This isn’t the first time I’ve written about The Matrix. In fact I just wrote about it six months ago. But recently I’ve started reading a lot of articles about the film, owing to its 20th anniversary of release. The Atlantic has one of the best essays, if you’re interested in some longform reporting. In my last article I talked a little bit about the experiential nature of the Matrix, but in this one I thought it would be interesting to talk about the film itself.
A film unlike any before or since
The Matrix was a truly surprising film. It combined a reasonably plausible plot, special effects that looked like nothing else, and an impeccable sense of style that marked it instantly as a classic. It became a touchstone for Generation X geeks the same way that MCU films have become for millennials.
The interesting thing about The Matrix is that is shouldn’t have worked. It combined elements that hadn’t really worked well in other movies, and layered them together in a way that somehow, made sense.
The idea of our lives being cultivated and controlled had been tried in dozens of movies, but you had to look all the way back to the 1970s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to find one that worked. The Matrix made control and submission important parts of its worldbuilding and surprisingly it made sense
Highly stylized martial arts
Martial arts movies haven’t had a lot of acclaim since the Bruce Lee days and yet here was a movie that relied on a kind of impossible martial-arts prowess that should have shut people down. However, recent advantages in CGI made it possible to erase wires and make it all seem more realistic. People ate it up.
Really. Not since The Rocky Horror Picture Show has there been a movie with so many gaps in the dialogue. It should have been hilarious but somehow it actually made sense. Morpheus should be a joke, right?
Truly special special effects
The 1990s had seen real advances in CGI but it had been years since people marveled at the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park or the weird effects of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Most effects films, even today, look very generic. The Matrix invented a whole new visual dictionary and they did it largely without computer rendering since the CGI of the day wasn’t up to rendering people.
An original story
Here’s the most interesting thing about The Matrix. It wasn’t based on a comic, TV show, or even a book. It was a completely fresh take on moviemaking and that’s something you very rarely see. Movies cost so much money that studios usually want a film to be based on something audiences already know. It’s amazing that anyone even actually greenlit this film considering how unique and rare it is.
How it could have gone wrong
If you want to see how things could have gone totally sideways for The Matrix, take a look at another film from 1999 that bears a bizarre resemblance to it. (Spoiler alert, but hey it’s a 20-year old film)
In The Thirteenth Floor, the main character (played, just as in The Matrix, by an actor known for light comedy) realizes that he exists in a simulation and someone from “reality” is trying to manipulate the system. Despite its own groundbreaking CGI and a plot that was far more accessible, The Thirteenth Floor barely made its money back and it’s practically unknown today. While Keanu Reeves has been a fixture on the scene since those days, Craig Bierko (the film’s lead) hasn’t been seen much since.
If I were a movie exec, I’d have bet on The Thirteenth Floor. The hero is more accessible, the plot makes more sense, and the heroine is more of a 90s “tough but sensitive” type than Carrie-Anne Moss, whose Trinity is much more like today’s female action heroes. I would have been wrong, of course. The boldness of The Matrix paid off, at least in the first film.
Because, in the end, The Matrix was a fluke. The two sequels actually made the first film seem worse, and the film’s creators have never been able to duplicate their initial success. We still don’t quite know what made the first film so fresh and good, and filmmakers still don’t know how to make original films like that.
Do yourself a favor…
If you happen to be in the mood to see the film, skip the streaming versions you’ll find out there. Go to thrift stores and find the original DVD. No it’s not high-definition and you will notice that. However, the high-def versions have all been colored to match the second and third film. They have a lot of greenness when you’re in The Matrix. The greenness is designed to make you feel like you’re in a computer but I think it’s a mistake. Having watched both the original DVD and the streaming version, I can say that the original is much more desirable.