Twenty years ago, when I worked at Starlog, I was invited to a screening for a film few people had heard of, myself included. There was very little known about The Matrix prior to its release, just that it starred Keanu Reeves. The only clue I had was that early in 1999 I picked up a mini-mouse pad at a horror convention in New York. Its image was of Reeves’ Neo emerging from his Matrix chamber. To me it looked like some kind of horror movie that was possibly about cloning.
When I went to the screening, the producers and possibly the Warchowskis (I cannot remember anymore) were there and introduced us to The Matrix. The film was 99% complete with a couple of F/X shots missing. One of the producers set up the film and said it was their way of doing superhero films in a more plausible way and they hoped The Matrix would do well so they could do more films later. With that, the lights dimmed, and the film began.
Midway through the film, most of us attending instantly knew we were seeing something unique and groundbreaking when we saw The Matrix. Stating that the cyberpunk actioner was truly a revolutionary sci-fi masterpiece is not an understatement. About six weeks or so later, on March 31, the rest of the world beheld this revolutionary masterpiece.
There are so many, too many to list, reasons why this sci-fi film changed the cinematic landscape, but let’s try.
The Core of the Matrix
How about starting with the fact that this was the first cyberpunk film to strike a resonant chord with the general public. Yes, there were earlier cyberpunk films before The Matrix with similar themes, but this film was the one that hit the public zeitgeist. Every similar film that was released afterwards was inevitably compared to The Matrix, even its sequels.
The next and most obvious reason could be seen with its visual effects. CG had become a standard by 1999 but The Matrix used it in distinct ways to subvert the reality of its world. People defied the laws of gravity and physics, which was most famously witnessed in the iconic moment when the main character Neo (Keanu Reeves, who took the role after Will Smith turned it down) dodges bullet fire in sequenced dubbed bullet time. We witnessed his POV where time slowed down, but the cameras didn’t and we could see the trajectory of the bullets, which left vortexes. This pulse-pounding moment during the climatic third act was built up from the opening moments of The Matrix when we first see Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) jump up and hang suspended in the air (a moment that was copied and parodied many times since), then run on the walls with ease like she was Spider-Woman.
The Matrix also boasts some of the most exciting fight scenes ever seen on film. In many of them, fighters spar by defying gravity, moving at superhuman speed and precision. The fight choreography was nearly flawless and framed expertly. The filmmakers were inspired by Asian martial arts films and the technique of Wire Fu, where performers carried out impossible physical feats thanks to wires. It goes without saying that some fights are still considered the best ever shot on film. The standout has to be the climactic battle between Neo and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) as they fight throughout the city and subway. On a side note, Weaving should be lauded for his intimidating presence in the film as Smith, who was methodical, precise and ruthless. We could feel his disdain for humanity and growing frustration when dealing with Neo and his colleagues.
However, these dazzling effects and action set pieces wouldn’t mean anything without the story, subtexts and themes that formed the core of The Matrix. The film is stuffed with references and allegories to various religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism, philosophical thought such as nihilism and existentialism, and finally literary works like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It explored the concept of reality and how we perceive it, as well as the concept of free will vs fate. Tied to the last theme is Neo himself, as he struggles with the notion that he is the actualization of a prophesy that he will free humanity.
What is the Matrix?
For anyone who hasn’t seen The Matrix, the film is about an ordinary IT worker in 1999. who moonlights as a hacker. His world is literally turned inside out when he is contacted by mysterious anarchists who reveal to him a startling truth. He is not living in 1999 but about two hundred years later as part of a sentient machine civilization that is harvesting him and the rest of humanity for power. He and everyone else is oblivious to this as they live out their lives in a simulation where human civilization is still intact. When he is freed, he becomes part of a human resistance to topple the AI that rules the world and enslaves humanity. They do this by re-entering the simulation and rewriting software to gift themselves with enhanced fighting abilities and skills that allow them to bend physical laws within the Matrix.
An interesting point brought up in the film is the enticing nature of the Matrix. Yes, it is a dream, a delusion meant to keep humanity satiated and under control. But is the real world preferable? In the reality of the film, humans live deep underground in a grungy existence and are always trying to evade machine predators. The life isn’t easy or luxurious but the humans that live outside of the Matrix are free and in control of their lives. This leads to another theme in the film, that is choice.
Throughout the movie, Neo is constantly faced with making hard choices. Take the red or blue pill, for instance. Save himself or his mentor Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne in one of his best roles). Either one will yield a different result. He barely has time to consider possible outcomes and once he does make a choice there isn’t any going back. During his journey, Neo comes to realize that as one character told him, “there is no spoon”, and he is able to bend his reality within the Matrix.
Another running theme that is well explored is that of belief and faith. This does not just apply to Neo but to the supporting characters, especially Morpheus. Neo’s mentor has achieved near-mythical status in the world of the Matrix due to his rebellious actions within it. However, he is completely dedicated to finding and cultivating the person he calls The One: Neo, who he believes will be humanity’s salvation. He is driven by his belief system and refuses to hear protests from Neo that he isn’t the person Morpheus believes him to be.
These philosophical messages enticed us as we marveled to the hyper-kinetic fight scenes and special effects, which deservedly won an Academy Award (the film won three more technical Oscars). It was a good balance of eye candy and mental food, which sadly didn’t happen with the sequels. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions have their moments, but they were bogged down with pompous and pretentious philosophical banter, annoying characters, and unsatisfying plots.
For instance, at the end of the first film Neo basically becomes a demigod with superhuman powers. The ending scene when he rewrites reality in the Matrix and resurrects himself was probably the film’s best and most inspiring moment. He is able to see the simulation for what it truly is and is able to do what he wants. The Matrix ended with Neo endowed with superhuman powers and setting out to destroy the Matrix and free humanity. But in the sequels, he is depowered and not using his full potential. The way the final film ends left many of us unsatisfied but that is probably because of the road the sequels took to get to the trilogy’s conclusion. A more worthy followup to The Matrix is the direct-to-DVD effort The Animatrix, which consisted of several animated shorts. The best ones being “The Second Renaissance, Parts I and II”, and they detailed the origin of the war between man and machine. Frankly, these two shorts are quite disturbing to watch.
Naturally, there were other tie-ins to the iconic film such as comic books, toys, online games and so on. Most of them added to the world of The Matrix and are even considered cannon.
The performers and filmmakers have gone their separate ways since the trilogy ended with varying levels of success. Reeves continues to entertain audiences, one effort being his John Wick films. The latest one coming out this year will reteam him with Fishburne. The Warchowskis have not had the same level of success with their post-Matrix films though some of their works are quite good. Hopefully, they will keep trying.
There is talk about rebooting the franchise with rumors that Michael B. Jordan will play Neo, while some argue that a reboot is not necessary given the cyclical nature of the franchise. Admittedly, it will be nearly impossible to replicate the wow factor that the original had, but it is worth an effort. In any case, it is important that we take a moment to revere The Matrix and recognize how influential a film it was 20 years ago and today.
Great post! I remember going to see this with friends (way)back in the day, it was a mind blowing experience to say the least and a benchmark in modern SF cinema. The sequels were a bit patchy but there’s no denying the impact of the Matrix trilogy, the influences it draws from and in turn, the effect it had on audiences and filmmakers going forward.
The Animatrix was a neat addition to the universe, bringing it full circle to it’s cyberpunk origins from things like Ghost in the Shell. Typically, Hollywood will probably eventually push forward with the reboot/remake but it likely won’t really offer anything new.
Thanks for the comments. I consider The Animatrix to be a true prequel to the original film with some wonderful shorts.
As to how the reboot will turn out, given how things go in Hollywood these days it might be forgettable like the remakes for Robocop, Totall Recall, etc.
Fantastic look back at the Matrix. I remember going to see it and being totally blown away by the story and outstanding visual effects. Its a landmark film for the genre and special effects. While the inevitable sequels weren’t much to write home about, the original Matrix movie is still as impressive as ever, and I always enjoy revisiting it.
Indeed, I watched it the other day and was impressed with how well it held up, minus all the land lines (hey, the simulation takes place in 1999)😄! Even the special effects are still spectacular.
It took David Icke’s explanation of the symbolistic significance of The Matrix to make me appreciate the best impact of the film. Beyond all the amazing visuals and action sequences, it has much to say about the control mechanisms of our society that try to rob us of our individual freedoms. The notion of imprisoning us by making us think that we’re free is a timeless example of how deception is at the roots of all dystopian evils. That’s why The Matrix holds up despite the deprivations of its sequels.
That’s what makes The Matrix such a great film. It’s themes about free choice, perceptions of reality, and how we let society imprison us and define ourselves are timeless. The amazing visuals and exciting fight scenes helped, too. 😉