The Matrix is all around us. You can’t explain what is, but you can feel it. Like the simulated reality of the characters, The Matrix permeates the creative DNA of all future action blockbusters. When the film debuted in 1999, audiences were shell-shocked by its originality. Now the film has been re-released for its 20th anniversary, it’s as much a game-changer as it was then.
Green, cryptic characters, scroll across a computer screen, giving way to a decrepit apartment complex. The cops descend, cautiously, on a mysterious woman clad in black leather. Before they can slap handcuffs on her, she defies the laws of gravity, dispatching them in ways thought humanly impossible. She escapes – tailed by a similarly powered man wearing a grey suit – to a ringing telephone booth. Right before the man can catch up to her, she answers the phone and disappears into code. As a result, this leaves the audience deeply confused but irrevocably hooked. From that moment onward, writer-directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski have established a tight grip on the audience that they never loosen.
The Matrix is about the unknown. Like us, our protagonist Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) knows something is amiss in his world. Moonlighting as a hacker codenamed “Neo”, Anderson yearns the break out of his mundane existence as a software developer. Bill Pope’s green-tinted cinematography provides a delightfully oppressive stage wherein Reeves gives one of the best performances of his career. His sincere curiosity, accompanied by defiance of authority, makes him the ideal candidate to follow down the rabbit hole. And fall down the rabbit hole he does, when he meets the woman from the beginning, Trinity (Carrie Anne-Moss), at a nightclub.
She clues him into the idea that his world is not as real as he thinks. The tension rises throughout the first act, as this spark drives Neo to the sage-like Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a man who offers Neo a choice between staying in his world or learning the truth. That question – “would you choose ignorance if you could?” – is one that could sustain its entire movie. The Wachowski Sisters answer it with a defiant “no”. As such, Neo chooses the truth and wakes up to a much different world. Simply put, it is a dystopian future in which machines feed off of human brain waves by keeping them in a computer simulation of 1999 called “The Matrix”.
It’s at this moment that The Matrix becomes a stone-cold classic. Everything Neo and the audience knows is ripped from them as Neo learns that he is “The One” prophesied to finally bring down the machines. The concept of a false reality comes directly from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. But it’s the belief that you can fight back against that lie to forge another future that’s still poignant to this day. Neo does this by learning to master the false reality of The Matrix.
At every step, The Wachowski Sisters wear their influences on their sleeves. The future is reminiscent of the bleak industrial landscapes of The Terminator. Not to mention, there are machines that echo the tentacled designs of H.P. Lovecraft. The actual inside of The Matrix combines a cyberpunk feel with action sequences lifting directly from Hong Kong action cinema and anime. Then there’s the unforgettable costume design that bears more than a passing resemblance to S&M subculture. This inspiration coalesces into one of the most unique and badass fictional universes ever put to screen.
It’s the type of place in which you want to write your own stories. The story that the Wachowski Sisters tell here, however, proves more than sufficient. Neo goes through the typical Hero’s Journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell, meeting all sorts of great characters along the way. There’s Morpheus, of course, and Carrie Anne-Moss’s tough-as-nails, driven femme fatale of Trinity. Then we get to the crew of the shifty Cypher, hard-ass Switch, and the loyal Tank. Most memorable is the villain of the piece – Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).
A sentient program, Agent Smith is everything “square” personified. He’s an oversized caricature of “The Man”, bringing with him an explosive malevolence that makes him the perfect aggressor to the inquisitive Neo. When these two come to blows, we get some doozies of action scenes. Speaking of which…
The biggest contribution that The Matrix has made to cinema is in the way it frames its action. In the film, Neo constantly breaks the rules of the reality of The Matrix, displaying superhuman agility and speed. The Matrix shows this through magnificent wirework and fight choreography that stands up to the very best of martial arts films. Not being bound by the rules of reality allows the film to push into the territory that only the best anime previously occupied.
Furthermore, there is an onslaught of inventive camera movements. The “bullet dodging” scene is a watershed moment in film history. It showed that anything, no matter how massive, can be visualized with enough ingenuity. This among other set-pieces such as Neo and Trinity’s building break-in crackle to this day with an energy that’s frankly hard to believe. It’s jaw-dropping. Revolutionary. When the triumphant score by Don Davis kicks in as Neo fights Agent Smith, you’re empowered not only in the fantasy of the movie but also with the realization that anything can be done onscreen.
You could say the same for the rest of the film. The Matrix is a perfect storm of elements that combines to make an honest-to-God masterpiece. You could take the film for its philosophy, for its characters, its visuals, its action, or score and walk away with your mind blown. There are all sorts of different readings for this film, such as many articles interpreting the film as a treatise on trans identity, as the directors are trans women themselves. No matter what you take away from The Matrix, it’s bound to leave a large impact in your life. So whether you’re watching it for the first, second, or one-thousandth time, celebrate this unparalleled piece of cinema and enter The Matrix.
The Matrix is now in theaters, on home video and digital HD.