The year was 1999 and the world was focused on the fact that George Lucas’ Star Wars saga was about to make it’s return to the big screen with The Phantom Menace – a cinematic event that was being treated with more hype than the second coming of Jesus. Sure enough, when the smoke from the blockbuster summer season settled, one film had managed to change the face of big budget, sci-fi action movies virtually overnight, but it oddly wasn’t the return to a galaxy far, far away that instigated this industry wide upheaval – and in case you were wondering, it wasn’t The Mummy either…
Exploding onto our screens – and subsequently blowing our minds like a C4 scalp massage – The Matrix seemingly came from nowhere, stuffed to the brim with it’s grab-bag of influences that ranged from old-school Kung-Fu to Jungian psychology (Jung-Fu?) and instantly made the world fall in love with it’s DNA seamlessly cobbled together, Frankenstein-style, to create a stunning dystopian vision that both felt ferociously fresh, yet fascinatingly familiar.
Software programmer and part time hacker Thomas Anderson is in a rut; life is pointless, something is wrong and a niggling doubt his has about the very nature of existence is driving him mad but one day he gets a chance to find an answer to the question that has been fuelling his discontent; “What is The Matrix?”. After a run in with some suited, government goons Anderson – aka Neo (his computer alias) comes into contact with Trinity, a legendary hacker who also looks oddly fetching despite wearing a PVC dress in a club with no visible windows or air con, who tells him that he’s ready to finally know about a vast conspiracy that has the entire population asleep. Through Trinity, Neo meets Morpheus, a kind of techno freedom fighter that uses his vast reserves of charisma to walk our dazed hero through the awful truth. The world we think we know is in fact a massive computer simulation called The Matrix and the earth is in actuality a scorched, apocalyptic shit hole where mankind fights for survival against a race of machines which have enslaved humanity and uses us like disposable batteries.
Morpheus and his group log themselves into The Matrix to complete missions using awesome extra downloaded skills (Kung-Fu, gravity defying agility, FUCKING BULLET TIME) and gather intelligence in order to one day bring down the machine-world and they believe that Neo is the key to making this happen thanks to a prophecy that tells of an individual that has the ability to remake The Matrix from within. While Neo struggles not only with the rules of this new world but with the metric ton of responsibility dumped on his slender shoulders, the group has to avoid The Agents, relentless, unstoppable programmes that stalk them throughout the Matrix under the guise of body hopping G-men that can leap like fleas and punch like gorillas.
How can Neo possibly live up to a prophecy that he not only truly believes, but that may not even be accurate in the face of the possible salvation of the human race? The answer? Guns. LOTS of guns.
Some believe that the secret of The Matrix’s success is how deep the rabbit hole goes when it comes to it’s gaggle of literary references and psychological and spiritual influences; and credit where credit is due, the Wachowski’s movie (only their second after stylish, Cohen-esque, neo-noir Bound) certainly takes it’s time to nourish the brain with plenty of far-out, trippy concepts and notions. However, I personally feel that this is only half the story, and that the fact that all the influences the movie has (the story, the spirituality, the concept, the action, the drama, the visuals) all support themselves and are so perfectly balanced, that to remove only a single one would have resulted in the whole thing collapsing into an incoherent mess. Don’t believe me? Remove the action and all the movie drowns in exposition; remove the drama and the concept suddenly holds water worse than a 97 year old’s bladder; remove the spirituality and the movie becomes another dumb actioner; remove the visuals and the film becomes as believable as Santa playing Twister with Bigfoot… and thus the film becomes different things to different people.
The Wachowski’s world building is exquisite; a feat they’ve never really managed to full off since (painfully proven by their own sequels and the migraine inducing Jupiter Ascending) that whisks everything up into a magnificent cocktail that goes down super smooth.
EVERYTHING is on point, their direction is both sublimely subtle (witness the deliberately poor rear projection when Neo is in the car on the way to The Oracle to show that he now knows the Matrix is false) to the massively bombastic (FUCKING BULLET TIME!) and who else would think to reference William Gibson and Shaw Brother Studios in the same scene? Yet, despite all it’s high falluting ideas about the nature of self and prophecies and shit, the film never forgets that not only does it have to be fucking cool but also legitimately fun and accessible.
Changing cinema isn’t supposed to be easy but every department the film has seems to have come together to become a perfect storm that certainly made it look pretty easy and everything from sound design, costumes, sets and visual effects (FUCKING BULLET TIME!) realised this brave, Anime infused world that could instantly stand shoulder to shoulder with such sci-fi giants as Blade Runner and Metropolis. And yet, possibly the greatest asset to the movie, the glue that holds the director’s vision strong, is it’s four main actors.
Much like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, if you cast Keanu Reeves just right you, get cinema history, end of. That’s not an opinion, that’s undiluted fact and Reeves as the perpetually befuddled Neo is unfettered perfection. No one could sell the depths of confusion to the subsequent acceptance to techo-godhood like Reeves can who somehow makes the empty vessel Neo is (the guy really is as clueless as a rabbit teaching math) somehow utterly beguiling and three dimentional despite not actually having a personality much beyond “woah!”. In comparison, Lawrence Fishburne almost has too much to work with as snappily dressed profit Morpheus, but is savvy enough to know when to pull back on the hammy exposition somehow becoming a beautiful amalgamation of Moses and the silken voice of a black Vincent Price. Fittingly finishing of the trio as Trinity, Carrie Anne-Moss, despite being in danger of being fetishized in black leather that looks like it breathes as well as an asthmatic dropped in cement, and gives her character a raw power and determination, even though her last minute, gender-reversed, Prince Charming/Sleeping Beauty moment feels a little out of place. However, somehow stealing the show out from under even Fishburne, is Hugo Weaving as the malevolent programme Agent Smith is quite possibly one of the greatest villains of that – or any other – decade. With his laconic drawl and withering facial expressions that look cast out of sheer granite, he is simultaneously amusing and utterly terrifying with his humans=virus speech instantly becoming one of the all time great bad guy rants.
It says a lot for the legacy of The Matrix that for a film that has so many influences it has gone on to being so influential itself. It definitively defined how to visually portray superpowers onscreen, it finally broke martial arts (and the need to get actors to do this shit themselves) properly into western, big budget movie making, it proved that R-rated action still could make a dent at the box office and it reminded everyone that intelligent concepts and muscular action don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
As Morpheus himself aptly states; “No one can be told what the Matrix is,” (even though I just spent an entire article doing precisely just that) “You have to see it for yourself.”