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Thursday, November 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Still down the rabbit hole for ‘The Matrix’ 20 years later

All it took was a red pill. A plunge down the rabbit hole. A slowing of time while a man dodges bullets. We were hooked. And still are.

Twenty years ago, the seminal action film “The Matrix” first hit theaters, transporting audiences into a 2-hour-long kung-fu extravaganza filled with slick, meaningful action, cutting-edge technology and a plot so crammed with heady themes, it might as well be taught in philosophy introductory classes (hint: it is).

Its legacy is entrenched in pop culture and film history, spawning lookalikes such as 2008’s “Wanted,” and inspiring countless homages and parodies, with “bullet time” scenes in 2000’s “Scary Movie,” and a new wave of hyper-stylized action scenes found in any Zack Snyder film.

Twenty years later, and “The Matrix,” written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, is still turning heads. And soon, filling seats – the 1999 film is returning to theaters across the U.S. this week, including AMC at River Park Square downtown, starting Thursday.

While it isn’t rare for a film to return to theaters – “Titanic” did it in 2012 for it’s 3D version and again in 2017 for its 20th anniversary – it is remarkable timing for “The Matrix.”

Its lead star Keanu Reeves is having a renaissance, releasing this summer the third part of his popular action franchise “John Wick.” And just last week, “Matrix 4” was announced, with stars Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss returning, in addition to writer/director Lana Wachowski.

Maybe that’s why the buzz is so high for a film that can’t seem to leave the pop culture sphere, said Adam Boyd, a filmmaker and lecturer at Eastern Washington University’s film department.

“I think that’s pretty important, why his film is still relevant,” Boyd Said. “Keanu as an actor is still relevant.”

But Reeves’ bankability aside, film scholars and philosophy professors agree: “The Matrix” is one of the only movies to nail that fine line between meaningful, thought-provoking science fiction and action that gets moviegoers across the spectrum into seats.

It’s part of the reason why the movie was part of the zeitgeist of the early 2000s – it popularized leather trenchcoats and sunglasses with no arms. It helped bring Hong Kong-style action to the West. And it introduced philosophical ideas many hadn’t thought about since freshman year of college.

It told us to maybe not trust our computers. And, yes, the cool-as-hell scenes where men dodge metal projectiles travelling faster than the speed of sound.

“The whole bullet time thing was a big influence,” said Drew Ayers, an associate professor and director of the film program at EWU. “ ‘The Matrix’ didn’t invent that, but certainly that was one of the most influential things it did.”

In fact, Ayers considers “The Matrix” to be on par with some true classics – the types of films taught in films schools. Movies like “Jaws,” for its restraint in not showing much of the big baddie (a restraint caused by budget and a malfunctioning mechanical shark). Or “Jurassic Park,” for its still-incredible-looking special effects.

When he was 16 years old – and after driving 45 minutes to the closest theater in Cedar Falls, Iowa, from his small town of New Hampton – he remembers the feeling he had once the credits rolled.

And the phrase he spoke aloud. “Whoa,” teenaged Ayers said. “‘Whoa, why didn’t I watch this before?”

From its original run in theaters in February 1999, “The Matrix” also went on to become a showcase for DVD technology, which at the time was threatening to dethrone VHS as the go-to, at-home viewing experience.

Fittingly, “The Matrix” was the first movie Ayers purchased on DVD. “It’s got that cool factor,” he said. “It’s hard to quantify that, but it’s really cool.”

In the time since its home release, and with the proliferation of YouTube and video essays, the film has only risen in popularity among movie buffs. Along with 2010’s “Inception,” it’s one of the only mainstream movies to push certain types of philosophical themes so successfully on the masses.

And if you’re Michael Goldsby, who’s earned his doctoral degree in philosophy and teaches the subject at Washington State University, it’s a movie that best showcases those ideas.

Chief among them are thought experiments posed by 17th century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. His idea: What if sensory experiences don’t match reality. He considered cases where our senses typically deceive us, such as mirages or when we are dreaming.

He even considers the possibility that we are being systematically deceived by an all-powerful demon. How could one prove that we’re not? If we can’t prove that we’re not, then how could we trust our senses? What would it be like when we discover the truth? Similar to when Neo awakes in the vat of pink goo.

And not unlike Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, wherein a group of prisoners are chained to the wall of a cave. Their whole life is shadows on the wall from objects passing in front of a flame behind them. They’re content, don’t want to escape, until they do, which is when they discover life isn’t what they thought.

“The whole point of the project was to see what one can actually determine,” said Goldsby. “What one could say that they know. Even in the face of that sort of radical, global doubt.”

In Descartes’ thought experiment, his idea of the Matrix was akin to the evil demon. One that made the perception of life tricky, much like the scenario of a brain in a vat: What if a computer could simulate reality? What if your hands weren’t real? If they are, can you prove it?

“What I think the Wachowski siblings are doing, they’re playing with this idea of an extreme skeptical hypothesis actually being the case,” Goldsby said. “Where the bad guys are actually trying to deceive all of humanity in this robust way.”

Lucky for him, when Goldsby teaches these themes in his introductory classes, he can bypass a deep explanation of Descartes’ experiment. Instead, all he has to do is mention “The Matrix,” and his students are onboard.

Well, most of them. “The references can be dated,” he said. “I have freshman who weren’t alive when the movie came out.” Still, it’s no accident that the film continues to inspire and be studied, debated and analyzed, even in college classrooms.

And, of course, continues to release sequels. Most fans would rather forget “Reloaded” and “Revolutions.” Whether the fourth go-around will be any good is anyone’s guess.

“I see the necessary evil of franchises and how Hollywood is working now,” said Boyd. “But if I were to be critical of the Wachowskis, they get a little too wrapped up in their original concepts. It’s notable, but also a bit noble.”

And will he see the fourth movie? “I probably will, yeah,” he said. “I watched all the others.”

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