Reexamining ‘The Matrix’ as primarily a love story

Images courtesy Warner Bros.

Reactions to The Matrix Resurrections, the new long-gestating revisitation of the turn-of-the-century series, have been extremely strong and extremely mixed in ways that I don’t feel like quantifying. I’ve been torn between the desire to write about it and the desire to not actually dig through and really understand criticisms of the film that appear to be too varied for any kind of systematic approach.

The core of it seems to be that most everyone takes The Matrix really personally, which makes a ton of sense – the film’s central metaphor can be applied to just about any institution or cultural norm, and it can be a bit of a Rorschach test. How you read this film, which parts of it are important to you, it says something about you. Instead of trying to respond to points that appear to be completely different from one person to the next, I wanted to spend some time on what makes The Matrix personal to me and why The Matrix Resurrections ends up flowing so naturally from that.

These observations came from revisiting the sequel material for the first time since seeing them in theaters, but it’s also spelled out in a friend’s longform video essay here that keenly predicts what we end up seeing in Resurrections – relevant bit starts at 36:20. I’ll try not to repeat them too much, but there will be some overlap.

The Matrix’ frantic climax, in which Neo is killed and resurrected the first time, seems to pause for Trinity to calmly tell a dead and jacked-in Neo she’s in love with him and it’s part of their shared destiny, culminating in a full True Love’s Kiss trope that seems wildly out of place in this seedy, ominous film about anarchist school shooters. Already too cynical for most movies at age 10, I wrote the scene off, and to this day I always end up apologizing for this scene whenever I’m showing someone The Matrix for the first time, a lot like the rape scene in Blade Runner – it’s such an out-of-the-blue change of pace that requires such a specific understanding of a film that has invited a broad range of interpretations up to that point that it makes most people question their perception.

The Matrix was my first R-rated film, my father showing it to me right before taking me to see The Matrix Reloaded in theaters a few weeks before I turned 11. This was a major taboo for me – my mother bought into all the nonsense about how media corrupts the children and didn’t know about how generally fucked the MPAA is, so she didn’t want me watching them, and The Matrix Revolutions would be the last one I saw in theaters for several years. It added a great deal to the mystique of that R rating that these were the only ones I’d seen. I always conflated the films’ underrated horror elements with the R rating – a spot of blood here and there made sense and I already cursed like a sailor, so what really stood out to me and made these more intense to watch was the anxious tone and much more genuine sense of danger than other media I’d been exposed to.

As a recovering member of the Ritalin generation, this scene always resonated with me as well. After men in suits tried to medicate and question him until his identity breaks, Morpheus waking up, breaking his handcuffs in half and ripping off all his observational apparatus to triumphant music is surprisingly powerful imagery.

The metaphor of the initial Matrix film was meant to be applied very broadly, but we know it was made by writer/director duo Lana and Lilly Wachowski with extremely specific meanings in mind about living with gender dysphoria in ‘90s corporate culture. The Matrix Resurrections is most often read as Lana’s – Lilly didn’t come back for it – stringent assertion of ownership over the Matrix as films and as a metaphor, and she spends this opportunity making a movie that is completely about Neo’s and Trinity’s relationship.

The first movie’s afterthought that became the next movies’ genuine romance is, in Resurrections, the entire narrative. Trinity is explicitly reframed as the source of Neo’s power, which she ends the story as an equal partner in, and the film is littered with imagery of them dramatically reaching for each other and exploding when they touch. Neo, who never feels quite like his old self in combat, goes completely apeshit more than once when an opponent mentions Trinity.

This feels like a retcon because it is so focused, but on closer examination, this is completely in line with the preceding films. When Trinity first kisses Neo, he appears to hear and understand her through the Matrix and through death itself. In The Matrix Reloaded, when Trinity is in danger, Neo starts flying so fast the operator character, who has seen Neo “doing his Superman thing” so many times he has a nickname for it, doesn’t even recognize him.

On closer examination, the narrative centering entirely around the two of them is also completely precedented – the story of The Matrix Reloaded, taken in isolation, is the story of Neo deciding that nothing matters to him except Trinity.

In the six in-universe months between The Matrix and its sequel, Neo and Trinity have completely lost the ability to keep their hands off each other. They are either at work, otherwise not in private or snogging. Whether or not their intimate sex scene was appropriate for my teenage self was one of the only disagreements my parents ever had in front of me, but being raised in what I now understand was a sexless, deeply unhappy household, this scene was a hugely positive watershed moment. There’s a lot of anxiety toward “catching feelings” in my age group, an unhealthy relationship with relationships that stems from how poor most of our models were, but in The Matrix Reloaded, suddenly I’m presented with this romance where both participants honestly want to be with each other. These two aren’t making each other miserable while insisting to their families that this is all normal, it instead looks like their relationship is based mostly in instinct, the kinds of things they couldn’t be lying about if they wanted to. A cultural construct I had never wanted any part of before suddenly looked like a lot of fun.

This thorough of a love story is something else I would associate with the R rating for years afterward before understanding how unique it is to this movie. Nudity and horniness is one thing, but what really stood out to me and made it more intense to watch was how the Wachowskis zoomed in on their most intimate moments and bridged the gap from their private lives together to their public lives. Here’s two people who are honestly in love with each other, and in spite of everything going on around them, they are each other’s top priorities.

It’s a coffee date! A Matrix movie has a coffee date in it! I love it!

Maybe even more important to the discussion of the relationship within the context of the series, this doesn’t contradict the impression the first movie gave. The Matrix doesn’t pull viewers into this aspect of the characters, and so their relationship, seen from the outside, looks like a footnote. Reloaded takes us inside, where it’s the most important thing in the world to the people it’s happening to.

Neo and Trinity don’t have a reason to love each other, they just do. If you could convince Neo to write out a list of concrete things he likes about Trinity, it would probably be a list of details no one else is privy to, none of which would be deal breakers if she lost them. They don’t need a reason, and no such reason exists – love, like religion, like being the One, is functionally a type of madness. You just know it, through and through, balls to bones. It unlocks a part of yourself that otherwise would not exist – in Neo’s and Trinity’s case, superpowers.

Neo has powers that no one in the storyworld can replicate, and the reading that this comes from love would imply that no one else in the storyworld is in love, but there’s some argument to be made for that as well. We see other characters in relationships, but don’t get nearly the same window into their intimacy and private lives. At the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the architect explicitly states that none of the other “Ones” before Neo had been in love, at least not the way he is.

Again, The Matrix is a metaphor for a whole lot of different things, but if we look at it as being primarily about gender dysphoria, it makes sense for love to be the way out of it. A common experience for queer people of all stripes is the watershed romantic partner that helps them come out to themselves as much as anyone else, shedding the shame and denial that can come with being queer in American culture, especially when you’re fresh out of the ‘80s. The Wachowskis are extremely private women, but they both got married in the early ‘90s, and though they didn’t publicly come out until the ‘10s, it was widely speculated that they were trans when they were making the Matrix films, and based on how much speculation there was who was doing the speculating, it’s difficult to imagine their wives didn’t know they were women. Given how much of Neo’s story we now know is taken directly from their personal lives, it becomes easy to imagine that his relationship with Trinity is a reflection of their relationships as well.

I’m glossing over a lot of gossip here and doing some speculating of my own, which I don’t like doing, but The Matrix Resurrections vividly and insistently makes this exact point, that it, and the series as a whole, for all its different metaphors, is just about love, the love that lets Neo and Trinity be who they are.

Love that lets them fly.

This entry was posted in Reel understanding, White Noise and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s