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Salvo 01.03.2022 7 minutes

The Real Red Pill

Red capsules pills heap on white background. Medicine pharmacy concept. Close up top view.

Matrix Resurrections is an act of willful misunderstanding.

I won’t bother trying not to spoil The Matrix Resurrections. I assume you can deduce what happens in the movie from the mere fact that it exists. Keanu Reeves gets trapped in a virtual-reality prison once again; once again he doesn’t realize this; then once again he figures it out; then he escapes. Once again. If you don’t want to know details about how this occurs then don’t read on, I guess.

I was a kid when the first movie came out in 1999, and I loved it. I still do. The Matrix told the story of how Neo, né Thomas Anderson, freed humanity from a virtual-reality construct. Three sequels later, the fourth Matrix movie tells the story of how Lana Wachowski, née Larry Wachowski, got suckered into making yet another installment of this tired franchise.

The film’s most famous conceit is that to escape the digital construct which conceals reality, you must take a red pill rather than a blue pill. In the years since then, “getting red-pilled” has come to mean rejecting the lies which cultural and political authorities tell in support of reigning pieties. If you think women are generally happier as homemakers you are red-pilled; ditto if you think countries are generally happier with borders.

This too is a story which has been told many times. The Wachowskis, both of whom have come out as transgender since writing and directing the first movie, consider “red-pill” talk to be a gross misappropriation of their imagery by dangerous right-wing extremists. It was generally expected that Lana would use this fourth film to try reclaiming the red pill for the Left, or else to disavow the idea of taking reality pills altogether. 

That’s kind of what happens in Resurrections, but only in a vague sort of way. Wachowski never really gets to the heart of the matter. Taking the blue pill still keeps you in the matrix, and actually there are some smart analogies between modern therapy culture and virtual dystopia. Neo is kept constantly sedated, stuffed full of blue pills by Neil Patrick Harris, who enjoys chewing the scenery as a sinister digital Nurse Ratched called “The Analyst.” 

But then also the choice between red and blue is sort of rejected altogether as a false binary—get it? Binaries are bad. In case this is too subtle, Neo has been domesticated in the new matrix as a video game designer, whose prior adventures were really just a bestselling story he made up. In his drugged-out state of submission, Neo is now working on a new game called—wait for it—Binary. You know, like the gender binary. Which is bad.

Except in the end both Neo and his lover, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) do in fact have to make a binary choice: they can stay in the fantasy world or leave it. Together they become an eternal dyad of badassery, one whose combined powers are enough to defeat The Analyst—with the completely inexplicable assistance of Agent Smith, once played by Hugo Weaving but now recast as Broadway veteran Jonathan Groff through the magic of a digital code that automatically deletes and reskins actors who decline to renew their contracts. 

How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes

Harris and Groff are the best things in the movie—two gay stage divas who can pull off camp melodrama without seeming too bothered by the fact that their character objectives really, truly, do not make any sense. In the last movie Agent Smith went literally viral and tried to copy his programming onto every sentient life form. In this one he intervenes at a crucial juncture to thwart The Analyst and then vanishes, never to be seen or heard from again. Why? Where is he going? What does he want? Is he off in a hard drive somewhere running a CGI production of Jersey Boys?

We never find out, because Trinity and Neo join forces to unmake the matrix yet again. This they do by reenacting the third act of the first movie in miniature, almost shot for shot. Our age of reboots has given birth to a profoundly embarrassing form of fan service in which directors reproduce iconic moments from previous movies. In this film, for instance, we watch from below as Minigun bullets rain down from a helicopter in slow motion, just as they did in Matrix 1. 

I think this kind of thing is supposed to elicit a thrill of recognition from nostalgic aficionados who delight to see their favorite old scenes given new life. And when it comes to The Matrix, I am one such afficionado—but I experienced no such thrill. The whole thing had the effect of some middle-aged high school football champion narrating his game-winning touchdown for the 20th time: remember when Neo flew up and away to glory at the end of Matrix 1? Well, at the end of this one, Neo and Trinity both fly up and away to glory! 

Ironically, this feels less like breaking free of the matrix and more like getting stuck in it. The exuberant rebellion of the first film has turned into claustrophobic déjà vu; what was once a daring image of liberation is now just so much warmed-over corporate schlock.

Wachowski sort of understands this, which is why the first third of the movie is taken up with thinly veiled jabs at Warner Brothers for demanding a Matrix sequel in the first place. Neo—i.e., Wachowski—finds his own revolutionary triumph swallowed up into the same exploitative machine he was trying to destroy. His daring exposé has been churned into so much mere content for executives to harness and exploit.

What Wachowski doesn’t seem to get is that you can’t break this cycle just by repeating ideas that felt fresh 20 years ago. What if, like, the physical world could be altered at will just by freeing your mind? What if authority was inherently evil and binaries were wrong, man? These questions may have once inspired wonder on dorm-room floors after a couple tokes, but even back in the ’90s they hardly posed a threat to the world order. 

In 2021, they are the world order: trans is beautiful, the body is what you make of it, and binaries are just one of many inherently oppressive power structures. Wachowski is a shill for that reigning dogma, not a critic of it. Like many countercultural revolutionaries before them, the Wachowskis have grown to see their radical ideas become mainstream. At this point they are simply mistaken about where the power lies and which pervasive fantasies need to be exposed.

Here’s a decent rule of thumb: the machine that needs raging against is the one that rages back when you try to break it. The truth is that challenging the gender binary will earn you glamor and plaudits, whereas questioning “anti-racist” diversity oaths or deadnaming Larry Wachowski will earn you public shaming and threats of unemployment. One of the great things about art is that it reveals things even the author never intended. In this case, though Matrix Resurrections fails utterly as a film, it inadvertently reminds us why the red pill was such a powerful concept—and why we all could still stand to pop a few even now.

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