Originally released on the 31st of March way back in the space year of 1999. The Matrix was the brainchild of Andy and Larry Wachowski the then Wachowski brothers… that’s a whole other article in itself. The Matrix changed cinema for years with it’s groundbreaking effects work. But it was not a film that was all looks an no substance, The Matrix is a flick that can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Just watch it as a kick-ass action romp and enjoy it on that level – or delve into its more philosophical elements and how it questions reality and existence.
I still remember the day I went to the cinema to watch the film. You have to bear in mind that we are talking about a film made by relatively unknowns. This was only the Wachowski brothers (yes I know, but at the time they were brothers) second film after the taught and incredibly sexy and stylish thriller Bound from 1996. Bound was very much an underground hit. It had it’s fans (I’m one) but it was hardly Hollywood blockbuster material – so expectations were low for The Matrix. Then there were the stars like Laurence Fishburne who now is instantly recognisable, but back in 1999? He was known as that guy from the Tina Turner biopic or Max from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Carrie-Anne Moss, aside from some bit-parts in T.V. shows, she was unknown and The Matrix was her big breakthrough. Hugo Weaving was perhaps even more unknown than anyone else in the main cast unless you were Australian. Joe Pantoliano had already had a steady acting carer by the time 1999 came around mainly playing bit-parts and character roles. He starred in the previously mentioned Bound… and that’s about all he would’ve been known for back then unless you were a die hard Goonies fan.
Plus it was a time when the internet was still till in its infancy, we didn’t have super-fast fibre optic broadband to watch trailers with, no social networks to spread the word, no smartphones to catch up on movie news on the go… it was a very different time.
Oh and there was some guy by the name of Keanu Reeves. Yeah a household name now but not back in 1999, he was really only known for comedy rolls like the Bill & Ted films and small indie films. I guess the action flick Speed could be seen as his foot in the door of action cinema but he was still hardly known as an action film star afterwards in the same way he is today. It’s not as if Speed was to Keanu what Die Hard was to Bruce Willis. So really with The Matrix you had writer/directors not really know for anything with a cast of actors no one really cared about. It was not an easy film to see any merit in.
So yeah, quite honestly I had zero interest in the film. My brother called me up and asked if I wanted to go to the cinema – I had nothing going on so said yes. Didn’t see any trailers, paid no attention to who was in the film or who made it. Had no idea what I was going to watch just went along because I was bored and had nothing else to do. I went into the film 100% blind. But when I came out of that cinema? The first thought that went though my head was that must have been what it was like to have seen Star Wars at the cinema for the first time back in 1977. I felt that The Matrix was a game changer as if cinema had just taken several jumps forward not just in terms of effects work but also storytelling. I just knew then and there that The Matrix was something special, that people would still be talking about it decades later… twenty years later and here I am.
But the big question is, two decades later, does The Matrix hold up? We live in an age where films date quickly. I’ve certainly seen films in the last decade or so that feel old only months after release. Yet some films are timeless no matter when they were made – The Matrix is one of them. Aside from some of the questionable technobabble and dated references/technology (remember when everyone wanted one of those Nokia flick phones?). The effects are still impressive, bullet time may not hold the impact it did when you first saw it, but it still looks good and just as satisfying as ever. The fight sequences are as exciting as they were back in 1999. Shoot outs are heart-pumping, that lobby scene is still one of the best shoot outs ever caught on film. As an action picture, The Matrix delivers. But it’s not just the impressive action sequences and still amazing effects work that hold up after twenty years. It’s the writing, the storytelling. It’s when you really get into the deeper aspects of The Matrix when the film comes to life.
The basic of good vs evil, human vs machine is nothing special I admit and yes the whole fulfilling a prophecy, being ‘the One’ shtick got tiresome. The love thing between Neo and Trinity was trite. Yet it’s the questioning reality, self-existence and everything that comes with it where the story excels. The multi-layered and textured story telling is fascinating and I love getting lost in the questioning of reality, the two worlds shown in the film – the simulation that is The Matrix and the real world of a desolate future where humans are dying out compliment each other perfectly. When Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher wants out of the real world by betraying his crew mates and when he is offered to be reinserted into The Matrix with a whole new life. The line “ignorance is bliss” he says speaks volumes. Seriously, given the choice of living in on a dead planet being hunted by machines, fighting a war that seemingly has no end or living in ignorance inside The Matrix is a tough call. I can’t be the only person who has often wondered if there is something better out there, something other than the life we believe is all we have?
I’m going off on bit of a tangent here, but I quite honestly could write lengthy articles just on how deep The Matrix goes. I don’t mean to get into questioning one’s own existence but just to look back at The Matrix after two decades and see if it still holds up. It does, very much so. Having just re-watched the film for the first time in a good few years – I still found it thoroughly entertaining. As I said earlier, it’s a film you can watch on so many levels. Yes it’s a great action flick, but it also asks and addresses much deeper themes and ideas if you really look beyond what is shown on the screen.
I’m not a fan of DVD commentaries, I find it’s usually full of nothing but overpaid people inflating their own egos by making themselves sound like cinematic geniuses. But the commentary for The Matrix is very different and highly unique. Instead of having the Wachowskis harp on about how creative and insightful they are, they decided not to do the commentary themselves. Instead what you get are two commentary tracks. One is from two film critics that didn’t like the film, while the other is from two philosophers who did. The two commentary tracks are amazingly interesting and show how one can perceive the film from two very different standpoints. The critics are negative but bring up several interesting flaws (some stupid ones too). While the philosophers, understandably get deeper into the subtleties of the story. Their polar opposite views really are interesting to hear and yet they really work together. Well worth checking out. I came out with a very different view of The Matrix after listening to the two commentary tracks.
The Matrix is my generation’s Star Wars. Even two decades since it’s release, there just hasn’t been anything like it… plenty of imitators that have tired to delve into the depth The Matrix offers, countless flicks doing similar/same effects work – and yet none of them have managed to capture what made The Matrix so special, not even it’s own sequels and spin-offs.
It’s a film that is still talked about twenty years after it’s release and will probably still be talked about in another twenty, and still relevant in today’s cinema. Even films coming out soon like to throw in a The Matrix reference now and then, it seems even Keanu Reeves himself can’t escape them…
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You’ll have to see it for yourself.”