Review of The Matrix (1999)
I'm super pumped for the fourth Matrix movie – The Matrix Resurrections – to be out late December. So it's about time I publish a hacker review of the original movie!
The Matrix was released in 1999 and was written and directed by The Wachowskis. I still remember my excitement watching The Matrix the first time. Oh boy. The special effects were mesmerizing, the clothes and sunglasses envy-inducing, and the villain masterful. But I didn't see it as a hacker movie at the time. There was the opening with programmer Thomas Anderson, but the rest was to me dystopian science fiction without hacking.
As we shall see, I was wrong.
Spoiler Alert: Don't read this if you want to watch The Matrix spoiler-free.
Hacker Realism: ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacker Importance for the Plot: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacks: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Origins of the Matrix
Readers of Hacker Chronicles should know William Gibson by now. His masterpiece Neuromancer is where the matrix comes from. There the matrix is the virtual reality space where the story's protagonist Case hacks.
The name copy and other similarities with Neuromancer made a friend of mine outraged about The Matrix back in 1999. "Plagiarism!" he shouted as we left the movie theater. I wouldn't call it that but Gibson needs to be mentioned.
The Competing Movies
The Wachowskis weren't the only ones working on dystopian virtual/artificial reality movies in the late 90s.
Dark City came out a year before and is said to have influenced The Matrix.
The Thirteenth Floor came out less than two months after The Matrix.
Opening: Thomas Anderson as a Hacker
The Matrix opens with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) barely escaping after her phone line was traced. She and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) are monitoring Thomas Anderson who Trinity says is The One.
Thomas Anderson is a hacker with the handle Neo (Keanu Reeves). He has fallen asleep by his computer at home and wakes up to a message on his screen. "Wake up, Neo… The Matrix has you… Follow the white rabbit."
The white rabbit gets Neo to a club where Trinity finds him. Neo recognizes her as an elite hacker who "cracked the IRS D-base." Trinity warns him that he's being watched but also says a man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) can help him answer the question he's asking: "What is the matrix?"
Neo actually says to Trinity that he thought she was a guy. It's often surprising to see the person behind a handle which makes me think of the 1993 meme "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog".
Cracking the IRS D-base sounds like breaking into the database(s) of the American federal tax authority. This establishes that Neo is tapped into the underground hacker community and that Trinity is a hacker too.
Agent Smith and the Tracer Bug
Morpheus tries to help Neo escape but Neo flakes and is captured by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his two henchmen.
Smith wants Neo to help them find the terrorist Morpheus. When Neo refuses, Smith implants a tracer bug in him – he's now "bugged."
Hackers are often referred to as cybercriminals (see my blog post) and from there some take it a couple of steps further and call them terrorists. You can certainly commit acts of terror through hacking, such as the Ukraine power grid hack. But Agent Smith seems to consider anything threatening the matrix to be a terrorist threat.
The tracer bug is interesting when you look back at it after learning what the matrix is. Agents and the machines that control the matrix are not able to trace Trinity, Morpheus, and the others when they manifest in the matrix. That's why they need Neo's help finding Morpheus. But they are able to follow Neo in his regular life. This implies one of two things: Either the matrix is so complex that the agents lack the means of following Neo all the time (unless he's bugged) or Morpheus has the capability to hide Neo should they decide to meet.
Tracing someone online is an interesting challenge. Humans need an access point to the virtual world, or the internet if you will. That's called the client and can be your smartphone or laptop. The most common way of tracing a client is to place a tracking ID on it, include that tracking ID in network requests, and look at from which internet addresses that tracking ID is sent. That way you can follow a client as it moves in the physical world. I assume the tracer bug in Neo's body emits a tracking ID to the agents as he moves in the matrix.
Morpheus Offers One Of Two Pills
Trinity and Switch (Belinda McClory) rescue Neo and extract the bug from him before taking him to see Morpheus. Morpheus tries to explain that the matrix is "a prison for your mind." He offers Neo one of two pills – blue pill and he goes back to his existing life, red pill and he gets to exit this world and see the matrix. Neo takes the red pill.
Morpheus explains to Neo that "the pill you took is part of a trace program. It's designed to disrupt your input/output carrier signal so we can pinpoint your location."
In hacker terms, and to me, the red pill represents understanding how computers and the internet works. I have the privilege of knowing a lot about that stuff and for everyone who does, it changes your perspective. You realize there are crufty, fragile parts of what whole societies rely on. I remember famous hacker Rsnake giving a talk on the actual top security risks on the internet. On his list was the fact that the company Verisign controls the top-level domain ".com" and thus every .com domain on the web. Learning that is kind of like taking a red pill.
Once Morpheus says that the pill is part of a program, we get a glimpse at the virtual aspect of the matrix. In fact, all we see when in the matrix is software. This means that Agent Smith's bug was software too. Morpheus' reference to carrier signal sounds a lot like a mobile client in a network. But he's not interested in tracing Neo in the matrix, he wants to find Neo's physical body in the grid of cocoons. It's like instead of the carrier tracing your smartphone, you trace your smartphone's outgoing signal back to the carrier and find your customer account. There you can see everything the carrier knows about you, how profitable you are to them, how other smartphones are moving, and so on – you can see their matrix.
Breaking Out of the Matrix
Neo is taken to an adjacent room where Morpheus's team is instructed to get online. Neo sees a broken mirror mend, touches it, and finds that it is not only flexible but sticks like a thick liquid to his hand and starts spreading. He almost suffers cardiac arrest before they get him online.
He wakes up as a broiler in a huge grid of cocooned humans. A service droid discovers him and he is disconnected from the machinery and flushed through pipes into a sewer. Morpheus's ship the Nebuchadnezzar picks him up.
Pinpointing Neo's location doesn't explain why his body is about to collapse. However, remember that everything we've seen in the movie so far has been the simulated matrix world. It's software, and Morpheus's team is hacking Neo's simulation to get him out of it. That "breaks" his reality which explains the stress his nervous system experiences.
First Time in the Real World
After being in recovery for quite some time, Neo wakes up and is shown around the Nebuchadnezzar.
"This is the core, where we broadcast our pirate signal and hack into the matrix," Morpheus says.
They connect Neo to their computer system through the jack in the back of his skull and he meets Morpheus in a completely white space – the Construct. "Right now we're inside a computer program?" Neo asks. He is.
Morpheus shows him a video clip of reality as he knew it up until the red pill. "The world as it was at the end of the 20th century. It exists now only as part of a neural interactive simulation that we call the matrix."
As Neo is shown how destroyed and desolate the real world actually is, Morpheus shares the pieces of history that he knows. Humans created artificial intelligence, a race of intelligent machines was created, war broke out, humans scorched the sky to block sunlight and deprive the machines of solar power, and the machines responded by making humans into their enslaved power source.
The Nebuchadnezzar's pirate signal isn't really explained and the way they hack into the matrix is vague. We know from previous scenes that they enter and leave through the 1999 phone network in the matrix. A pirate signal could just mean illegitimate signal. But that signal carries the whole simulation of the matrix back to the team back on the ship and lets them interact with it live. That's a lot of bandwidth for a 90s phone line.
The matrix is obviously connected to every human in the machines' farm so maybe the specific phones Morpheus's team transports through only serve as authentication, proving to the operator that it's a real team member on the other end.
Bending the Rules
"When the matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who was able to change whatever he wanted, to remake the matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us. Taught us the truth," Morpheus tells Neo.
He continues saying the man on the inside died but the oracle prophesized his return which will destroy the matrix and end the war.
Neo learns martial arts through the machine interface and is put in a dojo to train against Morpheus.
The sparring program has basic rules like gravity. Morpheus tells Neo that these rules are no different than the rules of the matrix, or of a piece of software. "Some of them can be bent, others can be broken."
This man born on the inside sounds like an insider adding a classic backdoor or even a logic bomb. I.e. someone on the inside has deliberately weakened the matrix and set up certain conditions under which the whole thing would break.
The hardest part to fit into this model of hacking is the oracle. Something in the matrix that vaguely predicts things. Maybe she's the main scheduler of tasks so she knows what's coming?
As for the sparring scene, I consider it key to the whole movie. It is where Morpheus tells Neo to start hacking the matrix – to bend and break the rules of the software. I explored the hacker mindset of breaking rules and expectations in my August newsletter The Mystery of the Hack and the Negative Bookshelf. The dojo is where it is revealed that The Matrix is indeed a hacker movie.
The Lady in Red and the Agents
The next training phase involves agents. Neo is taken through a program where a voluptuous woman in a red dress catches his attention in a crowd and when Morpheus tells him to instead look behind, he is faced with Agent Smith's gun at point blank range.
Morpheus explains that agents are sentient programs. "They can move in and out of any software still hardwired to their system. That means that anyone we haven't unplugged is potentially an agent."
These sentient programs are the gatekeepers of the matrix and soon Neo will have to fight them.
"Their strength and speed are still based in a world that is based on on rules. And because of that, they will never be as fast or strong as you can be."
Software that runs on our real world laptops and smartphones runs on top of an operating system such as Windows or iOS. Each piece of software runs in at least one process and such processes can be repurposed to run any software. In fact, that's exactly what software exploits do to make a benign piece of software become malicious. The agents' ability to take over any unplugged human in the matrix sounds like such repurposing. Now, since these sentient programs seem deliberate – they are supposed to be able to police the matrix – this indicates a supported way for them to roam the matrix and inject themselves into processes.
This idea is further supported by the fact that the agents have to follow the rules of the matrix. They aren't able to hack the matrix themselves, they are only given specific super powers in it.
I think Neo eventually learns how to exploit the agents' injection mechanism. We'll get to that in one of the last scenes.
The Oracle and Deja Vu
Morpheus and Trinity take Neo to the Oracle (Gloria Foster) in the matrix. She reads his hands. "Sorry kid. You got the gift but it looks like you're waiting for something."
She suggests that he might be the one in his next life. When Neo chuckles and says Morpheus almost had him convinced he was the one, she says Morpheus still believes it and will sacrifice his life to save Neo. Neo will have to choose who of them survives.
A logical choice with two possible outcomes.
The team gathers to exit the matrix. Cypher has made a deal with the agents to leave his dull life in the real world and go back into the matrix as someone important and rich. For that he has promised to provide them with Morpheus.
Neo happens to see a black cat shiver and meow twice in the exact same way. When he says he just experienced deja vu, the others get worried. Trinity explains. "A deja vu is typically a glitch in the matrix. It happens when they change something."
A police force shows up and then the agents. Morpheus engages an agent to save Neo and gets captured. But Cypher's plans fail and he is killed.
The choice the oracle says Neo must face is his ultimate test. Two bad outcomes. Can he bend the rules and pick a third choice instead?
The deja vu part is brilliant. Many humans can relate to deja vu and find it mysterious. The audience is reminded that they themselves might be trapped in a matrix.
Explaining it as a glitch is interesting. The results are often inexplicable when there's an error or a glitch in a computer system. You don't get small changes like seeing the same thing twice, you get garbage on the screen, crashes, or wildly erroneous results. However, one way to look at the deja vu glitch is that there are rigid rules still in place and a change still results in a reasonable virtual experience. If humans where instead to see garbled pixels, they would probably start questioning what's going on. Deja vu is small enough to be overlooked.
The agents connect wires to two pads on Morpheus's head and inject him with a liquid that looks like mercury. The team back on Nebuchadnezzar is monitoring his brain activity as Agent Smith starts to interrogate him. Neo asks what they're doing to Morpheus.
"They're breaking into his mind. It's like hacking a computer, all it takes is time."
It's explained that hacking a mind shows as the "alpha patterns" changing.
Every captain like Morpheus has access codes to Zion's mainframe computer which is what the agents are after.
Alpha waves are a type of brainwave – rhythmic patterns of neural activity in the central nervous system. Alpha wave activity is typical in our awake state but also during REM sleep. Deep sleep instead features delta waves [ref].
We get a brief look at a screen onboard the Nebuchadnezzar where it's shown how a hacked brain's alpha waves change. My impression is that they mean hacking someone's brain is getting it into a sleep-like state while the subject is still awake.
There is something called alpha wave intrusion when alpha waves appear during non-REM sleep when delta waves are expected. But that seems to be the opposite of what the agents do.
Climax and Ending
Neo and Trinity go back in to try to save Morpheus before the agents hack him. They bring guns, lots of guns, and break into the building where Morpheus is held. Up on the roof, Neo dodges an agent's bullets by moving super fast. He is challenging the rules of the matrix.
They get Morpheus out of the building through a daring helicopter stunt and Trinity and Morpheus manage to leave the matrix through a phone booth in a desolate subway station. However, Agent Smith shows up before Neo gets out. Neo continues to bend the rules and proves a match for Smith.
The Nebuchadnezzar is attacked by sentinels and their only defense is an electro magnetic pulse, or EMP. Such a pulse will sever the link to Neo in the matrix, killing him. He has to get out before the EMP.
Agent Smith reaches the room with Neo's exit phone first and shots Neo as he enters. Neo flatlines. The other two agents appear and confirm that Neo is gone by checking his pulse.
Trinity whispers to Neo's connected body on the Nebuchadnezzar that she loves him and that proves that he is the one since the oracle said she'd fall in love with the one. That restarts his heart and he wakes up in the matrix.
The agents who were about to leave can't believe their eyes and empty their clips in another attempt to kill him. Only this time, the rules of the matrix no longer apply to him and he stops the bullets mid-air.
Agent Smith attacks Neo with his fists but finds he doesn't have a chance. Neo jumps into him and takes over his being. The two remaining agents flee.
Remember how Morpheus said that agents "can move in and out of any software still hardwired to their system." That is what Neo's final hack is about. He has figured out how to exploit the superuser features of the matrix. The machines' policing power in the matrix – their ability to take over any human – is there for attackers to use too. Agent Smith was in someone's body in that final scene and Neo took it over.
Did I say I love this movie? It holds up remarkably well more than twenty years later. The acting is stellar, the mood is just what I want. The only exception for me is the sentinels down in the tunnels below earth which I don't care that much for.
Zooming out, the movie's theme is about independence, the right to a choice, and fate versus being able to change one's path. Hackers often have strong feelings about such things. I remember at university when I realized that some fellow students I knew loved their computers not just because what they could do with them but the order they could uphold in them and the tools they could craft for themselves through programming.
The fear of being pawns in some greater being's world is ever present. Just look at the history of religion with humans being dependent on God's/Gods' judgement, mercy, and whims. But looking at our societal and cultural history I would say there's no lack of humans taking matters in their own hands either.
Bending rules in your favor is often immoral or illegal, but we wouldn't have democracies, human rights, and the rule of law if people hadn't stood up against authority throughout the centuries. It's a delicate balance. Some people who break rules belong behind bars, others belong in songs of heroism. That goes for hackers too.
Checkout Wired's recent review of The Matrix: The Matrix Is the Best Hacker Movie
This text was originally published in the December 2021 issue of the Hacker Chronicles newsletter. Subscribe below!
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