Chapter 22: I Know Kung Fu.

I was dreamin' when I wrote this
Forgive me if it goes astray
But when I woke up this mornin'
Coulda sworn it was judgment day
The sky was all purple,
there were people runnin' everywhere
Tryin' 2 run from the destruction,
U know I didn't even care

'Cuz they say...
Two thousand zero zero party over, oops out of time
So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999

-Prince, "1999"

Prince's rock classic "1999" and the 1999 film The Matrix have more in common than a four-digit number. Both the song and the film were also pop culture hits that were highly received by fans and critics alike. Both helped bring niche material (funk, cyberpunk) further into the mainstream. And both also carried not-so-subtle, somewhat frightening messages about the future that were swallowed up and nearly forgotten amidst all the glamour and glitter that often accompanies pop sensations. Almost nobody remembers that Prince's song was actually an anti-nuclear war anthem--to them, it was just a nifty party song. Likewise, most people think that The Matrix was just another cool science-fiction movie; the fact that it was a cyberpunk film at heart was almost entirely lost to most viewers.

This article is not about Prince.

To write yet another synopsis of The Matrix here would be silly. The film has been interpreted, re-interpreted, viewed, reviewed, re-reviewed and so forth more times than I can count. By now you're well aware of the basic plot (something along the lines of Hackers meets T-2: Judgment Day). You've also probably been familiarized with the symbolism within the film (Neo as Christ, the Alice in Wonderland references, and so on) as well as the Hollywood ending, where a kiss suddenly transforms Neo from a dead slab of meat into the king of the world. And of course, you've seen more knock-offs of the bullet-time hovering in mid-air tricks that Neo and Trinity do (everything from Shrek to the forthcoming Kung Pow seem happy to jump on the bandwagon).

What you may not be familiar with, however, is the original screenplay by the Wachowski brothers, dated April 8, 1996, which contains a number of significant deviations from the final film. To sum up in a sentence: the original script is much more identifiably a Cyberpunk film than the final product, and a much better place to see where Cyberpunk started to wind up towards the end of the century. In some ways, The Matrix killed Cyberpunk off in 1999. In other ways, Cyberpunk was already dead, buried and reborn several times over. Hardly surprising, when you think about it. There's only so many times you can attain godhood before the whole cycle turns into a computer game. Insert another quarter to continue?

Oh, wait. That was Tron. Never mind.

Then again, one of the first things you notice about The Matrix is how low-tech it is in some places. Sure, they slapped on a whole bunch of camera tricks to make it look slick, but when you boil it down it's a story about a bunch of computer hackers. The film opens with a computer screen, not even one with a slick GUI, just a green cursor on a black background - "2-19-96 13:24:18 REC:Log>". Low tech terms, low tech output. We hear phones ringing, both digital cellular and analog land-lines; nary an input jack to be found (at least, not yet). We see police storming an ordinary apartment building with ordinary bulletproof vests and ordinary assault rifles. No Super Metal Gear armor or smartguns.

Of course, then Trinity starts floating in mid-air and it all goes Hollywood on you... at least, in the movie. Check out the original script:


    The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding
    a bead.  They've done this a hundred times, they know
    they've got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuff
    and Trinity moves --

    It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly

    The eye blinks and Trinity's palm snaps up and the nose
    explodes, blood erupting.  The cop is dead before he
    begins to fall.

    And Trinity is moving again --

    Seizing a wrist, misdirecting a gun, as a startled cop
    FIRES --

    A head explodes.

    In blind panic, another airs his gun, the barrel, a fixed
    black hole --

    And FIRES --

    Trinity twists out of the way, the bullet missing as she
    reverses into a roundhouse kick, knocking the gun away.

    The cop begins to scream when a jump kick crushes his
    windpipe, killing the scream as he falls to the ground.

    She looks at the four bodies.

Before the hovering, before the "running up the walls trick," there was just a girl and some slick moves. Trinity, here, is just another version of Molly Millions from Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, the girl with the deadly hands taking on the world for her own reasons, using what she can to do what needs to be done as corporates and cops stand outside, trying to stop her. The comparison to Gibson is even more apt when you consider that The Matrix is, in one sense, set in 1996; it's not a story about the future, and neither was Gibson's work, pounded out on an old typewriter by a guy who had never even seen a modem before. And that's OK, because Cyberpunk has never truly been about the future, or sparkly new chrome technology anyway. It's always been about the present-becoming-future, about what might come of what now exists, and about the underculture's attempts to get a piece of the pie.

Low tech. Take a look at how we first meet Neo in the screenplay... watching an online chat in what might as well be IRC, or AIM, or ICQ:

    We are on-line, inside a chat room called "The Matrix."
    It is an exclusive web-site where hackers hang out.

            JACKON:  I heard Morpheus has been
            on this board.
            SUPERASTIC:  Morpheus doesn't even
            exist and the Matrix is nothing
            but an advertising gimmick 4 a new
            TIMAXE:  All I want to know is
            Trinity really a girl?
            LODIII:  87% of all women on line
            are really men.
            QUARK:  The Matrix is a euphemism
            for the government.
            SUPERASTIC:  No, The Matrix is the
            system controlling our lives.
            TIMAXE:  You mean MTV.
            SUPERASTIC:  I mean Sega.
            FOS4:  ALL HAIL SEGA!!!

Chatrooms, MTV and Sega. Gibson's hackers used "decks" and "jacked-in" because Gibson knew nothing about the real technology. The Wachowski Brothers' hackers, in stark contrast, use IRC and keyboards, and chat about MTV, Sega and girls. Neo's just another l33t h@x0r. Forget Black ICE and codewalls... who needs them when we've got SirCam and Kournikova wreaking havoc, and security holes in Windows XP large enough to drive a truck through. Again, much of this was glossed over and covered up with slick computer graphics and vague hints at "futuristic" technology in the film, but in the script it's much, much more punk than cyber. Take, for instance, the scene where Neo hands a disk off to his friend; in the script, it's a much more mundane, and meaningful, transaction -- Neo hacks into the police computer system to get a Police boot taken off of his friend's car. It ain't burning Chrome or crashing Wintermute, but isn't wiping traffic violations so much more gratifying and real?

This isn't to say that the original script isn't without its little nods to older Cyberpunk stories, however. This is clearly evident in the scene where Neo gets his bug removed from his navel. Not only is the imagery lifted straight from the Aeon Flux episode "The Purge" (perhaps the most brilliant of all Cyberpunk cartoons), but in the original script the entire sequence recalls all those trips to back alley ripperdocs prominently featured everywhere from Neuromancer, to Strange Days, to the film version of Johnny Mnemonic. Gizmo and Hacksaw, the two ripperdoc types, were replaced by Switch in the film, so perhaps you've never heard of them... until now.

    The chop-shop is filled with electronic gadgets, wired to
    meters and monitors.  There are shelves lined with
    medical supplies and rows of hanging tools, knives,
    cleavers, and stainless steel clamps.

    Neo is strapped down to an ambulance cart, listening
    nervously as Gizmo gets to work.

            Okay, first we take a little look
            under the hood.

    He pulls up the goggles hanging at his neck and they
    blink to life with tiny halogen lights and lenses irising
    to varying levels of magnification.

            You're going to feel a little

    He inserts acupuncture-like needles into Neo's lower
    abdomen.  The needles are wired to video monitors.
    Hacksaw pilots the fiber-optic lens.


    Hacksaw loads a hypodermic needle and pumps an anesthetic
    around Neo's navel.

    Using a device that looks like a miniature speculum,
    Gizmo inserts a knuckled dental pick.  Typing into a
    calculator keypad wired to the pick, he automates the

    On the monitor, we watch it telescope out and the end
    separate into a tiny hooked, metal claw.

Also eliminated when this scene was modified for the film is one of the best bits of dialogue, between Gizmo and Trinity:

    The van stops in a deserted alley behind a forgotten
    hotel.  The doors open and Trinity helps Neo get out.

            Thanks for your help, Gizmo.

            I just hope the man knows what
            he's doing.

    She nods then climbs out of the van.  Gizmo ogles the
    tight leather pants.

            Goddamn, what I wouldn't give for
            a copy of that software.

    Trinity turns around.

            Gizmo, you don't have the hardware
            to handle this software.

Of course, shortly thereafter, Neo is taken to Morpheus, and extracted from the Matrix, and the film takes a sharp left turn into post-apocalyptic science-fiction. As Morpheus shows Neo that the real world is a blasted wasteland where most of humanity is controlled by computers, and a notable few have fled deep underground, we see imagery reminiscent of films like Aliens, The Terminator and Escape From New York. But even if Neo's physical body is at one point stuck in a pile of Alien-esque red goo, all it takes is a "a piercing SHRIEK like a computer calling to another computer" to snap him out of his trance. Not laser beams or rockets or giant robots, but a modem whistle. Reminding us that what we're watching is not a generic science-fiction film, but grown-up Cyberpunk.

On one level, it's certainly easy to see the entire film as another big-budget action flick full of kung fu moves, explosions and car chases, but if you think about the fact that it's all happening in cyberspace, it all takes on a different meaning. Despite the big bad robots that look like squids, inside the world of The Matrix virtual reality is still much as Gibson described it way back in 1984's Neuromancer, where his hero Case "jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix." Neo and company may as well be Netrunners straight from a Cyberpunk RPG: trace programs are represented by little red pills; sentry programs are Men In Black; attack programs are represented by guns; escape programs are represented by helicopters; and Neo's training takes minutes, not hours, because he downloads the software straight into his brain.

    The title bar reads:  "Combat Series 10 of 12," file
    categories flashing beneath it:  Savate, Jujitsu, Ken Po,
    Drunken Boxing...

    Morpheus walks in.

            How is he?

    Tank looks at his watch, rubs his eyes.

            Ten hours straight.  He's a

    Neo's body spasms and relaxes as his eyes open, breath
    hissing from his lips.  He looks like he just orgasmed.

    He locks at Morpheus.

            I know Kung Fu.

By contrast, of course, is Cypher, who represents the opposite of the Cyberpunk protagonist. Whereas Neo and his brethren seek to escape the world of the mundane, seeking the truth and the power that comes with it, Cypher represents those who are content to wrap themselves in obscurity and lies, even if they are aware of the lie they so badly want to believe in. The Cyberpunk hero believes in Nietzsche's assertion: "Fiat Veritas, Pereat Vita" (Let there be truth, and may life perish). Cypher, by contrast, is happy to believe the lie: "Ignorance is bliss," he tells Agent Smith as he sells Morpheus out.

Of course, both of them (and indeed, all of the others) have one thing in common: operating inside of the Matrix. Neo and Morpheus and their ilk have no desire to destroy the Matrix; doing so would mean killing all of humanity, akin to blowing up the Death Star in order to rescue the princess trapped inside. Instead, like Cyberpunks, our heroes seek to subvert the technology for their own uses. Indeed, when Morpheus takes Neo to see The Oracle, this becomes truly clear... but only in the original script.


    A high-tech laptop and modem are set up on a stack of
    milk crates.  Neo waits as Morpheus types in a series of
    access codes.  After a moment the screen blinks, "Welcome

    Morpheus walks back to the same door they entered, but it
    now leads into --


    The walls and floors are polished marble.  Neo follows,
    his mouth agape.

            What -- what happened?

            This is the temple.  It is a part
            of Zion's mainframe.  It's hidden
            inside the Matrix so that we can
            access it.

The Matrix itself is not merely an evil tool to be avoided and destroyed. It's a tool, a place that Morpheus and the others need to use in order to carry out their fight against the Sentinels. Of course, using that tool is quite risky, and it's no surprise when (thanks to Cypher), Morpheus is captured by Sentinels and Switch and Apoc are killed. After the somewhat predictable gun battle with plasma rifles, Neo and Trinity make their way back into the real world, only to agree (grudgingly) that they must go back in to rescue Morpheus. This, of course, leads to the gun fight in the lobby that everyone always drools over.

This gun battle, however, is sheer Hollywood. True, other Cyberpunk films have their fair share of gun fights, bullets cascading down like a rain shower as blood and bodies fly, but much more true to the traditions of early Cyberpunk are the heroes whose job it is to sneak in as quietly as possible. Secrecy and stealth over firepower, in other words. Look at Deckard from Blade Runner, who spends most of his time sneaking around and wishing he didn't have to kill anyone. Or Mad Max from The Road Warrior, who has exactly two bullets to his name, one of which is a dud. Or, getting back to roots, Molly from Neuromancer, who kills silently with claws, and nearly dies when she gets trounced on one of her missions.

The original Matrix lobby gun battle was much, much different from the film version:


    In long, black coats, Trinity and Neo push through the
    revolving doors.

    Neo is carrying a duffel bag.  Trinity has a large metal
    suitcase.  They cut across the lobby drawing nervous

    Dark glasses, game faces.

    Several plainclothes cops try to stop them.  They are met
    by the MUTED SPIT of a SILENCED GUN and the RAZORED

    The cops slump down to the marbled floor while Neo and
    Trinity do not even break stride.

That's it. No metal detector, no machine guns and uzis, no cartwheels and flips in slow-motion. Just two people in trenchcoats using silenced guns and throwing stars to dispatch their foes. After this, they get into the elevator and head for the roof. It's quiet, it's simple, and it's got more style than a bloodbath could ever have.

The other "Hollywoodism" towards the end of the film that seems to drive a stake through the heart of Cyberpunk is the fact that Trinity brings Neo back to life with a kiss, giving him the power to kill Agent Smith. Cyberpunk is full of its fair share of male-female interactions: Case sleeps with Molly in Neuromancer, and Sarah sleeps with Reese in The Terminator. But romantic fairy tale kisses that wake dead people up and turn them into Gods of Cyberspace just does not happen. Which is why it's so much more appropriate that in the script, Trinity wakes Neo not with a kiss, but with a punch in the chest.

            You're right here.  I'm holding
            you, Neo.  I'm not letting you go.
            Do you hear me?  I won't let you


    The agents walk to the elevator, leaving Neo's body


    Morpheus flicks the Plexiglas shield of the self-

            Goddamnit, Neo!  Don't give it up!
            Not now!

    She pounds on his chest.

            Not now!


    The BLOW ECHOES deep in his mind.

    His eyes snap open.


    Trinity screams as the monitors jump back to life.  Tank
    and Morpheus stare, unbelieving.

    It is a miracle.

            Now get up!

Of course, Neo's re-awakening is also Christ symbolism, the savior of Cyberspace coming back to life so he can save the world. Which isn't really a problem, since The Matrix is at least consistently obvious about the symbolism it throws at its audience. If you dig beneath the surface, it's easy to see Neuromancer's Case or The Terminator's Sarah Connor as Christ figures, fallen from Heaven and trying to get back so they can save the world, or their liver, from robots or vultures or sacs of toxin. But The Matrix tosses it out right away: Neo is, like Snake Plissken in Escape From L.A., "The One," a semi-mystical, somewhat mythological figure who holds within him the power to change the world, for better or worse. He represents the ultimate Cyberpunk protagonist, the one who not only strives to escape the world of the mundane and return to divinity, but one who actually has the power to do so. And to do that, he has to die and come back to life.

The most obvious sign of his divinity is his ability to fly at the end of the movie, something most Cyberpunk fans groaned at. In actuality, though, that final swoop through the air demonstrates something quite important. Neo has become more than human. Witness the cut dialogue:

    Neo takes off, flying up into the air.

            Mommy!  Mommy!


            That man!  That man flies!

            Don't be silly, honey.  Men don't

    There is a RUSH of AIR as the Boy stares up as Neo shoots
    overhead.  His coat billowing like a black leather cape
    as he soars up, up, and away.

The boy's mother is absolutely right. Men don't fly. But Neo is no longer a man. Like so many Cyberpunk heroes before him, he quested for divinity, for an attempt to break free of the world and attain something more for himself. Unlike most of them, he also succeeded in doing so. He became, in a very real sense, a God. He represents the completion of the cycle of mythology, and in many ways, the ultimate limits of Cyberpunk.

In short, he also represented the end of the genre.

After all, once your hero has succeeded in climbing out of the gutter, has succeeded in defeating the corporate scum, has succeeded in becoming the God of Cyberspace, what more is left? Cyberpunk is, in many ways, about struggle, and it would seem that Neo's struggles are over. Of course, we know now that there are at least two more sequels planned, so on some level Neo's travails are far from over. But taken by itself, Neo and The Matrix represent the nail in the coffin. In dying, it was reborn, but there can be little doubt about it. Cyberpunk is dead.

Long live Cyberpunk?

You'll note that this series stretches from 1981 to 2001, so that means there are two more years left to cover, even if I did just declare that the genre died in 1999. As I have in the past, I'd like you, the readers of this series, to come up with the next film. It's not as easy a challenge as you think. In many ways, The Matrix was the epitome of the Cyberpunk film, and it covered so much ground that it depleted the normally deep well that such films had traditionally drawn upon. What Cyberpunk film that was released in the year 2000 would you like to see me cover? Are there any? Let me know.