Original release: March 31st, 1999
Running time: 136 minutes
Writers and directors: Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving
Red Pill/Blue Pill: 00:24:21 to 00:28:38
“There is a difference between
knowing the path and
walking the path.” ~ Morpheus
Back in ’99, in the times of Y2K and a global millennium angst, The Matrix was one of the last movies that gave me a feeling of profound sublimity, this sense of being inspired and taken away on a plane where I could honestly doubt the lore of reality.
The blockbuster struck the nerves of all generations at once as it played on the archetypal desire to be part of something that reaches beyond our everyday lives, and on the omnipresent feeling that there’s something wrong with reality as we think of it. In short, everyone of us could be the main character Neo, “The One”.
Neo, aka Thomas A. Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves) is a young computer programmer without relationship and friends. He spends his nights making some bucks on the side as a hacker for dubious clients. Ultimately, the loner is burdened by a mystical question: What is the Matrix?
In this rather bleak period of his life, he is discovered by a group literally out of his world, and after a violent interlude with seemingly covert agents, this group takes him to a man called Morpheus, who is awaiting Neo with an impossible choice.
This scene, connecting the first two acts of the story, has become a legendary piece of cinema as it established an iconic symbol of pop culture: the red pill and the blue pill. However, the underlying message reaches much farther than even the filmmakers might have thought or imagined, and to me this scene and what it represents is ever more relevant today than it was 12 years ago.
“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. All I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.” ~ Morpheus
The room where Neo is offered the ultimate revelation, feels as end-of-the-world as it did when The Matrix hit the screens, a vintage lounge with classicist Art Deco, decaying and with the aura of a long gone world that hailed riches, beauty and decadence as pinnacle of the real world.
In this Film Noir setting, the dialogue between Morpheus and Neo seems at first like an initiation, the kind we imagine secret societies would use recruiting new adepts.
The conversation — quite literally — mirrors the age-old debate over free will on an emotional level. Neo’s struggle is palpable, he is on the edge of his seat all the time, the disillusioned sceptic throughout. He doesn’t know what we know; that Morpheus believes Neo is “The One”, the reincarnation of a mythical hero who is capable of freeing mankind.
Eventually, Morpheus offers Neo to take him out of the digital dream world he is living in and into the real world — if he chooses the red pill.
Today, more than a decade after The Matrix was made, and in a world that is rapidly becoming ever more complex and inscrutable, the choice Neo has to make appears to me like a decision on fate itself. In 1999, the Internet was still in its infancy, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet, and the 2012 prophecies with their subliminal effects on society were just about to strike roots.
In other words, the scene, especially Morpheus’ and Neo’s dialogue, might play out differently. The Matrix and its opposite are now entangled in a rather disturbing sense, as we are perpetually presented with countless choices — and countless truths. In a way, Neo’s question “What truth?” has become meaningless.
Many people feel, in a practical and every-day sense, that there’s something profoundly wrong with the world, and more and more people can actually put their finger on it. There’s a divide between what we are told about the world and what we experience, so we seem to have less and less to base our choices on.
Yet, we are never presented with only one or two choices, something not only The Matrix original, but its two sequels have alluded to as well. There always seems to be a way out, even if this way leads nowhere.
The question is not merely whether we are able to make informed decisions though. Even if we were told the truth and nothing but the truth and could make up our own minds, The Matrix, and the red-pill-blue-pill scene in particular, did not reflect on the fact that any truth’s subjective nature can make it impossible to decide when faced with choices.
The film touches on this predicament only twice. First with Neo’s question, after he “converted” to the real world, if he could go back, and a second time when another character, Cypher, betrays his companions so he can go back to the Matrix in order to enjoy the illusion of a happy life. Apart from that, the film seems to take sides with the ones who take the red pill as they don’t want to provide sustenance for the machines that created the Matrix.
Today, the lack of knowledge on the side of Morpheus’ candidates, like Neo, doesn’t seem to be completely plausible any more. The red-pill-blue-pill choice wouldn’t be based on what we know or are being told, as we are ever so much aware that there is always a catch, another side, something we are not told or cannot be told.
The question would be to choose or not to choose at all, and maybe to face the many truths and alternatives “out there” in the first place, and not, what more and more people do, build their private matrix that defends against the onslaught of an extremely fragmented and menacing reality. In a way, we have a red pill and a blue pill before us every day.
On this note, this scene has become a kind of writing on the wall, and the film itself a must-watch, again: We know we live in a kind of matrix, and any observer perceptive enough can see “the other side”, and eventually the path out of this trap. I think sooner or later everyone has to make this personal choice — whether or not to go there. Personally, I’d take the red pill.
One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh is a photographer and journalist who has been working in the media industry for over 15 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.
His passion for intricate stories and the ‘seven basic plots’ (ask him!) often times makes his friends and family put him in the doghouse for "predicting" too many twists and endings.