The year was 1999 and the 20th Century was drawing to a close. The year would see the release of one of the most eagerly awaited films in history up to that point, a film that was causing hardcore fans to line up outside theatres weeks before its release and which the hype was building to levels never seen previously for a movie release.
Whilst everyone had their eyes on the forthcoming Star Wars prequel that was due for release in May of that year, March 31st would see the release of The Matrix . Written and directed by The Wachowskis, by the end of the year it would be the science fiction action film that everyone would end up remembering fondly, our hearts, and most importantly minds, stolen by one digestion of a red pill.
Having only directed one film prior, the superb Bound, which was effectively a low-budget thriller masquerading as an audition film to convince Warner Bros to allow them to direct their script which was on the verge of being green-lit by the studio, The Matrix would not only launch the siblings into the stratosphere as a pair of writer and directors to look out for, but would also be a piece of work that would challenge preconceived notions within the industry by effectively popularising the bullet time visual effect technique which had been around before The Matrix but never used as brilliantly as it had been here, and also showing that a movie could make money that, whilst being visually spectacular and action packed, could also be deeply reflective and intelligent, thematically powerful and actually be smart.
It would be a film that would mix kung-fu, intense gun fights, imaginative use of visual effects, glorious world building, references to The Bible, mythology, philosophy, Phillip K Dick, William Gibson, Baudrillard, all the while having a soundtrack which featured Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and Rage Against the Machine (have an end credits for a movie ever had such a superb start in the way this film does when Wake Up starts playing over them? I don’t think so!)
Starring Keanu Reeves in one of four career defining action genre roles, and possibly his most soulful, Laurence Fishburne as one of the coolest mentor figures in all of modern action cinema, Carrie-Anne Moss who instantly joined the ranks of Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley as one of the greatest female action icons of late 20th century science fiction films, and Hugo Weaving, whose Agent Smith instantly became a cult favourite on a par with Boba Fett, The Matrix became an instant pop cultural phenomenon in 1999, straddling the line between box office behemoth and cult classic.
Whilst it grossed over $460 million worldwide and won four Academy Awards, dominating the technical fields at the 2000 award ceremony, it also ensnared a massive fan base who would re-watch the film over and over again in theatres and eventually on VHS and DVD (where it became the first mega-hit on the latter technology), who would want to read into every facet of the film, from the carefully chosen characters names to the production design, the costumes, the references to other works of film and literature, to even the use of numbers.
On the surface The Matrix may have looked like a $60 million action blockbuster for the masses, and it certainly worked brilliantly on that level too, but it was also a beautifully constructed work that revelled in its use of philosophy, taking its cues from Baudrillard as it did from Phillip K Dick, William Gibson and the cinema of James Cameron.
As a fifteen year old the year it was released, it would prove to be one of the most defining movies on the era, and more of a Star Wars style experience than the actual Star Wars movie we would get a few weeks later. It’s impact cannot be underestimated. It is, for any child or teenager of the 90’s, A Very Important Film.
Right from its opening scene, which goes from a fight scene to a chase sequence, the style and tone of the film is apparent for all to see. It uses mystery to lose the audience in the most brilliant way right away, and introduces us t to two of the film’s best characters, utilising the bullet time effect superbly, the image of Trinity in mid-air becoming of the movie’s most instantly iconic moments, whilst Hugo Weaving’s line delivery as Agent Smith instantly capturing the ear.
Visually dynamic throughout, mixing science fiction infused mystery, deliberately not keeping the audience apace of what is truly happening, it plays throughout most of the first act like some sort of independent, art house genre picture before opening itself up to something more epic and deeper. Of course, the mystery at the heart of the film, the one that was blazoned on nearly every poster and trailer, “What is The Matrix?” was the worst kept secret that summer. I knew going in to the movie that it would be revealed to be the world is a lie, but in getting there, the film kept sweeping the rug from under your feet. What was the point in the telephone box? How did the Agent get into the truck so quickly? What do they want with Neo? How did they make his mouth disappear? Wait, was Neo dreaming the whole time?
When the revelation comes, the film then keeps throwing the audience out of the loop, deliberately mystifying us whilst it brilliantly builds its world around it, the world that Neo is about to discover. Just when it appears the film is about to get a little too dark and intense, it then introduces kung fu, and watching Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne in an ultra stylised, choreographed fight sequence, courtesy of Yuen Woo-Ping, was mind-blowing as a teenager. As someone who had never really gotten into martial arts cinema, that was all about to change.
Of course, it was unusual to an extent to see actors performing their stunts, or at least high-octane fight scenes in movies, with clever editing and angles used to hide the obvious faces of stunt doubles. Amazingly, The Wachowskis insisted on their actors doing as much of it as they could and it is brilliantly clear for all to see that it really is Keanu, Laurence, Carrie-Anne and Hugo on-screen doing some of the best choreographed action from a Hollywood movie from the period. Of course, what helped where the wires.
Wire work had been hugely popular and actually the norm in Hong Kong action cinema, and beginning with The Matrix it would become a frequent occurrence in Hollywood fight scenes too. As someone indicative of an audience who hadn’t watch much in the way of Hong Kong action movies (but of course, after The Matrix would do so…A LOT), there was something genuinely fresh to a lot of the fight scenes in the movie. The choreography, the leaps, the ways in which the bodies of the actors who run and twist and turn was astonishing and unlike anything that had been seen before in a movie production from the West.
The success of the film would mean there was a waiting audience in the West for films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
The Matrix came across as a beautiful hybrid film. It was as if The Wachowskis took everything they ever loved about pop culture, science fiction, philosophy, anime, literature, anything they loved really, and just cooked it up and turned it into the genre movie of their dreams. Increasingly enigmatic after the release of the film, especially during production of the sequels, as they elegantly said in their written introduction to the trilogy’s superb DVD box set collection, whenever they offered an explanation for the movie, the less a viewer would do the same. The most quoted piece of information that was attributed to them, and still to this day, was that when they pitched the movie to producer Joel Silver they claimed they wanted to do acclaimed anime Ghost in the Shell for real.
The movie is basically awash with easter eggs and references to what The Wachowskis loved or were inspired by and yet, most brilliantly of all, the film never cries attention to it. It makes the film a deeper experience as a result. Even the hiring of Yuen Woo-Ping for the fight choreography and Geoff Darrow and Steve Skroce for the concept art felt like little pieces of the film’s organic puzzles, an explanation for the intent and artistry of the film and its world.
The main talking point of the film was of course its famous use of the bullet time visual effect. Brilliantly, the visual effects simply added to the film’s story as opposed to being an action film that centred around sharp visuals. Of course, the effects caught the imaginations of audiences at the time and the development of the technique was a main selling and talking point for many.
Not created by the film as many thought, it did however become much more high-profile and the use of it gave the action sequences the feel of seeing gorgeous comic book panels come to life before your very eyes, the film slowing down, the performers stranded in poses that would have been pretty much impossible any other way, as objects, such as bullets or pieces of walls, flew around them in beautiful, graceful slow motion. The effect would be much copied by other movies and television shows in the following years, but it never had the impact that it did here.
The effect was literally mind blowing; the camera moving at a normal speed whilst Neo, Morpheus, Trinity of Agent Smith were seemingly stranded or moving in mid-air in speeds that seemed virtually impossible to pull off when the camera was swooping around them the way that it did. It was spectacular, graceful, mind blowing, beautiful and above all else, for many of the fifteen year olds sitting in theatres like myself that time, the coolest thing to ever appear in a movie.
John Gaeta would become another important part of the fabric of the series, and along with composer Don Davis, costume designer Kym Barrett, production designer Owen Patterson, editor Zack Steinberg, director of photography Bill Pope, and producer Joel Silver, would be the team to not only crafting what was to be an ongoing series and one built around an increasingly complex mythology, but, with The Wachowskis becoming more Kubrick-like in wanting their work to speak for itself, the teams building the world of The Matrix would become their most prominent spokespersons.
In many respects, The Matrix is very much indicative of genre cinema at the end of the 20th century, but has also managed to stay brilliant over the course of time. It has aged brilliantly and yet still feels like a time capsule of life at the turn of the millennium. On top of having Nokia mobile phones, it wears its Nu-Metal soundtrack proudly. Trench coats features prominently and the use of dark clothes and sunglasses gives it a beautifully goth edge. It was a watermark of pop culture for this author in his teen years and remains just as brilliant today, a brilliantly mythology driven slice of science fiction action. Whilst the use of guns was somewhat, and to this day, problematic, it doesn’t detract from how wonderfully deep, yet escapist, the film is.
It is a film of both beautiful style and meaty substance, of surface thrills and deeper meanings, that can make you go wow with its undeniable and forever cool action sequences, and leave you pondering its deeper meanings. It is a masterpiece of Hollywood science fiction cinema and is deserves its ranking alongside Star Wars:A New Hope and Terminator 2. Best of all, it feels like a film that we never get anymore. It may wear many of its inspirations on its sleeve, but it is an original work, The Wachowskis taking the things that have inspired them and coalesced it into a superb whole, a film that is their own and nobody else. As Hollywood goes ever further into the realms of building cinematic universes around comic books, or monster movies, or Star Wars, it’s amazing to remember there was a time when studios, in particular Warner Bros who helped financed and distributed The Matrix, could take the chance on something like this, and yet, maybe in others ways the risk that they took has been repeated in other forms.
The Wachowskis had only one directing credit to their resume when they made what would be one of the 1999’s biggest movies, a low-budget indie that was stylish and brilliant in its own right, a risk from a Hollywood studio that has been repeated with the likes of Gareth Edwards (Monsters to Godzilla), Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kings of Summer to Kong:Skull Island), Colin Trevarrow (Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World) and James Gunn (Super to Guardians of the Galaxy).
In smaller and subtle ways, The Matrix has continued to be a trail blazer, but its originality, or its lack of actually being a remake or adaptation in the purest sense, gives it an edge over the blockbusters that would follow in its wake and whilst it may have stolen everyone’s imagination and hearts in a way that The Phantom Menace didn’t, even if Lucas’ film did make substantially more money, Hollywood has, and always will be, all about making a franchise out of hits, and in the end, The Matrix would be no exception. We’d just have to wait a while and it would feel like a LONG wait.