“The Matrix” is the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle movie that shouldn’t have worked; yet, somehow, all of its various, elaborate pieces fit together nearly perfectly. It’s been over twenty years since the film was released (its anniversary was last Sunday, March 31), yet it still holds up remarkably well today. Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the writer-director duo behind the flick, only had one other film to their name: A low-budget thriller named “Bound,” which was produced for $6 million but only made back $7 million. There was no reason why the inexperienced pair should have been able to pull off a sci-fi blockbuster; there was even less reason to believe that they could make something as absurdly high-concept as “The Matrix” work. Somehow, they did more than making it work.
Not all of the film’s success can be credited to the Wachowskis; much of it must go to the cast, which includes several actors who weren’t the filmmaker’s first choices. Keanu Reeves is often criticized for his blank-faced demeanor, but here, his absent-minded expressions are perfectly befitting of Neo. He’s the audience stand-in, as incredulous and confused as we are by everything strange thing around him. Alongside him is the equally-well-cast Laurence Fishburne, whose calm charisma turns Morpheus into an authoritative and intriguing mentor figure. One shudders to imagine how the film would have turned out if the Wachowskis got their first picks for the roles, with Will Smith portraying Neo and Val Kilmer as Morpheus. Smith’s flamboyant charisma would have derailed the entire project; Kilmer’s steeliness pales in comparison to Fishburne’s.
But the film’s perfect casting extends into the supporting roles. As Agent Smith, the film’s primary antagonist, Hugo Weaving blends smarmy obnoxiousness and intense rage to create a terrific villain. Carrie-Anne Moss brings a stoicism and intensity to her role as Trinity, one of Morpheus’ followers. “The Matrix,” simply put, is an aptly cast film.
Beyond the cast, the film also boasts an impressive script. While some of the imagery and philosophical ideas of the film remain prevalent in modern culture, the finer details of the plot are somewhat forgotten. To recap: Hacker Thomas Anderson, operating under the nickname Neo, crosses paths with Morpheus, a suspected terrorist who reveals to Neo that reality may not be what it seems. He offers Neo a choice: take a blue pill and return to his former life, forgetting what has occurred; or take the red pill, and learn the truth. Neo takes the latter and awakens in a horrific, liquid-filled pod; it is then revealed that this is reality. The world he was living in was actually the Matrix, a computer simulation established by machines intent on enslaving humanity. Neo, according to Morpheus, is “The One,” a prophesied figure who will liberate humanity from the machines.
It’s a gleefully high-concept story, one which blends ancient mythological archetypes with modern social issues. The narrative is a retelling of what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey,” a narrative which repeats itself across countless cultures and time periods. It’s a narrative deployed in stories ranging from those told in Ancient Greece, to “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” Within this archetypal narrative, a hero ventures forth from his everyday life, encounters some kind of supernatural forces, defeats evil, and returns with newfound powers.
It’s the basic narrative of “The Matrix.” Neo ventures out of his normal life to discover his reality is an illusion, perpetuated by those seeking to control humanity; within the Matrix, he discovers newfound powers (from learning Kung-Fu, to running on walls), and by the end of the film, defeats the oppressive Agent Smith and returns to the Matrix promising to use his newfound abilities to oppose the machines.
But the film goes beyond the usual tenets of the hero’s journey; it’s also a story that speaks directly to modernity, using science fiction to address social issues that are even more relevant today. There are shades of Marxism, among other philosophies, within the film’s set-up. The machines created the Matrix to blind humanity to their enslavement, giving them the illusion of freedom: a set-up which has echoes within Marxist theory about how capitalism deludes workers into believing they are free. Just as the human machines are a human invention, so too is capitalism, according to Marx. Neo and his compatriots could also be viewed as early fighters of an allegorical communist revolution, rebelling against their machine overlords to free humanity. There are many other philosophies within “The Matrix,” far too many to properly summarize and discuss here. The main takeaway is that “The Matrix” speaks to contemporary issues of societal power, oppression, and more, and that it weaves these themes into the hero’s journey. It’s a story that’s both as old as time, and one speaking directly to the time in which it came out. The fears surrounding technology the film tackles have only grown since 1999 with the rise of absurdly powerful social media and Silicon Valley corporations. The Wachowskis, in other words, were well ahead of their time.
On a directorial level, the film is impeccable. The action scenes are remarkably meticulous, boasting careful, deliberate use of slow-motion, combinations of shootouts and heightened fistfights, and intelligent editing. There is an effortless, deliberate flow as the film shifts from slow-motion shots of characters flying through the air, to fast-paced martial arts brawls. The Wachowskis even went so far as to invent a new kind of special effect, “bullet time,” in which dozens of cameras are arranged in a circle and capture still frame shots at a rapid pace (several frames per second). These shots are then compiled together and edited to create the illusion of a moving image, one in which the camera appears to move around objects that appear to be moving in slow motion. It’s the effect that can be seen in an iconic moment, in which Neo bends backwards and effortlessly dodges bullets fired at him. These effects and others have aged shockingly well: a testament to the Wachowskis’ talents. Countless blockbusters since then have tried (and often failed) to replicate the action stylings of “The Matrix”; what they lack is not the contents, but the thoughtful approach the Wachowskis brought to every frame.
All the best qualities of “The Matrix” can be found in its climactic scene, a showdown between Neo and Agent Smith. Neo is killed by Smith, but, in accordance with his prophecy, comes back to life with newfound powers. He quickly defeats Smith in a fistfight (after scene after scene of Neo struggling to go toe-to-toe with him) and destroys him in an explosion so dramatic, the entire room reverberates around them. When one of Neo’s allies in the real world asks what’s happening, Morpheus responds succinctly:
“He is the one.”
The final scene is emblematic of everything that makes “The Matrix” great. On an obvious level, it’s the fulfillment of the hero’s journey, the satisfying moment in which “the chosen one” fulfills their destiny. On a thematic level, it represents the successful rise against societal oppressors (it’s not a coincidence that Smith and the other agents dress in suits like soulless bureaucrats). Stylistically, it has all the hallmarks of the Wachowski’s action stylings. We watch Neo slow, and eventually stop, bullets in their tracks; there’s a hand-to-hand fistfight between him and Smith, and much, much more. And it’s a scene sold perfectly by Reeves and Weaving, the former with his effortless confidence, and the latter with his outrage and horror.
In the twenty years since the film’s release, Hollywood has tried to replicate its success. Various blockbusters have borrowed from its gritty tone, philosophical aspirations, and general sense of style. Some of these attempts have been better than others (Zach Snyder’s obnoxious use of slow motion and pretentious pseudo-philosophizing ranks him among the worse of the film’s imitators), but no film has ever recreated the miraculous greatness of “The Matrix.” Not even the film’s two sequels could match the original, as the Wachowskis buckled under their desire to out-do the action scenes of the original. “The Matrix,” then, is best understood as a one-of-a-kind film. It’s a movie whose cast is so outstanding, whose story is so thoroughly engaging, whose aesthetics are so uniquely original, that nothing can really ever match it. It’s a glitch in the simulation, and one that’s not likely to repeat itself.
Henry Spiro can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JudgeyMcJudge1.