The other night we learned that Warner Bros. is developing a reboot of The Matrix, with an interest in Michael B. Jodan as the lead. Zak Penn has been tapped to write the treatment for the reboot, but nothing else is solid at the moment. The Wachowskis may not be involved in the project at all.
We’re drowning in reboots and remakes these days, and the idea of remaking The Matrix seems unnecessary. It’s so tied to its period–a groundbreaking work inextricable from the 1990s. I can’t believe it’s almost 20 years old. Where did the time go?
But what if you had to do a reboot and wanted to make the Matrix reboot matter? I think The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded provided solid story potential for a reboot. I also think The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions offer examples of what might not work in a new series.
This may all be preliminary fan fiction, but here’s how I’d do The Matrix Rebooted.
1. Treat the new Matrix as part of continuity
When Neo meets The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded, we learn a lot about how the system works and how it sustains itself. The current version of the Matrix is just the sixth version in a line of reality-simulating self-regulating programs, each designed to account for the complexities caused by human free will. The choice Neo makes will determine whether or not the human race survives. Certain programs carry over from each version of the Matrix even if each iteration is a new one–Seraph was apparently a former Agent in an earlier version of the Matrix; The Merovingian harbors obsolete programs; The Oracle, as a guide for The One, is sort of like the Clippy of the Matrix.
Choice creates a series of forking paths in every iteration of the Matrix, all headed toward the inevitability of The One and the necessity of a reboot to eliminate The One from the system. Then a new version, and a new One, and so on. This offers a diegetic reason for a new Matrix to exist: it’s built into the program, it’s part of the way the world works. This also provides an interesting exploration of free will and agency viewed from a human perspective (uncertainty regarding outcomes) versus an analytical/machine perspective (contingent branches on a decision tree).
There’s another story element this in-continuity Matrix reboot offers, though I’ll get to it at the end.
2. Pick the Wachowskis’ brains
The Wachowskis are the parents of this story, and while they may not have to give their blessing for the project, it would be great for someone to pick their brains about the Matrix. Was there anything they wished they could have done? Are there things they would have done differently in hindsight? What lore had they created for their world that they never talked about? There’s probably a lot of unexplored material to consider.
Come to think of it, there might even be too much to talk about. When the two Matrix sequels came out, a bunch of supplemental material got released between 2003 and 2005. There was The Animatrix (a collection of animated shorts), Enter the Matrix (a video game), The Matrix Comics, and The Matrix Online (an MMORPG). Some of this may have been crass merchandising–let’s milk this cyberpunk, anime, Hong Kong action movie cow until it bleeds–but I also sense that there was a much bigger story the Wachowskis wanted to tell but never finished.
Once again, I tie this back into the diegetic idea of the Matrix reboot just being the latest version of Matrix. Going to the architects of the original Matrix might improve the newest version of the program.
3. The Matrix > Zion and the real world
Some of the weakest material in the Matrix sequels took place in the real world. Zion was a dingy, rusty place with steam, corridors, walkways, Cornel West, vanilla sex, and boring raves. The war against the machines wasn’t all that fun either. Shoot them or use an electromagnetic pulse. Behold–boring, expensive naval combat. I remember the sickly green world of the Matrix better than the state college dorm of Zion.
For the new Matrix, there may be a way to engage the real world without it seeming so banal. Perhaps it’s a matter of increasing the stakes. Extinction level events are big, sure, but what matters in the abstract and what we form an emotional link to are different matters. The latter requires some concrete connection to people and places. What makes Zion worth caring for really? What makes a place a home? A place is not innately meaningful.
And to that, did anyone get attached to the new characters fighting in Zion? They were mostly a bunch of Blandy McBlandersons doing action-things without emotional content. That brings me to the next point…
4. Stick with a core group of characters with well-defined supporting players
The cast of supporting characters ballooned in The Matrix Reloaded. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately most of the new characters were forgettable. Did Niobe, Link, or Commander Lock add much to the story? Ditto that annoying kid in the giant mechanoid robot suit? Their screen time may have expanded the world of the movie, but they often sucked the air out of film’s story since their actions were rarely significant to the plot. (The blunt difference between world building and storytelling.)
Rather than putting your setpieces on the shoulders of bland supporting characters (e.g., the annoying kid in the defense of Zion in The Matrix Revolutions), keep the focus on a core group of well-defined characters. Why wasn’t Morpheus manning a mech alongside Niobe during Zion’s last stand? Come to think of it, what defines Niobe as a character other than the fact she’s played by Jada Pinkett Smith? If supporting players are involved, give them personality rather than assign them a plot-based function.
I still find it telling that the Nebuchadnezzar crew in the original Matrix has more personality than 95% of the supporting players in the two Matrix sequels.
5. Update the aesthetic to avoid the late 90s/early 2000s
Let’s come back to the diegetic notion of a new Matrix program rebooted for the umpteenth time. If the old Matrix was defined by the aesthetic of the late 90s and early 2000s, we can chock that up to a quirk of programming. (Obviously this is a paradoxical symptom of the era that birthed the first movie. Nearly every attempt to make something look futuristic winds up looking, in retrospect, like a product of its time. Why is it that conscious attempts to fuse the future with the past a la Blade Runner still look futuristic enough?) The new Matrix should depict a contemporary era’s vision of the future rather than recapture the look of the millennial cusp.
This goes for the manner of dress, the in-story technology, and the score (imagine how quaintly goofy a techno-classical hybrid soundtrack might sound today). And since the original Matrix drew on a hodgepodge of influences that were so 90s, the new Matrix can draw on things that define the 2010s in some way. Maybe the fighting style changes from the kung fu of 80s Hong Kong action movies to the faster, more functional striking and grappling of MMA. Maybe the G-men-like Agents become Slender Men and more menacing as a result. Are the rebels into post-rock or hip-hop? And how will smartphones and tablets figure into all of this? Ditto apps and the cloud.
There’s a lot to consider here, and I don’t want to just list pop culture detritus for the new film. Those things will be carefully picked by the filmmakers, who will hopefully do more than show us shiny, fight-y, special effects-y things.
6. Find writers and directors with something to say
A lot of reboots and remakes suck because they don’t say anything. Instead they’re selling empty nostalgia using a name you may remember. Yet there are solid remakes (David Cronenberg’s The Fly) and reboots (Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies) and soft sequels (Ryan Coogler’s Creed), each of which does something new with familiar material. There’s a sensibility behind the name, a human intelligence behind the IP.
There are probably some filmmakers or writers out there who were influenced by The Matrix. Maybe The Matrix was their gateway drug into other aspects of geek culture. They might have a personal story they want to tell, and The Matrix may be the right vessel to tell it. It may be political, too–something about resistance and rebellion feels right these days.
A recent report said that Warner Bros. is trying to get a writing room together for the Matrix reboot, sort of like how they write TV. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A guiding hand can steer the writing room into an interesting direction. Multiple ideas from solid writers can bounce off each other and synthesize and create better ideas. (I’m skeptical–and why shouldn’t I be?–that Warner Bros. actually wants to make something that says anything. A writer room assembled by a studio reeks of film-by-committee-by-market-research.)
7. Avoid repeating the story beats of the original Matrix films
Most reboots and remakes fail because they slavishly repeat the plot of the original film without offering anything original of their own. Even though I sort of liked the Ghostbusters reboot, the weakest material in the movie was anything that reminded me of the original Ghostbusters. Why would I watch a reboot if it’s a pale imitation of the original? (That also applies to Ghostbusters 2.) For another example of this, think of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which is a joyless, beat-by-beat recreation of the plot from Richard Donner’s Superman. (Superman Returns is the Ghostbusters 2 of superhero movies.)
There’ll be a temptation to redo the red pill/blue pill scene. The same goes for Neo’s first jump and cartoon fall. And the new filmmakers will probably want to do their own rendition of the lobby scene. The occasional nod to the past is okay, but why do the same thing again? Why not do something new? I suppose blank canvases are more intimidating than tracing paper, and the potential of an incomplete line is more stultifying than connect the dots.
To put it another way, if you’re going to cover a song, do it like Devo did “Satisfaction” or Johnny Cash did “Hurt”. Someone has to make this material their own rather than just repeating the mistakes and successes of the past. There the line from Jose Lezama Lima quoted in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch: “Let us try to invent new passions, or to reproduce the old ones with a like intensity.”
Yeah, do that.
8. E pluribus unum (Out of many, one)
I mentioned there’s another story element about keeping the Matrix reboot in continuity with the original trilogy. Here are preliminary thoughts on that, and the point where simple suggestions in approach veer into the realm of Matrix fan fiction.
Say there’s a new Neo in a new iteration of the Matrix. Neo is the latest in a line of Ones from previous versions of the Matrix, each of them an anomaly eventually accounted for and zeroed out to restart the system. What if the new Neo could access the old versions of the Matrix and see how they played out? Maybe they’re archived even though the system has run its course. What if the new Neo could somehow learn from previous Ones? Maybe the Ones are iterations of a monomythic subprogram that eventually results in a prototypical, archetypal, chosen-one hero who follows the mechanical beats of narrative heroism to ensure the Matrix can eventually reboot. The monomythic subprogram comes from an AI’s analysis of heroic legends from past human cultures.
What if the way to beat this self-perpetuating system is to break the monomythic structure? To crap on the Hero’s Journey? To intentionally subvert the heroic narrative and create a new kind of heroism?
This is a larger meta narrative that’s simultaneously diegetic. The Matrix Rebooted is about the nature of reboots, and also about the nature of narrative repetition, how it’s a valuable part of our history and yet how it’s essentially mechanical at this point and may require some sort of reinvention to be relevant rather than just comforting. We can choose to be heroes otherwise–we can invent our own heroism and a new morality. Neo is the hero gone rogue artist, the sort of person who comes away from a class on Nietzsche but isn’t a total douchebag about it.
Maybe the new Neo recruits an army of Ones from the archives to battle in the system like a bunch of cyberpunk Supermen, or perhaps Neo figures out a way to blow up the system through intentional acts of narrative terrorism. Maybe Neo turns everyone into the One by helping people see patterns in their own lives that tap into the monomythic subprogram. (This all sounds a little like a Grant Morrison comic book, sure, but the Wachowskis borrowed heavily from The Invisibles, so screw it.)
Maybe Clippy the Oracle can help in all this. “It looks like you’re subverting the Hero’s Journey. Would you like help?”
Yes, Clippy. Let’s kung fu the hell out of traditional storytelling.