As a new sequel is announced, Tim Robey looks at the classic film’s legacy, from bullet-dodging to trench coats
Two massive, effects-laden science fiction blockbusters opened wide in the summer of 1999. To everyone’s shock, the one that was accused of destroying childhoods was by George Lucas. Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace was widely viewed as a crushing disappointment, despite all the hype attending the first film in its now beloved franchise.
The one that changed cinema, for better or worse, was its rival: a fiercely cool, riskily philosophical $63 million production from Warner Brothers, which bet the house on everyone wanting to watch Keanu Reeves doing mid-air kung fu in a black leather trench coat and shades.
It was a bet well-placed, despite the fact that Lana and Lilly Wachowski (born Larry and Andy), the film’s sibling masterminds, had only one feature to their names before it, 1996’s lesbian neo-noir Bound.
Matrix fever swept the world in 1999, and it became the rare number one hit in America which dipped to two in its second week, before resurging to top the charts again in its third. It would take nearly half a billion dollars worldwide, spawn two exponentially more expensive sequels — over which a polite veil shall be drawn — and now a third, just announced with Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Lana Wachowski on board.
The Matrix made a huge dent in the popular consciousness, whether you liked it or not. Cyber-hacker chic suddenly seemed like a credible wardrobe choice, and, in adverts for anything vaguely hi-tech, you couldn’t move for all that green code tumbling down the screen from the opening sequence — “digital rain,” they called it. Not only did the film import Eastern martial arts into big-budget Hollywood cinema more successfully than Hong Kong’s premier export John Woo had yet managed, but it came with more than a side serving of Buddhist-inflected philosophy, too.
What dazzled fans and spawned a million dissertations was not just the film’s rabidly emulated slow motion shoot-outs, but its play of ideas.
Reeves’s Neo, a computer hacker, finds out that our perceived world is all an elaborate illusion – a simulation being fed into our brains by machines. The idea of questioning what our given reality looks like goes back to Descartes, but Neo, in this film, is given the rare privilege of ducking behind the curtain.
He’s offered the choice of a red or blue pill by the Buddha-like Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and in choosing the red, he renounces the cushioned, fake surface world and sees reality for what it truly is below — a successor to Alice delving down the rabbit hole.
This pill meme alone, drawing on influences as various as Lewis Carroll, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and the anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995), has become culturally unforgettable, even to the point where the men’s rights movement use it as a central tenet of their thinking — the blue pill, to them, representing a state of blissful ignorance, while the red one is a portal to bitter self-knowledge and the truth.
In its action scenes, The Matrix made play with the violation of space and time – stopping bullets mid-flight and allowing the viewer’s perspective to shift and undulate as Neo ducks out of their way. This technique, quickly dubbed “Bullet Time,” became the trademark “wow” effect of this burgeoning franchise, and was trademarked under that name when Warner Bros released their video game The Matrix Online in 2005.
The effects designer John Gaeta achieved it by installing 120 cameras on set to take shots in quick succession, picking up where the early photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge left off when he captured a galloping horse with serial exposures in 1878.
Gaeta’s iteration of this was soon being aped everywhere — just look at all the bullet-dodging that the X-Men superhero Quicksilver has done in his past few outings.
Parodied as early as Shrek (2001), it has since leapt off cinema screens into big-budget TV (Sherlock used it in 2014), red-carpet Oscars coverage, and even Broadway: what is that human bullet sailing towards Alexander Hamilton on stage if not a choreographed riff on the exact same idea?
While no one would call the film more relevant now than ever, it’s hard to deny that The Matrix itself was a huge moment when it happened
The Matrix also predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its own proliferation across space, time and various home-entertainment platforms. There weren’t just the video games – three to date – but a Japanese animation anthology, The Animatrix, which created a further network of storytelling links, building an unstoppable mythos for fan sites to explore.
Meanwhile, the industrial importance of this film’s wild success was especially significant because of the recent arrival of DVD, a relatively new-on-the-block technology that could hardly have served as a more tempting inducement for the Matrix faithful. While the Wachowskis weren’t quite able to match the clout of Star Wars in cinemas, which – despite its many failings – topped the theatrical box office that year, their film was an instant must-own on the shiny home format, and smashed all records when it was released in September 1999, obliterating sales of previous champs Titanic and Armageddon.
Packed with special features exploring every nook and cranny of production, not only did The Matrix become the disc pretty much everyone was guaranteed to own, people actually bought DVD players just to be able to watch it on them.
In retrospect, just as there’s something quaint about our conviction that DVDs were ever cool objects – rather than soon-obsolete physical media with a resolution contemptible in the 4K era — the original hype-bubble of The Matrix is something more fondly remembered with nostalgia now than awe.
The sequels did it some damage, as did embarrassing cash-in attempts such as Equilibrium and Ecks vs Sever (both 2002). While no one would call the film more relevant now than ever, especially not to the Marvel-weaned generation it has since passed by, it’s hard to deny that The Matrix itself was a huge moment when it happened. The long, swooping shadow of those trench coats is inescapable, 20 years on.