Audiences will have another opportunity to choose between the red or blue pill when “The Matrix” franchise returns to theaters later this month.
“The Matrix: Resurrections,” the fourth installment of the science fiction film series starring Keanu Reeves and Cary Ann Moss, will arrive on Dec. 22, over 22 years after “The Matrix” premiered in 1999.
The original film was lauded for its groundbreaking special effects. Entertainment Weekly called it “the most influential action movie of its generation.”
Inspired by Japanese animation and full of religious symbolism, “The Matrix” spawned two sequels and a mythology that some might find overly convoluted.
But by peeling back the thematic layers, viewers can experience a modern retelling of the monomyth, a common narrative template cited by Joseph Campbell and popularized in films like “Star Wars”.
Boise State Honors College academic advisor Brandi Venable has led students through exploration of narrative structures like the monomyth in the ‘Heroes and Villains’ course.
“The hero’s journey resonates with audiences because it mirrors common rites of passage that everyone experiences, such as leaving home for the first time,” Venable said. “But it goes even further to tap into our psyche, asking us to reflect on bigger questions like the relevance of life and the meaning of death while allowing us to identify with the hero.”
In “The Matrix”, computer hacker Thomas Anderson follows established ‘Chosen One’ tropes through the online persona of Neo. Morpheus, the character mentoring Neo, speaks of legends foretelling Neo’s arrival as a savior from the existential threat posed by the Machine army.
The film’s climactic scene features Neo’s death and subsequent rebirth as a formula for the monomyth that parallels some spiritual beliefs.
“That formula also includes a belief that the hero will return from the dead when he is most needed,” said Venable. “We see this exemplified in religious figures like Jesus or in Arthurian legend.”
Since it’s 1999 release, filmmaker Lilly Wachowski has discussed “The Matrix” as an allegory for transgender identity, and some viewers have drawn visual connections between the film’s ‘red pills’ and red estrogen pills.
“We’ve seen the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation and the adoption of human rights resolutions related to sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as an increasing number of openly transgender athletes, celebrities and prominent public figures,” Venable said. “As an art form, films are “safer” spaces to hold important dialogues—they should push against established boundaries and ask audiences to think more deeply on complex issues”
“The Matrix” premiered during a time when audiences may have harbored concerns over the impending millennium and the Y2K computer programming flaw threatening infrastructure and financial industries. Audiences for the upcoming sequel may face unique challenges including contemporary social echo chambers and cognitive dissonance that reflect the plot’s ‘Red pill vs Blue pill’ narrative device.
“Climate change, economic disparity, and healthcare are some of the topics that come to mind,” Venable said. “Topics may be different, but the red pill/blue pill plot device will be just as relevant today as it was in 1999. We all experience cognitive dissonance when we are called upon to question our perception of reality.”
Venable suggested that consumers of the original trilogy should pay attention to the color scheme in “The Matrix: Resurrections” to distinguish which reality is taking precedence.
This latest sequel follows the trend of reviving older film franchises with new iterations as seen in series like “Star Wars” and “Jurassic World”. In a recent editorial for The Atlantic, staff writer Derek Thompson cites this trend as indicative of a larger cultural decline.
“Americans used to go to movie theaters to watch new characters in new stories,” Thompson said. “Now they go to movie theaters to re-submerge themselves in familiar storylines.”
Notably, Thompson fails to mention Hollywood’s prolific use of pre-existing literature in film productions throughout itsit’s longevity.
“There is a long tradition of offering entertainment as an escape when reality is harsh,” Venable said. “The pandemic has resulted in a lot of fatigue—physically, emotionally, and mentally. With sequels, you know more or less what you’re getting yourself into. There’s comfort and stability in that at a time when everything around you is in upheaval.”
Despite their return to somewhat familiar territory, audiences are likely to find something novel in Wachowski’s latest offering.
“Neo’s name is an anagram for “One,” said Venable. “But it also means new—and we should expect to see Neo remade anew in ‘The Matrix: Resurrections.’”