- Directors: The Wachowskis
- Writers: The Wachowskis
- Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Anthony Ray Parker, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Gloria Foster, Belinda McClory, Paul Goddard, and Robert Taylor
- Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#35), 4 Oscars (Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max or Peacock, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
The Matrix has become so much a part of the cultural furniture that it is hard, today, to see just how much of a shock it was to the landscape when it came out. Perhaps its most obvious influence is in the action arena, with its sibling writer/directors, the Wachowkis, synthesizing a bunch of influences, most prominently wire work from the Hong Kong action movies, into a new style that has been heavily influential ever since. The movie’s weird pop philosophy bent (“are you going to to take the red pill or the blue pill”) also remains part of the general background, and some bits of it have been thoroughly hijacked by groups that one doubts the Wachowskis could have ever fathomed (there are corners of the internet where “men’s rights” activists describe themselves as being “red-pilled,” for example). The movie’s status as a cultural touchstone remains 23 years later, even after three somewhat tepidly received sequels, none of which has had anything close to the meteoric impact on the movie world that the original did.
There are several ways, however, that The Matrix is very of its late-90s moment. There’s the obvious example of the unabashed techno-grunginess of the soundtrack, which has not survived the decades the way denizens of the 1990s might have thought. The themes of The Matrix remain relevant, obviously, but it was also one of a series of computer-y science fiction movies with similar underlying premises that came out around the same time. This was the peak of the “Dot-Com Boom,” with the potential of the internet being unleashed for the first time. The movies, along with the rest of the culture, found themselves working out the relationships between humans and computers in a more urgent way. Sure, technology is still a massive thing, and great art can and is still made about that relationship, but in 1999 it felt like we had less assumptions about where all this was going to end up. The Matrix became the most popular of the group, not least because of its insane action sequences, but Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and eXistenZ, all of which, I would argue, are at the very least really interesting movies in their own right, also all came out in either 1998 or 1999, and are basically all about people finding out that what they thought was reality is not. In particular, nobody saw The Thirteenth Floor because it came out basically the exact same time as The Matrix and has essentially the exact same concept, though it uses it in a somewhat more “serious” drama sort of way than an action-y way. It’s still worth seeking out if you’ve ever heard of it.
That concept, if you are somehow unaware, is that, unbeknownst to most of us, the reality we all know is, in fact, a computer simulation. In The Matrix, said virtual reality is imposed upon mankind by AI machines, who harvest the energy of the pacified mankind to power themselves (as many have pointed out, this doesn’t actually make sense, but just go with it). Keanu Reeves redefined his career in the central role of Neo, a corporate drone who is “woken up” by a band of free humans because their leader, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) believes him to be “The One” who will free mankind from the machines. Despite skepticism on this point from everyone else in the movie, Neo does in fact turn out to be The One, able to bend the reality of the Matrix to his will as if he is a computer himself. Or something. The movie is more interested in the philosophical implications of what’s going on than in actually explaining it, but somehow it all still works. The other main character is Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, who ends up as Reeves’ main love interest, though I think most people really just remember her ultra-cool look and demeanor.
As I said, The Matrix’s biggest impact came from its revolutionary action sequences, which take the wire-work, guns blazing from both hands, and cool sunglasses and trenchcoats from earlier-90s Hong Kong actioners (the Wachowskis hired one of the better-known directors of such movies, Yuen Woo-Ping, to do the action choreography), and adds what became colloquially known as “bullet time,” an effect where cool action moments are slowed waaay down while the camera is still moving as if in real time. For example, in one famous moment in this movie, Neo leans far back, using his newfound superpowers, to avoid several bullets shot at him by a bad guy. We slow time down to the extent that the flight of the bullets becomes visible, while the camera whips around Reeves in a nearly 360 degree arc. Slow motion had been around for a while, wire-work had been around for a while, but through a combination of computerized effects and practical rigs involving dozens of cameras, each capturing a single frame, which could then be composited together, the Wachowskis seemed to find the killer app for all of these elements, so to speak.
I probably had seen this movie a dozen times, but not for several years, and on this go around I was particularly struck by the performance of Hugo Weaving (who basically plays a literal “killer app,” now that I think about it), an Australian actor who at that time was not especially known in the US. Weaving plays Agent Smith, the main evil computer program who is trying to hunt down Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, et al., and the movie just absolutely turns him lose to give just a completely ridiculous performance. He pronounces each word as if he has to bite it out of an apple. It helps that he gets some truly great lines, like, “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. And we… are the cure.” When he explains that the machines have replaced humans, he says, “Evolution, Morpheus. Evolution. Like the dinosaur.” Picture “dinosaur” with approximately seven rs, and you get the idea. It is kind of the best.
You might have noticed, above, that The Matrix is on the BBC’s 2019 list of the 100 greatest films directed by women, and wondered what that was about. At the time this movie was made, its credits read that it was “Written and Directed by the Wachowski Brothers.” The Wachowskis (originally known as Larry and Andy) were a writing team who worked on several series of comic books together before selling the script for Assassins to Warner Bros. It would end up completely rewritten into a very brawny Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas action thriller, which apparently bore almost no resemblance to the Wachowski’s script, but it got their foot in the door to both write and direct 1996’s Bound, a neo-noirish crime thriller centering around a lesbian couple. That movie received strong critical acclaim and has remained a staple of the “queer canon” ever since, and also got the Wachowski’s the backing of Warner Bros. for The Matrix.
After the runaway blockbuster status of this movie, the Wachowskis directed two immediate sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, which were generally seen as disappointments at the time, though in the years since they have steadily picked up defenders. Reloaded would be the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time for over a decade until it was passed by Deadpool. Their later movies and other projects have been a similarly mixed bag: their adaptation of Speed Racer is, for example, believed by some to be Razzie-level terrible, while simultaneously being vehemently defended by a significant slice of critics. During the filming of that movie, producers denied rumors that Larry Wachowski was currently transitioning to life as a woman, apparently thinking it would hurt the movie’s box office, but this did turn out to be the truth, and in 2008 she came out as a trans woman named Lana. Lana Wachowski thus became the first known trans movie director in the history of Hollywood. Her sister announced in 2016 that she was transitioning as well, and is now known as Lilly Wachowski. Unfortunately, the Wachowskis funding mostly dried up after the 2015 bombing of the science fiction epic Jupiter Ascending (which I will always defend as, if not a great movie, a truly great swing at a great movie). When Warner Bros., or more accurately the corporate conglomerate that now owns Warner Bros., among numerous other media brands, decided to make another Matrix movie, they apparently were going to so whether or not the Wachowskis were involved, so Lana agreed to write and direct in order to at least maintain control over the result.
Bits of the cultural framework around The Matrix have since been hijacked by weirdos, but I wonder what those weirdos would think of the fact that, in retrospect, it is pretty clearly not only a take on the human pursuit of personal fulfillment in a world governed by technology, it is also at least sort of the Wachowskis working out their own feelings about being Trans. Consider, for example, the film’s take on people realizing they’re in a simulation, where something about the fundamental nature of the world just feels off. The proverbial “glitch in the matrix,” a phrase that has taken on wide meanings outside of its origins in this film. Morpheus describes that feeling as “like a splinter in your mind.”
Many books could be written (and have been) on the philosophical underpinnings of The Matrix, or parsing out its metaphors. But honestly, my relationship with it, remains mostly based on the way its action sequences still make me feel after all these years. The climactic scenes remain, of all the action scenes in anything, my favorites. And so, I’ll probably come back to the original Matrix sooner rather than later.