So influential and so ingrained in movie legend now, it’s hard to remember there was a time before “The Matrix” was a pop culture touchstone. Itself a synthesis of 20th century sci-fi and anime tropes it blended high-minded spirituality with gritty cyberpunk noir and – still – breathtakingly innovative special effects and fight choreography to such a successful extent, it shifted the course of blockbuster cinema, completely blindsiding audiences and other studios who were, in the summer of 1999, simply marking time until “Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace” came out.
Tapped in a mundane job, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) lives a double life, coding by day and hacking by night, searching for legendary dark web figure Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). When he finally makes contact with Morpheus, Neo discovers that his life is nothing but an illusion and the truth is more bizarre and sinister than he ever suspected. With the help of Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss), Morpheus sets out to train Neo so he can battle the sinister Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and discover his destiny.
In the current day and age of play-it-safe spin-offs, reboots and reimaginings, it’s a real breath of fresh air to watch how muscular and confident “The Matrix” is from the very first frame. The green-tinged studio idents, the almost “Batman”-esque score and the instantly iconic digital rain it drops us straight into a tapped phone conversation which introduces the film’s central mystery – the identity of ‘The One’ – while starting to draw the battle lines between the protagonists and their adversaries. It’s skilfully economic storytelling, especially as it immediately leads into a spectacular action sequence featuring Trinity escaping from the clutches of the authorities.
Through its runtime, “The Matrix” masterfully sets up its fictional world (both of them), the rules and conventions, adding layer upon layer of carefully crafted complexity and intrigue. On its surface, its an exploration of the dangers of artificial intelligence, taking the foundations of other seminal sci-fi properties, particularly “The Terminator” and striking out in bold new directions. There’s a constant undercurrent of body horror in this first Matrix movie that’s more downplayed in the sequels and some of the sequences on show are not for the squeamish.
The reason “The Matrix” stands the test of time so well is how thematically rich it is, and how open to interpretation and discussion it is. It works as a superbly crafted sci-fi tale in its own right, a techno-futurist retelling of the story of “Superman” – especially where the ending leaves us, raising false expectations which the sequels inevitably confounded. Indeed, The Matrix Trilogy gave us Superman as a sacrificial Christ-like messiah long before Zack Snyder flogged that particular metaphor to death. But “The Matrix” also stands as a philosophical treatise on the dehumanising effect of mechanisation and automation as well as the political tensions between the individual and society as well. With hindsight, there’s an understandably strong undercurrent of trans themes running through the story, manifesting in the character’s struggles and determination to become their truest self, the frequent references to a double life and the description of life in the Matrix as feeling inherently but indefinably ‘wrong’.
Now, twenty years later and looking back with the fractured and rose-tarnished viewpoint of 2019, “The Matrix” feels more prescient and relevant than ever, seemingly sinking its claws into the present day miasma of social media and fake news. Entire populations spending their lives plugged in to a curated network which panders to their various biases and only ever presents them with what they want or need to see in order to provoke them to act or consume as dictated by the global military/ industrial complex which is the real life corollary of the fictional machine, manipulating humanity as a whole in order to keep itself alive and thriving.
The genius of the Wachowski’s masterpiece is that it managed to deliver all this and more in the authentic guise of a fully satisfying action blockbuster. The principal performers are superb in their respective roles, cast with uncannily mathematical precision, their dedication to the physical requirements of the role paying huge dividends in the action scenes on screen. It remains a highlight of its esteemed casts’ careers, particularly Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving and Carrie Anne Moss and has almost become something of an underrated aspect of the so-hot-right-now Keanu Reeves’ oeuvre. The precision use of slow-mo and the innovation of bullet time may seem commonplace now but were genuinely groundbreaking at the time and the Wachowskis redefined the use and integration of CGI and special effects just in time to make “The Phantom Menace” look desperately old-fashioned in its more-is-better approach. The lobby assault scene remains a ballistic ballet of action cinema perfection and possibly also the last time Uzis, those eighties action-film weapons of choice, were actually cool in a movie. It’s also fascinating to watch a film that deals with themes of terrorism and a spectacular degree of urban destruction, including a terrific exploding helicopter scene, made before the events of 9/11 changed the visual language of cinematic destruction forever.
Alongside the bravura action, prodigious innovation, great performances and instantly quotable dialogue, there’s a welcome, slyly humours streak to the film’s satirical edge from Morpheus’s Pac-Man evoking guiding of Neo out of his cubical farm office (oh how I wanted one of those Nokia 7110s) to the clever explanations for déjà vu and other foibles of everyday life, “The Matrix” feels at once utterly fanciful and yet darkly plausible – and its intoxicating. Of course, the enduring mystery of “The Matrix” is why on earth Cypher believes the machines will honour their end of his bargain, especially as he specifically asks to have his memory wiped? Then again, who among us, in his position, wouldn’t be sorely tempted by the very same deal?
It has been years since I’d watched the Matrix before putting it on for this review and not only does it stand the test of time with barely a scratch but, for those disappointed with the sequels (and I counted myself among that number), rewatching it afresh utterly refutes the oft-held theory that the sequels weren’t thought out ahead of time. Everything that “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” brings to the screen is foreshadowed in the first movie. From the brief Architect’s point of view shot which opens Neo’s interrogations scene to Agent Smith’s pathological fear of being infected by the filthy virus of humanity foreshadowing his own ‘death’ and resurrection as a destructive consuming virus, the path of ‘The One’ and the fate of humanity and the machines is all set in motion in that first film. Even the early club scene where Neo follows the White Rabbit acts as a warning to audiences of the overindulgent rave scene to come in “Reloaded”.
Stylish, stylised and undeniably seminal, “The Matrix” remains one of the greatest movies of all time, securing The Wachovskis a place in the sci-fi hall of fame. Rewatching the whole trilogy, it hangs together much better than I recall thinking at the time and if you haven’t watched them in a while, I highly recommend plugging into the Matrix once again.