Read: A movie like ‘The Matrix’ might never happen again
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.