Hero of the Real
by William Gibson
I was afraid to see this movie. I was afraid because it was very popular, and friends told me it was very similar to my own work, and because it starred Keanu Reeves, who had starred in a film I had written. I was afraid that I would be jealous, or that I would resent the film's creators, or simply be unhappy. I had seen copies of the screenplay, and hadn't thought they promised a great deal, and Hollywood has generally done a very poor job around the theme of virtual reality.
The film had been in release, in America, for several weeks, when I finally saw it, and I only saw it then because I found myself alone in an oceanside hotel suite, in Santa Monica, and it was dark and cold and raining. My very good friend Roger came and rescued me, and insisted that I would like The Matrix. He dragged me out into the rain and his old VW Rabbit.
I knew that I would like The Matrix.
I liked it immediately, and liked it even more as the story unfolded. I felt a sense of excitement that I hadn't felt, watching a science fiction movie, in a very long time. The cynic in me kept waiting to be disappointed; waiting for the wrong move, the shabby explanation, the descent into the mess that Hollywood usually manages to make of a film like this. It never came, and when Neo soars, at the end of the film, I went with him, in an innocent delight that I hadn't felt for quite a long time.
When I returned to Vancouver, I immediately took my 15-year-old daughter to see The Matrix. She had exactly the same misgivings.
She loved it.
She loved it, I think, because it's something very special: a big, muscular, 'effects'' movie that's wildly generous with visual thrills, manages never to quite making sense (in the way an sf writer must demand that sf make sense) and, most important of all, has a good heart.
As I interpret it, The Matrix is a film about becoming conscious. It tells us that to become more conscious, to have the courage to seek that which is more real, is its own (and ultimately the greatest) reward. When Morpheus offers Neo the choice of the two pills, and Neo chooses (without knowing where it will take him, as indeed we never do) consciousness, we embark on a quest more primal than anything offered by Star Wars.
The ultimate goal in The Matrix is not the Force but the Real. When the film's Judas-figure betrays the heroes, he does so in order to be returned to illusion and denial, the false reality that Neo struggles to escape and overthrow.
American reviewers have interpreted this in Christian terms, seeing Neo as a Christ-figure, but I prefer to see in him something more universal: a hero of the real. I usually have a certain amount of trouble with the very idea of a hero, but in this case no: Keanu's Neo is my favorite-ever science fiction hero, absolutely.