Tuesday 30 July 2019

The Action Movie Pulled Over Your Eyes

The Matrix (1999); The Matrix Reloaded (2003); The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

You've seen The Matrix, I expect. Even if you haven't, what if I told you that you've still got a half decent chance of being able to quote lines from the film?

(Also, what if I told you that Morpheus never says "What if I told you"? But I digress.)

So, Spoiler warnings are irrelevant, but here's one anyway. All the spoilers are here. All of them.

Like you care.

Anyway. So the other week I got a free ticket to a 20th anniversary screening of The Matrix, a film that I saw in the cinema on its initial release as an adult, and if that isn't a signifier of my impending mortality I don't know what is. I'd seen it a couple more times long ago, and back then I thought it was a fun but essentially boilerplate action movie with a few interesting kinks and a couple of sequels that weren't nearly as much fun, and then a few years later, as everyone knows, the well got definitively poisoned. Which is where we begin.

Unfortunately, no one can be told
The Matrix is about the sheeple, you see. That is, you take the red pill and you discover the truth of the Matrix, and see behind the curtain of the world, the dark forces that control us on an industrial level, and keep us ignorant and anaesthetised, and if you take the blue pill you remain ignorant.

If you take the red pill, you can become a badass. And anyone who hasn't taken a pill yet or anyone who took the blue pill can be a tool of the system, might even be an Agent of the Powers that Control Us All, and you can't trust them, but you're a badass now, see, and their lives aren't worth as much as yours, and you can just blow them away with impunity and with no qualms to your conscience. So put on a trenchcoat and some boots and a black shirt and tie and some sweet sunglasses and never mind that you'll never look like Keanu Reeves and you actually smell a bit like cat wee, you're a badass superhero because you know the truth. You're an ubermensch, dude, and the important part of the word there is "men" because Christ, isn't The Matrix such a boys' film, isn't it so totally for you with its guns and helicopters and amazing wire-fu fight scenes and sub-Baudrillard philosophising? When Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) asks Neo (Keanu, duh) if he knows why he spends so much time at his computer, didn't you feel a thrill of recognition? Didn't it feel like you, the keyboard warrior who was just on the edge of finding out the truth? Take the red pill. Realise how superior you are to the normies. Make threateningly gnomic phone calls, and fly into the ether. And, fuck it, I don't know, shoot up a school or something.

Just, don't bother watching the sequels. They suck.

No, the other left
All of that is bullshit, of course.

OK, the subtext about the baleful influence of The Matrix on pop culture, that's absolutely true – I mean if there's one thing that geek culture teaches us, it's that a hardline commitment to illiteracy isn't just desirable, it's seen as heroic – but that isn't a reading of The Matrix that makes coherent sense. It's shallow, the reading of people with a hardwired sense of entitlement to a world shaped to fit them. And, OK, I admit it, no time to engage in deep dive confessional film critique, which to be fair is most people. So I guess that it's a forgivable reading, if only because the discourse around it has inevitably wound up going this way.1

Back to basics, I suppose. In a world where everything is grey and green, and everything has a strange, cartoonish lack of nuance, we witness Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), interrupted in the act of sending a message by the forces of order – uniformed police, tooled-up SWAT teams, and most of all a group of classic Men in Black, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who isn't so much sinister as a bumper party-size package of sinister signifiers. We see Trinity – the epitome of the latex-clad cinematic Combat Babe – effortlessly dispatch the police with superhuman fighting skills; she finds herself outmatched by the explicitly inhuman Agents. She runs; they catch her; she vanishes. Her message was for Neo (Reeves), a lonely, obsessive cyber criminal. It leads him to a club, where she meets him and implies that there is a wider truth. The Agents find him, and their uncanny powers display themselves in a genuinely surprising, unsettling sequence of body horror, where Smith seals Neo's mouth with a word and a thing like a biomechanical deep sea crustacean burrows into his navel.

Neo's rescue comes when Trinity and her friends take him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the main source of the film's philosophical word salad, and the primary fount of the pop culture references this film has spawned. And, well, you know this part. Neo takes the red pill, not the blue one, and wakes up in a real world where human beings are farmed for their bioelectrical power by machines that resemble larger versions of the one that crawled into his stomach earlier on.

That cartoonish, green-tinted movie world was a simulation, because of course it was, it was in a movie, but this simulation is a second-level simulation, which is one of those twists that improve a film, because the Stupid Action Movie World – the Matrix – is just that, a stupid action movie world, overlaid on something with texture.
As a non-functional asset, the system disposes of Neo, flushes him away; Morpheus and his friends rescue him, in their hovercraft, the portentously named Nebuchadnezzar (after the Biblical King of Babylon who has a nagging, significant dream he can't remember). Their home is a cramped, corroded industrial hell. They are dressed in stained rags; they survive on tasteless, protein-rich goop; most bear the scars of violated bodies; they are hunted.

For the rest of that original film, we alternate between the grim confines of the Nebuchadnezzar and the green tinted video-game playground of the Matrix. There's a city where the free people live, Zion, but that's a movie away. And where the Matrix is smooth and oddly textureless, the "real" world is rough, and admits more colours, muted as they are, and has a sense of the tactile that the Matrix doesn't. People get tortured and shot and blown up in the Matrix, and if you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world, because you're brain dead, but in the "real", things hurt in a way that they don't in the Matrix.

Neo is told by Morpheus he is "the One", the messiah destined to liberate the human race from the machines and from its simulation-prison. Morpheus believes it utterly. I think we're supposed to believe it too. I mean, "Neo" is just "One" misspelled, after all.

And through the course of The Matrix, Neo goes on an absolutely boilerplate Joseph Campbell hero's journey, from call to refusal to descent to victory and all the other stages in between.

In a pivotal scene, Neo visits the Oracle (Gloria Foster), who presents as a straight-talking working class woman of colour living in an apartment full of children who display extraordinary powers. Neo embarks on conversation with one little boy, who, although white, is signified as a Tibetan child lama, and the conversation is famous, and is one of several bits of the film that has entered the pop culture lexicon.
Boy Lama: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy Lama: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy Lama: Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
And hold that thought, because it's more important than just a quotable line.

But that's not the pivotal bit. The pivotal bit is when the Oracle, the supposedly infallible Oracle – and who's the Oracle anyway? That secret is a movie away – tells Neo two things: one, that he is not the One, and two, that either Morpheus will die for him or he's got to die for Morpheus. And she implies that it's Morpheus who is the indispensable one.

At the end of the film, Neo comes into his own as a being with godlike powers, and after he dies and resurrects, Christlike (and Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap for having a limited range, but you're just wrong if you deny that he can totally do Christlike), everyone gasps and says, he is the One after all! And Trinity says the Oracle told her she'd fall in love with the One, and Neo says to Morpheus, hang on, but the Oracle said, and Morpheus brushes it off by saying that the Oracle just told him what he needed to hear. Which sort of makes sense until it doesn't.

Guns, lots of guns
Watching The Matrix on the big screen again after so many years, it was almost a relief to find that it's a much, much better film than I remember it being. The CGI has aged pretty well, considering, and the whole Bullet Time thing that The Matrix pioneered went right through the process of becoming a cinematic cliché and came out the other side.

I was nervous that I was going to be driven into a state of incoherent fury by the juxtaposition of word salad philosophising and mass murder in the name of exalting humanity. And how I'd be constantly reminded of The Matrix's terrible pop cultural influence (and while I've been writing this, the news came through of another young woman murdered by a red-pilled stalker, which underlines that). Like Agent Smith gazing on humanity, I expected to look at it and see "a disease, a cancer of this planet." I was, it is fair to say, dreading it.

A funny thing happened, though: that wasn't the film I saw. I saw something more complex, more difficult and more true than that.

And I think that was because I know who the Wachowskis are, and because I've since seen Jupiter Ascending (2015), and Cloud Atlas (2012), and Sense8 (2015-2018). In fact, I saw a pretty queer film.

Even though there's a strong case for The Matrix, the first one, being the very straightest of the Wachowskis' films, it's also not hard at all to see metaphors for the queer/trans experience. And look, we know now that since these movies were made, both of the Wachowskis came out as trans (and not, sadly, when they might necessarily have wanted to). It's actually irrelevant if this was deliberate or not (I'm guessing they would say it wasn't, but again that's not relevant). But this is what, I think, it feels like.

That moment when you realise who you are, and the crushing collapse into dysphoria, the knowledge that you're in a body that's not what it should be, represented by the brutality of life in a world where the food is tasteless, the clothes are rough and tattered. You discover that your body can be penetrated in new ways, and this might repel you. There's these six inch long phallic objects that get inserted into holes in the bases of skulls, as a way to enter the Matrix. It's like they're being mindfucked. By braindildos.

All of this is paralleled with the way that in the world as understood by everyone else, you become a butterfly, fabulous and strange and dangerous and separate. The way that you suddenly realise that you can't trust anyone who isn't one of you, so you take refuge among people like you, who are experiencing the same terrors. Any person in authority might be an implacable and invincible enemy – they have all the power, for the world is in their shape. ACAB isn't a principle that holds for everyone, but you have become one of the people for whom it holds. You pick a new name, and when someone deadnames you it's brutal and infuriating (consider how only Agent Smith insists on calling Neo "Mr Anderson" and how Neo's refusal to accept that supplies one of the dramatic beats late in the film). And the longer you stay in this world, the more likely it is you'll find someone who regrets changing and wants to go back into the closet, which I suppose brings us to Cypher.
Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is the member of Morpheus's crew who sells them out to the Agents. And the way he's placed in the story is interesting because of the way that there is no mystery there. The agents say they have an informer; the very next scene we see Cypher making a deal with Smith over dinner. And that's unusual. There's no tension about which of the crew sells them out. It's not even like it matters that it's obvious that it's him who's the traitor, although it is, but there's not enough space between the revelation that there is a traitor and the fact that it is Cypher for it to matter, and not enough time for it to sink in. Morpheus and his crew don't find out that Cypher has sold them out until the betrayal drops and he tells them he sold them out, and starts killing the crew one by one, until he finds out the hard way he did a shoddy job of killing Tank (Marcus Chong), the fully human operator, and pays for it. By the time Cypher is done, Apoc, Switch, Mouse and Dozer are dead, either directly by his hand or indirectly by his actions, and while Tank makes it to the end of the movie it's implied in Reloaded that his injuries did for him offscreen. So out of eight goodies, that's five dead at the end, and all of them thanks to Cypher, and none of them thanks to the Agents, which I guess is another part of queer experience: an angry straight white man with a sense of entitlement sure can wreak some havoc.

In the respect of his lack of mystery, his place as a plot device, or, if you prefer, a cypher, Cypher is there as the source of another moment of certain death for Neo to miraculously escape, and if there's any hermeneutic uncertainty in his part of the story, it's the question of exactly how Neo will escape. In The Matrix, Neo is going to be the One. He is. There's no doubt about that. It's his movie. The doubt, the mystery, lies in how he gets there.

By the end of The Matrix, Neo has done the Hero's Journey thing. There's nowhere left to go with it.

He's the One.

It means that The Matrix is complete in itself, a film with a neat ending and a purity to it. It has contradictions and loose ends – mostly because of the Oracle – but it's almost like you're expected to ignore that. The adventures of the future will involve more wire-fu, more somersaulting sideways while shooting twin automatics, more explosions, and more cool fetish-goth hipsters running rings around uptight men in black. And OK, you do get all of those things. But the sequels make those things somehow less important.

The sequels had to go and ruin it.

Denial is the most predictable of all human responses
The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are widely despised by fans of the original movie, and generally discounted by critics.

I think that you can tell a great deal about the wider cultural assessment of these two films by the simple fact that all you need to do to acquire a dirt cheap copy of the pair of them is to do a trawl of local charity shops; they're mainstays, right up there with The Da Vinci Code and Oasis's third album. My own copies of the double DVD deluxe box sets of Reloaded and Revolutions, which I purchased last week for the purpose of writing this, cost me a grand total of £1.98, all in.

There are several reasons, I think, for why people don't rate the Matrix sequels. For some, the action sequences are extended and laboured. For some, it's that the pacing is all messed up – and I think there's an argument that Reloaded and Revolutions might actually have worked better as a five or six part TV miniseries, and had they been made ten years later might indeed have been; certainly, watching them back to back felt like binging episodes of Sense8. But I think the more important one for fans is that they fatally undermine the messianic, macho action movie stuff that everyone loves about The Matrix. Or as I like to think of it, they reject the murderous cookie-cutter action movie bullshit.

Reloaded and Revolutions resolutely refuse to ask the questions you're expecting, and let's be fair, the questions you wanted to ask, instead asking and answering weirdly oblique ones, raising new complexities and positing new things. And in the process of this, they catastrophically make a nonsense of the Joseph Campbell stuff, and go places that most fans frankly didn't seem to care to go.

But, a hundred percent honestly now, I think that The Matrix is a better film in the light of its sequels. I think that the sequels add depth, and humanity, and thought to The Matrix.

I am aware that this is an unpopular opinion. You should, if you've read any of my stuff, know by now that I am never deliberately contrarian. I take the plainest and most obvious readings I can and write them down as clearly as I can. But also, since most people seem to speak a different language to me (and the growing, grim certainty that I am other than neurotypical might not be unrelated to that) sometimes my readings appear to be unusual. I can't help that. The point is, I'm not saying this stuff to be controversial. This is my honest reading. Agree, don't agree. I don't mind. But this is my take. This is where I am.

So, I'll repeat: I quite strongly believe that The Matrix is only worth anything at all as a piece of art because its sequels make it better. The Matrix is better than its dire legacy, better than a thousand other shitty shooting and punching movies because of its sequels, not in spite of them.

Certainly, the sequels are more representative of the later work of the Wachowskis than The Matrix itself is. For example, you can't watch the big party scene/sex scene towards the beginning of Reloaded in 2019 without thinking that this was made by the makers of Sense8, a show which felt like it had an epic, multithreaded party/sex scene approximately once an episode.
The Wachowskis are not necessarily the most perfect filmmakers, but they are consistently underrated, I feel, always interesting, and always trying to make a film that hasn't been made before. Unlike many (most?) mainstream filmmakers, who aim not to make a film that's rubbish and often hit "adequate" fair in the centre, the Wachowkis want to make something special. And always when you're aiming higher, there is further to fall. So sometimes it doesn't work out. It's fair to say, and let's be kind, that dialogue has never really been their strong suit, and their plots aren't exactly the most original, but in the majority of their films there's an emotional, humane core and a visual sensibility that is like no one else's. The Wachowskis' use of montage and storytelling is often breathtaking. Certainly, once you get to Sense8, literally the only compelling nonfascist screen manifesto for transhumanism that's ever been made, you get these jaw-dropping sequences of beautiful, oblique storytelling where the protagonists' identities intersect in all sorts of unexpected ways without ever being confusing or unclear. But always queer. Right from the beginning, the Wachowkis's films have always been surpassingly queer, and even if that queerness is hidden there is very often adequate coded content for someone who isn't cisgendered or straight to see themselves.

So what The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions – and really they're one four-hour-long extended sequel, filmed back to back, Lord of the Rings-style – bring to the table is nuance, and a sense that The Matrix was just the action movie pulled over your eyes to hide the truth.

Obviously The Matrix is a stew of inspirations and visual quotes (and I've already dedicated a whole footnote to this, but please, please just stop talking about The Invisibles, it's a similar story that says a different thing), but the one that springs to mind in the context of the three films together is Dune, and I mean Frank Herbert's original novel and its first two sequels.

So in Dune you have this desert planet which has a politically important resource. The desert people there, oppressed, have a prophecy that a messiah will come and free them; this was implanted by missionaries from a generational religious conspiracy called the Bene Gesserit, who have been working on a eugenics programme for hundreds of years to create their own super being. In short, Paul Atreides, a young nobleman, finds that he is in the position of being both messiahs. What's interesting of course is that Herbert clearly doesn't want Paul to be the real messiah. Having started a Jihad with the promise that Dune is going to be a paradise, he ends the book, having become emperor of the galaxy saying, "Yeah, no, actually we need the magic spice that we mine from the desert, so the planet's gonna stay as it is, sorry, and by the way how about we embark on a campaign of intergalactic genocide?"

In the first two sequels to Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, Herbert doubles down hard on undermining the belief that Paul Atreides is not the messiah anyone wanted, showing the consequences of his actions and his ultimate downfall.2

The Matrix series does the same thing, only in a sense more so. Neo is the One, but is he at the same time really the One? History has always had a problem with messiahs disappointing their public, and not being the expected messiah, the most obvious candidate in history having wound up nailed to a cross for more or less that exact reason. Neo's final ordeal will be Christlike, too.

But first he has to face a broader, richer and more complex world than he did in that first film, a world where other people get to take their part and become protagonists of their own: the Kid (Clayton Watson), a youth rescued from the Matrix by Neo, desperate to prove himself; Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Captain Roland (David Roberts); Dozer's brother Link (Harold Perrineau) and his partner Zee (Nona Gaye); Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) and Captain Mifune (Nathaniel Lees), leaders of Zion's defences. And there are others, and their stories crowd out Neo's. In The Matrix, the rest of the Nebuchadnezzar's crew were as much cyphers as, well, Cypher. But in Reloaded and Revolutions there's a sense that Neo's story is just one story of many. He is a hero, but there are many heroes here. And I don't think this is a bug. I think it's a feature. I think it matters that these other people matter, that their part is essential. That Niobe brings back Zion's salvation in the nick of time, that the Kid is there to let them in, that Zee brings down the drill. It matters that Neo is blinded and alone, with Trinity dead, when he sacrifices himself to end the war, with no one looking, and no one ever knowing what he did. He is a hero, but his heroism is not the expected kind, and all the more heroic for it.

Action, reaction, cause and effect
The Matrix Reloaded gives us the immediate problem that the machines have found Zion, and that if a way is not found to stop them, then in three days when the drilling machine breaks through to the underground city, every free man, woman and child will die. A desperate race for time ensues.

Neo visits the Oracle again. And now she shows her hand. She is a program, part of the Matrix. The Matrix is not monolithic. As time has gone on, its artificial intelligences have begun to develop their own opinions and responses to things. They have their own agendas. Neo must navigate them to find a solution to Zion's peril.

They need to find a program called the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) who will give them the means to find the heart of the Matrix. The Oracle's protector Seraph (Collin Chou) leads Morpheus's crew to The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), an information broker and underworld mover framed as a flamboyant Eurotrash gangster. The Merovingian, sitting in his restaurant like a medieval lord – his name recalls that, along with theoretical conspiracies about the bloodline of Christ – lectures the crew on how really the only law of the universe is cause and effect. He demonstrates how easily he can prey on ordinary people by, and let's not mince our words here, remotely manipulating a woman into a state where she'll give him a blowjob, although that part happens offscreen.

The Merovingian's theory is proven when this frankly revolting act is enough for his "wife" Persephone (Monica Bellucci), who is fascinated by the concept of love, to betray her husband and give them the location of the Keymaker. And she does it for a kiss. She wants Neo to kiss her like he'd kiss Trinity. She wants to understand love.

And this is one of my favourite things about the Matrix sequels: by assigning anger, greed, jealousy, hate and love to artificial intelligences, the film tries to make you think about what these things are, and how the language we assign to them is framed. Early in Revolutions, Neo meets Rama-Kandra (Bernard White), a program with a "daughter", an artificial intelligence that appears as a little girl and who explicitly has no purpose. Rama-Kandra wishes to save her from deletion. Because he loves her.
Neo: I just have never–
Rama-Kandra: –heard a program speak of love?
Neo: It's a human emotion.
Rama-Kandra: No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?
Neo: Anything.
Rama-Kandra: Then perhaps the reason you're here is not so different from the reason I'm here.
In a less intelligent film, love would save the day – in fact, the simplest take on the ending of The Matrix is that Neo is resurrected because Trinity declares her love for him. Much is made of that connection over the course of the trilogy, and there's a lot of variably successful talk about the meaning of love, but love is a red herring. It's not the key. But what is?

A meeting with the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the AI program who constructed the Matrix, is Neo's final goal in Reloaded. He reveals that Neo is in fact intended to be part of the whole system of control. When I saw Reloaded in the cinema, I was with my pal Big Dave, who was (and still is) a software developer. And when the Architect explained what Neo really was, Big Dave exclaimed, too loud for a crowded cinema, "Hang on. He's a stack overflow."

I've had Big Dave explain to me more than once now and I'm still not a hundred per cent sure I grasp it fully, because I am not and never will be cut out to be a software developer, but as far as I can make out, a stack overflow error is the point when the system asks more of itself than it can give.

If the stack is the memory space you have to store data in, then if you try to store more data than the stack can hold this will overflow, because it has to go somewhere. It will either get deleted or be put somewhere where it overwrites other bits of the system. Both of these things may cause a crash.

Sometimes you get a stack overflow when you divide by a very small number, because you wind up with an enormous number and nowhere to put it. Sometimes, it divides by zero, and the answer to that equation is infinity. Infinity is too much to store, and the system crashes.

The Matrix is too complex. People are too complex. The needs of humanity become eventually too much for the Matrix to cope with. There have been six Matrices now, and it's not the 22nd century at all, it's more like the 26th (it amuses me to think that it's set In the Year 2525, but that's just me). Human choice is a growing anomaly; each time, the One arises as a means for the system to concentrate that anomaly and crash in a controlled manner; the Oracle is there to guide the One, and the Architect uses the One to pick a minimum number of humans to reseed the next iteration of Zion, after it has been destroyed by the oncoming wave of machines. And then the Matrix reboots. The One, then, is a stack overflow trap, a switch that the Architect puts in to free up memory and reboot.

The Joseph Campbell plan? That's part of the system, part of the whole design. By going on the Hero's Journey, Neo literally makes himself part of the program. Shooting people up and dodging bullets just slots him seamlessly into the system. The arc of The Matrix wasn't the breaking of the machine, it was its continuation. Red Pill Rebellion reinforces the systems that control us.

No wonder nerds hate the Matrix sequels so much.

Neo rejects this. And it appears he rejects this for love, for the chance to save Trinity's life, it appears that it's his love that brings her back from the brink just as she did for him. But it's not as simple as that. It's not love that wins.

Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect
The machines then are not, as I've said, monolithic, and they have their own fairly easy to grasp motivations: the Oracle is designed for the fostering of change, and the nurturing of the One, and she presents as someone maternal, straight talking but gentle. The Architect is a utilitarian and logical planner, and so he's a mastermind, like the guy from the box lid of that board game where you have to guess the pegs and counters.
Seraph protects, and he's a straightforward kung fu badass. The Merovingian is a legacy program turned malware, like a trojan, a gatherer or information and resources, and so he's what you get if you give a basic asshole wealth and power. Sometimes it's not certain what the programs are designed to do, but it's fairly clear that they are all doing what they're designed to do. They're following their nature.

The wildcard, the exception, is Smith. Smith, of all the programs, goes against his nature. He is broken, and yet valorises his brokenness. Smith has a flaw: Smith is evil. More: Smith is a fascist.

At the climax of The Matrix, Neo, newly resurrected, enters Smith and annihilates him from within. In Reloaded, Smith nonetheless returns, but he comes back changed. He's a rogue element now, and he spreads, virally, transforming other programs and human minds into copies of himself. (including one unlucky Zionite, who comes back into the real world with Smith's mind in place of his own). By the end of Revolutions, Smith has very nearly remade the world of the Matrix in his own image.

Smith has always been ready to go rogue. He has always had bugs. In The Matrix, he has a moment with the captured Morpheus, where he deliberately takes off his earpiece – the visual inworld representation of his connection to the grid – and proceeds to rant at Morpheus about how he despises humanity. It's Smith who reveals the secret that no one should know, that this is not the first Matrix.
Smith: I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.
It is not Smith's job to tell Morpheus this. It is not part of his function. It's the first time that we see any part of the Matrix explicitly break with another part of the Matrix (and remember we aren't told who the Oracle is, and anyway she's doing what she's supposed to). It's underlined by the fact that by going off grid, Smith has made a break in the system, enough to buy Neo and Trinity enough time to get their audacious rescue plan underway. The other agents ask what happened, where was he, and he does not answer.

Smith, destroyed by Neo and come back broken, is essentially empowered by the experience. He is red pilled, if you like. He begins to replicate, to turn other programs, and human minds, into his own. By the time he's done, everyone is Smith, white, straight, loveless. The irony is of course that his rant about humanity as a virus is his own MO: he is the virus.

Smith is a carrier of fascism. Fascism is a viral state, a pathology. Systems may tend to fascism, but while a democracy might be an especially susceptible patient zero (I'm going to avoid the obvious right now; it's too depressing), it's a rogue strain, albeit one that can replicate its contagion at every level, and destroy minds. Systems might tend to fascism but rarely intend it, unless they were already diseased. And I don't need to tell you what the final phase of the contagion is.

Smith is red pilled: the Red Pill is, inadvertently, another tool of control, albeit one that hides in the form of commodified resistance. I'm not the first (or, frankly, the hundredth) person who has pointed out that the Red Pill movements on the Internet think they're Neo, but behave like Agent Smith. It's true, though. They're rogue agents, authoritarian tumours who, in the real world as in The Matrix, began with video game nerds and metastatised into the veins and nerves of government.

Smith, a fascist, is unable to imagine a method better than his own, and this is the default state of the fascist: fascists cannot imagine being better, which is why they talk about things like "virtue signalling", and "white knights" and "cultural Marxism" in discourse, when people speak out for others. Smith, a fascist, sees diversity as a threat. Smith, a fascist, fears and hates outsiders. Smith, a fascist, insists on imposing his identity on others, both literally and in refusing to accept Neo's name: you will always be deadnamed by a fascist, you will always have them refuse to use a "they", in denial of every historical convention of grammar. Smith, a fascist, holds altruistic morality in contempt. Smith, a fascist, cannot countenance love, and cannot be defeated by love (Rama-Kandra's daughter, whose purpose is arguably to love and be loved, is one of his notable victims). You can't beat a fascist with kindness.
Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why? Why do you do it? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom, or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can't win. It's pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.
And here's the central point of the series. There is much about Love in these three films but there is more about choice: if your actions can be predicted, can you be said to have free will? Free will, as the architect explains, is the anomaly that eventually causes a stack overflow error. Free will is the problem and the solution.

It doesn't matter. Neo chooses not to fight with the tools of fascism. By the end of Revolutions, Neo's fleshly body is blinded, and Trinity is dead.3

Neo's choice is still to fight, because in the end you have no choice but to punch fascists (and if you can, awesome roundhouses and balletic crane kicks are desirable too), but it's to do so while eschewing the tropes of the action movie hero. Trinity is dead. She is not dead to give him a reason to continue, she is not dead to make him angry, and she is not dead for any other plot purpose. She is dead. She is dead. And he is blind, and alone, and, unseen by any other human, he makes a deal for peace with the Machines which will mean his death.

His stand against Smith is hopeless; he is outnumbered and in a world not his image. But he chooses to stand. He knows he will die, and he chooses to continue. He chooses to resist.

And in the end, the only thing that will defeat fascism is implacable, hardline resistance. It is the point past which you will not move.

Neo becomes nothing other than resistance, and in his nothingness he embodies the riddle of the spoon – when he goes off on what will be his final mission, the Kid gives Neo a package that he says someone told him to give to Neo, and it contains a spoon, and this is really important.

Neo does not bend. He does not bend because he is not: there is no spoon, there is no Neo. The action movie hero himself is an illusion. When Smith tries to absorb him then, Neo ceases to be, and Smith must divide by zero. Another stack overflow error, then: a fatal exception results, and Smith is destroyed.

No one will know how Neo wins – the Kid and Morpheus will realise that he has saved the human race, but Neo will never come back, and no one will ever know the truth. No one was there to see it.

The Matrix, then, is the story of how rebellion is commodified, and in the face of commodified rebellion, how we find the tactics we use to effect change. It is, so very ironically given its profound influence on the hard right, an antifascist movie series, and an insistently antifascist one. That first film is one of the great action movies, but even in its apparent completeness it admits cracks and contradictions. It is a red herring designed that you might follow the white rabbit deeper into the hole.

It is the action movie pulled over your eyes.

1 By the way, someone is going to go, “But it’s just lifted from The Invisibles,” and yeah maybe it is, but you know what? No one cares that Star Wars (1977) is lifted from Valerian and Laureline by way of Dune. Why do we care about The Matrix being lifted in large part from The Invisibles? This is how mainstream film works. It stripmines culture. Is that right? I don’t know. But it simply is. (back)

2 Interestingly, the supernaturally powered messiah of Dune winds up blinded shortly before giving himself up to his fate, which of course happens to Neo in Revolutions. (back)

3 And, incidentally, Trinity is dead in an almost identical plot development to one at the climax of Joss Whedon's Serenity (2005), which might be an accident or it might be straight theft, but either way let's not ever accuse Joss Whedon of originality. In fact, you could argue that his fatally flawed (but interesting because of how messed up it is, not in spite of it) series Dollhouse (2009-2010) is a less nuanced, much less exciting and uncomfortably pervy re-examination of the themes of the three Matrix movies. (back)

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award-nominated compilation We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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