Published April 1, 1999
When the winner of the Big Game lottery jackpot of $197 million didn’t immediately come forward to claim his prize recently, newspapers were reduced to running an AP photo of the shop in Boston where the winning ticket was sold. In the photo a young man is shown from behind as he affixes a sign outside reading: “WE SOLD A JACKPOT TICKET HERE!” On the back of the young man’s T-shirt is another triumphant slogan: “LIMITS EXIST ONLY IN THE MIND.” Actually, this message is at least as much a come-on for the lottery player as the other, since its brainless rhetorical optimism nicely sums up the ethos of American kid-culture which does so much to encourage Lotto fever and other signs of American decline, not excluding cinematic ones.
The most obvious recent example is The Matrix, a Joel Silver extravaganza written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. This was the number one movie in the country—by a long way—in the week of its release, which ought to tell you something about the proportion of teenage boys in the movie-going audience, since to an adult taste it stakes a claim to be the most boring movie ever made. This compendium of fashionable clothes, fashionable accessories (guns, cell phones) and fashionable gestures ends with Keanu Reeves, aka “Neo,” aka “The Chosen One,” telling us in voiceover that the victory of the hip resistance fighters over the straight minions of “the matrix,” its paranoid fantasy of an all-powerful conformity enforcer, reveals to us “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from here is up to you.”
Message from Grownupville to Keanu: there ain’t no such world. More to the point, such a world is not even honestly imaginable. Even 14 year-old boys know that at some level. But this film’s cynical appeal to mere wish-fulfilment fantasy is seen as mere harmless “escapism.” A question: what have middle-class kids in America got to escape from? Is life so bitter to them that they must beguile their abundant free hours with fantasizing about being able to stop approaching bullets or kung fu fight in mid-air or be resurrected from the dead by love like Keanu? He and his equally buff, equally hip love interest, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and his super-hip mentor, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne)—the only one of the three who is appropriately named—continually reiterate the movie’s message: “Free your mind” and anything is possible, including the suspension of the laws of physics. At the very least, such a lesson in popular nonsense is hardly calculated to hasten the onset of responsible adulthood.
Maybe we shouldn’t care; maybe we should let the kids be irresponsible kids. Even as irresponsible as this. But I believe that it can do nothing but harm to spend so much of their lives in a fantasy world. Apart from anything else, they are staying in it longer and longer, as this movie’s popularity reveals. You don’t get to be number one with only a teenage audience. Besides, the movie teaches kids contempt for the values of work and sobriety and conformity to social norms, here represented by machines got up to look like FBI or Secret Service agents in dark suits, dark glasses and little earpieces. These imitation people are supposed to serve “the system” or “The Matrix” which is said to make real people its unwitting slaves. “The resistance,” led by Morpheus, wants to save people stuck in the system—i.e. grownups with jobs, families etc—but many don’t want to be saved. “Many are not ready to be unplugged” from the machine, says Morpheus. Thank God for that, at least. But for how much longer will it be true?