With the new trailer for The Matrix out now, I’ve been thinking about a strange phenomenon regarding pop culture monoliths. The original Matrix film is, without a doubt, hugely influential and hugely successful. People love it, and many have been inspired by it. But, by the time I actually got around to watching the movie as an adult – about fifteen years after its release – it completely bounced off of me. Even though I consciously knew that it was groundbreaking for its time, my actual viewing experience was pretty lackluster. Not because I didn’t like it, necessarily, but because I had already seen a million parodies and rip-offs of the film.
It’s not that The Matrix itself aged badly or anything – it still looks pretty dang slick and the themes presented are still relevant today. It’s just that the lens I viewed the movie through got dirtied during the time it took for me to watch it. That feeling of freshness and wonder that other people had just wasn’t there for me. I couldn’t even really enjoy any of the newer angles of analyses, like the trans allegory, because I had already seen so many think pieces and Twitter threads about it. There was nothing new there for me, personally, to mine from the experience.
Isn’t it funny how temporal these experiences can be? If you don’t watch something like The Hangover as soon as it comes out, it’s ruined – you’ve already heard everyone recite every joke already. American Pie isn’t going to feel that great after you’ve already heard your big brother explain what happened at band camp.
Meanwhile, there are Matrix rip-offs that I dig the hell out of! Other people scoff at them because, well, they already saw The Matrix, there’s nothing new there for them. But to me, something like Sucker Punch – which occassionally gets derided as a rip-off of the Wachowskis’ film – is awesome! It didn’t even occur to me while I was watching that it was taking ideas from a bunch of other established sources. In 2011 (I was 16), I had little understanding of other action or sci-fi movies, so it felt shiny and new to me.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum – people who were unimpressed with The Matrix because it “copied” John Woo/Ghost in the Shell/The Invisibles/etc. Did the Wachowskis draw from those sources? Absolutely! The film likely wouldn’t exist as we know it without those other influential works. Does that mean it’s actually a completely unoriginal piece of shit? Not necessarily, but you can’t blame people who shrug it off because they prefer its inspirations, either.
Moving on from The Matrix, there are the Darren Aronofsky films that were heavily influenced by Satoshi Kon. Whether or not something like the tub scene in Requiem for a Dream was totally stolen from Perfect Blue is still debated. Maybe Aronofsky slipped that in and was hoping no one had seen this cult anime film…or maybe he just wanted to give a loving nod to a director he liked.
It’s funny, because Black Swan and Perfect Blue are both two of my favorite movies, and the former clearly takes a lot of inspiration from the latter. I saw Black Swan before I ever saw Perfect Blue – would I have felt differently about it had I seen Perfect Blue first? Will my love for Black Swan waver if Aronofsky suddenly came out and said, “yes, I completely and wholly stole ideas from Satoshi Kon”?
My relationship with music is even more complicated. Turns out, most of the bands I really liked as a teenager were totally ripping off Pavement or blink-182. Still, even after listening to those bands and pinpointing exactly which bits my favorite bands lifted, I can’t bring myself to give much of a shit about Pavement or blink. All those fond memories of singing along to these songs in the car with friends – I’m never going to have that with the songs that influenced them. It doesn’t matter if one was the innovator and one is the copier, it just matters how I feel about them.
All this just lends credence to the idea that there is no such thing as objectivity when it comes to media. We all have our own cultural filters. Something that feels new and exciting to you may not actually be new and exciting at all! And something that reads as a rip-off to you may have been purely accidental – something pulled from the same well of the collective unconscious.
So, does any of it really matter? Does originality or lack thereof mean anything, ultimately? There will always be someone out there who has seen it all before, and someone who hasn’t seen any of it. Learning what came before is cool and all, but it doesn’t have to negate all that came after. Enjoy your Ghoulies and your Cyborg Cops all you want – rip-offs can be your own personal masterpieces, too.