ABSTRACT

Criticism on the Wachowski siblings’ science fiction film, The Matrix (1999), has generally followed along the lines of early criticism on the cyberpunk fiction of the late 1980s. This isn’t really surprising, since critics and fans of both the film and the subgenre have portrayed The Matrix as the first successful filmic translation of the imagery of cyberpunk, which is usually seen as being founded by, and epitomised in, William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. As P. Chad Barnett forcefully puts it, “the corpse-cold body of cyberpunk has been revived by a film that has brought the true feel of that notorious word to the screen for the first time.”1 Going beyond the superficial use of a computer-generated realm of existence in such earlier films as Tron (1982), Lawnmower Man (1992), and The Thirteenth Floor (1999), The Matrix, as the argument goes, captures the full flavour of cyberpunk, including not only the notion of a complete mental projection into a computerised net, but also the “retro-future” feel of the genre, where space-age computer technology coexists with grime, filth, and perhaps most importantly, an all-encompassing urban decay, characterised by Gibson as “The Sprawl.”2 Cyberpunk’s imagery, meanwhile, is often said to coexist with the textual creation of a new form of postmodern identity, a cybernetic, posthuman ontology in which, to quote Barnett again, “a host of technologies … place real human forms at risk of extinction,” primarily because “the flesh is burdensome wetware, exchanges are all symbolic in an electronic land of signs, and reality is virtual at best.”3 David Lavery notes in his essay on The Matrix and virtual reality that “Convinced that ‘physical reality is tragic in that it’s mandatory,’ virtual realists are ready to break with that seemingly irrevocable precedent.”4 Further, cyberpunk and its progeny have, it’s been argued, helped with this split, creating, or at least aiming for “a new ‘mode’ of being,” a “truly abstract space of imprecise possibilities,” brought about through the genre’s representation of “technological and posthuman indeterminacy.”5 The Matrix, then, within this critical framework, is supposedly the cinematic refinement of this posthuman identity, the indeterminacy of which is shown narratively in the film’s reliance on the classic science fiction plot of the alternate world (in which the main characters realise that the world around them is somehow fake, and they must break through the appearances in order to discover and inhabit reality).6