I think it’s impossible for me to explain how seismic a shift The Matrix must have been when it came out in 1999
Mostly because I was too young when it was such a shift. I was only 6 at the time, and my parents may have been permissive, but R-rated movies were still off limits. I did have one way of knowing, though. My dad’s reaction.
My dad brought me my love of film, most specifically imprinting his love of genre films, and there was nothing like seeing his reaction after watching the next great action movie. I remember the sheer vibrating excitement with which he would talk about Terminator 2: Judgement Day and I was there when he spent the whole of Mad Max: Fury Road with his jaw on the floor.
There’s still nothing like seeing him after The Matrix. He was convinced he’d seen the future of cinema, and when he finally showed it to me about 7 years later, I think he was right.
When I pick The Matrix up now, I’m still shocked how far ahead of its time it was, and how it seems like every large-scale studio film is still in some way trying to catch up to the sheer innovation and scope and intertextual power that film had.
I first want to talk about the idea of originality, which is often couched the wrong way in film. We talk about originality far too often as “Nobody has ever done anything in this film before.” To be frank, that’s almost impossible at this stage in history. Originality is almost entirely technical, most storytelling feats and stylistic flourishes exist to some degree or require an absolute outsider to create.
Rather, originality should be about “Nobody has done something quite like this/in this way/with this quality.” And that’s The Matrix.
Like Star Wars, The Matrix is a heavily intertextual work, drawing on a world of influence that the writer/director Wachowskis had cultivated from Eastern and Western philosophy, Alice in Wonderland, anime, Hong Kong action films, cyberpunk literature, and at least three or four different religions as well as a host of traditional Hollywood genre film narrative structures.
Everything I love in The Matrix can be tied to something else. The philosophy is composed of paraphrasings and rephrasings of Plato and the Zhuangzi and executed like They Live! The legendary Lobby Shootout owes an unpayable debt to the works of John Woo. Keanu Reeves’ performance is just part of a personality he’d been cultivating since Bill and Ted. Hell, the movie itself is the Wachowskis taking a shot at their live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.
But it doesn’t matter that those things originate somewhere else. It’s how The Wachowskis put them together, and partially that they actually did put them all together. It’s not newly-spun cloth, but the various threads have made something beautiful.
The Matrix announced the Wachowskis as a pair of filmmakers that are still worth watching today. Yes, they’ve made some missteps. But I would still rather watch Jupiter Ascending than The Theory of Everything and they’re still the people responsible for The Matrix and Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer and Bound while I’m at it.
The Wachowskis have a unique visual imagination, they’ve never settled for standard or what needs to be done. They’re the sort of filmmakers who make interesting failures, that even if I can’t totally enjoy what’s happening, I can understand what they’re doing. And when they’re at their best, no filmmakers have a clearer understanding of the power of film and the power of visual as narrative.
That final emphasis isn’t to say The Matrix isn’t also an insanely well-written piece of work, because it is. It’s a classically strong script, a lot of well-done set-ups and payoffs and really strong character work. You get a quick sense of the world, a quick sense of who everyone is, and a constant narrative motion forward.
It isn’t just in something as simple as the great script. It lies in the details that the Wachowskis give the world. A green, sickly tinge on the simulated world throwing off your sense of their reality. The cold, dingy realism of the real world. The stiff, unnatural speaking of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) that sounds like a program not quite sure how to emulate human speech. The Wachowskis had a master control over the little stuff.
Let’s not forget the big stuff. It isn’t as though slow-motion wasn’t a part of cinematic language before The Matrix, but the “bullet-time” application is something that we’re still thrilled by. I don’t think there’s anything so instantaneously iconic and thrilling as Neo bending over backward to the floor, the contrails of the bullets whizzing by him.
Nor is there anything so iconic and thrilling as the action sequences the Matrix gave us. Like I said earlier, these are echoes of Hong-Kong action filmmaking, especially John Woo, as well as Wuxia film choreography. But speaking again to that concept of originality, no one had ever done them in an American context so incredibly well, and moreover, it had never felt so organic to the world.
The action in The Matrix feels superpowered in a way that most superhero films didn’t feel at the time. The punches had strength and dynamism, their bodies moved and took punishment in ways almost unseen. They went flying because it made sense in a computer simulation, in a battle where its participants were breaking the rules, not because it was just a heightened world. The action felt fully integrated with the narrative ideals.
That’s what’s so fantastic about The Matrix. Every piece feels connected. Every narrative device connected with every visual one connected with every thematic concern. The Wachowskis made a film that was not only airtight as a traditional piece of narrative, but also managed to advance a few new ones.
Because for everything else, the biggest legacy of The Matrix is the shot in the arm it gave blockbuster filmmaking. 90s blockbusters are largely boring or bland, good for irony value (which is the least interesting way to enjoy anything). The Matrix reminded us that filmmaking on this scale could innovate, could play with intelligent ideas, and could be a hell of a good time while it did those things.
Even if no other film could ever come close to what The Matrix did, and hundreds would try, The Matrix stands above them for showing what could be done.