were sold. Within four years, the number hit 30 million. The story of DVDs as a technology cannot be told without The Matrix, and when you pair its DVD success with an emerging number of online forums in which to discuss the movie’s stylish, mysterious choices, the result is a truly unprecedented ecosystem for theorizing, one stretching in all directions.
Two notable readings demonstrate the resulting interpretive chasm. Exhibit A: the reading of The Matrix as a trans allegory—the formulation of a new identity, the need to have one’s body reborn, the idea that the film’s overflowing plurality is informed by the conviction that one’s identity is not a singular box checked at birth but instead a fluid, beautiful-but-challenging journey wrapped up in science and myth, choice and fate. Exhibit B: the red pillers, i.e. folks who interpret The Matrix as a more generalized reinforcement of the sentiment Everything (I don’t agree with) is a lie. (The worst line in any of the four movies is when Morpheus, in the original, explains, “You can feel [the Matrix] when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes,” practically teaching shoddy interpreters how to juxtapose largely unrelated entities such as labor, religion, and governance in their browser tabs, and start launching the same misogynistic complaint at all of them.)
The point here is not to defend interpretation A or refute B. The point is that they exist, representing two green numerals on an endless string of theories prompted by this movie’s omnipresent style and the unique historical circumstances of its distribution.
I speak with a reasonable amount of expertise about the breadth of these theories. Before I was a high schooler dressing as Agent Smith for the simultaneous world premiere of The Matrix Revolutions, I was a middle schooler sifting through Matrix-related theories on message boards, where adults (or at least individuals who posted with adult-like certainty) assured me that my theories had either overlooked incredibly minute details, or, more commonly, had under-appreciated the ways in which the detail I cited was actually replicated multiple times onscreen. One poster was obsessed with the detail that, in the famous “there is no spoon” scene, there are six mutilated spoons on the ground; in the next film, the Architect notes that “this will be the sixth time we have destroyed” the Matrix. I remember congratulating SixSpooner with authentically wide-eyed enthusiasm, bowing at their accomplishment as though this individual had just become a first-time parent of sextuplets. I was awed by the revelation that SixSpooner had been able to locate a seemingly meaningless detail and extract what seemed to be extraordinarily huge meaning from it.
It would be nice if my awe was paired with a quaint lesson about the importance of interpretation, some tidy takeaway like: the more thoughtfully and carefully you read a text—particularly a text as opulent as The Matrix—the more profound the connections. What I took from this experience was far more calculating, and can be described as something like: there is a direct correlation between my measurable IQ and the amount of time I spend within or adjacent to this world, which is how I racked up somewhere between forty and forty-thousand dollars of late fines at Instant Replay video, all to reside inside The Matrix as much as possible.
In truth, I didn’t need the VHS to live amongst all that kung-fu green. All I needed to do was turn on a television. Visual cues from The Matrix were everywhere in the early millennium. If commerce was an undercover cop in the ‘90s, by ‘99, it had flicked on the lights at art’s house party, corralled everyone into a corner, and started offering plea deals. The musicians folded first, most notably Moby, whose Play, released six weeks after The Matrix, became the first album to license each track. As Rob Harvilla recently noted at The Ringer, “Play ushered in a future in which pop music was synonymous with advertising, with film and TV syncs, with branding opportunities galore…Play is the very moment when the idea of selling out, so vital in the ‘90s, started to die.” Napster, launched almost exactly three months after The Matrix’s release, would turn every artist into Moby, scrambling for licensing dollars now that previous revenue streams had evaporated.
This cultural and commercial environment makes it slightly easier to understand how a movie that is, quite frankly, as weird as The Matrix became arguably the most commercially mined imagery of the early millennium. It is not hard to picture the ‘pitches’ by ‘creatives’ at meetings: it sold 30 million DVDs, boss. People will definitely get the cues, the characters, the set pieces, the aura. Some of the cues, like kung fu, don’t even need to be licensed, boss. They’re free. And when we need to get ink on paper, get this: the concept of selling out is dying, boss.
This commercial ecosystem helps explain Laurence Fishburne telling you to “answer the call” for Samsung’s new Matrix phone. Fishburne then took a call from Kia to do a bit about red keys, blue keys, and a Kia K900. Agent Smith touted GE. Pepsi Max released a kung fu-inspired commercial; almost two decades later, in 2019, a presumably new team of Pepsi Maxxers had the incredibly creative idea to do a red-can/black-can spoof. There’s an ad for Plenty paper towels that…honestly, just Google it, then run a YouTube search for “bullet time spoofs” and behold how cheeky homages translate to every genre, be it Shrek and Kung-Fu Panda or Scary Movie and Deadpool. Christopher Nolan movies aspire to the theory-generating braininess of The Matrix while also answering the question, “What if Agent Smith did the wardrobe for multi-million-dollar studio movies?”
There are honestly too many other benefactors to enumerate, be they those influenced by The Matrix’s aesthetic or those with a literal and licensed relationship to it. The more you look for the connections, the more it starts to seem that, for roughly 20 years, every decently budgeted creative enterprise has had some participant say, “What if we did a Matrix-type thing?”
With the release of The Matrix Resurrections, The Matrix itself has done a Matrix-type thing. The fourth installment is exceedingly self-aware about how its own house style has been adoringly scrutinized by fans and avariciously regurgitated by corporations. It is eager to address some of its worst adorers. It is also eager to demonstrate how mainstream, big-studio movies have become little more than commercials, recalling signature details from beloved works of art, and, rather than using such details to author a movie’s atmosphere, inserting such cues into inciting incidents, montages, and climaxes as a way to communicate to the viewer, We at Doritos Know That This Detail Matters.
Resurrections addresses these ideas most explicitly during a montage in which vaguely hip, vaguely creative types try to distill the central meaning and importance of The Matrix. They are doing so because in Resurrections, the Matrix series is a video game, one that the creatives have been tasked with rebooting. The creative types play ping pong and talk with their hands, at times offering up that the video game was, obviously, about “trans politics.” Other brainstormers disagree—it was about “crypto-fascism” to some, “capitalist exploitation” to others. Some argue that they want their “games big, loud, and dumb,” some think that “we need a new ‘bullet time,’” and some don’t really have any philosophy at all beyond “reboots sell.”
The montage is a spoofy mashup of every Matrix-related message board, think piece, and advertising meeting from the past 20 years. The scene does not merely spoof these people; it turns them into literal enemies, soon revealing that one of them is actually “a handle, a program used to control you.” Resurrections’ wry, cutesy interrogation of its own critical history is brain-twisty and funny, but I confess that, on first viewing, I was annoyed by the ways in which this framing took up prime, initial real estate in the movie, particularly when there were what I deemed to be newer, more radical ideas hiding later on, under-explored.
One such idea: that certain machines, like the mechanical manatee called Cybebe, would side with humans in the wake of Neo establishing peace between the machine and human worlds in Revolutions. Cybebe is a Synthient, “a word they prefer to ‘Machines,’” and though much of the positive critical and social conversation about Resurrections has focused on the reunion between Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity, I confess that I was most moved by the meet-cute between Neo and Cybebe, wherein the machine floats toward the human liberator and places its largest red eye on Neo’s bowed forehead. It’s easy to be cynical about purring non-human sidekicks in sci-fi stories, what with Star Wars having turned every droid, Ewok, and green Jedi Master into a Target-aisle toy, and while I can’t say I exclaimed “cool!” when the synthient Lumin8 high-fives a human, I would have liked to spend more time with the radical idea that it is impossible to anticipate the ways in which one’s struggle spurs transformation in unalike parties.
But all of the self-aware self-interrogation in Act I is necessary, I think. It is crucial for that early montage to mock and deconstruct the various interpretations and bastardizations of The Matrix across the years. The necessity of this scene has to do with why I’ve been revisiting all of this Matrix opulence of late: the rebranding of Facebook as Meta.
It has been observed by more or less everyone that Facebook’s pivot from a text-and-image-based hellscape to an immersive 3D social reality bears more than a slight resemblance to the construction of a Matrix-like experience. The Resurrections movie itself has noted this, tweeting on October 28th that the series was now “based on real events.” The encroachment of commerce on daily life, particularly digital daily life, is not exactly A1 news—I remember my sister, at age seven, noting quite literally that if one more billboard went up on the highway to our grandmother’s, she would no longer be able to see the sky from her middle seat. Whereas companies like Pepsi and Kia wanted to reinterpret individual details from The Matrix and create 30-second vignettes, Facebook wants to be a one-stop shop where users can experience the entire life cycle of The Matrix in a single visit—a new blink-inducing, opulence-stuffed reality, the ability to interact and theorize with others about said opulence while on platform, ready-made commercialization opportunities, and no doubt…more. The Shining’s theory frenzy evolved across decades alongside emerging technologies; the fervor over The Matrix, aided by robust online forums and the emergence of new delivery mechanisms, took off within a year of the film’s release—Meta seeks to collapse all of this. It seeks simultaneity between art, commerce, fandom, and criticism. On one platform and in one moment, a user can participate in a new reality, form theories, perform criticism, perhaps actually ‘perform’ themselves, all while being served to advertisers like a steak to Cypher.
There has been no shortage of critical denunciations of this rather obviously dangerous idea being pursued by a dangerous company helmed by dangerous people. Paris Marx, writing in Jacobin, has noted how, for Facebook, the pandemic reinforced the attractiveness of a pivot-to-Meta: “As we saw during the pandemic, tech companies’ revenues and profits soar when we’re forced to spend more time using digital services instead of being out in the physical world.” Brian Merchant, in The Atlantic, clearly outlined the stakes of such a pivot: “Allowing this company—this industry—to rush headlong into building anything remotely metaverse-like would merely reproduce, if not exacerbate, the problems that arose when it hastily launched the social-media platforms that now define online life.”
Highlighting well-written denunciations of Meta is no different than noting the plurality within The Matrix; there’s plenty of great stuff to go around. I would like to add my voice to the chorus and do so by saying something simpler, something less political, and, quite frankly, something more embarrassing: I am absolutely terrified of Meta and what it could do to me.
In many ways, I am not a traditional mark for this new venture. I deactivated my Facebook account sometime in 2012 (I refuse to log in to check). In that same time frame, I have not used Amazon once. I’m a rather noisy critic of driverless cars and cryptocurrency, and am equipped with all sorts of thinky English-professor skills that should inoculate me against Meta.
But I cannot stress enough: I spent so much time in Matrix forums. I watched the film so many times. And I love style. I basically continue reading a book past page one only if some line, phrase, or comma compels me to seek a pen. If an object is bright enough, I will stay and blink at it, and Meta will undoubtedly want to construct the blinkiest blinkfest of all time. It will seek to weaponize my teenage calculus and equate intelligence with time spent. It will make users blink relentlessly and at different moments so that they can propose competing theories to one another about where and how and why they blink. Communities will form around these theories. These communities will serve as easily targeted new marketing demos. All the blinking will cause users to miss things, and what will get collectively missed over time are the tethers to the physical world.
If this all sounds a bit harried, consider that one reason the Matrix sequels weren’t as beloved is because those movies sought to destroy the opulent world viewers were introduced to in the original, the one that everyone thought was so cool and loved and even sometimes dressed like. Consider that The Matrix was revolutionary for selling one million DVDs and that its recklessly interpreted nomenclature and style was then linked to events like Columbine and the 2020 election, then also consider that Facebook had 2.89 billion users in the second quarter of 2021. I tend to agree with Wired’s David Karpf, who has framed virtual reality as the “rich white kid” of technology in that it gets funded and fails upward despite never delivering on its promises, but lately, I have been considering something of an alternative: is leaping from the internet into VR a bigger step than when I leapt from the physical world into the internet?
My plan, at present, is to never find out. I’m all too aware of my addiction to style, to oxygenation through my eyes. If I ever decide that I want to peek at the Metaverse, I will be arming myself, not with “guns, lots of guns,” but with tour guides, Morpheuses like Merchant and Marx, who, in their sunglasses, can help me anticipate and process all the opulence with clear-eyed skepticism. Already, there are countless landing pages on the Meta website explaining how there’s nothing to fear, they’re being ethical this time, safe, but Resurrections has it right: the voices espousing terminology that’s agreeable to the average progressive are still the voices of the machines. These voices know that ‘Opulence is what happens when you think,’ and what I, as a lover of blink-inducing style, must start rehearing is: ‘Meta is what I’ll think of if I fail to protect the way I think.’