There’s an old adage that states the only two things we can count on in life are death and taxes, but if we’re being serious then there’s one more shared experience we can expect to encounter among all humans: boredom. More than any other state of being, boredom seems to be the one that inspires the widest range of reactions. It can both frustrate and motivate. Sometimes it leads us down the path to success, and others it leads us astray.
What’s most interesting about boredom, though, is while it most often comes as a result of prosperity, it fuels a drive towards self-destruction. Some of the most paranoid pieces of fiction came at times of relative quiet, from cultures that might see rumblings but never full-scale revolts.
One of the more interesting examples of this in film is, strangely, one of Hollywood’s largest action franchises – The Matrix (1999). At the time of its release, The Matrix came at a time of unparalleled prosperity – the American economy was the strongest it had ever been, there hadn’t been a significant military conflict in almost a decade and politically-speaking the country was as close to being united as you could ever say it’s been. So why, then, would a film like this, one that mined such extreme paranoia, be so successful?
Conceived by The Wachkowskis, two directors who came up in the Hollywood system, as mix of high-brow philosophy that openly referenced scholars like Baudrillard alongside low-brow chop-socky action that gave a winking nod to Shaw Brothers martial arts films, The Matrix may very well be the ultimate testament to the idea of boredom as a vehicle to explore our tendency toward self-destruction.
To be more precise, we as a society create dystopian fiction to escape the mundane reality of our existence. This itself is commonly understood and shouldn’t come as a surprise. The key idea to consider is, the intent isn’t simply to entertain as we generally attribute it. We fantasize about the collapse of society as a way of expressing an inner resentment towards prosperity and development because we harbor an innate distrust of civilization and its evolution away from conflict; or, as time advances and more uncertainty is stripped from our lives as we become safer and less able to exert force, we seek out things that offer the promise of danger because it restores in our minds the capacity to conquer.
In the film, our hero Neo leads a relatively boring life as a computer programmer while doubling as a hacker on the side for kicks. Despite being a hacker, there isn’t much about his life that would lead you to believe he encounters conflict on any regular basis; that is, until he encounters Morpheus and is offered a choice between the blue and red pills. Ostensibly, we’re led to believe this is a choice between waking up and continuing to sleep, as the world he’s in isn’t in fact reality, but taken from a different perspective the choice can actually be viewed as none at all.
…as time advances and more uncertainty is stripped from our lives as we become safer and less able to exert force, we seek out things that offer the promise of danger because it restores in our minds the capacity to conquer.
Leading up to this the one thing we know about Neo is that he thinks there’s something wrong with his world but he can’t quite put his finger on it. He leads a mostly dull life, with the exception of freelancing as a hacker on the side, but his side-job is more MacGuffin than personal attribute – it’s there to facilitate his later choice. Even dabbling as a hacker suggests a detached kind of activism wherein he’s only tempting fate instead of directly challenging it; he sells illegal software as opposed to trying to affect any real change, be it through a computer or in his own world. His decision to “go deeper down the rabbit hole” is explicitly a desire to reclaim control over a life in which he feels he has no power rather than a choice between reality or a dream world. In that sense, it isn’t even a choice because he was always going to choose the red pill. Morpheus wasn’t asking him to wake up but instead preying on his innate fear of security.
Extended beyond the limits of the screen, American audiences watching The Matrix would have identified with this. In a time of relative peace, the desire to believe something was fundamentally wrong with the world around them would have resonated in a real way. Many were attempting to construct arguments that the quiet it was experiencing was fundamentally outside its nature. Random acts of violent expression intending to disrupt this pattern were becoming more prominent as the terrorist of the past had transformed from a foreign menace into a domestic one. The safety of this era would have created a climate in which The Matrix could find a wider audience than, say, Brazil (1985), which covered much of the same territory but without the same cultural zeitgeist and financial backing to support its ideas.
Next Week: The Police State is NOW: Dredd