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Red Pill Or Blue Pill? 20 Years Ago The Matrix Built Our Reality-Denying World


Nearly 20 years ago in March of 1999, there was a burning question on the minds of many filmgoers.


KEANU REEVES: (As Neo) What is the matrix?

CORNISH: The answer turned out to be a pop culture phenomenon - a sci-fi thriller in which a hacker named Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, has an awakening. He discovers his seemingly normal world is a computer simulation. Laurence Fishburne's character Morpheus explains it.


LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) The matrix is everywhere. It is all around us even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television.

CORNISH: The matrix is all around us in 2019. That's the argument made in a series of stories published by the pop culture site Vulture. When I asked columnist Mark Harris to explain, he referred to Morpheus's words.

MARK HARRIS: I think that little clip that you played is perfect kind of one-size-fits-all paranoia because it tells you that reality - real reality is right in front of your eyes if you just wake up and will yourself to see it. But if you don't do that, you're living in a dream world. And that can appeal to everyone from people on the far left who think that we're all, you know, unknowingly controlled by corporations, to people on the far right who are convinced that everything they see in the media is a lie, to libertarians who think, you know, that the awareness of the individual is everything, to people who are just, you know, really fond of conspiracy theories. It kind of works for everyone at this moment.

CORNISH: No, I understand that - the rise of conspiracy culture. And, in particular, one of the most enduring images in the movie is of the red pill.


FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

CORNISH: Neo takes a red pill to break out of the matrix to see life as it really is.


FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) Remember, all I'm offering is the truth - nothing more.

CORNISH: And this phrase has actually become fairly common - right? - in some corners of the Internet. Talk about it.

HARRIS: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, it's strange to remember that in 1999 when "The Matrix" came out, the idea of living on social media in these short, little bursts of communication with strangers, whether it's Twitter or Instagram or Reddit, was not really a thing. And so take the red pill has become this kind of shorthand for, I guess, what, you know, in the 1950s would've been wake up and smell the coffee. Particularly on the alt-right, it's a kind of semaphoric way of saying stop being so delusional; don't you see that you're being duped?

CORNISH: Finally, the filmmakers haven't had a hit like "The Matrix" since. Can you tell us what happened to them?

HARRIS: I think the most famous thing that people know about the Wachowskis is that they're both trans - that they went through transitions in the years after "The Matrix" at separate times. In terms of their moviemaking, they followed up with two sequels which were not nearly as well liked or as well-received as the original was, which is often the case with sequels. Then they made "Speed Racer." They made a pretty interesting Netflix series called "Sense8," but something like "The Matrix" comes along, in a way, once in a career. And what kind of impresses me about the Wachowskis is they're not all that interested in duplicating it. Maybe they realized that after the sequels, they didn't particularly want to be lifelong custodians of one franchise. And sometimes I think of "The Matrix" as, like, the moment when the Wachowskis and the mainstream accidentally overlapped.

CORNISH: In the meantime, as we noted in the intro, Vulture is doing a full series on this. I'm looking at one of the articles that says 19 things "The Matrix" predicted about life in 2019. (Laughter) It seems like you guys are very committed to this thesis. You feel like we're living in a simulation?

HARRIS: (Laughter) Well, on a day when a national emergency is declared, it's possible that, yes, you do stop and think maybe this isn't real. But, you know, the sort of interest in paranoid theories like we're living in a broken simulation is very matrixy (ph) to me. And so are those Internet articles where you see headlines like, you've been doing such and such wrong your whole life; here's how to do it right. The idea that it's a kind of fun commodity that reality is right in front of you and you're just missing it because you're so oblivious - that is very matrix.

CORNISH: Mark Harris is a pop culture columnist for Vulture and New York Magazine. Thank you for joining us.

HARRIS: Thanks for having me.


A.CHAL: (Rapping) Going through the matrix. Red and blue pills, black shades - that's the basics. I feel it when they're eyeing. That's why I move low, get the codes, never mind them. Yeah. I'm going through the matrix. Red and blue pills, black shades - that's the basics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.