The announcement that Lana Wachowski would be returning to co-write and direct a fourth Matrix movie brought with it an avalanche of takes. Among the queer critics in my circle, there was joy. There was both relief and excitement that one of the most famous trans directors would be returning to a franchise marked by queerness. A possible breath of fresh air in a pop film world of “live action” reboots and comic book adaptations. There was reluctance as well, given how poorly the Wachowskis have handled race and systemic oppression in their 2010s output, including Cloud Atlas and Sense 8.
The more wide spread reaction, getting a write up in Gamespot of all places, was “Man, remember how Matrix 2 and 3 sucked?” This is unsurprising. The first Matrix is beloved, a modern action classic. The film’s iconic images – red pill and blue pill, dodging bullets in slow motion, wearing sunglasses indoors, etc.- have filtered through most permutations of contemporary pop culture, for both good (trans readings) and ill (the appropriation of the “red pill” metaphor in anti-feminism). The sequels came out 4 years later and left a much less tangible impact. Nearly their lone cultural marker is their failure to live up to expectations. Besides the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix follow-ups are the biggest pop culture disappointment of 2000s. They are universally derided.
One of the poster moments for this derision is the “rave” scene in The Matrix Reloaded. It is usually framed as emblematic of the meandering structure of the Matrix sequels. It is a dance sequence in a science fiction action movie. It framed as pointless or absurd. The kind of criticism that values tonal consistency, that might refer to sentiment or earnestness as cringe, sees this scene as unnecessary, even damaging.
The problem with this line of criticism is that it relies on cultural context and societal norms. The idea that the Matrix sequels “failed expectations” depends on a capitalist notion of film only as product. It is criticism based on consumer hype, marketing ideals, and the vague “promises” of comic con panels. Additionally, calling something cringe is criticism based in maintaining societal order. Things that are too earnest or too silly or neuro-atypical coded are rejected as bad. The social and capitalistic order, rather than the film itself and its actual sociopolitical context, is used as a measure of quality.
I want to be clear that you don’t have to like these movies. Rather, I want to emphasize that this negative criticism is based on a non-existent consensus. Criticism should invite dissent and productive disagreement. It should provoke rather than shut down. The criticism of the rave scene, and of the Matrix sequels in general, lacks context and a real concern for theme or imagery. It does not help me understand these films but rather obfuscates them, drawing a critical fog of consensus over any kind of personal voice. The rest of this essay is an attempt at correction.
By way of a brief summary, the Matrix films are about a human revolution against machine oppression. As Zion, the last human city, gathers to pray, they hear the news that the machines will soon invade their home. The herald Morpheus spins this as a moment of triumph rather than one of despair. “After a century of war, I remember that which matters most: we are still here!” he says. Then, the entire city dances.
That dance is the entirety of the scene. While the camera occasionally follows a couple of the principle characters, most of the shots are of strangers and almost none of them convey any important information. The critics are right in one sense: this scene is a diversion. There is no “plot” here. If there is a practical purpose to the scene, it is to give an emotional breather, a breath of joy before the terrible revelations and violence of the rest of the film. There are not plot points, only images here. Luckily, and I mean this both sarcastically and earnestly, that is what cinema is. What the backlash to the rave scene proves, is that we are often bad at taking those images seriously, even when they have obvious thematic significance.
The rave scene provides a contrast to the first Matrix, in that it emphasizes a physical empowerment, rather than a digital one. The Matrix is largely about escaping the body. The world, both in the unreality of Neo’s day job and the reality aboard the Nebuchadezzar, is dreary and drab. True freedom is the expression of a digital body. That body is a toy that can be made into whatever one wants it to be. I say this not to dismiss the first Matrix, but rather to point to its particular poignancy. The ability to instantly and totally transform is a fantasy rooted in queer identity. Rather than a slow coming out or a medical transition, the power Neo gains is as sudden as a lightening bolt. Neo’s transformation from Mr. Anderson to the One might be gradual, but is shown as a nearly instant exhilaration to the audience. It is in a single instant that he learns every martial art. It is another instant when he brings himself back from death to defeat his enemies. His journey is a poignant allegory, but it’s also a power fantasy. Neo gets an autonomy that every trans person I know longs for.
The reality of living as trans is different. I often feel most like myself online, where it is easiest to be seen as a girl, and when the contours of my face won’t fail that expectation. When I am detached from my body, I can easily imagine a different one. Eventually, I am pulled back into and have to live in the world. This is the battle that the Matrix sequels are, in part, about. It is in these films that Neo completely rejects the structure of the matrix and uses his powers outside of a digital realm. While the first film is a celebration of the possibility of complete and powerful change, the sequels ask and show what must be sacrificed for that change to be possible. There is no euphoric rush of “I know Kung Fu” when we are so limited by our earthly forms.
The rave scene is a glimpse at a world where our “real” bodies can provide power, rather than restriction. It points to the purpose of the post modern expression of identity in the first Matrix: to enable a sense of self expression powerful enough to break through to the physical world, to be embraced by our own bodies. The color pallet of the rave is deep earthy browns, in contrast to the sterile whites and greens of the matrix. It is a completely natural environment, inhabited by bodies that are marked by outlets, signs of their digital bodies. It shows selves bound again to the earth, able to be plugged in, but also able to get out. In one recurring shot, feet stamp into the mud of earth and stain themselves with life. For this moment, our bodies are not cages, but instruments of being.
Sure, the rave is likely unnecessary for the plot of the Matrix Reloaded. Sure, it feels out of place in a franchise defined by cool, slick costumes and unreal, kung fu action. Exactly therein lies its euphoria. The struggle of the Matrix’s human resistance is freedom from exploitation. Though death at the hands of their former captors looms over them, they give themselves this moment to be free. Their bodies and minds are still their own. And they claim them.
Your words can be yours. They don’t have to belong to normative criticisms of cringe or of disappointment. Whether you agree with me or not is irrelevant. What matters is that you let yourself be provoked and provoke. That you let yourself poke and prod and self-examine. Engage with your subjectivity rather than running from it. Incorporate other voices rather than assimilate to them. I have not always been successful; too often my criticism has been built on assumptions, but the best things I have written, the stuff I am truly proud of, digs in, pulls something out of my experience, and makes it my own. The (sometimes necessary) noise of discourse can drown our voices, but with effort we can break the surface. We can dance with the difference of our peers.