The Matrix – 20 Years Down The Rabbit Hole

At the start of 1999, the most anticipated film of the year was Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. After 16 years, there would be a new entry in one of Hollywood’s top Sci-Fi franchises with the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi meeting Anakin Skywalker for the first time. Yet by the end of the year, another Sci-Fi flick emerged called The Matrix stealing all the thunder. Those who left Episode 1 torn, if not disappointed, found solace in its rival’s grittier Cyberpunk setting. If Jar Jar Binks made viewers grimace, then Neo (Keanu Reeves: Speed 1994, John Wick 2014) and his battle against the Agents made them go “whoa.”

The Matrix still. © Warner Bros.

Released on March 31st in 1999, looking back 20 years later, The Matrix took many audiences by surprise. Not that the film was a dark horse, its most famous stunts, like the lean-back dodge and the leap-kick done by Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss: Memento 2000, Fido 2006) appear in its official trailer. In fact, it features snippets of all the film’s big moments and features: the green code trailing down the screen, the rooftop fights, Thomas ‘Neo’ Anderson losing his mouth, etc. Along some of its lines, be it Cypher (Joe Pantoliano: Midnight Run 1988, Sense8 series) saying “Kansas is going bye-bye,” or Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving: Lord of the Rings trilogy, V for Vendetta 2005) saying “Human beings are a disease.”

It maintained the film’s mystery by not giving away the context. The trailer hints at the film’s tone with whispered questions about “What is the Matrix?” and screen text telling viewers to “Forget What You Know.” It almost resembles a Thriller akin to The X-Files series. The humble protagonist Neo meets Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne: Boyz N’ the Hood 1991, Mystic River 2003) while beset by shady government-looking agents. Though once the stunts and effects start, it becomes less Chris Carter and more William Gibson with its cybernetic connections and mind-bending warps.

Yet most of The Matrix’s hype came after its release. Prior to the film’s debut, its Writer/Director, duo Lana and Lily Wachowski, were known for writing the 1995 Sly Stallone/Antonio Banderas Action flick Assassins and directing the 1996 lesbian Crime Thriller Bound. Afterwards, they became the next big thing in Hollywood when The Matrix earned a reported $463.5 million at the box office. Even today, it remains one of their biggest breadwinners, beaten only by its 2003 sequel,The Matrix Reloaded, at an estimated $742 million.

The Matrix still. © Warner Bros.

Setting trends, the bullet time effects appeared in everything from films to video games. This is while rival films like 2002’s Equilibrium and Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever copped onto its style if not going for the same effects. After all that, does The Matrix still have some of that magic that wowed audiences 20 years ago? Is it still a great film, or has it seen better days?

In truth, it still has the power to inspire. The famous scene where Morpheus gives Neo the choice between the safety of the blue pill and the adventure offered by the red pill struck a chord with people. ‘Red pill’ entered the dictionary, referring to “a process…introducing (a person) to a new and typically disturbing understanding of a particular situation.” Most notably it became the calling card of a branch of anti-feminist, men’s rights activists called ‘Red Pillers.’

It is an ironic legacy for a film made by two transwomen. Though that perhaps says more about themselves than how the film plays out. They may want to be Morpheus or ‘The One,’ though without Trinity, the former would not find the One, and the latter would be dead. The philosophy of The Matrix was more concerned with the nature of reality and how people perceive it. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” put into a fight with Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra within Plato’s Cavern.

Hence the machines producing a fake world to convince captive humans they are not actually stuck in vats of goo on a destroyed Earth. Once Neo realizes the world is not real, that “there is no spoon,” he can manipulate it at will. It certainly inspired a bundle of articles and books at the series’ peak, as well as many debates amongst students over drinks or something a little more ‘medicinal.’

The Matrix still. © Warner Bros.

All this in mind, it is not to say that one needs to be a philosophy major to enjoy The Matrix. At its basic level, it adheres to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as much as its Cartesian chatter. Neo is called to action, learns Kung Fu and how to handle firearms (without needing a montage either), and saves the day. The film almost follows it stage by stage, complete with a literal resurrection. Put this way, it comes off as typical. Though this might be what made it accessible for most too.

That is not to say audiences do not like smart films. Yet the 2003 sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, got lost in its ideas. Their plots were muddied with an obfuscated flow and prose bloated and purple enough to fit in at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The original is more streamlined by comparison, balancing its ideas with its action and ground-breaking effects.

So, even if its viewpoint does not hit the mark, The Matrix still has great fight scenes and memorable lines that pick up the slack. The bullet time got overused by the film’s followers in the early 2000s, but few films have used it since then, which helps the original still stand out today.

All these years later there are rumors of a Matrix reboot in the works, with Zak Penn writing a new script. That said, there is not a shortage of Campbell-esque, superhero action flicks 20 years on. The cyberpunk aesthetic is definitely of its time too. However, though The Matrix has many forebears, it manages to have a style of its own. Perhaps Action fans do not need to wait for Penn’s work for something to provide a fresh of breath air from Marvel’s output, because the original Matrix still stands strong today.

Warner Bros.

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