The Matrix turns 20

How the 1999 film about technology and society remains relevant today

It may come as a surprise to some that The Matrix is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Few films have had such a lasting cultural impact, and its lessons are still important today. 

Even those who have not seen the 1999 film may easily recognize its stylistic choices thanks to the countless action-film tropes it popularized: characters wearing tight leather shirts and trench coats, slow-motion action sequences and reality-bending digital special effects.  

Those who have seen the film will know protagonist Neo (played by Keanu Reeves): a computer programmer and hacker who feels out of place in the world and is continuously puzzled by his repeated online encounters with something called “the Matrix.” When mysterious agents catch up to his illegal online activities, Neo meets Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a mysterious man who will lead him to discover that the world he lives in is an illusion created by machines of the future. 

In this image: A laptop with The Matrix title screen and code running across the image.
This year, The Matrix is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The science fiction film features Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne. Photo by Alex Rincon

Social media and society 

One might think that a two-decade old film about the evolution of technology may not age well in terms of the relevance of its story. But in fact, it is just the opposite. Sure, the technology used in The Matrix looks dated to today’s viewers. But the way in which technology is used in the film delivers a message about the internet age that is as relevant today as it was back in 1999. 

Stephen Snobelen, a history professor who teaches a course called Science Fiction in Film at the University of King’s College, explains how certain elements of the film’s plot mirror the social media oriented society of today. 

“People on Facebook and [other] social media try to curate the way that their lives are depicted,” Snobelen says. “These sorts of things are touched on in The Matrix in that there is a difference between the gritty physical world that we live in with our bodies and this hyper-real but digital virtual reality that we inhabit when we go role-playing online.” 

The internet of today has become more than an information super-highway as it was depicted in The Matrix. Much like the concept of the Matrix itself, social media has become a means through which people can experience and interact with a world that seems out of reach for many in real life.  

Living an illusion 

One the film’s characters, Cypher, poses a question in the film that has become increasingly relevant to today’s world: why conform to leading a dismal life in the real world when you can attain a perfectly convincing virtual illusion of happiness?  

“There are a lot of people in today’s society that are facing that [problem],” says Snobelen. “They may be socially deprived or economically deprived. They may have troubles their relationships in the real world, so they inhabit these digital worlds because they seem brighter and happier. The Matrix hints at those things that are to come.” 

That is not to say, however, that humans are now controlled by the technology they created. Whether or not that is or will ever be the case is entirely up for debate. The film only brings the debate to light. As Snobelen says, “The Matrix is one of the starting points of the discussion between our embodied lives and the kind of lives that we project into the cyberspace.” 

It will be interesting to see how this discussion could be continued, as a sequel to the Matrix trilogy, directed by Lana Wachowski, is now in the works. How will the new film further analyze the complexities of the relationship between man and technology? Reality and illusion? How will these ideas conform to modern notions of technology?  

Audiences will have to wait and see how the new film will fit within the technological development of today’s world, and if it will be any good at all.  

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