“That System Is Our Enemy” - Cyberpunk in the Wachowski Brothers’ ‘The Matrix’
It is the aim of this paper to show that The Matrix, written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, is a development of cyberpunk. On the one hand, The Matrix shares many basic ideas, typical features and motifs with cyberpunk, as we know it from the works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and other cyberpunk writers of the 1980s. But on the other hand The Matrix’s cyberpunk also differs very much from other cyberpunk works. It not only differs, in many cases The Matrix pushes ideas and motifs of cyberpunk further, taking them to another level.
In this paper I will analyze themes, topics and motifs of cyberpunk in The Matrix, the way they are used and, most important, the purpose behind cyberpunk in the film. I will look at how and for what effect cyberpunk is used in The Matrix.
In the introduction to his cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades, Bruce Sterling writes that central themes of cyberpunk are “the theme of body invasion: prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, generic alteration […] and the “theme of mind invasion: brain – computer interfaces, artificial intelligence”. Sterling writes about literature but it makes sense to use his characteristics of cyberpunk in this paper because “The Matrix is a work of literature”, has “careful attention to symbolic detail throughout the movie […] [and] the script went through seventeen rewrites”.
The themes, topics and motifs I will examine in the film are cyber–system and punk, computer-brain interface, the use of mirrors and mirrorshades and rain. I will look at the film’s dystopian setting and analyze the topic of technophobia, which is one of the effects of the technological dystopia.
Writing about cyberpunk, it is useful to have a look at the term itself, so the following two quotations should provide a definition, or at least an explanation of the concept of cyberpunk:
the ‘cyber’ component in the term cyberpunk alludes to the fact that the point of
reference of this branch of science fiction is cybernetics rather than spaceships and
robots. The ‘punk’ element, for its part, hints at a defiant attitude based in urban street
culture. Cyberpunks characters are people on the fringe of society: outsiders, misfits
who struggle for survival in a technological enhanced system that tries to dominate the lives of most people.
Often this technological system extends into its human ‘components’ as well, via brain
implants, prosthetic limbs, cloned or genetically engineered organs etc. Humans
themselves become part of ‘the Machine’. This is the ‘cyber’ aspect of cyberpunk.
However, in any cultural system, there are those who live on its margins, on ‘the Edge’:
criminals, outcasts, visionaries, or those who simply want freedom for its own sake.
Cyberpunk literature focuses on these people, and often on how they turn the system’s
technological tools to their own ends. This is the ‘punk’ aspect of cyberpunk.
This technological enhanced, oppressive system exists in The Matrix as well: artificial intelligence rules the earth and the vast majority of mankind. But the concept of the ‘cyber system’ is taken a step further in two ways. The system’s technological extension is much more extreme: humans not only have brain implants, through holes in their heads they are plugged into the system permanently. A direct connection between the brain and the artificial intelligence’s means of control: the matrix. On top of that, the system not just extends itself into the individuals, but humans are already a fixed part of the system. Lying in cocoons of the power plants, being the machine’s energy supply, human minds are plugged into the system, and at the same time they are physically contained in it.
But not only the ‘cyber’ aspect of cyberpunk is present in The Matrix, the ‘punk’ element fits too. The protagonist, Neo, is very much the outsider, the criminal hacker, the punk as explained in the quotations above, already very clear in the beginning of the movie. He is an outsider because “you [Neo] live alone […] and night after night sit at your computer”, searching for answers, looking for freedom for its own sake. He is a criminal because, as Agent Smith puts it, he “is guilty of virtually every computer crime we [the system] have a law for”. He is also a punk because he has “a problem with authority” and he gives the agents the finger, not being scared of “this Gestapo crap”. Neo’s Christian name is Thomas, after the doubtful disciple of Jesus Christ. Neo is very doubtful and he does not accept rules and orders without questioning. Being picked up in the car by Trinity, Switch and Apoc, Neo is confronted with a decision: Switch commands him to blindly follow their orders by saying “Right now, there is only one rule, our way or the highway”. It takes Neo, the doubtful, distrusting, only a fraction of a second to chose the highway. He would rather not meet Morpheus, whom he has been searching for the past two years, than blindly follow the orders that he does not understand.
 Bruce Sterling. “Preface”. Mirrorshades. The Cyberpunk Anthology. Bruce Sterling (ed.). Paladin Grafton Books, 1986. repr. Glasgow, 1990. p. xi
 Mark Crosby. “Reflections Upon The Matrix”. Film Philosophy 3.31 (1999). 24 February 2003. <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n31crosby>.
 Steve Kellmeyer. The New Gnostic Gospel. 24 February 2003. <http://www.envoymagazine.com/backissues/4.5/coverstory.html>.
 Dani Cavallaro. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture. London: Athlone Press, 2000. p. 14
 Erich Schneider. „Cyberpunk as a Science Fiction Genre“. Project Cyberpunk. 25 March 2003. <http.project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/scifi.htm>.
 Andy and Larry Wachowski. The Matrix. Village Roadshow Pictures. 1999.
 The Matrix
 The Matrix
 The Matrix
- Quote paper
- M.A. Jan Riepe (Author), 2003, Cyberpunk in "The Matrix", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/38364