It's been a little over 21 years since The Matrix released in cinemas. At the time, it was pretty rare to see big new franchises take off and receive prestigious titles like the greatest of all time - especially in the sci-fi genre. Sure, there have been admirable attempts, but it seemed like the world was against The Matrix succeeding. A new franchise from two relatively unknown directors featuring a baffling sci-fi concept shrouded by mystery in its marketing. With only the star power of Keanu Reeves and other actors having the most pulling power, audiences still flocked to witness the film, and finally answer the question that all of its marketing hammered, "What is The Matrix?"
Released in March 1999, The Wachowski's The Matrix landed with a bang that sent ripples throughout film history. I was still relatively young at the time of the movie's release, but I still fondly remember how it impacted people who walked out of the theaters. I managed to eventually watch The Matrix in all its glory alongside its less than stellar sequels, but the first film still stuck with me to this day.
While it's harder for studios to take big gambles like they did back then (case in point, they're inexplicably making a fourth film right now), The Matrix represented something potentially exciting about blockbuster filmmaking being more than just explosions, big action set pieces, and strong sexuality. Sure, The Matrix had all these elements too, but it delivered an intelligent premise that made me reconsider what a "blockbuster" was capable of. It goes without saying, but we wouldn't have films like Inception without the impact of The Matrix, and I think that's quite a commendable achievement in its ability to set a trend of smart blockbuster action romps.
So what is The Matrix? As the film illustrates, The Matrix is a program that emulates a virtual reality - a dreamland - where clueless citizens exist as if living ordinary lives in an ordinary world. In reality, the world had ended several hundred years ago when humanity gave rise to artificial intelligence that gained sentience. Humanity fought back, but as the story goes, they were enslaved and their bodies bred as batteries to power the machines. A war rages on beneath the Earth as the last remnants of humanity fight against the ongoing war with the machines. However, there once existed a messiah - an anomaly born within The Matrix - that could change its construct and liberate humanity. The Matrix follows the messiah's second coming when a computer programmer/hacker named Neo is prophecized to be The One.
For a premise as remarkably well-written as this, The Matrix somehow blends these heady themes and concepts with some awe-inspiring and revolutionary filmmaking. The Wachowski's insistence on reinventing the wheel on not just storytelling, but how action is filmed, was a big reason why the film succeeded to the lengths it did. Bullet time was a technique that The Matrix pioneered, and it's hard to find films today that were able to even replicate its groundbreaking style. Bullet time is common place now, but back in 1999, it blew peoples minds. The Matrix still remains probably the best example of how slow-motion is done right and used effectively - and sparingly - for maximum effect.
To get the obvious out of the way, The Matrix lifted a lot of inspiration from the cyberpunk genre, particularly the intellectual and heavy philosophical themes of Ghost in the Shell, Dark City and Blade Runner. Hell, even a lot of its visual aesthetics were lifted out of Mamoru Oshii's legendary anime, from the green colour palette to the famous coding used throughout the film. To off-set its clear influences, The Matrix introduced the "rule of cool" that is so widely copied today. All-black attire, long trench coats, dark sunglasses, and industrial metal all clicked so naturally and wonderfully that it's strange how few films were even able to figure out the formula for why these ingredients worked - and how The Wachowski's made it so damn cool.
The Matrix wasn't just the sum of it parts, though. There's not a single scene in the film that felt out of place, as it all served a greater purpose. Whether it was exposition dumps (that are actually really captivating because of The Matrix's enigmatic allure) or mind-blowing action sequences, there was a pitch-perfect balance of "smart" and "cool" - two factors that contributed heavily to The Matrix's incredible impact and lasting power. But more than that, it gave us plenty of reasons to care and get invested in the plights of some well-developed main characters, and side characters who are given just the right amount of characterization to feel important to the story.
Reeves may be more widely recognized as the vengeful John Wick today, but his role as Neo was a career-defining move, and the role that catapulted him into stardom (put down your pitchforks, Speed and Point Break fans, I hear you). Hell, even Laurence Fisburne, who plays the guiding father figure, Morpheus, saw a boost in his career alongside Carrie Anne-Moss' Trinity and of course, the brilliant Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. These are some of the most memorable characters in film, and for a good reason. It all started with how well the first movie managed to make them stand out, and embed themselves deep within pop culture. The chemistry between all the actors is fantastic, and I hope they're able to maintain that spark in the upcoming The Matrix 4.
The Matrix is jam-packed with absolutely masterful scenes, even during its less action-heavy moments where characters are simply explaining things and flexing interesting philosophy (without ever becoming pretentious like the sequels). However, the film's legendary third act still stands out as some of the best filmmaking I've ever seen. Beginning with Neo and Trinity breaking into a secured building to save Morpheus, a series of classic scenes break out in succession. From the physics-defying lobby shootout and Neo's slow-mo bullet dodging to the subway fight with Agent Smith that culminates in Neo finally becoming The One - it's all f*cking brilliant!
The Matrix is one of the most important and influential films ever made, and a landmark in cinema that still hasn't been topped, even in its sequels. I still hold a special place in my heart for The Lord of The Rings trilogy, but I can look at The Matrix and confidently call it a masterpiece and from a technical standpoint, one of the most impressive of its kind. I have some hope that The Matrix 4 will go back to its roots, but it's hard to imagine any film - even ones helmed by the underrated Wachowski's - managing to capture that lightning in a bottle of this 1999 juggernaut.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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