Released: March 1999
Director: The Wachowski Brothers
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Budget: $63 million
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano
Thomas A. Anderson (Reeves) is a nobody; by day, he sits in a cubicle and works a monotonous job as a software developer but, in his spare time, he has crafted a reputation under his hacker alias “Neo”. When he is targeted by Agent Smith (Weaving), Neo is brought to the enigmatic Morpheus (Fishburne) and offered both a startling truth and a destiny he could never have suspected.
After managing to sell their script for Assassins (Donner, 1995) and the success of Bound (The Wachowski Brothers, 1996), Andy and Larry Wachowski (as they were known then) were able to sell Warner Brothers on another of their scripts: The Matrix. Featuring an impressive mixture of martial arts, philosophy, and science-fiction not often seen in major Hollywood releases and heavily influenced by manga and anime, particularly Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995), The Matrix made an instant and lasting impression not just on the science-fiction and action genres but on cinema as a whole. The film both popularised the concept of “bullet time” and wire-assisted kung fu (or “wire-fu”) in movies and cemented Keanu Reeves as an action star. Suddenly, parodies were everywhere and movie heroes were all sporting long dark coats, shades, and flipping all over the place and it was all largely thanks to The Matrix.
When I was a kid, The Matrix as a big, big deal. My friends and I watched the film constantly, eating up the action sequences and the cool aesthetic and soundtrack. Produced on a paltry budget of $63 million, The Matrix was a massive commercial and critical hit, making over nearly $500 million worldwide. So great was The Matrix’s success that is spawned not only two sequels but a whole slew of multimedia merchandise, including comic books and videogames. While the sequels may not have garnered quite the same critical reaction as the quasi-cult hit original, The Matrix’s important at the time (and today) cannot be understated and a fourth film is currently in production, proving that The Matrix still has an enduring legacy in cinema. Considering today is “National Science Fiction Day”, this seems the perfect opportunity to look back at this classic piece of cyberpunk cinema.
The Matrix has a pretty simple concept, one that has been done before and since in cinema, but complicates it with musings on fate, destiny, and the sense of identity and reality. At its core, the plot is incredibly simple, though: the world as we know it is merely a computer-generated construct, a form of virtual reality in which we have been enslaved by a race of machines in a post-apocalyptic world. Amidst this, though, we have themes regarding providence, choice, and some of the most impression action and fight sequences put to cinema.
Our window into The Matrix is Thomas A. Anderson (or “Neo”, as he is known throughout the hacking community), a bored program developer who has lived most of his life with a feeling that there’s something not quite right with the world. Thanks to his illicit activities, he is acutely aware of the legendary Morpheus, a charismatic and prophet-like figure in Neo’s circles, and “the Matrix”, an undefined concept that is enough to rouse Neo’s curiosity.
Keanu Reeves makes for a perfect audience surrogate; you instantly buy into the idea of him as an isolated, distracted hacker who is unfulfilled in his mundane life and eager for change but not quite confident enough to really buck the system more than showing up late for work or being generally apathetic. Once he meets Trinity (Moss), though, and is set on the path towards Morpheus and answers concerning the Matrix, Neo’s outlook begins to change; he was too afraid of plummeting to his death when trying to escape Smith and his cohorts but, once captured, is defiant enough to give them the finger and, after being reminded of the poor choices he’s made in life that have kept him stagnant, resolves to follow Trinity and her teammates towards an uncertain future.
Opposing Neo is the aforementioned Agent Smith; in this movie, he’s just one of a number of men in black who target our heroes and are meant to be indistinguishable from each other. As the de facto leader, and the most charismatic of the three, Smith’s personality is revealed over time and in layers; he goes from a monotonous, fittingly robotic agent of the system to being wracked with personal animosity for Neo and being overcome by his own pride and hubris. Weaving is excellent in the role, exuding both menace and charm with the subtlest of movements and the merest of words and seeing him break out of his shell and reveal just how layered Smith is beneath his cold exterior is both captivating and terrifying at the same time.
Luckily, Neo is not alone in his journey; Trinity is his main link to Morpheus’s world and serves as his eventual love interest. Yet, while Carrie-Anne Moss is acceptable in the role and more than capable at holding her own in her fight scenes, I never really bought into the attraction between the two characters. People like to rag on Keanu for being “wooden” but I’ve always enjoyed his work and found him very charismatic and that’s no different in The Matrix, where’s he’s able to showcase a variety of emotions and character quirks. Trinity, however, is a very guarded and reserved character through and through; some of this is due in part to the way those awakened to the truth of the Matrix tend to be more emotionless and reserved, especially inside the Matrix, but it’s also because of her reluctance to admit her feelings to Neo out of the fear that he isn’t who she thinks he is and the fear that he is what she thinks, as it means a dramatic change for the world if true.
Morpheus, however, fully believes in Neo from start to finish and never once does his belief falter. Morpheus is the enigmatic captain of the Nebuchadnezzar and is regarded as a legendary figure not only by Neo but his crew as well. Years ago, the Oracle (Gloria Foster) prophesised the return of “the One”, a man born inside the Matrix who would be able to manipulate it in superhuman ways and spell the end of humanity’s subjugation, and Morpheus has dedicated his entire life to finding the One. For whatever reason (it’s not really explained how or why), Morpheus believes that Neo is the One and actively seeks him out, shows him the truth, and pushes him to break beyond what he has been conditioned to know. Never once does Morpheus’s conviction falter and Fishburne makes for a very fitting mentor and father figure; he anchors the film, offering exposition, and is the heart and soul of The Matrix. Subsequent sequels may have ruined (or spoiled) Morpheus’s mystique somewhat but it’s captivating in The Matrix as he seems so infallible and believable that you can’t help but be sucked in by his words.
The rest of Morpheus’s crew is largely one-note and expendable; Switch (Belinda McClory) and Apoch (Julian Arahanga) are pretty forgettable and have maybe three lines between them and Mouse (Matt Doran) is the young, naïve crew member whose death is meant to be heartbreaking because of his youth but ends up falling a little flat as his characterisation amounts to “enthusiastic/annoying kid”. Tank (Marcus Chong) and Dozer (Anthony Ray Parker) stand out a little more thanks to Tank acting as the team’s operator (when inside the Matrix, he directs them, uploads additional training material and resources, and provides them with a way to dial out) and their status as brothers born naturally in the real world.
Luckily, we also have Cypher (Pantoliano), the more outspoken and neurotic of the crew who takes an instant dislike to Neo thanks to his largely jaded attitude. Cypher is, if his name and Pantoliano’s scenery-chewing acting didn’t make it clear, the ultimate betrayer of the crew as he has grown disillusioned with Morpheus’s teachings and the reality of the real world and therefore deceives his crewmates, killing three of them and leaving Morpheus in the hands of Smith and the other agents. Cypher’s motivations are entirely believable, however, as the real world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but it’s still extremely cathartic to see that smug smile blown off his face after his heel turn.
Of course, as good as the majority of the cast and characters are, the film’s main draw is its extensive action and fight scenes. Thanks to a combination of computer-generated imagery (CGI), wire work, and an extensive training regime, the film’s fights are high intensity and a spectacle to see; the film begins with Trinity performing that iconic leaping kick in slow motion as the camera pans around her, includes a playfully enjoyable sparring session between Neo and Morpheus, emphasises the aggression and nigh-unstoppable nature of the agents when Morpheus is effortlessly pummelled by Smith, and ends with a long, multi-layered fistfight between Neo and Smith. Unlike the majority of action films, The Matrix presented a world where characters don’t need to appear athletically competent to perform superhuman feats as knowledge and techniques are literally downloaded into their minds, instantly turning them into a master of the arts when plugged into the Matrix.
Unfortunately, the special effects falter a bit in the real world; the sets and interiors are great, with the film favouring the “lived in” look of similar movies like Event Horizon (Anderson, 1997) and made popular by the Aliens movies (Various, 1979 to 2017), but the CGI elements haven’t aged too well. The squid-like Sentinels, especially, look particularly cartoony these days and most of the sequences involving them and the Nebuchadnezzar don’t quite hold up to the more practical effects of the film. Similarly, some fight scenes, particularly those using bullet time or other camera tricks, can result in the actors taking on a rubbery appearance but, when they’re inside the Matrix, I feel this effect actually works better and serves to highlight the falseness of that reality.
The Matrix still holds up very well to this day thanks to its enduring themes and the intensity of its otherwise over-the-top fight sequences. There are, of course, a few plot holes and questions raised by the film’s concept that are either not answered in subsequent sequels or poorly addressed. First and foremost for me is the question of how, exactly, child birth happens when humans are simply grown in endless fields. The idea of the fields themselves seems to suggest that the machines are cloning humans, but this isn’t really addressed; neither is how the awakened humans built their ship and other equipment, where their food and clothes come from, or how they don’t simply freeze to death under the scorched skies that blanket the real world.
Most of these questions are left intentionally unanswered in this film; we’re told (briefly) about Zion, the last human city, and given snippets of information regarding their war against the machines but nothing concrete. This adds to the mystery of what exactly happened to turn the world into a post apocalyptic hellhole ruled by machines and is completely believable; if all of humanity were blasted to smithereens, why would we have any specific information some one hundred years later?
Truthfully, the real world is of little consequence in The Matrix; it’s there and a stark contrast to the artificial world of the Matrix but is never portrayed as being preferable. Instead, the idea is that the truth and the concept of being free from the machines’ control is preferable to being a slave, a literal biological battery, to the will of the machines. As a result, any human awakened to the truth is immediately drafted into the resistance effort but Morpheus is explicitly honest about their chances:
They are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys, which means that, sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them.
The agents embody this philosophy; practically nameless and faceless, the agents are able to possess (more like overwrite) any person currently plugged into the Matrix, effectively allowing them to endlessly respawn even in the rare instances that they are defeated or incapacitated. Yet, Morpheus also states that everyone who has ever tried to fight an agent has died, which isn’t that surprising considering that, as computer programs, they are faster, stronger, and far more durable than a mere human.
In a reflection of Morpheus’s conviction, though, he doesn’t hesitate to take on Smith in hand-to-hand combat to allow Neo to escape; Morpheus, previously portrayed as calm, collected, and a severely disciplined fighter, is absolutely dominated in this fight. His near infallibility is then tested to the limit when the agents subject him to a concoction of drugs, torture, and questioning to try and obtain access codes to the Zion mainframe. Morpheus resists, however, and retains enough of his strength (both physical and mental) to break his bonds once Neo and Trinity affect their action-packed rescue plan and, throughout the entire movie, maintains a quiet confidence that, in time, Neo will see the truth about himself. It is therefore heartbreaking when Neo is executed by Smith, leaving Morpheus so distraught that he doesn’t even care about living any more.
In the wake of Neo’s death, Trinity finds the resolve to finally admit her feelings for him and, with a kiss, restores Neo to life. As cliché as this sounds, it’s actually one of the most affecting scenes in the film; previously, the Oracle said that Neo was “waiting for something”, specifically suggesting that “something” was his next life, and Neo’s resurrection sees him assume the confident, God-like status of the One at last. His wounds healed, the speed and power of Smith is as nothing; Neo easily blocks and parries Smith’s attacks with one arm, looking hilariously and awesomely bored by the conflict, and easily dispatches the agent by blasting him to pieces. Now able to view the complex code of the Matrix itself, Neo ends the film fully able to manipulate and alert the environment as he blasts off to the sky to the sounds of Rage Against the Machine (a fitting band if there ever was one).
This ending is as exhilarating and cathartic as you could hope for; all throughout the film, Neo has struggled with the destiny Morpheus has laid out for him and seeing him grow in confidence and ability leads to some of the film’s more impressive action and fight sequences. The gunfight between him and Trinity and a bunch of guards is worth the price of admission alone but seeing Neo effortlessly take out Smith, especially after the gruelling physical battle they went through previously, never fails to get my blood pumping.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t without a few flaws, though. Chief among them, for me, is the “bug” that Smith implants into Neo; it makes sense, as he wants Neo to lead him to Morpheus, and it’s a nightmarish sequence, but it’s rendered immediately mute when Trinity pulls it out of Neo in the very next scene. Ironically, if Smith had simply just waited outside Neo’s apartment building he would have been led right to Morpheus but…no, apparently the bug is more efficient. Additionally, the scene where Neo is awakened is a bit confusing; he swallows a pill to help the crew find him in the real world, randomly gets smothered by liquid glass with no explanation, and when he does wake up the Nebuchadnezzar isn’t even there to retrieve him until he is literally flushed away. Finally, while I like that the film addresses that Neo’s eyes and muscles would have suffered atrophy, I would argue that the plugged in humans would be next to useless in the real world, especially upon being unplugged.
The Matrix’s philosophical musings are far less as explicit as in its sequels; here, exposition is delivered in snippets that are easy to digest and understand. There’s no double talk or complicated words here; we’re simply told as much information as these characters know and even Morpheus explicitly says that he (and even the Oracle) doesn’t have all the answers for Neo’s (or our) questions. Clearly, the film is left with many questions still to be answered but, unfortunately, it didn’t really turn out that the Wachowski’s were capable of delivering interesting answers to those questions. As a result, as much as I enjoy the sequels, neither are on the same level as the original, which is still one of the most compelling and original movies ever made that never fails to deliver despite a few flaws.
The Matrix still holds up really well even after all this time; sure, some of the effects aren’t as impressive as they once were and a lot of the tricks popularised in this film have been done bigger and better since then, but it’s still a great piece of cyberpunk cinema. The sequels may have somewhat tarnished the legacy of the first film, and retroactively raise more questions than answers, but the concept and action on display in The Matrix is just as exhilarating as ever.
The film is also full of some strong performances; Keanu Reeves proved with this film that he was a competent leading man in Hollywood, Laurence Fishburne set himself up for similar mentor roles in the future, and the film all but launched Carrie-Anne Moss’s career and put Hugo Weaving on the map. It’s not a flawless film, or even a perfect one, but it’s still highly enjoyable from start to finish; effectively a live-action anime, The Matrix is a perfect example of a strong, original concept bringing new life into tried and tested ideas we’ve seen executed in previous films and media. Ahead of its time in many ways, The Matrix set the scene for the slew of action and superhero movies that followed and built upon many of the techniques on display here and its legacy still holds up to this day.
What did you think of The Matrix when it first came out? Did you enjoy the sequels or do you feel they spoilt the concept of the first movie? Which of the film’s characters or many spin-offs was your favourite? Are you excited for the upcoming fourth movie or do you feel it’s maybe best to let the franchise lie? How are you celebrating National Science-Fiction Day? Whatever you think about The Matrix, or sci-fi in general, drop a comment below.