Take the red pill and hire Laurence: can the Matrix work without Fishburne’s Morpheus?

Matrix 4 is under way, with director Lana Wachowski spinning a fresh puzzle for fans to obsess over. But their biggest question for now is: why isn’t Laurence Fishburne on the cast list?

It is pretty much impossible to imagine The Matrix without Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus. Perhaps Lana and Lilly Wachowski could have found a different actor, or character, to mouth the much-repeated line about red and blue pill options that dictated whether or not Neo would plunge headlong down the techno rabbit hole in the iconic 1999 sci fi flick. But it is as sure as the fact that we’re all living in a simulation that no one but Fishburne could have delivered it with such monumental gravitas.

You take the blue pill ... the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill ... you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

So majestic is this scene that it has been sampled countless times by electronic musicians. And it has been adopted as a metaphor by movements at radically opposing ends of the cultural spectrum, from proponents of transgender rights to men’s rights activists. It’s the movie equivalent of one of those Magic Eye posters that were so popular in the 90s: some see a sailboat, others the features of Jesus Christ. But if Lana Wachowski is to manage anything like it in the forthcoming (as-yet-untitled) Matrix 4, she will have to do so without Fishburne, who has confirmed he is not be returning.

“I’m not involved. You’ll have to talk to Lana Wachowski,” Fishburne told ReelBlend. “The only thing I can tell you is that Lana Wachowski can answer those questions for you better than I can.”

Fishburne’s absence is all the stranger for the fact that Morpheus was the only one of the main three characters in The Matrix who actually made it to the end of the Matrix trilogy alive. The other two, Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity, are both returning, despite being ostensibly dead by the end of 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions.

Meanwhile, there will be roles in Matrix 4 for Lambert Wilson as the Merovingian (from the misfiring The Matrix Reloaded, also 2003), and Jada Pinkett Smith’s human resistance fighter Niobe. The problem is that, despite the excellence of both actors, Wilson’s and Pinkett Smith’s roles in the original trilogy were largely forgettable. If the Matrix were Star Wars, it would be a bit like writing out Han Solo but giving expanded roles to Biggs Darklighter and Salacious B Crumb.

Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss filming Matrix 4.
Back from the dead … Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss filming Matrix 4. Photograph: YouTube

Fishburne seems as nonplussed as fans of the original movie. There are hints that new cast member Yahya Abdul-Mateen II could end up playing a younger version of Morpheus. The Watchmen (TV version) actor bears more than a passing resemblance to Fishburne in his prime, and has charisma in spades. But he is just not Fishburne – and in any case, the original Morpheus is hardly past his sell-by date at the ripe old age of 59.

It could be that Fishburne is being secretly lined up for a cameo as Morpheus Prime, to give fans the shivers when it is finally unveiled on opening night. If so, that’s a dangerous game to play – especially as Matrix geeks are already beginning to bemoan the Oscar-nominee’s absence. Why create such bad juju, unless there is something personal behind the move?

Human batteries … The Matrix.
Human batteries … The Matrix. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

Wachowski should not have much trouble conjuring up interest for Matrix 4 in this day and age. While neither of the first two sequels hit the same heights, the original film is the ultimate conspiracy theorist’s wet dream: a movie that feeds into everyone’s secretly nurtured belief that they are only an office drone because they once chose the wrong blimmin’ pill from a guy in dark glasses in some fuzzy, distant sci-fi dreamscape. You only have to spend a few minutes on social media to establish that there are people out there who are more than willing to believe they ought to have transformed into a kung fu-kicking superbeing long ago, if only something nebulous (like being hooked up to an icky feed supplying mankind’s 28th-century robot overlords with energy for eternity) hadn’t mysteriously held them back.

In this context, Fishburne’s continuing exclusion, as the new film’s producers do their best to convince everyone else to head back to the techno dancefloor, seems even more absurd. After all, if you remove the guy who tried to sell everyone the pills in the first place, you might just find people are not so keen to buy tickets for the reunion rave.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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