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Electric dreams

Electric dreams

The new Matrix movie revives a sci-fi saga whose core ideas have moved from the digital counter-culture of geeks, hacks and stoners to the very mainstream of modern life

To grasp the significance of The Matrix Resurrections (general release, 22 December), the first and most important step is to bear in mind how much time has passed, and how much has changed in the 18 years since the third part of the original trilogy was released. To do so is to compare two entirely different worlds.

Consider, for a start, the transformation of the cultural, social and technological landscape since The Matrix Revolutions apparently concluded the science-fiction saga of Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss); awoken from their sleeping captivity in a digitally simulated inner landscape to defeat the machine overlords that had subdued the human race, and – as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) had foretold – to liberate the real-life rebel-citizens of Zion.

The Matrix Revolutions, 2003

In October 2003, as audiences flocked to see Neo’s final battle with the deadliest “programme” within the Matrix, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the launch of Facebook was still four months away – and Twitter was not to begin its own conquest of the world until 2006. 

Netflix was still a DVD rental membership service, the era of multi-channel streaming scarcely conceivable for most viewers. Amazon was no more or less than a very successful online retail company – and hardly looked like the first step towards Jeff Bezos’ launch of a rocket ship in July this year, with a view to building a private space station in the second half of the decade. 

As the movie franchise slumbered, Steve Jobs unveiled the first-generation iPhone in January 2007, the Apple app store opened in July 2008, and the original iPad went on sale in April 2010. The initial Matrix trilogy was the child of the dial-up Internet age, with its fiddly modem cables. In 2002, there were fewer than 200,000 broadband users in the UK; four years later there were 13 million. 

In The Matrix (1999), Reeves is Thomas Anderson, the cubicle-bound employee of the software company, Meta Cortex, who leads a double life as the hacker “Neo”. In both guises, he works away at old-fashioned desktop computers. 

The Matrix, 1999

Contrast the first trailer for Matrix Resurrections (“I’ve had dreams that weren’t just dreams”) in which we see him in a lift surrounded by people all looking down at their phones and tablets, poised between real life and the digital world. It’s not just a movie franchise that has been reborn, in other words. So have we. 

And so indeed have the film-makers themselves. In the intervening years, the enigmatic siblings behind the Matrix phenomenon – the Wachowskis – have completed their transition to transwomen, Lana and Lilly. As it happens, Resurrections is directed only by Lana, who recruited the novelist David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, to co-write the screenplay, and has introduced a range of new characters, including Yahya Abdul-Mateen as a different incarnation of Morpheus, Jessica Henwick as Bugs, Neo’s new guide (“If you want the truth, Neo, you’re going to have to follow me”), Neil Patrick Harris as his therapist, and Jonathan Groff as his sinister business partner.

The original film was the mesmerising culmination of late 20th-century geekery: bringing together the Wachowskis’ love of cyberpunk, anime, and gaming with – at the time – state-of-the-art special effects that made the fight scenes, in particular, truly breathtaking. 

Directors Lilly and Lana Wachowski

Inside the Matrix (as opposed to Morpheus’ battered real-life hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar) the characters wore the black clothes of cyber-ninjas and the world’s coolest shades. It’s important to remember that, above all else, the series has always been supremely entertaining, packed with action, imagination and dazzling combat and chase sequences unlike anything that had ever been on screen before – as well as the love story of Neo and Trinity. In the words of Lilly Wachowski: “It’s about robots vs kung fu.”

Yet the movies have also burrowed under the skin of the audience to pose and popularise philosophical questions. For analysts of class struggle, struck by the films’ preoccupation with control and human serfdom, it was more than coincidence that the word “Matrix” was an anagram of “Marx” and “IT” (see Joshua Clover’s 2004 book in the BFI Film Classic series). The notion that everything we experience is really nothing more than appearance and representation was also linked to the French philosopher Guy Debord’s classic 1967 tract, Society of the Spectacle.

What pressed hardest on the collective nerve, however, was the notion that we might all be living inside a hyper-reality generated by advanced technology. At the beginning of the first film, we see Neo with a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981), which contends that we exist within a world of signs, symbols and representation. In April 2003, six months before the release of Revolutions, the philosopher and technologist Nick Bostrom published a highly influential paper in The Philosophical Quarterly, entitled: ‘Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?’ (answer: “almost certainly”).

This was not, of course, a new question. In 1977, the sci-fi writer, Philip K Dick had famously posed it thus: ‘If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others’. This, in turn, drew upon a rich philosophical tradition of inquiry, stretching back (at least) to Plato’s allegory of the shadows in the cave: the captives in the cave watch only shadows flickering on its walls, which is their perception of reality. But what is the relationship between that perception and the real world?

Much more recently, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) the philosopher Robert Nozick conducted the “thought experiment” of the “experience machine”: if we could plug into a device that could simulate every imaginable pleasure, would we prefer it to real life? Nozick concluded that we would not settle for such a limiting experience (“Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob.”)

This question is at the heart of the Matrix series. Will Neo take the red pill offered to him by Morpheus, and awaken from the great computer simulation – or the blue one that will leave him irrevocably plugged in? He opts for the red pill, and so, according to Nozick, should we all.

But one member of the Nebuchadnezzar crew, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), betrays his comrades in return for a pleasurable re-entry to the Matrix: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

Today, the notion that we live in a computer simulation is common coin. In 2016, Elon Musk declared that “[t]he odds that we are in base reality is one in billions”, while Scientific American offered the more measured assessment last year of a 50:50 probability that we are all dreaming inside a simulation based on complex computer code. (For more on this, check out the documentaries Philosophy and the Matrix: Return to the Source and Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix, and William Irwin’s book The Matrix and Philosophy).

The point, of course, is that questions that were once counter-cultural have moved right to the heart of the mainstream. When Morpheus first challenged Neo to consider “your digital self”, he posed a question that mostly exercised only hackers, geeks and stoners. Now it is at the core of every discussion of contemporary culture, politics, business and society. 

In the original Matrix, human beings had been reduced to unwitting power sources: the battery of the machine world. Today, we are providers of spectacular quantities of personal data, the fuel that keeps the digital beast alive.

If there is such a thing as the human soul, how much of it is composed of atoms and how much of bytes? Are our decisions the product of free will or algorithmic manipulation? How porous is the border between consciousness and the potential of artificial intelligence?

Neo and Trinity, in other words, return to a world in which the relationship between real life and simulation has been radically reordered. In 2003, the Matrix was still a dystopian fiction; in 2021, we are already spending much of our lives inside its metaverse of code, timelines, gaming levels and avatars. The days when we fretted about the absorption of our species into the digital world are behind us. We’re already halfway there.

Vinyl for Tortoises

We’ve teamed up with VinylBox to offer a free vinyl set for Creative Sensemaker readers. I’ve selected eight of my favourite records and you’ll get a box with two of them – it’s lucky dip – when you take out any subscription with VinylBox. Lady Gaga, Scissor Sisters and Mary J Blige are three of the picks. Go to their website and use the code TORTOISEFREE to redeem the offer

Here are this week’s recommendations for the festive season.


Watch

A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint (Christmas Eve, BBC Two)

Mark Gatiss writes and directs this fine adaptation of one of the spookiest stories in the English language. Set in 1923 and based on the original tale by M.R. James, The Mezzotint portrays the psychological collapse of Edward Williams (Rory Kinnear) as he grows obsessed with an engraving of an English country house – and the unnerving changes that he witnesses occurring within the borders of the image. A worthy rendering of a true classic.

Spiderman: No Way Home (general release)

Tom Holland’s sixth outing for Marvel as Spiderman and his third movie starring as the character begins where Spiderman: Far from Home (2019) ended: with the webslinger’s secret identity blown by the supervillain Mysterio, and Peter Parker suddenly the world’s most famous teenager. Turning to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help, he requests – as you do – a spell that will make all but those he loves (especially his girlfriend MJ, played by Zendaya) forget this awkward revelation. Needless to say, the spell goes wrong, opening up portals to alternative universes through which flocks a true cavalcade of heroes and villains from past movie iterations of the Spiderman story. I won’t spoil the surprises, except to say that the appearance of one or two of the guest stars caused the audience at the screening I attended to erupt into applause. As silly as the premise is, you can’t help but be grateful for it – and the entertainment that it generates.

Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard (BBC One, 30 December)

One expects mammoth fossils to be unearthed in the wastes of Siberia. But at a gravel pit north of Swindon? In this enthralling documentary, David Attenborough tells the tale of a remarkable dig that – in spite of the interruptions of the pandemic – has yielded the remains of at least four mammoths and human artefacts, including the pointed flint head of a spear. Fragment by fragment, he and the onsite team piece together an image of Ice Age Britain 200,000 years ago, in which Neanderthals on the banks of the Thames feasted on mammoth flesh. A gripping journey into a lost world, led by our greatest natural historian.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (general release, 27 December; Apple TV+, 14 January)

Who would have thought that Joel Coen’s first movie without his brother Ethan would have been an adaptation of one of the primary texts of literature? It proves an inspired choice, enabling the elder sibling to deploy the expressionist cinematography that is one of his signatures (the debt to Orson Welles is heavily signalled) but also to go his own way with characterisation and mood. Denzel Washington is a weary warrior rather than an impatient alpha male, egged on by the witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) and Frances McDormand’s pitch-perfect Lady Macbeth. Brendan Gleeson is also well cast as Duncan. What stays in the memory, though, is the sheer claustrophobia of the movie, as the murderers’ psychotic introspection and the closing in of the walls around them converge, to chilling effect.

A Very British Scandal (BBC One, Boxing Day)

Though eclipsed in national memory by the Profumo Affair, the divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll in 1963 was, in its own way, no less significant: combining scandal, courtroom drama and a battle over the respective sexual freedoms of women and men. Sarah Phelps’s three-part drama is turbo-charged from the start by the performances of its formidable leads – Paul Bettany and Claire Foy – both of whom are capable of the oscillation between icy detachment and passionate engagement that their roles require. “Pay the bills,” says the Duke to his wife. “It’s what you’re for.” She, for her part, quickly realises that she is living with a sociopath: “How many men did I marry?” They promise never to bore one another – one promise which they do keep. But the price, as this excellent mini-series shows, is exorbitant.

The Lost Daughter (general release 17 December; Netflix 31 December)

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, is an often spellbinding exploration of memory, motherhood and regret. Olivia Colman is Leda, a Yorkshire-born Harvard professor of comparative literature, taking a “working holiday” on an idyllic Greek island. Her reveries are disrupted by the arrival of a loud New York family – though she soon finds herself compelled by Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose lost daughter she locates in a sequence that triggers deep and unsettling memories of Leda’s past (her younger self portrayed brilliantly by Jessie Buckley). Highly recommended.

Anna X (16 December, Sky Arts)

Daniel Raggett’s production of Joseph Charlton’s play at the Harold Pinter Theatre was one of the highlights of the cultural reopening of 2021 (a process that we must hope is not now stalled by Omicron). Emma Corrin, winner of a Golden Globe for her performance as Diana in The Crown, is excellent again as Anna, based loosely on Anna Sorokin, a Russian con artist who postured as a German heiress between 2013 and 2017 to fleece Manhattan high society. Nabhaan Rizwan is very good, too, as the tech entrepreneur whose pockets Anna seeks to empty. Full marks to Sky Arts for recording this important theatrical moment.

The King’s Man (general release, Boxing Day)

Who can possibly resist the idea of Rhys Ifans playing Rasputin? Or Tom Hollander as George V, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II (yes, all of them)? The third instalment of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman series – based on the original comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons – is a prequel, explaining more of the backstory to the private intelligence agency that featured in the first two movies. Ralph Fiennes, fresh from what we assume will be his final turn as M in No Time to Die, plays the Duke of Oxford, determined to prevent the outbreak of the Great War – a conflict which, it transpires, is being orchestrated by a shadowy organisation led by a very angry Scot. Few directors can pull off kinetic action sequences as well as Vaughn, and the film fairly zips by – a very satisfying addition to what is growing into a much-loved franchise.


Read

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories: From Hans Christian Andersen to Angela Carter – Ed. Jessica Harrison (Penguin)

This is the season for anthologies, for dipping into the best collections and compilations you can lay your hands on. There are a fair few such treasuries of festive stories, but Jessica Harrrison’s is the finest I have come across, with tales by authors ranging from Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson and Elizabeth Bowen to Dostoyevsky, Italo Calvino and Daphne du Maurier. 

A Hitch in Time: Writings from the London Review of Books – Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books)

“Compliments of the season”: that was about the best you could hope for from Hitch at this time of year (“Have your own bloody Christmas” was more typical). In any case, ten years and a day since his death, this collection of his writings from the LRB is yet another reminder of the sheer power, consistency and (frequently) courage of his writing. James Wolcott gets its right in his foreword: “His classic, roguish, cant-defoliating English style, an inheritance from Hazlitt and similar bravehearts, is fortified by an armoury of deep reading and lucid recall, wide acquaintanceship (which translates over time into an abundance of sources), and a close proximity to many of the major players of the day as they promenaded across the stage, or, in the case of his friend Salman Rushdie, hid for their lives.” Essential reading.

MolesworthGeoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle (Penguin)

No excuse is required, really, for the recommendation of such comic genius, but Christmas is as good as any. The adventures of “the curse of st custard’s” and “goriller of 3B”, Nigel Molesworth, first published between 1953 and 1959, are as funny as they ever were, and as piercing a commentary on English manners and absurdity as you could hope for. More topically: the description of the festive season – ‘Ding-Dong Farely Merily for Xmas’ – is perhaps the funniest portrayal of Christmas ever written (“The QUEEN. Cheers cheers cheers for the queen we all drink and hurra for England. Then pater sa in much lower voice ABSENT FRIENDS and everyone else sa absent friends absent friends absent friends ect., and begin blubbing. In fact it do not seme that you can go far at xmas time without blubbing of some sort and when they listen to the wireless in the afternoon all about the lonely shepherd and the lighthousemen they are in floods of tears”).


Listen

If you grow weary of playing Now That’s What I Call Christmas and the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, singing carols, may I suggest: 

I Dream of Christmas – Norah Jones

A selection of classics from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “Christmas Don’t Be Late” sung by perhaps the finest jazz-pop performer of our times…

It Feels Like Christmas – Vitamin String Quartet

Or for something more offbeat, try these festive adaptations by VSQ, quirky chamber versions of songs ranging from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” to Wham’s “Last Christmas”. Or, finally…

Britten: A Ceremony of Carols – ​​Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross

An exquisite recording of modern adaptations of traditional carols by Benjamin Britten, John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Gustav Holst. The power of the English folk tradition is mediated through majestic organ music and the singing of the Clare choristers: a striking and passionate performance.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Creative Sensemaker will return on Thursday, 6 January.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a very happy New Year.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona

Editor and Partner

@MatthewdAncona

Photographs courtesy Warner Bros, Alamy Images, Getty Images, Netflix, Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, BBC