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How The Matrix was adopted by 4Chan and the alt-right

The groundbreaking sci-fi philosophy thriller had its narratives adopted by Pepe-loving Redditors – now it’s returning at a time where the Neos of this world aren’t exactly heroes

The world discovered this week that the Matrix films are set to be remade, nearly two decades after the original release changed the world of cinema forever. The first Matrix movie wowed audiences with cutting-edge visuals, cinematic innovation and a boldly original retelling of Plato’s ancient allegory of the cave. But in the intervening twenty years, much has changed, especially the online culture and the revolutionary spirit that were so central to the film’s success.

When The Matrix's red pill/blue pill concept first hit our screens, computers were still relatively mysterious, and hacker culture still felt like an edgy counterculture. The notion of a plucky, unassuming, average Joe using the harddrive in his bedroom to take down major corporations and governments gained much traction in the 90s – see cult classic Hackers (1995). The idea of computers as a mechanism of social uprising became current. Anti-establishment sentiment was surprisingly rife for a time when capitalism seemed to be doing its job beautifully, considering The Matrix came along in 1999 at the tailend of a decade-long economic boom. Even the teens in Hackers are comically bougie attendants of an exclusive college (the set was the infamous Stuyvesant High), given they’re supposed to be mascots of a cyberpunk uprising.

In the 90s, the capitalist structures of major corporations inflated the middle-class standard of living to near-aristocratic proportions. The films seemed to latch onto a hypocritical sense of injustice and social angst among the middle-class, who ironically benefited most from the corporatist, elitist culture slated by the films. Specifically, a lot of young white men who felt victimised as geeks were happy to enjoy the myth of victimhood cultivated by these films, especially when the saviour Neo was someone just like them – a young, white, well-educated, software developer.

The decades following The Matrix saw the rise of hacktivism, and much later on, the rise of Anonymous. This organisation helped to further cement the idea of computers as a method of social revolution. Anonymous attacked banks, the church of Scientology, and child pornography sites. They even helped civilians in the Arab Spring to mobilise. Anonymous advocated a freedom of knowledge that shifted power away from the powerful and back to the powerless.

However, online culture has evolved, and the undulating lines of inaccessible green code portrayed in The Matrix have become thoroughly demystified. Social media has taken over our lives and we all now live symbiotically with the technology around us. The result has been largely positive, making communication and sharing easy, cheap and universal in the online market of ideas. But there is always an underbelly – and the internet’s is large.

Message boards like 4chan, 8chan and certain subcommunities of Reddit are no-holds-barred, anything-goes forums where people go to do things as diverse as share RuPaul’s Drag Race gossip and organise the disruption of anti-racist protests. This area of the internet is the link between the Matrix franchise, Trump and the alt-right. Many individuals now prominent in the alt-right started out on the 4chan /pol/ board. The alt-right is widely considered to be a neo-fascist movement, where white supremacy, misogyny, and transphobia are fundamental ideals. 4chan, indicating the close alignment of its principles with those of the alt-right, has made headlines for targeting female celebrities and leaking their nudes, in an event known as “The Fappening”. They also helped alt-right hero Milo Yiannopoulos to run black actress Leslie Jones off Twitter, by launching a sustained campaign of racist abuse against her. These online boards are the place where neo-fascists mobilise.

What the creators of the original Matrix film probably didn’t expect was that in the decades following its release, the movie would eventually become a cultural touchstone for the dark web. In 2012, the subreddit TheRedPill was launched, borrowing its name from the Matrix’s red pill/blue pill concept. TheRedPill describes itself as part of the ‘manosphere’ (the online network of sites linked informally by their relevance to men’s issues and anti-feminism), but to put it bluntly, it is essentially a misogynistic echo chamber, where men congregate to discuss rape fantasies and lol about how the gender wage gap is a lie. The Red Pill in the original film was the gateway out of the lie of the matrix, but for denizens of the dark web today, it is a metaphor for the epiphany that men are actually the most oppressed group in society – a sort of escape from the real world which is ruled by deceitful, agenda-pushing SJWs. Redpilling is now a verb used by the alt-right to describe how they convert people to their cause.

It’s a gross misappropriation of the concept, but maybe we should have seen it coming. After all, the red pill is simply a gateway from one world into the other. Neo gratefully accepts the red pill because he hates the mundane emptiness of his life and wants purpose. Whether or not he ever gets to the real world or not is questionable – see the popular “Matrix within a Matrix” fan theory that suggests Morpheus’ real world is merely another level of the computer programme. The red pill grants immense power to whoever possesses it. It grants them the power to set the parameters of the real world – to choose their own objective reality.

The alt-right have brought this concept to life beyond the realm of the dark web too. Their redefinition of the red pill has spilled into the real world and onto our TV screens. Every day, when Trump promises his followers he will help them “win so much they’ll be tired of winning”, when he blurs the lines between what is real and what is fake news, and when he rewrites history to paint himself as their liberator, he is literally redpilling America. He is doing precisely what Morpheus did. He is offering a version of reality to people who want it – nothing more, nothing less.

“Michael B. Jordan is rumoured to be taking on the role of Neo. Casting a black lead is likely to enrage any alt-right 4channers”

If The Matrix were being made for the first time today, would it really be so surprising if Neo was taken in by the allure of the alt-right? He used to stay up all night writing illegal programs, chatting to other hackers and seeking out Morpheus’ secret uprising – he wanted purpose and belonging above all, and the alt-right could offer it to him in the form of their own uprising.

The original Matrix films tapped into a sense of white middle-class disenfranchisement that has only intensified following the decade of economic recession and polarising politics of today. In the time since its release, politics has become a game of extremes, and the young white guys of the alt-right have capitalised on the online culture once glorified by the Matrix movies, as well as its red pill symbolism, to further their cause. The remake will have to contend with this fraught landscape in everything from its dialogue, to its imagery, to its casting. Michael B. Jordan is rumoured to be taking on the role of Neo. Casting a black lead is likely to enrage any alt-right 4channers, whose racist ideologies will obviously favour the notion of a white saviour, whereas casting a white lead might make it 4Chan’s New Testament.

4chan, in a darkly ironic twist, has even become a forum for transphobic Matrix fans to ridicule the Wachowskis’ transitions, proving how quickly some anon boys will turn on the franchise if it deviates from their alt-right values. It will be interesting to see how the remake can navigate the political and cultural trends of this decade, given it was once the trendsetter.