STEVE AYLETT on the whole Matrix bollocks (Arthur, 2004)

The Mattress Has You

Steve Aylett pulls you from the pod 

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (May 2004)

Reviewed: The whole Matrix bollocks.

There was a time when bone-white-fellas-in-long-black-coats-and-shades like myself could enter a lobby without everyone screaming and hitting the deck. But then, over a decade after the heyday of cyberpunk, The Matrix launched the lite version.

By the time a subculture surfaces all clean in the mainstream it’s been simplified to a couple of notes–look at Goth in the timid world of Buffy–but by keeping it simple, the first Matrix also kept it precise and consistent (except for the tapped phone before the meeting at the bridge and all the battery nonsense). There was just enough story to stand up–newbies spoke of “wheels within wheels” but in truth it was only a two-wheeler, the simplest “reality inside a reality” plot. Compared to the works of Greg Egan, The Matrix was Where’s Spot? and left the cyberpunks in the audience waiting for a twist that never came. Harlan Ellison had no mouth and had to scream years before Neo.

Why did the first Matrix work, when the story was so old? Virtual reality is old hat–William Gibson moved on from it when the first Matrix was a mere gleam on the shiny vinyl arse of Carrie-Anne Moss. The Matrix marked the first time VR had been done well on screen–the technology had finally got to the point where real images and CGI were genuinely indistinguishable. Compare this to Wild fucking Palms

The Matrix’slook is a mix of Dark City, Hardboiled, Blade, Accion Mutante, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and my own “Beerlight” stuff, but it established a cool of its own, working from the theory that the more blank faces there are on the screen, the fewer there will be in the audience. An actress like Fairuza Balk, whose face can really move, would have upset the whole deal. The blankness worked great, though, for Agent Smith, who would be hilarious just reciting from the phone book. In keeping with the “more quantity, less quality” scheme of the sequels, Smith uncoupled himself from the Matrix in Reloaded and duplicated himself hundreds of times. His “now it’s personal” thing went too far–Hugo Weaving’s restraint was what made him funny, and many characters and concepts fall apart when uncoupled from the rules–when Pinhead became a free agent in the third Hellraiser movie, he was no longer Pinhead, just a declaratory tosser. (In fact, Hellraiser III: Declaratory Tosser was one of the titles mooted for that sequel.) In Matrix Reloaded the balanced repartee of Weaving was taken up more successfully by Lambert Wilson in the character of the Merovingian, for whose scenes I woke up briefly. Even his girlfriend (Monica Bellucci) was a nice departure, in that she appeared to weigh more than a kilo. Meanwhile the good guys, two-note characters in the first film, were reduced here to a single robotic note–to the extent that the blank Keanu and stonier-than-thou Fishburne were often replaced with CGI stunt borgs. 

The Matrix movies have opened up “meaning-spotting” to the casual viewer, with a few very deliberate meanings and the most impressively inadvertent ones since Willem Dafoe’s 9/11 prophecy in Faraway, So Close and the characters Mac and Windows in Carpenter’s The Thing (which one contains the nasty bug? which one will last longest and operate most creatively?). The “there is no spoon” notion of changing the Matrix by thinking differently about it is meant to push the Buddhist/postmodern folly that believing something makes it so, thus removing the expectation of having to physically do anything about it. “There is no fact” is beloved of government because it helps people to accept anything that’s done to them. And it’s more glamorous to talk about evil machines (or aliens, demons, vampires, Satan …) than it is to deal straight with the utterly bland human bastards who actually fuck us over. Real evil is too crass and low-res to work as an industry pitch. This is the problem with science fiction–the more compelling the world created on screen, the less likely that anyone will translate it back into an active meaning in the real world. So this remains a story about energy-battery humans plugged into VR, and not about the constant re-examination of thought premises leading to practical action.

I liked the first Matrix okay but I wish it was braver and more specific. The IRS is mentioned in passing but not the PNAC–such surgical opportunities are regularly missed. Fans look for rabbit references–Night of the Lupus is on TV in the Oracle’s apartment–it’s a safe little parlor game. Maybe the Matrix trilogy will make mental activity glamorous by making it synonymous with kicking the hell out of people, but in doing so it may remove people’s understanding of how and when to physically do so.

I briefly hoped that Revolutions might throw some folds into the cyberpunk lite routine, with Smith ending up as a deadpan stand-up comic in the style of Richard Belzer. The “humans and machines should work together” bit–obvious enough to be unavoidable even for the arch-evaders directing this mess–could in fact have been dodged at the last minute in favor of a splodgy, wading pie fight like something out of The Great Race. Get in there, Monica! But no–the requisite lusty enthusiasm and flushed, giggly humanness would have been a universe out of place. 

I was hoping that at the very least the wasteland and Zion could turn out to be another digital reality inside another inside another etc all set up for the amusement of the cat which Neo saw twice in the first film–the cat is called Ramone and is having the time of his life. “And that’s what I did for the weekend,” the sock-puppet cat says in the final frames of Revolutions, and smiles open-mouthed like Kermit the Frog. Fade to black. Instead we have Smith the Terrorist, designated villain, ultimate cop-out distraction from the real manipulators. 

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the namesake of Morpheus’s hoversub, viewers will always evade what the dream really means, for fear of having to actually do something about it. Don’t really get out from under, just pretend you’re Neo and that you could any time you wanted. It’s a portable adventure you can carry anywhere and superimpose over any situation as a prophylactic against real action. There will be no Revolution. You’re still asleep, smartass. The mattress has you.

Steve Aylett is the author of Slaughtermatic, Atom and Shamanspace