How 'The Matrix Online' could point to the future of the franchise
You won’t believe this, but it’s true: On Tuesday morning, after not thinking very much about The Matrix for a decade, I spent the morning reading two whole Wikipedia pages about The Matrix.
This is not, by itself, a strange circumstance. You probably read four random things on the internet today before breakfast, waiting in line, on the train. What is strange – what gives this story a fuzzy, unreal, déjà vu du chat noir quality — is that several hours later, on Tuesday evening, The Hollywood Reporter posted that there could be a Matrix reboot.
I swear this is true. Someone smarter than me could probably doctor this, but this is a screenshot of my Safari history taken straight from my iPhone.
I initially googled “Anderton,” because I was confusing Keanu Reeves’ character from The Matrix, surname “Anderson,” with Tom Cruise’s character from Minority Report, surname “Anderton.” This would have been a totally embarrassing oversight when I was in high school and considered The Matrix not merely one of the most important movies of my lifetime, but also a combination Bible/style guide/life-coaching seminar.
Like everyone, my perspective on The Matrix shifted radically after 2003, and the general disappointment of the latter two entries in the movie trilogy. No need to relitigate Reloaded and Revolutions here. If you care enough to dig into the sequels, you probably already think they’re better than the vast majority of people give them credit for. (For what it’s worth, I like parts of Reloaded and think Revolutions is pretty dumb. Then again, I think Speed Racer is the best movie the Wachowskis have ever made, so there’s no accounting for weird taste.)
I remembered reading, at the time, about The Matrix Online, a seemingly bold and expansive attempt to expand the franchise and transform the trilogy into an ongoing saga. This held zero interest for me. Like a lot of Matrix-loving teens, I played the first tie-in videogame, Enter the Matrix.
Pitched as a bold new experiment in game-to-movie integration, Enter the Matrix hit stores the same month that Reloaded hit theaters. At least Reloaded had that cool freeway scene. The game was a blocky bore, with one of the worst final levels of any videogame. Enter the Matrix does feature a cutscene where Jada Pinkett Smith kisses Monica Bellucci, but nothing in the gameplay is half as bold or transgressive as the films. For all their philosophizing, the Wachowski siblings have always been first-and-foremost stylists. Enter the Matrix felt nothing like them: It looked cheap, chintzy, a sub-Max Payne rip-off of Matrix rip-offs.
The Matrix Online also looks horrible. You can say that was a symptom of the time — it was an online role-playing game in a long-ago time before the whole internet seemed to be a multiscreen role-playing game. Then again, Matrix Online actually launched the same year as World of Warcraft. Society was hankering for a culturally dominant MMORPG; Matrix got Friendster‘d.
But I have to admit: Reading the Wikipedia page for The Matrix Online on Tuesday morning, I thought to myself, “This story actually sounds pretty cool.” Which is why I greeted news of the Warner’s Matrix reboot with minor optimism, or at least vastly less pessimism than the usual “Disney wants Jared Leto for Tron 3” reboot malaise.
The main idea of The Matrix Online is at once frustrating and fascinating. It retroactively argues that everything definitive about the trilogy was unfinished; that the whole three-film saga was just the beginning of a longer story. This explains why Revolutions feels so aimless in its final act — I don’t think you can’t tell a real story if you’re too carefully setting up decades of potential narrative — but it also allows Online to set up the kind of five-ring-circus, nobody’s-really-a-good-guy storytelling that defines geek pop like Game of Thrones.
In Online, you can play as a member of the nominal protagonist group of the trilogy: The soldiers of Zion, that human enclave where everyone dresses in yogajamas. But you can also play on the side of the Machines. This is not as simple as, say, playing as a stormtrooper in a Star Wars game. As explored vaguely in Revolutions, the Machines aren’t necessarily total bad guys; some elements within the Matrix’s controllers want to work with the humans. You can also choose to follow the Merovingian, the exiled program who floats between the human-machine hostilities and suggests the sort of morally ambiguous underworld everyone wants from that Star Wars bounty hunter spin-off.
But as Online continued its story — and, apparently, as its user base dwindled away — the story got more confusing. There were humans who wanted to stay inside the Matrix. There were people who turned Neo into a martyr, and there was, apparently, a running subplot about Neo’s body, which if nothing else is way more interesting than half the cartoons in The Animatrix. Most impressively, The Matrix Online seemed unfussily detached from the basic needs of fan service: The game actually killed off Morpheus pretty early. I quote directly from the Matrix wikia:
“Morpheus’s body was on display in the Sobra Shores Church where it bursts into flies several times an hour.”
Again: That is not the least cool thing to ever happen in a Matrix property.
Matrix Online was not immune to the worst instincts of a tie-in sub-franchise. Morpheus came back to life, and the game occasionally hinted that Neo and Agent Smith were still live, showing a little leg for any poor sods who still cared. The game dwindled and was officially shut off in 2009. Its fandom was small enough that any further Matrix reboot probably wouldn’t feel the need to honor its canon.
But the best ideas underpinning The Matrix Online reflected a fundamental expansion that never quite came to the fore in the Matrix sequels. This was not just a good-and-evil story, not Humans vs. Machines or Neo vs. Smith. It was a confusing mass of elements coexisting and conflicting across the digital and real worlds, with uneasy allies and strange enemies and rogue agents who could transform society at any point. Weirdly, that reflects our modern age more than anything in the first Matrix. Almost 20 years later, no one really believes they can disconnect from digitality. (Anyone born after The Matrix maybe wouldn’t even try.) Maybe The Matrix Online was a roadmap for the franchise’s future: a trilogy without end, for a world that’s always online.