In 1999 a science fiction movie was released that wowed audiences, pushed visual effects to new limits and left a generation of movie goers stunned as they exited theatres, away from the dark of the big screen and out to the light. The movie we all thought would have this effect on us was Star Wars:Episode I-The Phantom Menace. Instead it would be the one starring Keanu Reeves that nobody was paying attention to.
The Wachowski siblings had wowed critics three years earlier with Bound, a neo-noir that challenged gender roles in a brilliant way. Ironically all anyone could really talk about were the explicit sex scenes between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, but those that took notice of its gender politics and stylish film making immediately marked The Wachowski’s as a pair of directors to look our for, possibly a contender to the throne of the Coen Brothers as siblings capable of making great, independent movies?
Actually, no. In actuality, despite making a debut that many compared to Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers debut, The Wachowski’s, who grew up in Chicago and were very much a pair of geeks who loved science fiction movies and comic books, would, for their follow-up to their indie darling, make a movie that would not only challenge the George Lucas juggernaut of 1999, but surpass it with a work of brilliance that made the Star Wars prequel look positively redundant and old-fashioned.
A confluence of many influences, The Matrix tipped its hat to many of its inspirations, from kung-fu movies, to the work of John Woo, to Alice in Wonderland, to Phillip K Dick, to Jean Baudrillard, it was a film that mixed philosophically challenging story telling to action sequences that were truly fresh and original, with a plethora of world building that made one want more when the end credits rolled.
In the middle of it all is Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson, more affectionately known as Neo. Does anyone refer to his character as Thomas Anderson? No, because his name is NEO. Reeves, who has been heavily criticised for his performances throughout the years, would prove to be truly brilliant as Neo. He gives a confused, soulful performance that he plays to perfection and his hero’s journey through the course of narrative left a generation of teenagers who flocked to the movie upon its release in 1999 exhilarated, especially in the film’s third act which contained some of the greatest actions sequences of the era.
The film’s trailer pushed the action element, but The Matrix was more thoughtful than that. It’s not just an action packed orgy, it’s a film with a brilliantly thought out mythology courtesy of the Wachowski’s, and whilst the characters and narrative are archetypes of mythological driven adventures, all of it felt fresh here; Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus is the mentor/father figure who trains and pushes our hero to his best, there’s Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity, the warrior who takes no crap from Neo, and although she falls in love with him, thus potentially stop her from being a challenge to most female characters in an action movie like this, the moment she declares her feelings for him are in part responsible for saving his life.
We also get the traitor in the shape of Cypher (a wonderful Joe Pantoliano) whilst Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith is the stuff all great villains who amass a cult following with a movie’s audience is made off. His voice, his mannerisms, there is a strong element of dark humour when he’s on screen and he just ends up making the movie even better.
Then there is the action sequences which were such a breath of fresh air. Iconic, influential and brilliantly choreographed by Yeun Woo-ping, it brought stylised martial arts to the West and coupled with the bullet time special effect, would influence a lot in Hollywood, from Mission:Impossible 2, to episodes of The X-Files and Angel, not to mention open a window that allowed subtitled movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to find a large audience in English speaking countries.
The fact that the cast did all of it, in camera, just made the film all the more better and believable.
We can speak at length about the sequels, which divided audiences and critics, as well as the projects The Wachowski’s did next which were also equally divisive. Some have been good (V For Vendetta, their television series Sense 8), others hated (Jupiter Ascending), others splitting opinion (Speed Racer). The truth is they are a very talented duo who use their influences and love of their inspirations to do what is, in Hollywood at least, original projects. Their one comic book adaptation was a heightened political thriller. Their one remake was an anime from the 60’s. They use their clout to make original projects like Jupiter Ascecnding and whilst the film has problems, at least they’re filmmakers trying to make something original, something severely lacking in this day and age.
The Matrix still holds up. It’s seventeen years of age and it still can elicit a response when Don Davis’ music kicks in over the Warner Bros logo. Once it grabs you, it never lets go. It’s dazzling, and brilliant. It gives you a world and characters that intrigue you, that you want to go with and then for the last thirty to forty minutes, it ups the ante in terms of action and spectacle, the likes of which we had never seen before.
Maybe you had to be there to appreciate it in its purest form, but it still retains its powers to enthral and entertain and after all this time, if you ask someone to name you the best science fiction movie of 1999, they’re still not going to say The Phantom Menace. It will always be The Matrix. It’s inevitable.
COMING SOON: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”