As it did for so many nerds who wore too much black and a trench coat, The Matrix was a formative, revelatory movie in my young life.
The amazing part about the movie is that it was revelatory to so many people for such different reasons. It meant a lot to me because it was the story of a loser who spent his life behind a computer, either in a cubicle or in a dimly lit bedroom, and broke free not just from that life but from the world in general. It also struck a chord with the LGBT community, which makes sense in hindsight since it was made by two trans women who hadn’t come out yet. And of course bros loved it because, I mean, come on, that lobby shootout is the stuff of legends.
But it wasn’t just the action, nerdery, and action that made it great. It also included a soundtrack that completely encapsulates a specific subculture in a specific time, with a genre of music that vanished as quickly as it appeared but that many, myself included, still gravitate to when writing code.
Of course the movie came out 20 years ago, so there are adults who weren’t born yet when it was blowing minds. Nothing has ever aged me more than when a high school student described it as “an old movie my dad likes,” for example. So for those of you who mock me with your accursed youth let’s take a walk through that iconic soundtrack and experience what Young Danny listened to back in 1999.
Massive Attack — “Dissolved Girl”
Let’s start at the beginning, with a song that was extremely hard to find back in the days before Wikipedia.
Early in the movie, just before Morpheus first makes contact with Thomas Anderson in his dingy apartment, our protagonist is asleep in front of his computer still wearing headphones. The song he’s listening to, blaring to him but muffled to the audience, isn’t on the soundtrack. So imagine by surprise and glee when I realized “Dissolved Girl,” from Massive Attack’s album Mezzanine, sounded vaguely familiar. But trust me on this: It’s surprisingly hard to fall asleep to.
As an aside, that’s not the album’s only brush with fame; “Teardrop,” another track, was the theme song from the TV show House.
Lunatic Calm — “Leave You Far Behind”
Jumping ahead in the movie, Neo takes the red pill (not that red pill, misogynists), goes through the surprisingly well-done CGI looking glass, wakes up in a pod full of goo and spends several months connected to electrified acupuncture. So basically he experiences an average Tuesday night for me when I was in college.
The first thing they do upon his graduation from the anti-atrophy needles is achieve every nerd’s dream and plug his brain into a computer to upload pretty much any knowledge he wants. And, because in the end the movie is just wish fulfillment, the first thing they upload is combat routines. Which he tests by fighting Lawrence Fishburne in a virtual dojo to “Leave You Far Behind.”
Fortunately, the scene in the movie is much, much cooler than the music video for the song. Because… yeah, sorry about that. The late ’90s were a very weird time. Nobody really knew what was cool until The Matrix came out so we had a lot of failed attempts. Don’t judge us.
Rob D — “Clubbed to Death”
Were you listening to the song, or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?
I’ll be honest, I have conflicting feelings about this scene in 2019. On the one hand part of Morpheus’ monologue resonates with such a huge chunk of America just going about its business, treating the rise of fascism as just another day and participating without a second thought: “The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around. What do you see? Business people, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. … And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.”
But the part I replaced with a “…” in the quote above sounds like a terrorist recruitment pitch: “But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged.”
I score this as a positive for the movie as a whole. It’s more complex than it gets credit for, with the good guys and the bad guys not as good or as bad as the characters would have you think.
Propellerheads — “Spybreak!”
So far I’ve included just the song rather than the scene in the movie. This is about the music, after all, even if it’s the music from a film. The lobby scene, though? You want to see the lobby scene. I want to see the lobby scene. So let’s just watch it.
It begins with one of the deepest, most oddly sympathetic villain monologues in movie history, cuts to a profoundly cool introduction to the new Action Neo, then becomes one of the best action scenes I’ve ever seen to the ideal song for the tone and the pace. It’s more or less perfect in every way.
Right until the 1999-vintage CGI on the explosion fire effects where the lobby pillars are magically no longer rubble. So I picked a clip that doesn’t include that part. You’re welcome.
Rage Against the Machine — “Wake Up”
There’s really only one way to finish a recap of The Matrix via its soundtrack’s highlights: With the song that ends the movie.
If there wasn’t a Rage Against the Machine song involved in the movie it would’ve been a travesty. A film from the ’90s about using violence to break a corrupt, destructive system that’s enslaving the minds of humanity by convincing them they live in a peaceful paradise while in reality emotionless machines control everything from behind the scenes? It’s like they took it out of Zack de la Rocha’s dream journal.
And, like Rage’s lyrics, the current era makes the movie seem all the more relevant. The Matrix is one of the few stories to ask the question: When you can’t change the system from the inside because the system itself is the problem, what do you do? How do you free yourself by changing a system that’s designed to prevent you from making any meaningful changes?
Despite the all the violence in the movie, they make it absolutely clear that violence doesn’t work. Nobody has ever beaten an Agent. They’ve been fighting for years and gaining no ground. They still run, and they still hide, because even with an infinite supply of guns you can’t shoot your way out of a problem designed without a solution.
In the movie, the key is a person born with the ability to change the system through sheer force of will. There’s no explanation—at least until the sequels, which we do not speak of—Neo is just gifted with this ability. And those people exist in real life: Martin Luther King Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Caesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony, Mario Savio, Martin Luther, Maximilien Robespierre. There have been no shortage of men and women who concentrate and focus the power of the people to force change despite overwhelming odds.
But what if we don’t have the luxury of waiting on one of those people to emerge? Well, hopefully Matrix 4 has an answer, because 2019 America sure hasn’t figured it out.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.