Ahead of its time when it was released 20 years ago, The Matrix is a monument to Generation X self-pity that is out of step with today, writes Nicholas Barber.

The Matrix was way ahead of its time. The Wachowskis’ tech-noir mind-bender came out in 1999 – 20 years ago – which meant that it reinvented big-screen superhero action a year before X-Men was released and showcased Hong Kong-style ‘wire-fu’ fight choreography a year before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Its ‘bullet-time’ effects have been copied by blockbusters ever since, and its thoughts about virtual reality and artificial intelligence have been mimicked just as often. Despite all this, though, in some crucial respects The Matrix has dated so badly that it now seems to be a relic. It is a film that, like the human race in the Wachowskis’ story, is trapped forever in the 1990s.

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Its hero is Thomas A Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a software programmer who moonlights as a hacker known as Neo. After receiving some cryptic messages through his computer, he meets two people, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who are nearly as fond of pretentious names as he is. They give him some disturbing news. The world as he knows it - and everyone else knows it, for that matter - is a virtual-reality simulation called the Matrix, whereas in actual reality, the earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Not only has there been a war between humans and artificially-intelligent machines, but the humans lost, and now snooze their lives away in pods full of gunge while “a computer-generated dreamworld” is pumped into their brains. It’s not all bad news, however. Now that Anderson knows that the Matrix is essentially a computer game, he can bend the rules, and make his avatar super-strong, super-fast and super-well-dressed. Even better, he is apparently “The One”, a god-like leader who has been prophesied to save humanity from our robot overlords.

It’s a fantastic premise, but it does have its flaws. In general, Anderson/Neo is one of those uninspiring heroes who do next to nothing to earn their hero status. He becomes an unbeatable martial artist not by training for years, but by being plugged into a teaching program for a few hours. And he becomes omnipotent in the Matrix not because he is particularly brave, noble or clever, but because, as Morpheus says, he is willing “to believe”. 

Neo is, fundamentally, a less witty brother of Chandler Bing from Friends

Earlier on, back when he was a computer programmer, Anderson was hardly the most obvious budding messiah, either. He wasn’t an eco-warrior or a political activist, but a loner whose only qualifications to be The One were his unspecified cyber-crimes and his niggling sense that his existence wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. “You’ve felt it your entire life,” purrs Morpheus (Anderson himself says very little), “that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

It’s this attitude which now seems so antiquated - so glaringly late-20th Century. Anderson isn’t kept awake at night by war or climate change or the rise of fascism. He isn’t campaigning for equal rights - and he certainly isn’t doing any Kung-fu practice. He’s a white-collar worker whose most pressing problem is a slight dissatisfaction with ordinary office life. He is, fundamentally, a less witty brother of Chandler Bing from Friends. And they have plenty of other brothers. One is the unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) of Fight Club. The other is Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a disgruntled software programmer in Mike Judge’s cult comedy, Office Space. Both of those films came out in 1999, as The Matrix did. And as different as the three of them may appear, they all share a theme whose prevalence in 1990s pop culture culminated with the debut of the BBC2 sitcom The Office, in July 2001. The theme is that being a handsome, middle-class, thirtysomething professional is ultimately not very fulfilling. The Matrix may allude to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, to Jean Baudrillard and Jesus, but its central thesis is right there on the Office Space poster: “Work Sucks”.

For the post-Matrix generation, being bored by well-paid regular employment has become the dream, not the nightmare

One of the many elements that the Wachowskis’ film has in common with Office Space and Fight Club is a sequence you could call ‘The Office-Worker’s Rampage’. In Office Space, Peter and his friends ritually smash up a defective printer with a baseball bat. In Fight Club, the anti-hero razes a dozen tower blocks in a financial district. In The Matrix, the evil Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) interrogates Morpheus - not in an underground lair or an orbiting spacecraft, but, tellingly, in a corporate skyscraper. By this time, Reeves’ character is no longer Thomas A Anderson, the programmer who was told off by his boss for arriving late for work. He has been reborn as Neo, a gun-toting, shades-wearing avenger who strides into the skyscraper’s lobby, accompanied by a superhumanly flexible Amazonian woman in skin-tight black plastic, and then acrobatically slaughters the building’s security guards (there are a lot of innocent bystanders killed in The Matrix), before wrecking the place with a bomb and a helicopter gunship.

It’s an exemplary male power fantasy, precision-engineered to flatter any man in a nine-to-five cubicle job who feels, as Anderson’s boss says of him, “that you are special, that somehow the rules do not apply to you”. But it’s a fantasy that now seems sweetly naïve and old-fashioned. For the post-Matrix generation, being bored by well-paid regular employment has become the dream, not the nightmare. Anderson’s salaryman ennui seems piffling in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the many terrorist outrages that followed, the wars in the Middle East, the 2008 financial crisis, and the ongoing litany of environmental catastrophes.

Some or all of these issues rumble beneath the surface of most recent science-fiction movies: the likes of Children of Men, Interstellar and Arrival are fuelled by our fears of global conflict and ecological collapse. But in 1999, The Matrix was more interested in how dull it could be to sit comfortably in front of a computer all day. And that’s why, for all of its stylistic and technical innovations, it now comes across as a monument to Generation X self-pity: a time capsule buried in a more innocent, complacent era. Released seven years after Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man argued that the world had reached a point of indefinite stability, The Matrix took a similar view. The machines chose the late-1990s as the setting for their virtual reality simulation, explains Agent Smith, because that period was “the peak of your civilisation”. There’s not much chance that a sci-fi villain would say that about 2019.

This article has been amended to remove a line referring to the character Neo as a ‘white male saviour’. The actor Keanu Reeves has mixed-race ancestry.

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