This story has been updated.
“The Matrix Resurrections” hits theaters and HBO Max this week, the latest in a string of popular 1990s-era media being rebooted. As a sucker for nostalgia and updated graphics, I have been patiently waiting for my favorite shows and movies to get the 2021 touch they deserve. Some, like “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” have not been worth the wait. But “The Matrix Resurrections” feels unique compared to its rebooted counterparts.
And that’s in no small part because, since the original “Matrix” release in 1999, sister directors Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski each came out as transgender — in 2012 and 2016, respectively. And it’s time for audiences to start recognizing the series as a trans allegory.
To say the original “Matrix” was a success would be an understatement. The film — which follows Thomas Anderson, or Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, as he discovers he has been living in a simulation created by artificial intelligence — grossed $466,621,824 worldwide. It won a handful of Academy Awards and earned the acclaim of fans, like my dad. But many (like my dad) missed the trans allegory sewn into the “time-jumping thriller” that was “a must-see among genre fans, especially guys in their teens and 20s,” according to a Variety review from 1999.
Now, I can’t help thinking about the copies in my home of the original “Matrix” movie, which was released in 1999. My DVD, VHS and Blu-ray versions (yes, all three) are wrong: Directors Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s names are omitted from their most well-known film. But their impact is ever-present throughout the series.
Lana Wachowski said she returned to the franchise for “The Matrix Resurrections” because of grief. After the death of her parents, the characters she created back in the 1990s brought her comfort. During an interview for the movie, she said: “One night, I was crying and I couldn’t sleep, and my brain exploded this whole story. And I couldn’t have my mom and dad, yet suddenly I had Neo and Trinity, arguably the two most important characters in my life. It was immediately comforting to have these two characters alive again.”
Indeed, the Matrix trilogy is a story about self-discovery despite societal expectations and creating family wherever you go.
Lilly Wachowski didn’t return to the series for “The Matrix Resurrections.” But to me, she’ll always be integral to the meaning of the films. Because beyond the stunning leather outfits, “The Matrix” has always been a story of transformation.
Lilly Wachowski has been the more outspoken of the two concerning the trans allegory in “The Matrix” and the sisters’ original intention with the films. She told Netflix Film Club in 2020 that a trans sci-fi story didn’t inspire higher-ups in the film industry back in the 1990s. “The corporate world wasn’t ready for it,” she said. But since its release, she added, the response from trans people has been monumental: “I love how meaningful those films are to trans people.”
“The Matrix … was all about the desire for transformation, but it was all coming from a closeted point of view,” Lilly Wachowski said. The transformation present throughout the series is something she has also mentioned about her own journey with gender. In an interview with the Windy City Times from 2016, she said, “My reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one.”
I have never watched the Matrix trilogy without knowing that at least one of its creators was trans. I was born about a week before the first movie came out, and action movies weren’t on the top of my mom’s postpartum activities. My first time viewing the films was in middle school, when my dad had them playing on the TV. I wasn’t an instant fan; I mostly had a lot of questions about the plot. But rewatching the films in college, I viewed them as queer explorations, and naively assumed the rest of the world did, too.
To me, the coded themes and scenes in the original “Matrix” were clear. For example, there’s a character named Switch (originally intended to present as female in the real world and male in the Matrix) who wears an outfit that makes it appear as though they are a topless man in a blazer. The film series also references deadnames; people have one name within the Matrix and another in the real world.
Of course, what felt obvious to me has been seen differently by others. Even the film’s star, Keanu Reeves, wasn’t aware of the trans allegory. In an interview with Variety last year, Reeves said that he didn’t know “The Matrix” was a trans allegory. “That idea wasn’t introduced to me when we started for production on the films,” he said. “Lilly never shared that with me.”
The world was not ready for a blockbuster, explicitly trans story in 1999, and it’s barely ready for one in 2021. Just last month, actor Eddie Redmayne said it was a “mistake” to portray a trans woman in the 2015 film “The Danish Girl” — that while he had the “best intentions,” the role should’ve gone to a trans actor. There’s still a dearth of trans actors and directors, as well as mainstream, blockbuster projects that depict trans characters on-screen.
But I take some comfort in knowing that Lana Wachowski, an out trans woman, is returning to a film series that defined sci-fi in the early 2000s. The trans nature of the films can’t be as willfully ignored by audiences anymore. And this next installation doesn’t have to have explicitly trans characters or focus on transitioning at all for it to be a trans story: “The Matrix” has always been trans art.
I have not seen the new film, but “The Matrix Resurrections” already got one thing right. In its titular green font, the film credits Lana Wachowski as its director.