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.