We live in a world saturated by colors. The clothes on our bodies, the gadgets in our hands, the cars we ride every day, the packaging on our food, the light bursting free from our screens. We are surrounded by vibrant colors, whether we notice them or not. Truth is, it’s very easy to take them for granted. Regardless of whether we notice them, the production of colors and, subsequently, what they signify plays a significant role in human history.
Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern by Adam Rogers explores the many facets encapsulating our complicated but essential relationship with color. It spans the scientific (how we see colors and how different wavelengths of light create the colors of the rainbow), the cultural (how different cultures often lack words for common colors, most famously the Ancient Greeks and the color blue), and the industrial (how many scientific and technological advances were and continue to be associated with novel ways to produce color). Rogers shows how colors are so essential to our modern existence that the invention of a single new color – something of a rare occurrence – can result in multi-million dollar profits for the owner of the manufacturing process.
More overt usage of colors as a way to communicate information can be seen in the Visual Arts, whether it’s painting, graphic novels, or motion pictures. A recent example of this can be seen in the movie, The Matrix Resurrections.
The most recent installment to the Wachowskis’ Matrix franchise, Resurrections finds Neo returned to a hum-drum existence as a computer game designer famous for creating a trilogy of games strikingly similar to the content of the first three Matrix movies. As it turns out, Trinity is also living a pedestrian existence somewhere in the same city. On occasion, their paths cross in a local coffee shop. A new cast of characters try to rescue Neo from his Matrix-based existence and once again giving him the choice whether he wants to see existence for what it is or continue living in the computer generated illusion. Of course, we’ve seen this before
Besides the occasionally clumsy wire-work that provides the film with some of its most iconic visuals, the Matrix is best known for its adoption of early computer screen green and the memorable use of color to represent free will. When Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburn) discusses the nature of the Matrix with Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the first Matrix film, he offers a choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The former represents the unpleasant reality as it exists outside of the Matrix while the latter simply allows Neo to continue his manipulated, virtual existence in the Matrix. Neo chooses the red pill and is ripped from the illusion of his existence to reality, to his human form.
Lana Wachowski’s choice of red is significant and full of meaning. Rogers provides a way into the semiotics of color in the highly readable pages of Full Spectrum (published over two decades after the red-pill-blue-pill scene, mind you).
According to Full Spectrum, red appears to be one of the earliest of the primary colors human beings acquired, adopted, and integrated into their daily lives. In this sense, it is one of the most important. This is borne out linguistically.
“All languages contain terms for white and black. If a language contains three color terms, then it contains a term for red. If a language contains four color terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both). If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.”
As a signifier, red rises above the other colors in two important ways. It takes on added meaning and, as a result, being able to produce the red pigments grows in importance. Those two factors reinforced each other. The more important red became culturally, the more important its production became. The more urgent making the product became, the greater the symbolic meaning and use during various rituals. As a result, manufacturing red pigments from ochre stands out as one of humanity’s earliest and most important technological developments.
According to Rogers, “The ochre colors – reds, yellows, oranges, and browns – were among the very first pigments used by humans. Which is to say, there’s evidence in the archeological record of human beings gathering these iron-oxide-based minerals, grinding as many of them as possible into particles the size of a single bacterium or a mote of dust (between 0.01 and 1 micron) and then mixing them into some kind of medium that would hold them together and let them stick, mostly permanently, onto something for purposes of giving it a color that it didn’t have before. Along with white made from chalk or calcium carbonate, and black derived from charcoal or manganese dioxide, the ochres were the foundational palette of human art.”
Red became the color most associated with our earliest cultural practices and identities. As such, it is primal and primordial, a symbolic representation of our life force and, by extension, our humanity.
While green and blue are the colors that immediately come to mind when it comes to the Wachowski’s film franchise, red holds the most significance for reasons mentioned above. Matrix: Resurrection, in particular, bears this out. The color red consistently appears throughout the film, each moment bearing some association with humanity. It is the color of life. (The trailer pretty much hits every scene I’m about to discuss so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, it’s all there.)
Early in the film, The Matrix Resurrection reprises the famous set piece from the original Matrix movie where Neo is presented with the existential choice of swallowing a red or blue pill. Take the red and he will wake up in reality, removed from the comfort of existing in the Matrix; Take the blue and he will remain subservient and asleep while living a comfortable, albeit imagined, virtual life. Red represents an awakening to humanity while blue represents continued denial of it. Again, Neo chooses reality.
When Neo wakes from his slumber, he finds himself back in the life force-sapping pods, bathed in a somber red light. As he peers over the edge at the vast energy harvesting machinery, every single pod carries a similar hue, including the one with Trinity in it. Together, they form red-spotted towers where human energy is being farmed and sapped.
Once Neo is liberated and a passenger in Bug’s ship, the Mnemosyne, red spots dot the internal structures, understandable considering the vehicle’s role in defending and reinvigorating humanity. The same decorative trope can be seen on the synthients who befriend humans, one of which delivered Neo from the pod to the Mnemosyne.
When Niobi explains the achievements of her settlement to Neo, she chooses a red strawberry, reinforcing the organic aspects to our humanity. Wachowski could have chosen any fruit with any color skin – a grape, a banana, an apple, an orange – yet they chose one that neatly falls in line with the color red as a primal signifier for humanity.
The use of red continues throughout the film. During the scene when Bug and Sati attempt to rescue Trinity, the red-blue dichotomy introduced with the red pill/blue pill choice reappears. Standing beside the pod, Bug and Sati are covered in red while Trinity, still mentally living in the Matrix, appears a cold blue.
In Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern, Adam Rogers explains how central colors have been in defining how we see ourselves and how we interpret and interact with our surroundings. He argues that our relationship with colors as signifiers has inspired humanity toward greater scientific developments and toward modernity. Color is central to our existence. Not only that, it has become a tool for how we view ourselves. The use of the color red in The Matrix Resurrections is a perfect example.