Twenty years ago, The Matrix hits theaters and blew everyone’s mind. There hasn’t been an original IP film like since that has radically altered the blockbuster landscape and cemented itself into popular culture. The Wachowskis remixed their interests into something fresh and original, the kind of movie we popular cinema aspires to be. And yet at the center of the movie is the question of whether or not we would actually agree with its protagonist. Watching the film in 1999 and seeing it again today, I remain convinced that while Neo (Keanu Reeves) is who we may wish to be, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is who we actually are.
For those that need a brief refresher, Neo is “The One”, a human trapped inside The Matrix—a simulation created by machines in the future to keep humanity enslaved and used as a power source—who will liberate his fellow humans and defeat the machines. Cypher is a member of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, the ship captained by Morpheus (Lawrence Fisburne), who frees Neo from the Matrix. We’re clued into Cypher’s unhappiness not only in the opening of the film, where he has tipped agents off to Trinity’s (Carrie Anne Moss) location, but later when he has a conversation with Neo. “I know what you’re thinking, ‘cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here,” Cypher says. “Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?”
When Cypher’s treachery is revealed to the audience, we see him having dinner with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) inside The Matrix. He tells Smith, “You know I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
And he has a point. Later when he starts killing his crewmates and Trinity tries to tell him that Morpheus freed them, Cypher fires back, “Free? You call this free. All I do is what he tells me to do. If I have to choose between that and the Matrix, I choose the Matrix.”
To their credit, the Wachowskis are trying to appeal to our better angels. They want us to believe that we would do the brave thing and live in a miserable reality if that meant being free. But really, freedom only means something for Neo. Yeah, it would be awesome to be free if we were The One, and it turned out we also had special abilities and were the hero the world had been waiting for. But we’re not. We’re Cypher. We’re the people that have to do the grunt work and as time goes on, we don’t really want THE TRUTH as much as we claim. We want a pleasant illusion, or we want to look the other way.
That’s not an indictment or a criticism. We’re allowed to critique society and still be a part of that society, but we also have to recognize the privileges that allow us to live in comfort. You’re probably reading this article on your computer or your smart phone. Do you know how that piece of technology was made? Do you know if everyone who contributed to the components was given a fair wage? Do you even want to know? And if you learned some harsh truths, would you give up a device that makes your life substantially easier?
And even if you’re willing to confront how the First World happens, how important is the notion of choice? “The Matrix” exists because it’s comforting. It’s not euphoric (Smith notes that such a Matrix “where everyone was happy” was a failure), but simply mangable. One of the film’s tougher philosophical questions is if the illusion of choice is just as powerful as an actual choice. Neo claims he doesn’t like the idea of fate because it invalidates individual choice, but how many choices does someone have once they’re out of The Matrix? If you get out of The Matrix and say, “I would like to be a gardener!” the reply you’d probably get is, “Well, I’ve got some bad news.”
The Matrix is predicated on the idea that people are willing to make hard choices if it means they’ll get to the truth, but the last twenty years, particularly with the advent of social media and the Internet show that people like to choose their own reality. They choose information that conforms with their preconceived notions because harder truths are difficult. Instead, we prefer information we find comforting. We want to be told that we’re good and that there’s hope and that things won’t be too difficult.
Cypher’s position is the toughest part of The Matrix because it appeals to our darker impulses, but also to who we probably are. That may sound pessimistic, but we like comfort. We want things to be easier. We love convenience. In the past twenty years, none of that has changed. If anything, our addiction to comfort has only deepened with the advent of new technology and services. This doesn’t make us soft or hypocritical as much as we have to acknowledge that life involves struggle that we usually try to avoid or minimize. That’s the endless appeal of the blue pill.