I walked through a Best Buy toward the end of March in 1999, a weekly trip I took with my Mom or Dad. I was 13, but those outings - sifting through a warehouse full of electronics and entertainment - got me through junior high. I still preferred that sense of discovery to being online. I pored over hard copies of all genres - R&B, Rock, Sci-Fi, Horror - and solidified a wish list that ranged from PlayStation games to soundtracks, which were as important as movie releases at the time. Even if I hated it, Stephen Tyler's "Don't Want to Miss a Thing" had more longevity than Bruce Willis' character in Armageddon. That week, I saw a broken, jilted font under the new releases section, The Matrix: Music From the Motion Picture.
Keanu Reeves was on the cover, wearing a trench coat and carrying a gun. To me, he was Jack Traven from Speed - the movie about a bomb on a bus - but was now on an album with a warning, Parental Advisory: Explicit Content. My parents never really cared about those labels, but anything mildly taboo always piqued my interest. That's why I stayed up and watched salacious shows like Red Shoe Diaries or USA Up All Night. I made my way to the checkout and purchased with allowance and chore money.
I don't remember anything else about The Matrix's ad campaign, but the soundtrack made me want to see the movie. Deftones. Rob Zombie. The Prodigy. It was a hybrid of high BPM, screams, angst, and trip hop. It sounded entirely different from what everyone I knew was listening to in my hometown, except for one friend that blasted Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar in his basement when we played pool or watched I Know What You Did Last Summer on VHS. It was my idea of multitasking.
The Matrix, directed by the Wachowskis, opened that week fifteen years ago. I went with my Dad instead of my friends. We just got to the point where buying a soundtrack with a song by Rammstein wasn't cool, even though my one friend was into it.
I was enamored by the movie's opening moments: A woman wearing black latex decimated two units of cops with swift double eagle kicks, gunfire, and bullet-time - a slow-mo technique with swooping cameras that showcased action unlike ever before. She defied gravity, jumping across an impossibly large gap, and eventually disappeared into a payphone.
I wasn't sure what was going on, but I knew this woman - called Trinity, played by Carrie Anne-Moss - had the potential to occupy the same space in my brain as Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley. They were always commanding and powerful. I identified with them more than most male heroes, even if I never said it out loud.
Of course, the story revolved around Neo, real name Thomas Anderson, and his mind-altering epiphany that everyone lived in a computer simulation known as The Matrix. The real year was sometime in the 22nd Century. Morpheus, the man who freed Neo having him choose between the red and blue pill, believed him to be the One that would free the rest of the enslaved. Our first hint: Neo is an anagram. Every little bit helps when you're supposed to save billions.
Redefining the singularity that led to humanity's downfall involved uploading niche skill sets - kung fu, among other things - into your brain. It made Neo and us go, "Whoa." That was the only way Neo, Trinity, and the rest of the crew traveling on a ship called the Nebuchadnezzar could fight the Agents, the most dangerous 0s and 1s in a series of code ever. If they got you, you'd die. "The body cannot survive without the mind," Morpheus explained.
Morpheus also told us the Matrix was about control. It suppressed human reality in favor of a simulation. The further you went down the rabbit hole, the more you were able to free your mind. You had to change reality. Through freedom comes power. It's a cliche that's resonated throughout the ages, but was particularly intriguing to me in the weeks and years after The Matrix was released.
On April 20, 1999, less than a month after The Matrix was released, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two students in Colorado, went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School. 13 people were killed. A couple of dozen others were injured. Within days, news outlets were reporting that the killers took inspiration from The Matrix. Clothing, weaponry, and musical choices were dissected constantly. A national conversation about the effects of violent movies, games, and goth rock picked up more than ever before in my lifetime. Suddenly, it wasn't as easy to buy a CD with the Parental Advisory sticker or an M-rated video game.
That didn't stop me from enjoying them. I was killing slabs of meat in Silent Hill, perfecting stealth in Metal Gear Solid, and overcoming the zombie apocalypse in Resident Evil 2 as Claire Redfield over and over again. Claire was like Trinity, even if she favored a red vest over latex. They still both drove motorcycles.
When I wasn't playing video games, I was listening to music ranging from The Matrix soundtrack to Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine." When I wasn't listening to music, I was discovering new R-rated movies that blogs, video store clerks, and people at Best Buy told me I had to see. I started to replace Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers with Italian horror movies that were extra gory.
That was my reality. I inhaled movies. I wanted an escape. It was certainly a diversion from the 24-hour news cycle that told me a different story about my reality, one that felt more silly and fun than actually dangerous. The only thing hazardous to my health was the peril of being a regular teenager. I was plagued with anxiety, but I always knew I'd grow into the reality I wanted.
What is The Matrix? It's partially about stigmatized groups fighting for their place in society, but to me it will also always be about the cultural conversation behind guns, violence, and mental health. The Matrix will forever be tied to the need to have metal detectors in schools, even though it shouldn't be. It's just a movie.
There's a scene in The Matrix where a character named Cypher, played by Joe Pantoliano, betrays the Nebuchadnezzar's crew in favor of living in the Agents' simulated world. His reality was too much to handle. He wanted a medium-rare steak to taste the way it's supposed to taste, even if it wasn't real. His mind broke because he was free. This stands out to me more than the game-changing special effects.
Going down the rabbit hole isn't for everyone, but it's just right for others. I think of Larry Wachowski's journey to evolve, identify, and be Lana Wachowski since The Matrix was released. And I think of others, like my old, lost friend who took a drastically different path. Several months after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, he shot his wife and himself. We hadn't talked in years, but it still hurt.
Fifteen years since The Matrix, I've remembered that there is no spoon. It's where you bend that matters.