May 23, 2003

Neo, “The Matrix” Star, Is The Unexpected Hero Of My Generation

By Samuel Rodriguez

Who would have thought that the biggest hero of my generation would be a pale, ex-techie insomniac? He is Neo, from “The Matrix,” and everyone I know is going to see him in the movie’s sequel, “The Matrix Reloaded.”

When I was younger we had heroes like He-Man, Robocop and, who can forget, Superman. The ideal character destroyed bad guys in the name of justice through brute strength and power. But as we grew older, these heroes faded from our minds. After all, they had super powers we could only dream about. In “The Matrix,” Neo’s heroic action is something we all try to do on a daily basis — see through the illusions of the world.

“The Matrix” poses the idea that everything we sense around us, from sight to taste, is virtual reality, and that this is a prison for our minds. Liberation is being able to see through it. Neo has this powerful ability. Once just a boring insomniac computer programmer, he found he could manipulate the entire Matrix (the world) after realizing it was not real.

So Neo is a hero for our times, and not just because he can dodge bullets or knock out 12 guys with one kick. We all want to be able to see and step out of the system or the constant flow of our mind-enslaving world. For many of my peers, it’s not cool anymore to listen to Jay-Z, wear Gap clothes, or watch MTV all day. Those things are seen as being a part of our Matrix. My generation uses terms like “keep it real” and “don’t front” — the worst thing you can be is phony. Everyone wants to be original; nobody wants to be a copycat.

My friend Hegotistic, is usually mild-mannered, but when he raps it’s like he realizes his hidden power — the way Neo does when he first sees the Matrix. In Hegotistic’s lyrics, he sounds like a prophet, spitting lines like, “The lies have got you blinded.” He’s rapping about seeing through the bullsh— all around him, and the crowds feel it.

A lot of people I know feel they’ve taken the “red pill.” A local San Jose artist puts up stickers and fliers in an attempt to expose the Matrix. On bus stops, walls, or newsstands appears a graphic of skulls, or a character dressed in a business suit who looks depressed, with the message, “Wake up! You’re being lied to!”

No, these folks don’t have Neo posters above their beds or anything, but they live parallel to the concept of him. The underground scene is heavily influenced by the idea of the lone visionary — “the one.”

Folks choose what they wear, what music they listen to or what they eat based on the need to step away from “the program.” The idea has seeped into many circles, not just the anti-corporate activists with their fists in the air, or the Silicon Valley techies – what’s left of them — who finally have someone who makes them look hip. It’s all kinds of folks who could care less about any cause or political slogan. Instead of buying the $3 happy meals offered at every fast food joint, people grub at the Vietnamese vegi-sandwich spot at the corner. On the radio, many listen to college and pirate radio stations rather than mainstream, corporate-owned ones that play the same song or message every five minutes. Repetition and “being played out” are the main components of our Matrix.

Another way people try to step out of the Matrix is through making their own stuff. Even though it takes more time, people are designing their own clothes instead of buying from the mall. I’ve seen folks make T-shirts with spray paint and homemade stencils. Up-and-coming artists all want to think we have a bit of Neo in us when we give city property a makeover through spray paint.

Now, as “Matrix Reloaded” hits the theaters, corporations and mainstream media have picked up on the “coolness” of stepping out of the program. If you turn on your boob tube, you’ll see a Matrix character doing the famous levitation kick in a Heineken ad, or the clone-interrogator dude selling PowerAde for the Coca-Cola corporation. The film’s theme, “Free Your Mind,” is everywhere — billboards, buses, and spam e-mail.

That may be the big joke behind the Matrix. Even those who are trying to step out of the system step back into it when they buy the ticket. The movie has become another a product for sale. But to me, Neo can’t be co-opted.

My generation has been through this in the past. We’ve seen culture and ideas we identify with sold back to us, like graffiti, hip-hop or skateboarding. Big-time industries only see the surface, and not the deeper reasons why they resonate with us. Corporations see the Matrix as cool martial arts, leather trench coats and shades — but we see an idea that finally defines that feeling that this society is fake. Even if the movie comes from Hollywood.

Rodriguez is an artist for Silicon Valley De-Bug (, a Pacific News Service publication by young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.

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