It’s hard to find a movie that embodies the hacker culture better than The Matrix. The break-in mechanism is accurately shown here, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar uses nicknames, and Neo’s daily routine is very typical of a hacker. Vice interviewed several cybersecurity experts and researchers who described how the iconic series has impacted their lives. We publish a retelling of the story.
The camera pans over a dark nightclub. Rob Zombie’s Dragula, the industrial metal anthem, comes over the speakers. The audience is dancing and having fun. In the corner, Neo is leaning awkwardly against the wall, feeling that he is dressed too simply (or simply too dressed) for this party. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees someone approaching him.
“My name is Trinity,” she says.
Trinity? Neo pauses. – Trinity? Trinity, who hacked into the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) database? “
This is the first time The Matrix has hinted that it is, among other things, a movie about hacking.
It doesn’t have to be about them like The Hackers or The Sneakers, but this film embodies the spirit of hackers better than many others, and over the past two decades, it is he who has most influenced the culture of hackers.
Just look at the aesthetics of the film. If you attend hacker conferences such as Def Con or Chaos Communication Congress, it will be difficult to determine whether the hackers are cosplaying The Matrix or the Wachowski sisters who filmed it copied their appearance. A Def Con spokesman says The Matrix has become the most-watched movie at the conference.
Longtime Def Con spokesman Melanie Ensign notes that she has been shown at least 20 times.
But the references to hackers, computers, and impressive imagery are just a surface layer of what makes The Matrix such a cult hacker movie. After all, there are several ways to read a movie and figure out its meaning. It is an allegory for the Christian faith, psychoanalytic travel, and even trans experiences, as Emily Vanderwerff explained in her 2019 article.
The sequels go more into the territory of religion, but very explicit references to hackers persist.
“Matrix Reloaded” is “the first major movie to accurately depict a hacking,” noted a 2003 article by renowned cybersecurity journalist and former hacker Kevin Poulsen. Moreover, Trinity uses a real tool that hackers usually use – Nmap – and the real sshnuke exploit program created by Michal Zalewski.
The Matrix purposefully appealed to the already existing generation of hackers.
“Hackers created their spaces decades before The Matrix came out,” writes Emily Croes, a security researcher, and former NSA analyst, in an online chat. “Having access to this hidden information and participating in the underground exchange of it was part of the hacker’s identity.”
“You had access to this world if you were curious enough to discover it. Curiosity was the main reason Neo took the red pill,” notes Emily Croes.
She says that her generation of hackers “started their careers as outsiders” who were obsessed with technology and followed their curiosity – the “white rabbit” – just like Neo and his comrades from Nebuchadnezzar.
This is what attracted young hackers around the world.
“I completely identified with Neo,” says Patroklos Argyroudis, who specializes in unknown vulnerability research and works for cybersecurity company CENSUS. “Do you think you’re breathing air now?” I still say this to the people I train to find vulnerabilities when they cannot find (obvious to me) a solution to a technical problem. “
Argyroudis recalls that he was already a hacker when the movie came out. He was about 18 years old at the time, and his nights were very much like Neo’s at the beginning of the film. Trying to figure something out, he did not sleep until 4:00 or so, reaching a state of obsession. He woke up late, tried to find a job, and did not want to become one of those who work from 9 to 5.
“My first reading of the main theme of the film was like this. The Matrix seemed to be a metaphor for adjusting to ordinary life from 9 to 5, becoming a cog in the mechanism of society, ” adds Argyroudis.
This was spelled out even more clearly in the first sequel, where Morpheus says to the crew and captains of the other ships, “But we all well know that the reason that most of us are here is because of our… affinity for disobedience.”
For those who at the time of the release of “The Matrix” were approaching adulthood, this film was very useful. John Scott-Railton, the Senior Research Fellow at Citizen Lab, was then in high school. A week before the film hit the box office, his school librarian permitted him to take old computers home to “play around.”
“The Matrix captured me. Somewhere deep inside, something clicked. I was just figuring out who I was then,” he says, explaining that at the time he knew about hacking and its culture, but was not yet part of the community.” And here, here was the promise of movement, freedom, endless possibilities.”
A security researcher known as x0rz says the Matrix forced him to become a hacker. Around 2004, he decided to go to a specific private school. The school offered courses in cybersecurity, and the flyer featured a character very similar to Neo.
However, the film wasn’t just for millennials. Amelie E. Koran, a hacker, and technologist, notes that outdated technologies from the film, such as analog telephones, the old culture of phreakers, or old message boards, resonate with her.
“It was a cool call from the past,” she admits in a telephone conversation.
The film also inspired the credibility of old-school hackers, as all the people who decided to escape from the Matrix had nicknames, like the most famous hackers of the time, such as members of the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc).
Over time, the Quran also realized that another hidden subtext was the concept of genderless characters like Switch.
“The whole point of The Matrix was liberation. I think this is another part of the film: when you can live, superpowers appear, ” she notes.