Why is The Matrix? The "what" has already been answered: It's an R-rated Star Wars, a sci-fi movie with philosophical pretensions that did shockingly gangbuster business at the box office. The Matrix raked in more than $170 million in the United States, became the first DVD to sell more than 1 million copies, and set the stage for the two most-anticipated sequels of 2003 (at least until The Return of the King comes out). But while The Matrix's commercial success is impressive, it's not mind-boggling. In 1999, four movies— Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me—did better business than The Matrix, and Disney's Tarzan finished only a fistful of dollars behind. What makes The Matrix stand out from that pack is the way it combines mass appeal with a smaller, more intense cult following. No recent movie (other than films with a built-in fan base, like the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movies) inspires the same kind of slavish, fan-boy devotion. Type the name of a contemporary movie with a similar box-office gross, like Ocean's Eleven, into Google, and you're confronted with a list of official sites and e-commerce pages hawking the movie. Type "the matrix," and you get those sites but also a flood of fan pages— Matrix as Messiah Movie, Knowthematrix.com, the requisite LEGO site, and the sine qua non of movie-geek cult status: the fan-created role-playing game.
What explains the phenomenon? We know it's not the dialogue. Part of the explanation is simple: The mixing of the genres of science fiction and kung fu meant that the Wachowski brothers combined two great cult tastes that go great together. (On one of the featurettes on the Matrix DVD, Andy Wachowski sums up the movie by saying, "It's about robots vs. kung fu.") The movie's startling premise, atmospheric John Woo-style action, and "bullet time" effects go a long way toward explaining the movie's appeal, too. As does the fact that the movie is laden with references and allusions that reward repeated viewings, making fans who recognize them feel as if they and the filmmakers are part of an exclusive, in-the-know club. A by-no-means-complete list includes everything from Baudrillard to Christianity to Descartes to Buddhism to spaghetti westerns to Lewis Carroll to William Gibson's Neuromancer to Jackie Chan's Drunken Master.
But none of these explanations is sufficient. The real source of the fascination with The Matrix is that, despite all appearances, the movie is not a dystopia. Rather, it's a utopia, a geek paradise. The Matrix is a sci-fi John Hughes movie, in which a misfit learns that he's actually cool. (Think Harry Potter with guns.) At the software company where Keanu Reeves works, his boss might as well be the principal castigating Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club when he says: "You have a problem with authority, Mr. Anderson. You believe that you are special. That somehow the rules do not apply to you. Obviously, you are mistaken." Of course, we learn that the oppressive Figure of Authority is the one who is mistaken. But instead of going to the prom, Keanu gets to pack heat, learn kung fu, wear a black trench coat and sunglasses, and, to top it off, he gets a hot, ass-kicking girlfriend who sports fetish wear. What kind of dystopia is this? No one wants to be Winston Smith in 1984, but everyone wants to be Neo (or Trinity, or Morpheus) in The Matrix.
As Alan Dean Foster puts it in Exploring the Matrix, an anthology of essays by science-fiction writers, Neo is "Everynerd": "His perceived world is a sham, a mistake, a carefully crafted fake, and you know, deep down, that yours is, too." But the movie has a special appeal to that subset of misfit, the computer geek. When we first see Neo, he's living alone in his cramped apartment, staying up all night on his computer. He's a programmer by day and a computer hacker by night. When he is rescued from his miserable existence, he discovers that he and his friends can learn anything—kung fu, how to fly a helicopter—just by downloading it. By the end of the movie, Neo learns that his mastery of the digital Matrix makes him master of all mankind. It's an EverQuest player's dream come true.
There's just one problem: It looks like Neo and his band of revolutionaries want to destroy the technological utopia in which they live. In an essay on the official Matrix Web site, proto-cyborg Kevin Warwick complains about the movie's man-versus-machine approach to technology. "Neo is kidnapped by Luddites, dinosaurs from the past when humans ruled the earth," Warwick writes. "We really need to clamp down on the party-pooper Neos of this world and get into the future as soon as we can—a future in which we can be a part of a Matrix system, which is morally far superior to our Neolithic morals of today." Is Warwick right? After all, if Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo succeed in their quest to liberate humanity from the machines, we'll all be left to eat slop in the dreadful real world of post-apocalyptic earth, rather than becoming fashionista superheroes in the fake world. What kind of liberation is that?
Fortunately, Neo's closing lines in the movie offer a way out of this dilemma. He addresses the machines that have enslaved humanity, and he offers them an olive branch: "I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you."
The implication is clear: Neo wants machines and men to coexist in peace. He doesn't want to destroy the Matrix. He just wants people to understand it so they can play with it and enjoy it as much as he does. He's an evangelist for the product.
Neo's not a Luddite. He's an early adopter. Just like his fans.