The Matrix, both cult film and box office success, burst onto the scene in 1999 with a roller-coaster science fiction narrative propelled by groundbreaking special effects. It satisfied all the conventions of genre filmmaking but also managed to provide a level of symbolic depth akin to an art film. By proposing a computer-generated virtual reality (aka The Matrix) and drawing parallels between unconscious slavery and consumer-based existence, the movie spoke to Gen X audiences who perhaps smelled a rat in the technological kitchens of the dot com era. And the prophetic character of Morpheus played by Laurence Fishburne gave a cool and steady voice to their doubts. In short, The Matrix was about as subversive as Hollywood could get without posing an outright threat to the illusions of tinsel town.
Fast-forward 15 years to a Kia commercial. A sophisticated couple approaches a valet to reclaim their vehicle. Morpheus spins around at a podium. “Let me tell you why you are here. It is the world of luxury that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
“We just want to get our car,” says a mildly annoyed gentleman, echoing the frustrations of middle-class America.
Morpheus continues. “Take the blue key and go back to the luxury you know. Take the red key and you’ll never look at luxury the same again.”
The gentleman takes the red key, and a pristine Kia K900 appears. Stop there. The thrust of the movie inverts; the commercial takes control. Meaning pivots on the word luxury, going from critical analysis to slick endorsement in the blink of an eye. The about face executed by Morpheus at the podium becomes more than just dramatic.
In The Matrix, Morpheus leads the resistance against heuristic machines that have enslaved the human race through mind control. He is captured but summons superhuman strength to withstand the interrogation of agents determined to manipulate his consciousness. In the Kia commercial, his role as leader transforms into the part of salesman, peddling luxury in the form of an upgraded economy car. He betrays his character and the very premise that made The Matrix interesting and artistically legitimate. Alas, other agents are also at work, licensing and decontextualizing. Morpheus, named after the Roman god of dreams, goes from visionary to sleepwalker.
As Morpheus accompanies the couple in their newly prized automobile, his sales pitch becomes more seductive: “This is what luxury looks like; this is what it feels like.” He makes an appeal to the senses, the same appeal that the machines of The Matrix contrived to delude the human race. When describing what luxury sounds like, his voice becomes that of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep). Take from that what you will before hyperbole becomes farce: other cars on the road lose traction and float into oblivion as lampposts explode from the operatic sound waves.
Of course, Laurence Fishburne is not Morpheus any more than the The Matrix is reality. And the appropriation of one commercial product by another can hardly be considered unfair game in this exponentially postmodern, media-driven world. Even so, the endorsement is still disheartening. Here we have The Matrix, a film implying that everyday reality is a hoax, offering itself directly to the mundane. The film ends with a manifesto pledging to expose the mechanisms of control, but time passes and the entire production becomes just another article of rebellion scooped up and incorporated into the marketplace—the real machine of our time.
Morpheus speaks: Kia K900 Commercial