The Matrix as Transgender Metaphor

As one of the defining films of my generation The Matrix has always cast a long shadow, both in its incredible genre influence and its eternal tendency to bring absolute morons out of the woodwork declaring it to be the most intelligent and meaningful film ever made for suggesting the world isn’t real (with Inception nobly taking the baton for kids today). I have a different, more personal reading of this movie however as being fundamentally about one woman’s journey into the world, and it begins with its directors.

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The Wachowskis, under attack from a pink cephalopod

Lana Wachowski as you may know is transgender, and I see The Matrix as being a metaphor for a trans woman coming out and asserting her identity against a world which refuses to acknowledge her. The film runs on an extremely blunt ‘rebirth as your true self’ metaphor with a protagonist whose name literally means ‘new’ (I love Wachowski subtlety), and while on its own this could symbolise practically anything what strikes me about its execution is that Neo’s embrace of his identity as ‘The One’ against the world oppressing him is represented by his name.

In the extremely on-the-nose interrogation scene early on, Agent Smith describes him as having two lives with two different names. In public he is Mr Thomas Anderson, while in private he goes by Neo, a name he picked himself. Throughout the film he is only referred to by the former by representatives of authority, his boss and Smith (almost always specifically as ‘Mister’ Anderson), while his friends only ever use the name he chose himself.

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Note the outfits

On its own this could represent anything, but what clinches it for me is that Neo’s big moment of asserting his true identity as ‘the One’ by defeating an Agent is preceded by this exchange:

Agent Smith: You hear that Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.
Neo: My name is Neo. [Smashes Smith with a train]

Of all the possible things he could have said in the face of death, he chose to assert his name.

I think it’s also worth noting the position Neo is in at the film’s end. He’s discovered who he truly is, embraced that in the face of the world’s attempt to stop him and found his own power, but the world itself has not changed. He hasn’t led a glorious revolution and upended the status quo, it’s still in place essentially unchanged, still views him as a threat and with his newfound openness about who he is will likely redouble its attempt to oppress him.

I think queer interpretations can be found in almost all the Wachowski’s works. Besides the obvious example of Bound and Sense8, Racer X’s situation of being unable to tell his family he changed his appearance and identity could could be seen as analogous to Lana having transitioned by Speed Racer’s production, but not being publicly out at the time, and a whole book could be written on the gender-switching politics of Cloud Atlas. I’ve no idea of knowing whether The Matrix was intended the way I see it, or if Lana deliberately drew on her experiences writing the film but I certainly feel there’s more textual evidence for this reading than for, say, the popular queer reading of Frozen.

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Jupiter Descending

Aww shit. Even after the six-month delay, rumours of reshoots and re-edits, a poor preview showing at Sundance and reviews charitably described as ‘savaging’, I was still looking forward to this film. The Wachowskis hold a special place in my generation’s hearts, being responsible for our childhood classic The Matrix, which may just be the perfect action movie for teenagers (though that discussion’s for another time). While the sequels were less than great and I still haven’t seen Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas was a modern classic and in my opinion their magnum opus. So when they announced a $175m space opera starring Mila Kunis, with Channing Tatum as some sort of wolf-man I was intrigued, their blend of crazy and optimism seeming like a bright spark in a world where Superman destroys cities. A spark I just watched being pissed on for two hours.

So, the plot. Jupiter Jones, a toilet cleaner and second-generation illegal Russian immigrant, finds out she’s actually the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abrasax family, an interstellar human-farming business which minces people to provide life-extending drugs (are you getting this subtle anti-capitalism message kids?) and she’s targeted by bounty hunters sent by her three heirs (as she left herself the earth in her will). One wants her dead, one wants to marry her and you can see the problem with this already, can’t you? So much happens in this movie, it collapses in on itself almost immediately. Every possible idea is thrown at the screen: genetically-engineered animal people, robots with human faces, people refineries hidden inside Jupiter (the planet, Mila Kunis is sadly not eating people), space weddings, Russian family comedy, egg-donation hijinks and it’s all too much from the get go. The first five minutes show Jupiter’s parents meeting, discussing what they’ll name her, dad getting shot by the mob and mom’s emigration to America in a shipping crate. It’s like if someone tried condensing Dune into two hours – oh wait.

The first half hour feels hacked down and I’m not sure it’s for the worse. I reckon there’s a 2 1/2 hour cut out there somewhere, but I can’t begrudge Warners for saving us from the wacky comedy hijinks of Jupiter’s Russian family, who act like no human beings in existence. I’m guessing Tom Tykwer directed the funny parts of Cloud Atlas, as this film has no sense of comedic timing. The latter acts feel more complete, but nothing could make up for how disjointed everything is. We never get a feel for the greater picture here, and so the universe feels paradoxically tiny and condensed. We only ever hear of the Abrasax clan, so are they the only power in the galaxy? Well no, because we also meet the space police (or rather one space police cruiser), siding with the heroes for some reason, but do they have power over the villains or is this a Chinatown situation? There’s a galactic bureaucracy in an extended Brazil homage, complete with Terry Gilliam cameo and few laughs, but how does this factor into the grand scheme of things?  For all the endless detail thrown our way there’s very little worldbuilding, despite the endless expository dialogue on that very subject.

Regarding characters, the film is all over the place. Channing Tatum’s dog/human hybrid hunter Caine (subtle) gets his dark past relayed to us and that’s about it, which is true for pretty much all the good guys. Everyone speaks in flat exposition or attempts at humour, leaving bugger-all room for character development. Two of the three villainous heirs are completely superfluous, one existing to exposit and show off her rear end before disappearing after five minutes, and the other just for a retread of Shrek, with Caine and Sean Bean (whose death I can only assume is on the cutting room floor) having to crash the wedding before she says ‘I do’. Eddie Redmayne’s makes surprisingly little impression as the main villain, despite a performance you’d expect to be a camp classic, but the weirdest is Jupiter herself. Despite supposedly ascending over the course of the film she has no real agency in it. She’s kidnapped repeatedly and tossed between bounty hunters, has to be rescued before marrying Lord Farquaad and doesn’t even really get a final confrontation with Redmayne, who just kinda drops out of the movie. She’s more of a human MacGuffin than a lead.

This movie is a perfect example of what happens if you have no limitations while making a film. When every idea in your mind can be realised on an unlimited budget, your imagination just runs away with you. It’s the Wachowski equivalent of Sucker Punch, where Warners hit it big with a director and just threw money at their pet projects to try and recapture that success, climaxing with disastrous, indulgent sci-fi mashups of whatever the director thought was cool at the time (though with great action scenes). This film marks the nail in the coffin of the Wachowskis getting this kind of creative freedom and budget again, and I think it would be good for them to make a small, $15-20m movie set in the real world, just to regain a sense of perspective. Given Snyder’s track record though, I think it’s more likely we’ll be seeing a Wachowski Aquaman in three years time.