SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 76 Jul-Aug 2003

The Matrix… Reloaded or overloaded?

IT WAS a first. As a volunteer cinema usher I was required by order of Warner Brothers to check people’s bags and jackets for camcorders, and to patrol the cinema during the movie. Yes, our small local independent cinema was one of nearly 9,000 worldwide involved in the release of Matrix Reloaded, the biggest and most expensive movie to come out of Hollywood this year.

With its sequel Matrix Revolutions, out later this year, Matrix Reloaded apparently cost $300 million: the most expensive car chase ever, the most action stunts, the newest computer graphics, it boasts of re-defining action movies for a decade. Simultaneously released in 62 countries, it grossed $363 million worldwide in its first week. But there’s a lot more to this particular matrix than a movie…

The original film The Matrix (1999) is a sci-fi classic – fresh, stylish, gripping, even subversive. The story is simple: the human race has brought doom upon itself – reduced to existence in pods, mankind is a power source for computers who allow us to dream our lives away in a simulacrum of late 20th century Earth – the Matrix. A few survivors devote themselves to freeing humanity. One man, known as Neo, or ‘the One’, (Keanu Reeves) appears to be able to take on the computers and their apparently invincible agents. Complete hokum, of course, but stylish hokum – with sensational action, martial arts, wire work flying sequences, cutting edge computer graphics and tongue in cheek dialogue, The Matrix has had a massive influence. Drawing on classics from Alice in Wonderland to Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is an old fable retooled for the Net generation; this ensured its success and even cult status among young people.

So what of the sequel? Does it live up to the massive hype? Unlike the original movie, Reloaded has been hyped beyond the point where it can possibly deliver. While needing to break the mould as an action movie, it also had to develop the story. This time we see Zion, the underground city of human survivors – New Age meets Metropolis. We learn that not all believe in Neo’s semi-mystical abilities – a military wing want to use more conventional force to defend their community. Meanwhile, what seemed to be a simple battle of good (Neo and his friends) versus evil (the Matrix and its agents) is more complex. Rogue programmes run amok and it seems everyone’s strings are being pulled by a mysterious ‘Architect’. Is anything what it seemed? Reloaded offers us two worlds, the Matrix and Zion. Which is real? Which is the more attractive? Is the Matrix actually capitalism, offering illusory pleasures to tempt potential rebels… or is the Matrix actually the real world, and Zion just a latter day hippy commune?

But after the inevitable cliff-hanger, to guarantee an audience for Revolutions, fans can pass the time with a myriad of products competing for their attention. From videos to action figures, the Matrix phenomenon looks set to run and run, with Animatrix on DVD, and the game Enter The Matrix, released simultaneously for all games console formats. To make this game, 32 movie cameras registered every move that Keanu and friends made, while 14 infrared cams tracked reference points on their faces, a process taking six months. According to games reviewers, they should have spent a bit longer – the game is apparently disappointing. Yet to come is Matrix Online, described as a multiplayer online role-playing game, ‘carrying on the plot where the movies leave off’ complete with lethal agents, weapons and martial arts manoeuvres.

The Independent’s Philip Hensher comments that many young people are passionate and serious about The Matrix. He sees the roots of its success as more than spectacular kung-fu, special effects, and the movie’s undoubted style, but rather in the "paranoid philosophy which echoes a widespread feeling of helplessness in America today". He points out that Reloaded gives star billing to several Black and female characters, and argues that the film taps into a deep discontent and alienation from the political process experienced by young African-Americans, disenfranchised and criminalised by the system. This, he says, should "worry America’s leaders". As Annalee Newitz of Alter.Net points out, "most of our heroes are people of colour and racially mixed - the ‘bad guys’ are all white men in suits" and goes on to ask: "are our preferences for progressive fantasies a hint of political preferences to come?"

But at least the Independent is, well, independent. A whole lot of other supposedly eminent thinkers have been considering The Matrix. The official Matrix website includes a series of essays by professors of philosophy and others, exploring the significance of the film’s message. Interesting though many of these essays are, and perhaps even laudable if their intent is to encourage independent thought among their young students, I personally would have more respect for them if they hadn’t clearly had the backing of Warner Bros to enable their views to reach a wider audience.

My own analysis, as a Marxist, is that there is a matrix out there, as all-pervasive as the one in the movie. But this matrix is one controlled by AOL Time Warner, Microsoft and the handful of companies who own and control the information and entertainment industry worldwide. According to IT industry watchdog The Register, "The leisure software market is clearly positioned as the fastest growing and most dynamic entertainment media sector globally". And this is particularly the case in the UK where gaming is now established as the first choice leisure pursuit for young people. You would be hard pushed to find many households with teenagers or young adults that do not have at least one games console. According to a new report from ELSPA, the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, UK spending on leisure software in 2002 was double that on video rentals and 1.4 times more than cinema box office. Big business indeed. Worldwide, 30 million games consoles were sold in 2002, with one name, Sony, having a 74 percent market share. Screen Digest predicts another record year in 2003, with a staggering 32 million console sales, and 550 million games, with Britain the third biggest market after the US and Japan.

And in case you were still wondering about AOL Time Warner, makers of the ‘subversive’ Matrix series, as well as AOL (35 million subscribers), and America’s leading Cable TV provider (11 million subscribers), they also own IPC, Britain’s biggest magazine publisher (80 titles, from Horse and Hound to the TV Times, read by over 30 million UK adults) plus Time Magazine, CNN News, Home Box Office, Cartoon Network, New Line Cinema, (The Lord of the Rings, Austin Powers), Warner Entertainment (Harry Potter, Friends, The West Wing, Band of Brothers) Looney Tunes, DC Comics… oh yes and Warner Music is the USA’s second biggest record producer. This company dominates entertainment and information not only in the US but across much of the world. Faced with losses of $99 billion last year, and a 70% fall in the value of their stocks after a punitive and long-running dispute with rival Microsoft, they have now reached a deal with their old rival. The companies aim to "work together to develop a digital media environment secure from piracy", in other words one they can control. AOL chief Dick Parsons "welcomes the opportunity to build a more productive relationship with Microsoft". For ‘productive’ read ‘profitable’.

Young people are not fools. They can enjoy the movies, play the games and interact on-line with fellow-gamers a continent away… but they know the difference between reality and illusion. They know when they pay £40 for a computer game that someone is making big bucks out of them. They are well aware of who controls these industries, and see capitalism – especially the US variety – as ever more blatant in its pursuit of profit. The real matrix is AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, Sony and a handful of other multinationals. But just like the film version, this matrix is not as all-powerful as it would like to think. Revolutionaries can use the internet too.

Kate Jones

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