Why is The Matrix?

When I first saw The Matrix when it came out in 1999, I thought it was ok — just ok. I totally got that it was a formal innovation, beautifully art directed, excitingly shot and edited, visually stunning, a game changer for the movie SciFi genre.

But I also found the central premise to be trite. I had grown up with science fiction stories where at some point the hero wakes up to find that himself in a vat, and realizes that his life until now has been a simulation. That was already a well-worn SciFi trope when I was a kid.

But seeing it again I realize it’s not the obvious premise that is interesting, but the philosophical conversations that spin out from that premise throughout the film. In many ways the screenplay reads like a philosophy class.

What is reality? Why are we here? Why does any of this stuff matter anyway? Are we defined more by our physical existence in the world or by our belief in that physical existence? Can we transcend both?

Sure, obvious questions, but the Wachowskis built a kick-ass martial arts action film around those questions — and a really good one too. Which is wonderfully clever, when you think about it, because martial arts films are themselves a disquisition on the relationship between the apparent constraints of physical reality and our belief in our ability to transcend those constraints.

I’ve gradually realized, over the last few days, that the reason I like the film so much more this time around is that these are questions I now constantly think about in my work. Our research on “future reality” forces us to ask what becomes different when the rules of physical existence are changed, and what stays the same.

So basically, The Matrix is a kind of riff on basic issues that underly my current research. Those issues have been embedded in the DNA of The Matrix ever since its release. It has just taken eighteen years for me to catch up.

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