Why the Alt-Right's 'Matrix' Embrace Matters for a Reboot

In The Matrix, which is now poised for a reboot, Neo (Keanu Reeves) had to make the now infamous choice between a red pill and a blue pill. Offered to him by a bespectacled Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the pills are Neo’s to-be-or-not-to-be moment: Taking the blue pill would allow him to regain blissful ignorance under his robot oppressors, whereas the red pill would let him see the reality, however terrifying, of his situation.

He’s the hero. He takes the red pill.

For those unfamiliar with the less-than-savory side of the internet, The Red Pill is also the name of a group on Reddit that largely features discussions pertaining to Men's Rights Activism.

MRAs, as they are known, have co-opted The Matrix’s concept of voluntary enlightenment, claiming that they have awakened to the reality that modern American culture (from common dating practices to child custody laws) actively subverts the inherent power of men. Men have been relegated to second-class citizen status, and only the few (those who have taken the proverbial "red pill") are able to see it.

The Red Pill subreddit has become a place where MRAs can converge and converse. It features a strange mix of self-loathing humor and active political debate. There are a lot of links shared and memes explaining the "true" nature of reality. It’s their rabbit hole. Posts on latest revisions to child custody laws are interspersed among lengthy rant-threads with heads like “The consequences of marrying a slut” and “Women will instinctively try to drain your energy. EVERY normal woman does this.”

MRAs are considered a faction associated with the alt-right — which was birthed out of forums like Reddit and 4Chan and, more recently, has come into the public consciousness by way of far-right publications like Breitbart. One August 2016 Breitbart story had the on-the-nose headline: "The Men’s Rights Movement: A Smart, Necessary Counterweight to Man-Hating Feminism." And, of course, former Breitbart executive chair Steve Bannon is currently sitting in the White House as one of President Donald Trump's key advisors.

The reboot business is a big business in Hollywood. But when a box-office classic has been co-opted by a troubling faction in the very specific way The Matrix has been embraced by MRAs, the question becomes: What's a studio to do?

As my colleague Graeme McMillan pointed out, The Matrix was a unique product of its time, one that felt just ahead of the curve as it dealt with technology-related anxieties of the era.

The Matrix came out in 1999, a time when America was contemplating how many cans of non-perishables they could fit in their cupboards ahead of the impending computer apocalypse, lovingly referred to as Y2K. The Wachowskis, the sibling writer-directors behind the original franchise, crafted an adept social critique of our increasingly digitized society, offering a big-screen warning against the behaviors that could lead to widespread environmental, economic and social collapse. They showed audiences a world in which people have turned away from each other and allowed the machines to take over.

Even if scenes and plot points have been repurposed by MRAs, the overarching themes of The Matrix — such as human vs. machine, oppressed vs. oppressors and the dogged pursuit of justice  — are subjects that feel particularly well-timed to the current social and political climate.

Many have also pointed out the irony of the appropriation considering that since the franchise's end, the Wachowskis have both come out as transgender. The Matrix is an incredible feat of narrative and visual storytelling, and any subsequent Matrix remakes could very well be that again — given the time to develop the right narrative with the right filmmakers.  

It's not the fault of the studio or filmmakers that their movie has been co-opted, so it may not be their responsibility to reckon with it. But The Matrix, back in 1999, cinematically subverted anxieties of the time, from government oversight to the unease surrounding computerized systems, and the reboot has the chance to do the same for contemporary audiences who might be worried by bigoted language and ideals that are perpetuated on subreddits like The Red Pill.

Jordan Peele’s surprise horror hit Get Out has shown that nuanced social critique can be incorporated into high-concept genre fare and come out on the other end wildly successful both critically (99 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercially ($115 million at the box office and counting). Those behind The Matrix reboot could use the film's tentpole platform to combat the more unsavory parts of the franchise’s own legacy. 

As of yet, there is no director, producer, stars — and no Wachowskis attached to this possible reboot. But if The Matrix does return, it will be fascinating to see if the studio and its filmmakers will acknowledge the franchise’s now-complicated history or if they will choose to ignore it entirely.

Will Warner Bros. be willing to take a red pill of its own?