The Matrix Must Change to Matter Again
Wrap-around sunglasses aren’t the only thing the next Matrix sequel has to rethink. A lot has changed since 2003.
I remember arguing about The Matrix in 1999, sitting with friends in a Borders bookstore cafe. When I was 17 years old, I was famously cranky about the ground-breaking trilogy, mostly for dumb reasons, but I was right about one thing: the soundtrack does not hold up.
Even as an angsty teen, I worried that tracks like Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” and Rammstein’s infamous “Du hast” were just a little too on-the-nose. The soundtrack rocked hard, but in a way that seemed like overcompensation. The heavy-metal rage-rock music of the OG Matrix always felt like a macho guy revving the engine of a motorcycle because deep down he was really insecure. I’m not saying the music curation of The Matrix didn’t work, per se, it’s just that it’s really embarrassing now.
This small quibble about an otherwise brilliant and ridiculously original and groundbreaking science fiction franchise might seem like a cheap shot, but I think you could argue its a microcosm of the challenges a fourth Matrix film faces in the 2020s. Essentially, all three Matrix films are a product of their time, which means the franchise has to fundamentally change in order to matter again.
The Internet Problem
In 1999, I was still using a “free” AOL CD-ROM and a dial-up connection to get on the internet. For kids like me, “websites” were things you visited occasionally, but mostly didn’t, because all the forums and chatrooms on America Online were so much easier to understand. In the era in which the Matrix was born, mobile phones were still slightly uncommon, and only about 40 percent of people you knew had email that they checked every single day. So, a cyberpunk take on what an interconnected network could look like in a dystopian sci-fi world was, pretty edgy. People didn’t wage war on the internet back then, because most people simply weren’t connected to it constantly the way we are now.
Now, people are fighting on the internet all the time, either arguing on Twitter (with Matrix Gifs!) or playing Fortnite or countless other online games. Essentially, as both a metaphor and an actual thing, the Matrix inside The Matrix is far less speculative now than it was even in 2003 when Matrix Revolutions “ended” the “trilogy.”
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This isn’t to say a new Matrix can’t be poised to make excellent social commentary on internet stuff in the 2020s, it’s just that its foundation is philosophically a little anachronistic. Think of it like this: What if everyone you knew had a human replicant clone servant in their house in 2021, and, in that year, yet another new Blade Runner movie was coming out? It wouldn’t be bad, but it would be really weird and possibly run the risk of being a tiny bit tone-deaf.
The Black Mirror Problem
Relative to finger-wagging science fiction about technology and the internet in specific, Black Mirror has basically been eating The Matrix’s lunch for the past eight years. From “The Entire History of You” to “Fifteen Million Merits”, and probably, most relevantly, this year’s “Striking Vipers,” the realistic applications of a virtual world outside of our own has been convincingly depicted as a pseudo-Matrix with one huge difference: in Black Mirror, the idea of the virtual world sort of intentionally rejects the “whoa” factor.
In “Striking Vipers,” the speculation on totally convincing and 100 percent immersive VR isn’t used to showcase interesting and creative fights, but instead, to tell a story about sexuality. Think about it, Black Mirror usually introduces a virtual world and then starts talking about sex and identity as quickly as possible.
The best example of a faux-Matrix on Black Mirror is probably “San Junipero,” and honestly, that episode weirdly flips the idea of the Matrix in an interesting way. Instead of the virtual world being something you need to hack and fight against, the characters are literally saved and love survives because of a sort of telepathic virtual existence. Sure, Yorkie and Kelly aren’t being used as batteries for an oppressive robot species, but even if they were, it still sort of seems like their lives would be awesome.
In the original Matrix, people who wanted to preserve the status quo of the Matrix itself were traitors, but that message might be hard to sell now. I mean, the internet is scary, but it’s certainly not fashionable to have a narrative that is all about destroying the internet.
The Ready Player One Problem
The flipside of this, of course, is a Ready Player One situation. In that faux-Matrix, the virtual world is mostly touted as a good thing, as long as the right people are in control of it, and people take breaks from it once and while. This happy-go-lucky faux-Matrix has its heart in the right place, but if you think about the virtual world of Ready Player One for one second, it scans as hopelessly naive. Sure, Wade Watts could be like someone who is fighting for an open-sourced internet, but again, even that idea feels very 2011. (Which is when the book was published, by the way.)
The reason this is relevant is that it’s very easy to see The Matrix 4 slipping into a kind of “Save the-Matrix from the Wrong People” storyline, which is, again, exactly like Ready Player One. This could work, of course, but it’s tricky because this storyline lacks nuance and inherently dodges the all-important question: should we really even be using these virtual worlds for human interaction long-term? In other words, the problem of a “Save the Matrix” plotline is that it avoids asking the hard questions, which, you could argue is why Ready Player One worked in 2011 but failed in 2018.
The Nostalgia Problem
Okay, so, a super edgy way to fix all of this is for The Matrix 4 to set a lot of the action outside of the Matrix — kind of like what happened in Revolutions. What if Neo and Trinity are mostly existing in the real world, rebuilding humanity, but then, are given compelling reasons to return to the Matrix?
I’m not saying this would be like the Logan version of The Matrix, but some level of nostalgia restraint there might be a key to making Matrix 4 a good movie, and not just a good Matrix sequel. People talk a lot about the getting-too-old-for-this-shit aspect of Logan, but the real reason it was such an arresting X-Men movie is that it pulled the punches on nostalgia on almost every single level. It really was just a story about those characters in a very small, contained part of the world.
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Now, it would be awesome if The Matrix scaled down like this to focus on a Mad Max: Fury Road-style dystopian Earth. But, it’s the Matrix, so they’d still have to go back to the Matrix. And then, you’d be in a situation where the movie would have to tick a bunch of nostalgia boxes to make everyone happy. You’d need the shades. You’d need the leather. And yes, you’d probably need a new Marilyn Manson song in there, too. All of this could work, by the way, but I think it would have to be handled really carefully.
A successful Matrix sequel should make us feel conflicted about Neo and Trinity plugging in again. We should be afraid for them. We shouldn’t want them to go back to the Matrix. And then, once they do, we should want them to get out again as quickly as possible. The prospect of a new Matrix movie is exciting as hell. But if it’s going to be truly great, going back to the Matrix should scare us, too.
The Matrix 4 has no release date at this time but is rumored to go into production in 2020.
Ryan Britt is the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths ( Plume/Penguin Random House). You can find more of his work here.