I Found Myself in The Matrix

It took me 20 years to figure out what kept drawing me back to the film.

A green silhouette of a person with changing binary code set against a black background.
Chipmunk131 / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

About the author: Michael Owen is a former deputy editor of The Atlantic.

How many times is too many times to see a movie in movie theaters? This question has trailed me through adulthood. When I was a teenager, I paid $7.50 or so for the privilege of watching The Matrix not just three or four times, but 11. My colleagues have written about the reasons we see movies repeatedly—even, in some cases, to the point of memorization. Still, $7.50 was a lot of money—more than I earned bagging groceries for an hour—and 11 was a lot of times to drive to and from the movie theater. No one else saw it that much. But I kept going.

My devotion was perhaps on-brand: I was a sci-fi geek, if slanted toward the sunnier, Star Trek end of things, and not three years would go by before I was a philosophy major, engaged in the same (in my case literally) sophomoric speculation about the nature of reality as the movie’s creators.

In other ways, not so much. Remember those it’s-almost-the-new-millennium sunglasses? They were a bit matchy with the vinyl jumpsuits even then. I also had at least some appreciation for competent writing, which is nowhere to be found in The Matrix. And the violence in the film was jarring—three weeks after its release came the Columbine shooting, and the spectacles of a gun massacre on-screen turned into shadows of an unsimulated cataclysm.

Perhaps part of the appeal was that I first saw it alone, when my friend didn’t show up and I couldn’t reach him. (Cellphones existed back then but, as the movie makes clear, we relied mostly on landlines.) The surprise pleasure of cinematic solitude was amplified by that film’s virtuosities, its delicious technical novelty, its nesting of worlds. But sitting alone in a cool, dark theater is a portable indulgence, one I’ve taken to dozens of other movies since, and the pleasure of this experience has never explained my fixation on The Matrix.

I recently saw the film again in a theater—it had a short revival run—for the first time in many years. And perhaps a third of the way through, I started to cry. In The Matrix, I realized, I had found a message about my own life, the life of a closeted gay Mormon boy. It was something I had strained all those times to hear, and now it shot across the screen in letters lit by retrospect: You too will be free.

Probably you have seen the movie fewer times than I have. Here’s what happens: Neo, played by (and indistinguishable from) Keanu Reeves, is a computer hacker working a lifeless day job in an amorphous city—filmed in Sydney and Los Angeles, with street names from Chicago—who falls in with a shadowy group of rebellious types adorned in Blade Runner haircuts. They take him to the gravelly prophet Morpheus, who tells Neo he is living in a simulation operated by robots that farm energy from billions of comatose humans, all of them cognitively alive only in the Matrix’s synthetic world. (Why do they need to be conscious of anything? Bodies consume a lot of energy, yet in this world bodies are somehow an efficient source of energy? This whole bit of exposition is dispatched neatly with a voiceover.)

Neo agrees to physical extraction from the robot energy farm, which means unplugging from the Matrix and living in the real world, forever on the run from evil machines that look like the tangle of charging cables under your desk. He and his comrades can reinsert themselves into the Matrix at will, which they do in order to wage an increasingly open battle with the robot overlords’ grim, gray-suited hit men, known as agents. Eventually, with the guidance of the heroic new arrivals in his life, Neo figures out that he’s not constrained by the arbitrary rules of the computer simulation—that he can stand up to the agents on their own terms. Thus unbound, he promises to tell everyone the truth, and flies off into the sequels.

Two decades have gone by for me and The Matrix, and I’m not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or in the closet, anymore. I live in New York City with my boyfriend, Hector. The road of sacred obligations that lay ahead of me in 1999 dissolved before I ever traveled most of it. But its route included the suppression of my sexual orientation, which the Church confines within celibacy; mastery of the doctrines I had studied from before I was even literate; evangelizing the Book of Mormon on a foreign street corner; and testifying always to the rightness of all this.

Seeing The Matrix again took me back to a time when that world still reigned, when stern men in gray suits intoned a doctrine of total obedience to which I paid a quietly conflicted devotion. Mormonism makes unusually weighty demands on its faithful, many of whom—this is an important limit on the analogy—discover deep compensatory security and meaning. Others strain to find the same peace.

Sixteen-year-old me couldn’t know it then, but in the years that followed, esoteric guides would appear in surprising places—dorm rooms, dance floors, a ritualistic and exuberant Episcopal church on Hollywood Boulevard—and deliver a divergent message. They told me, those smiling oracles, that the ache of a heart divided between spiritual yearning and human desire didn’t have to resolve into a permanent loss. You have more power than this, they said. You’re not bound by these rules.

Wrested from his lifelong reality, Neo enters a swoon of mismatched messages about who he’s meant to be. Is he the One, a long-prophesied hero, or isn’t he? “Neo,” Morpheus tells him amid this confusion, “sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” In 1999, I gazed uneasily into my future, not recognizing the difference myself. I didn’t realize at the time that the answer lies within the search. I watched the movie 11 times. It took a 12th, and 20 years, to get the ending.