Lost futures, false binaries, and romance in the digital age: The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 2003), the follow-up to the Wachowski sisters’ instant classic The Matrix (1999), opens with an ominous nightmare. Much like the first film, the opening scene follows Trinity as she, without context, begins a rampage on a group of security guards in a dimly lit parking lot during the middle of the night. Soon after, she becomes pursued by one of the deadly “Agents” who stalk the annals of the matrix looking for anomalies in order to stamp them out with brute, precise force. As she dives headfirst out the window of an enormous skyscraper, the film kicks into bullet time (or slow-motion). She begins falling to her presumed death, her body narrowly dodging the oncoming bullets as it careens down the space between skyscrapers onto the streets below, all while she fights for her life, sending return fire from her own two machine guns directly into, through, and past the camera itself. This scene is rendered in dazzling detail: shards of glass sparkle and rotate in the air surrounding the two bodies as they angelically float through this green-tinted urban hell space. The camera movement gives the impression of true three-dimensionality. The camera circles and pivots around Trinity as she crashes through the glass and makes her descent, the barrels of her weapons seemingly poking through the frame as she extends her arms and the camera pivots behind her to see the Agent in close pursuit. Until it all comes crashing down — Trinity is hit directly, her heart is pierced by a clean shot from the Agent, as she takes her last gasp of air before we cut back to standard time (or normal-motion), just to see her body crash into the car parked below in a violent, loud, horrific meteor strike. Then Neo wakes up. 

This nightmare, a vision of a bleak future in which the love of Neo’s life dies under mysterious circumstances, serves as a perfect opening scene in a film concerned largely with the concept of futures — both material and potential — and the ability of human beings to change said future as they find themselves thrust into this new digital age.

When even passively entertaining the notion of “the digital age” — an epoch defined by the slow dissolution of the boundaries between the tangible and intangible, the precise and tactical commodification of personal information and data, and the rise and permeation of digital technologies into every facet of life on earth — there comes to mind few films as immediately as the Matrix series. Made up of three feature films, one feature length anime anthology, at least two canonized video games, and an upcoming fourth movie (!!), the Wachowski sisters’ monolithic and culturally omnipresent series spans decades of diegesis concerning the various complicated relationships between humans and machines, the delicate balance between productive use of technology and overreliance, and the sensory textures of the physical and the digital. In a lot of ways, they feel absolutely prophetic in the way they detail the silent monopolistic oppression and digital interfaces that define 21st century living. In other ways, they are operatic and bombastic in their formal and narrative design, featuring countless impassioned speeches about free will and faith, religious imagery, slow-motion martial arts action scenes (choreographed immaculately across the trilogy by the legendary Woo-Ping Yuen), and computer effects so ahead of their time that entirely new technology had to be devised to materialize the Wachowskis initial vision. However, what is of most note to me at this present moment, specifically with regard to Reloaded (though I’ve had to hold myself back from writing about the entire trilogy, truthfully!), is how overtly and unashamedly romantic these movies are. 

I think it’s an underrated facet of the first Matrix movie that it ends with the main character being literally resurrected from the dead through the power of love. These moments of love being a healing force or other brand of superpower are found throughout the entire series, and Neo and Trinity’s romance is one of my absolute favorites in the entire history of the medium. But while this specific diegetic romance is present in all the movies, Reloaded places romance as its primary focus. Romanticism is present not just in the tender relationship between the two central characters, but in the larger narrative structure of the film. The climactic confrontation scene between Neo and The Architect, alone, seems to suggest many fascinating and moving ideas about futures that are potential and immediate, lost and discovered, infinite and finite, and that elicit a palpable sense of romanticism. To me, it’s a film about the ability for everyone to affect the future, for better or for worse. And most importantly, about the love and action required to facilitate a better future. This is where the romance comes through, and it’s as a result of the film’s rendering of the concept of time. It’s romantic in an immediate kind of way, about a romance between two people, but it’s also romantic in a larger, cosmic sense. In the end, it’s a film about idealism manifesting itself through action, in effect seizing the future for yourself despite overwhelming opposition.

The late Mark Fisher, who was a truly singular and brilliant writer and theorist, writes extensively about the concept of “lost” futures. In Ghosts of My Life, he cites Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, writing about what he describes as ‘the slow cancellation of the future.’ This refers to the sensation of expectation, generated by a gross multitude of factors ranging from the political to the economic and the social, that is invariably betrayed by the inability for these futures to materialize as expected. These futures were not promised verbally or in writing — they were simply implied by the steady march of time, by the “ever progressing development” of civilization and technology (7). Berardi notes that these futures were promised through a wide range of political and economic contexts — communism, democracy, and technocracy all had their alternate promised futures that never came to pass. Fisher specifies that the neoliberal policies enacted by Margaret Thatcher (and Ronald Reagan, by proxy), in the 1980s, transitioning the global economy into “so-called Post-Fordism — with globalisation, ubiquitous computerisation and the casualization of labour” (8-9), lead to an implication of prosperity that was never truly realized. This, in effect, caused the present to become intangible, unable to be perceived actively as this suspense for the future breeds an overwhelming sense of inertia. The Matrix movies are marked by this idea of these lost futures. Each of these films is partially set in an expansive corporate hell space of looming skyscrapers and capitalist designs. Bleak office spaces, dingy back alleyways, and abandoned train stations mark this vision of human civilization that has reduced each human being to a simple job. The first film specifically has its entire main character arc defined by a deviation from the expected future, the difficult path to adjustment, and eventually mastery over the boundaries of one’s new present. When Neo is awakened from the matrix, he is forced to leave behind his entire life. But before his awakening, he lives in total stasis, trapped between two identities: one overbearingly oppressive (his false life as Thomas Anderson), and the other materially unattainable (his vision of what Morpheus might reveal to him about the world). It’s only until he’s shown the doorway out that he’s able to wake up and move forward into the future he had been waiting for, but it does not come slowly or with the luxury of time to acclimatise to this new reality. In The Matrix, reality comes crashing in before you have a chance to brace yourself. Suddenly, the future you have been waiting so long for is here, and it’s completely different than what you were promised. It’s colder, more isolating, more horrifying in its historical, social, and political implications. And there’s no way back. You already took the red pill.

Throughout Reloaded, omens and prophecies promising bleak futures are omnipresent. Trinity’s death is the primary omen — it opens the film, and the vision of her face, gasping for air, haunts Neo so profoundly that when he sees her ecstatic expression as they make love, her final moments appear before him in a truly disturbing match cut that blurs the line between life, death, the present, and the future all at once. But there is also the omen of the invasion of the machines into the last human city of Zion, which looms over the narrative and generates a palpable sense of urgency throughout. Every choice and every decision the characters make carry the weight of the world, with the infinite number of futures that could spin off from individual moments always present.

I suppose what I’m writing about could be easily applied to the other two films of the trilogy — both Matrix and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) are about characters being told ominous warnings and having to fight against them. This dynamic of omens or promises and resistance to them is also true of virtually every action film ever made. But what distinguishes Reloaded, to me, is the incredible optimism, detail, and formal rigor through which the film renders this messaging. The major example of this is the way the film renders the tactility of the real versus the artificiality of the digital. The juxtaposition of two scenes — the Zion rave and the “Burly Brawl” wherein Neo battles a quickly-multiplying army of Agent Smiths — is incredibly telling. Both scenes play out in incredible textural detail; each bead of sweat and each fleeting touch between comrades in Zion is mirrored in the goofy, flailing limbs of the digital Agent Smiths (who are digital within and external to the diegesis), as they are knocked down like bowling pins by one another as Neo tosses them around the game-space. The intimacy, ecstasy, and freedom of movement of the rave, contextualized as potentially the final “party” before the machines arrive in Zion, is contrasted directly against the cold, angry dogpiling that Neo endures at the many hands of Smith. These two masses of bodies, one real and one digital, express entirely different emotional registers, and seem to enforce a binary that places the digital on one side of a moral barometer and the real on the other.  

But I feel it’s important to note that none of the Matrix movies are concerned outright with investigating the blanket moral binary of “evil” machines and “virtuous” humans. In Reloaded, the conflict between humans and machines builds upon Morpheus’ anecdote from the first Matrix movie where he states that the remaining humans don’t even remember who struck first in this incessant war between the rogue artificial intelligence that created the matrix and human civilization. Rather, the contrast between the real and the digital serves to extend the matrix itself as an allegory for modern capitalism and commodification. What once expressed beauty, sex, love, and viscera, instead becomes a signifier of conformity, duplication, and massive expansion. This is not a result of technology, but simply a result of control and hierarchical power imbalances. Neo himself is the perfect example of someone who rejects the moral binary that many interpret these movies as presenting — as a master of the digital and a denizen of the real, he exists in both simultaneously, crafting his will and helping those who need him.

I think the confrontation with The Architect is where the romanticism of this film comes to a head. This scene is dense and purposely obtuse in its relaying of an enormous amount of diegetic lore to the audience. However, the lore itself is fascinating and is the crux of why this film works so well and touches me so profoundly. The Architect reveals himself to Neo as the creator of the matrix program, and in a shocking twist, tells Neo that he is actually the sixth “one” in a series who are predetermined by the machines in order to retain their iron grip over the human race. In effect, the machines let the humans revolt, and Morpheus and the Oracle’s prophecies of mass liberation through Neo’s messianic powers is actually a means of control created by The Architect which repeats once “the one” is confronted with a binary choice. In each scenario, that has played out five times thus far, the one’s true love is doomed to die, and if he chooses to save them, they doom the entire human race by letting the machines enter Zion. If the one chooses to save civilization and doom his love, the system resets, and Zion is rebuilt by a set of men and women who will begin from scratch as generations eventually bring us to the next cycle. The Architect asks Neo to make a choice between what is presented as selfishness and altruism, and he tells him that in each prior sequence, the one chose the supposedly altruistic path. After briefly considering the possibilities (the alternate futures that exist behind each door presented to Neo by The Architect), Neo wisely sees through this as a ruse designed to keep humanity enslaved, and chooses love – deciding to save Trinity and doom humanity, baffling The Architect. The binary morality of The Architect is rejected and revealed to be simply another means of control, a new false future that is sold to Neo by the existing power structure, simply replacing the previous future.

Notably, the futures that Fisher writes about in Ghosts are primarily positive futures — promises of mass economic independence, social welfare, and all the other luxuries that would supposedly be afforded to everyone under the future of capitalism. But in Reloaded, the only positive future is revealed to have been constructed by those in power — and that’s Morpheus’ prophecy which places Neo as messiah. With only bleak, hopeless futures ahead, how does one combat this and learn to live in the digital age while maintaining love and optimism as core tenets?

Writing about one of your favorite movies is always a daunting and terrifying prospect, isn’t it? Something so intimately interwoven into the fabric of your being, something that has come to define you to your friends and family, something that speaks so directly to your core beliefs — both ideological and aesthetic — that to even attempt to put it into words seems impossible or otherwise fruitless. I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this movie. All I can hope for is that I’ve expressed a small portion, even just the tiniest iota, of what this film and this series means to me, and why it defines my concept of the digital age. An age marked by bleak, depressing futures promised every day, whether those futures be the erosion of our entire planetary ecosystem; corruption and neoliberal ideology permeating every aspect of politics; corporate power becoming seemingly insurmountable; or the digitization, surveillance, and commodification of our bodies and minds. But nonetheless, the Wachowskis choose hope. They choose the bonds that connect us to one another, the love, friendship, and faith that can be built upon and mobilized towards any end we might choose. The use of technology towards liberation and sustainability, as a tool to be used wisely for human beings and not against them.

Because the truth is that these omens, these negative futures that have now been promised, are just as fabricated and immaterial as the futures promised by capitalism in the Reagan/Thatcher era and beyond. Whether a promise of grand economic expansion and equality or of an apocalyptic invasion of an army of machines, both futures are potential and immaterial until they are realized, regardless of their emotional or moral implications. Neo sees his true love die before him: a haunting, viscerally upsetting notion of a future that may soon come to pass. But this, too, is just a potential. When Neo arrives with moments to spare, shredding his way through the matrix as he decimates the surrounding infrastructure through sheer willpower and speed, all in order to save Trinity, it is so clearly a rejection of the binary of time itself. It’s a rejection of the binds of history, of the assumption that history must be cyclical and that the future must manifest as foretold. Neo outright denies this binary, and in effect, he becomes just a being, acting. Moving through life, time, and space with love in his heart, unwavering in his faith that true love, friendship, and the will to choose overrides any boundaries, binaries, omens, or prophecies that force him to be or live a certain way. In this world of supposed determinism — where digital technologies write scripts that pre-ordain us to behave according to certain algorithms and patterns — real power derives from the ability to bend time to your will. To speed it up and slow it down. To stop it altogether. To seize the future. 

In a beautiful moment, Neo literally reaches into Trinity’s body, warping the code that would otherwise be written to kill her, in order to remove the bullet from her heart directly. Neo touches her heart, rewriting the entire script for the future, leaving it open as to what could happen next. Neo effectively bridges the perceived gap between the digital and the real — the digital isn’t inherently cold, isolating, or oppressive. It can be just as intimate and textured as the Zion rave, just as meaningful as anything experienced in the real world. It’s precisely because of the digital age that Neo is able to transcend time and space this way and fight against these omens. 

I often forget that this is not an actual biblical text, nor is it a manifesto. It’s simply one of the greatest action movies ever made. While I might not be able to bend time to my will, dodge bullets, and fly through the air, I can attempt to reject the moral binaries given to me by those in power that serve as nothing more than a means of control. I can live my life through love with the ability to seize my own fate, with disregard for the futures promised, either positive or negative. And perhaps it’s a fantasy, perhaps it’s too optimistic. But I find it deeply moving.

The future is now. The digital age is here. Where we go from there is something we have to decide for ourselves. 

Works Cited

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, Zero Books, 2014, Hampshire, United Kingdom.

The Matrix. Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, performances by Keanu Reeves, Carrie- Anne Moss, and Laurence Fishburne, Warner Brothers, 1999.

The Matrix Reloaded. Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, performances by Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Laurence Fishburne, Warner Brothers, 2003.

The Matrix Revolutions. Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, performances by Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Laurence Fishburne, Warner Brothers, 2003.

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