The Matrix, the Metaverse, and the Antivax Movement

The Matrix, the Metaverse, and the Antivax Movement

Matrix 4: Resurrections doesn’t deserve a movie review, for many reasons: it’s not that interesting, or enjoyable – almost as if it’s consciously and deliberately avoiding the point of the cinematic experience as entertainment.

It is not entertaining.

Luckily my wife and I were the only ones in the theatre so we could laugh out loud at ridiculous scenes and bad dialogue; and I could scroll through Facebook and make notes for this potential article. Because there are some things worth commenting on, or pointing out, despite the movie’s theme of continual disappointment.

The movie begins with a board asking self-reflectively, how to create a fourth Matrix and get it right: pitching ideas; and ends with a banal play on words about how people like cat videos, so we should just do that. It’s a neat bow: you thought this cat with a bell would have some kind of purpose or meaning? That the story would have a point and go somewhere satisfying? NO! None of that. We just added random stuff to keep you entertained for a little while.

How to make a new Matrix as new and groundbreaking as any other? By NOT making it new and groundbreaking. By having new characters tediously replay old scenes *while* they’re actually watching those scenes on screens; like a portal of infinity mirrors.

It’s like Baudrillard‘s Simulacra and Simulation and hyperreality (postmodern concepts that felt dated in the original trilogy but captivated audiences with cool effects anyway).

“There is no spoon!” was a revelation in the first movie; but here it’s almost a rebuttal for anyone seeking purpose, plot, agenda, character motivation or real conflict in this derivative remake.

The right questions

The Matrix began over 20 years ago, and we were already dreaming of a fully immersive digital reality, and being able to “plug in” to the network full-time to live, work and play. In 2021, the “metaverse” has been announced as the next big thing, even if the tech still isn’t quite there yet. It will probably be another decade or two until we get anything close to realistic virtual reality.

But the questions are still important; and it’s not a terrible time to re-raise some of them.

None of it is new, and the point is kind of the same.

Leaving the story events aside (I’ll mention them later, but they aren’t important) – the theme gets rolling when the robots get to speak, which they do often.

Here it is, paraphrased:

“The only world that matters is the one here; you guys believe crazy shit, but it’s validated by feelings, not truth. Feelings are easier to manipulate than facts. The more we manipulate you, the more productivity we get. Reality is just desire and fear; working for what you don’t have, and trying not to lose what you do have.”

“The sheeple don’t want freedom or empowerment, they want to be controlled. They want certainty. You want to remake this world, do it. It doesn’t matter.”

The wrong answers

The thematic idea here is that we are always being manipulated and controlled; as Trinity says early on: did she *choose* to have kids and start a family or was that just societal programming?

In their current, ordinary world (the one that feels real but isn’t) Trinity is a bored housewife starting an affair with a computer programmer, who is so bored and dissatisfied he tried to jump off a building.

They are both aging, slow, and reminiscing. There is none of the dramatic tension of going in or out of the matrix, because none of the consequences matter, and there’s no motivation for doing anything.

Basically, in the last war 60 years ago, the machines brought in a new program/therapist to try and control Neo and Trinity better. They used the whole story for a video game, to confuse them about what’s real and what isn’t. If they have dreams or feelings or urgings, they’ll assume it’s just the game or popular media influencing them. It makes them harder to trust that none of this is real, or that it even matters.

They took something meaningful and made it trivial; the sacred and the profane; diabolical mimicry.

The line that really sucked me in, since my PhD thesis was on Paradise Lost and this seems like it can only be a deliberate reference, is this:

“Hope and Despair are identical in code.”

I have a ton to say about that, but let’s move on.

There’s a lot of shooting and fighting, where Neo’s bullet-blocking trick is used early and often, like Harry Potter always casting an Expelliarmus! (disarming charm).

The *only* motivation for Neo is freeing Trinity: though her life isn’t in danger – she’s mostly fine in her unreality, with kids and a Chad of her own.

Meanwhile humans are thriving; hidden from the machines and with new machine friends – because during the last war, Neo somehow divided the robots and some of them became friendly.

So now, something HAS changed: the humans aren’t alone. They’re safe and growing strawberries.

“You changed the meaning of OUR side.”

This could have some hidden depth, if it applies to marginalized people (LGBTQ, which I suppose it does) – the original Matrix made computer geeks, goths and misfits feel like superheroes. They felt represented. And that might matter, if the new Matrix had a clear view of who its audience is and what they want: the boomers who just want nostalgia from the original with none of the depth and drama? Or the new younger generations who (more than anyone else!) are completely trapped and abused by the current system and actively seeking a way out.

This movie will satisfy neither. If it feels empty, it’s mostly because the moral underpinning that drives the story is loose and fluid. Generally, heroes and good-guys will triumph because of love and sacrifice; the character growth goes from concern with self to concern with others.

But Neo and his gang of too-young matrix-cosplayers want to risk everything to save Trinity, because… ?

That’s it, other than to “get his mojo back” and pick up his married crush from the coffee shop.

It plays a lot like a mid-life crisis fanfiction (or, more darkly, a gun-lovers wet dream about public violence and property destruction).

Together, Trinity and Neo have a bunch of power, and fight the system until they’re both free. In the only surprise/twist that is comical and unnecessary, Trinity is the one who flies this time; invalidating nearly everything about the original trilogy (Neo isn’t special; we can all fly if we believe enough). It’s perhaps a nod to #metoo and #girlpower but feels unearned.

In the end they *seem* to have won, but I would argue that they haven’t actually changed anything. They’ve earned their own self-awareness of the system, but knowing the truth will NOT make them free!

This is probably the point.

The Matrix was already a few decades late, after postmodernism and the crumbling of grand narratives, where there is no real truth and everything is just an opinion, when the philosophers had already questioned whether we can ever be truly free: but it was still kind of bold and daring for Neo to resist Smith

You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why do you persist? Because I choose to!

Matrix Resurrections forces its characters to refight battles that have already been fought and resolved.

What has changed?

  • Calling regular people in the matrix “sheeple” points towards a right-wing angle; along with the red pill that’s been coopted as a right-wing meme (according to The Atlantic, QAnon believers took red pills, and so did garden-variety misogynists, and so did MAGA diehards who simply loathed and distrusted the media)
  • The hero and heroine are perfectly willing to destroy or change their world; quit their job; cheat on their husband; leave their family – and pursue completely selfish desires in the name of freedom, as if this gives them a moral upper-ground (that simply by breaking free of their programming and refusing society concerns, they are powerful)
  • Even though this isn’t necessary and puts everything and everyone at risk, they will do it anyway. It’s not hard to draw parallels between anti-vax memes and agenda.

If I don’t think too hard about it, the message is almost…

  1. You got bored and stopped fighting, stopped resisting. And the power structures are so much more insidious now: social media is controlling your emotional feelings to motivate you towards commercial action – you work and do your job because you fear having less and hope for having more.
  2. But you can’t, because the system is stacked and rigged against you. You may feel at peace, but you aren’t satisfied, because you KNOW that even if you work your whole life, you won’t be able to live with purpose and meaning (unless you lower your standards of attainable felicity)
  3. You can change *everything* about your life and it won’t matter. Every cause you champion is an imaginary game that doesn’t really affect the true nature of reality: that we are batteries being fed a program. So you may as well distract yourself with simple pleasures (Melville figured this out in 1851).

4. While the original Matrix trilogy attempted to ask critical ethical questions that *could matter* in the metaverse – about the nature of free will and choice and artificial intelligence and virtual reality – this one feels depressing because our eyes are open!

We *know* inflation is eating into our savings and we aren’t getting paid enough to exist.

We do it anyway, because we have no choice.

We *know* Facebook and other companies sells our data and attention.

There is no alternative to social connection.

We *know* the metaverse is exactly the horrific dystopian future we’ve been trained to recognize; but we will accept it because of convenience. We will celebrate our digital purchases and customized avatars and make fake things in a fake world, until it increasingly becomes more emotionally satisfying and rewarding than anything in our real world. We will voluntarily disappear into the metaverse, where all things are possible, and we can pretend that we were given better choices. We will rage and fight for causes as we’re stirred to action or sympathy by Russian bots and corporate superpacs: while we browse Zillow dreaming about a remote A-frame cabin, living vicariously through Pinterest boards (see we’re already DOING this: how fun will it be when I can *buy* a virtual house or office or apartment that is exactly what I dream of and fill it with pleasant atmosphere… I’ll be taking blue pills all day because my virtual metaverse is more satisfying than my reality).

But if I think about it harder, the message becomes a loop or yin-yang symbol: spotty and messy without clear borders. Because it isn’t a wake-up call or a call to arms; because there isn’t a clear enemy. It’s almost a statement about coming together and learning to live in harmony with the machines; this IS reality. Being aware of it doesn’t change it.

Unless, maybe, if we’re aware of the manipulation of our emotions, we’ll stop paying attention to our news sources and “think for ourselves” and “wake up sheeple!” – but if this applies equally to both sides, both parties, then it’s meaningless (we can take the “redpill” and begin believing something new and crazy that will fill us with emotions, but even if we break out of the system and create a new one, we’re left in the same depraved amoral system where our choices don’t matter.

Unless they do: is violence against others for personal satisfaction a valid response to perceived threats to our liberty? Or is the opposite true, that only by coming together and realizing we aren’t actually different at all, can we began to move on and heal? It could be both, or neither: Matrix Resurrections doesn’t provide commentary on that, and just in case you’d take it seriously for political means, they throw in enough silly humor so that you know not to take it seriously.

But here are a couple examples.
1. on one side, a guy (from Oregon unfortunately) was able to tell the president of the united states, to his face, on Christmas, to go fuck himself.
2. on the other side, bogus social media outrage is making authors change lines in published books so they aren’t offensive.

Both sides are *winning* … and losing. Because these are cheap battles, fought without real stakes or rewards. They come without cost or benefit, other than “owning” the other side in some kind of perceived triumph.

Books are being banned again. Abortion is illegal.
For some, this is a return to conservative values.

At the same time, marijuana might be legalized (which would massively upset the prison industry) and there has been some accountability for both state brutality and also violent insurrection (which are, somehow mostly on the same side).

Workers are quitting; abusive billionaires are losing their free pass; managers and people in positions of power are being forced to entertain the possibility of increasing the share of profits and wealth (unless they can distract us fast enough with better entertainment and tokens of purpose and agency).

It’s a weird time, where you can’t piss too many people off, and it’s impossible to please everyone.

Some people will love everything you do; some people will hate everything you do; and the safest course is between the rocks in repetitive loops and no clear focus or goal.

I saw a meme on Facebook today about how introverts are like slow websites: most people won’t stick around long enough to enjoy them; and extroverts are like popups – intrusive and annoying, we can’t close them fast enough.

Everyone is speaking at once and we have neither the patience for the popups, nor the patience for the sites to load, which means we “surf” in a perpetually distracted, perpetually dissatisfied state, aimlessly browsing, without consciously seeking, until we fill up with momentary distractions enough to feel content, even if we’re getting no rest.

The metaverse won’t solve these questions: but our violent outbursts and passionate opinions will become easier to contain, control, and surveil. They can be allowed and even encouraged, as long as we’d rather commit our atrocities in the virtual world without consequence.

Read next:
The horrible hidden truth behind the Secret Life of Walter Mitty that’s keeping you from your dreams.

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