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The red pill and its opposite, the blue pill, are pop culture symbols representing the choice between embracing the sometimes painful truth of reality (red pill) and the blissful ignorance of illusion (blue pill).
The terms, popularized in science fiction culture, derive from the 1999 film The Matrix. In the movie, the main character Neo is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The blue pill would allow him to remain in the fabricated reality of the Matrix, therefore living the "illusion of ignorance", while the red pill would lead to his escape from the Matrix and into the real world, therefore living the "truth of reality".
In The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) hears rumors of the Matrix and a mysterious man named Morpheus. Neo spends his nights at the computer trying to discover the secret of the Matrix and what the Matrix is. Eventually he is introduced to Morpheus by another hacker called Trinity.
After some explanation of the Matrix by Morpheus and the truth that he is just a small part of the Matrix and one of the Matrix's "slaves", and as he tells him that he can become free, Morpheus explains the choice to Neo:
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. 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. Remember, all I'm offering is the truth – nothing more.
As narrated, the blue pill will allow the subject to remain in the fabricated reality of the Matrix, and the red pill serves as a "location device" to locate the subject's body in the real world and to prepare him to be "unplugged" from the Matrix. Each person has only one choice with no possibility to reverse their original choice. There are two kinds of people" the "bluepills," the people who took the blue pill and remained in the Matrix or were not yet given the choice; and the "redpills" who took the red pill and were freed from the Matrix.
In the film, Neo chooses the red pill, and is shown the true nature of the Matrix; a detailed simulation of Earth circa 1999, in which the bodies of human inhabitants are stored in massive power plants, complacent in a mental prison, in order to convert their heat and bioelectrical energy into power for consumption by machines.
The 1990 movie Total Recall features a red pill that is offered to Arnold Schwarzenegger's character Douglas Quaid. He is told "it's a symbol – of your desire to return to reality." No blue pill is present in the film, and the story centers on the very uncertainty of whether Quaid is dreaming or in the real world. However, the pill is offered to him with the claim that he is dreaming, and that the pill will return him to reality, with the words "inside your dream, you'll fall asleep."
An essay written by Russell Blackford discusses the red and blue pills, questioning whether if a person were fully informed they would take the red pill, opting for the real world, believing that choosing physical reality over a digital simulation is not clear-cut. Both Neo and another character, Cypher, take the red pill over the blue pill, with the latter showing regret for having made such a choice, having stated that if Morpheus fully informed them of the situation Cypher would have told Morpheus to "shove the red pill right up his [Morpheus'] ass." When Cypher subsequently makes a deal with the machines to go back to the Matrix and forget everything before, he asserts that "Ignorance is bliss." Blackford argues that The Matrix trilogy sets things up so that even if Neo fails, the taking of the red pill is worthwhile because he lives and dies authentically. Blackford and science-fiction writer James Patrick Kelly feel that The Matrix stacks the deck against machines and their simulated world.
In the book The Art of the Start, author Guy Kawasaki uses the red pill as an analogue to leaders of new organizations, in that they face the same choice to either live in reality or fantasy. He adds that if they want to be successful, they have to take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Matrix Warrior: Being the One author Jake Horsley compared the red pill to LSD, citing a scene where Neo forms his own world outside of the Matrix. When he asks Morpheus if he could return, Morpheus responds by asking him if he would want to. Horsley also describes the blue pill as addictive, calling The Matrix series a continuous series of choices between taking the blue pill and not taking it. He adds that the habits and routines of people inside the Matrix are merely the people dosing themselves with the blue pill. While he describes the blue pill as a common thing, he states that the red pill is one-of-a-kind, and something someone may not even find.