The Matrix (1999)
Written & Directed by Lana and Lily Wachowski
There are likely few other films in the last 25 years to have had such a profound effect on the culture. While The Matrix trilogy is met with mixed feelings in the years that have ensued, its powerfully iconic look was immediately reflected back by the media at the time of its release. In the early 2000s, it was pretty common to see some aspect of the film’s “bullet time” effect parodied in film and television. Even 2021’s Space Jam: A New Legacy includes a moment referencing the opening sequence of The Matrix. It had been a very long time since I’d watched these films; I fell into the camp of people who don’t hate them but just weren’t amazed like others were. My personal Wachowksi favorite is Speed Racer which I thought of while watching these three movies.
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programmer going by the online alias Neo. His deep dives into the catacombs of the internet have led him to repeated references to “the Matrix.” It feels crucial, but Neo isn’t entirely sure what it is. This curiosity attracts the attention of Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), people considered terrorists by the authorities. Morpheus reveals that their entire reality is a simulation, and they, in fact, are living in the future. Outside of the false world is one dominated by machines who overtook their human masters a century or so earlier. Humans are used as batteries, generating energy to keep the machines going. Within the Matrix are programs living alongside humans, all designed to maintain various aspects of the illusion. Morpheus believes Neo is “the one,” a singular person destined to liberate the humans from these digital tyrants. But Neo isn’t so sure he’s this prophesied figure.
The Matrix has not necessarily aged great. It certainly feels like a dated movie, from the music to some of the rougher special effects. There were a couple flying scenes where the rear projection was very obvious. It doesn’t ruin my immersion in the story, but it’s a quaint relic from an age where actors could actually see what was happening around them, not simply rely on motion capture and green screen. Bullet time is still okay-looking but not great. I appreciated the wirework much more than any slick effect created by a computer. The choreography of the fights is awe-inspiring, but it makes sense because it was influenced and designed by some of the masters in film. The world of The Matrix feels much more like the real world, more so than the follow-ups, where it becomes much more stylized and heightened. I think the budget for this was limited compared to the sequels, so the exterior shots in the city aren’t too flashy.
I think the simplicity of the plot here compared to where the sequels go is so much better. It’s also funny to imagine how many dudebros completely missed what’s happening beneath the surface here. Trinity is meant to be a transwoman. There are so many bits of dialogue that hint at that or explicitly declare it. When Neo first meets her and exclaims, “I thought you were a man,” and she responds with, “Most *men* do.” This is paralleled in how Neo is presented with more “feminine” traits. At one point, he has an “abortion” when the wiretapping parasite is deposited in him before meeting with Morpheus. Agent Smith, the clear villain of the movie, consistently “deadnames” Neo by referring to him as “Mister Anderson,” always emphasizing that title as if to rub it in. The Wachowskis have stated that the red pill was a reference to hormone therapy transitioning people use and even talked in interviews about a trans character who would be one gender in the Matrix and different outside of it. So despite “red pill” becoming a term associated with braindead MRA-ers, they got the phrase from an extremely queer film.
I still cannot get past how wooden Keanu Reeves is, and I’ve read defenses of the performance, claiming it’s meant to evoke the sense of someone who hasn’t actually interacted with real people before, etc. I just think he’s not a very good actor, extremely charismatic, charming, and kind, but someone who only works in particular types of roles. Laurence Fishburne is much more passionate and able to evoke the remarkable stoicism needed. In later reviews, I’ll discuss how I feel the films treated his character but here, he is fantastic. He’s a true believer, but the characters around him and even the audience hold doubts about the prophecy for a large part of the movie.
Even better, in my opinion, is Joe Pantoliano as Cypher. I am convinced we’re supposed to realize Cypher is a former potential “one.” After Neo comes out of the Matrix and Trinity is attending to him, Cypher mentions in passing that she “never did that for me.” Later, when he’s quizzing Neo about the journey Morpheus is leading him down, he seems to know about seeing the Oracle and what that experience is like. My theory is Cypher was pulled out; they realized he wasn’t The One and just made him part of the crew. Having that brief moment of feeling like he was special jaded him, and now he’s cut a deal with the Agents to betray his allies and return to the Matrix. I like this because it shows Morpheus as not being omniscient but having to figure this out as he goes.
The Matrix is a solid movie, though not necessarily cutting edge anymore; it is chock full of two filmmakers’ clear vision. What they wanted is on the screen, and it looks interesting whether I enjoyed the whole movie or not. I couldn’t help but think about the bland, dull cinematography we get with the Marvel films and how they cannot hold a candle to the spectacle of this picture. The unexpected success of The Matrix would lead to two more films in the series, and well… we’ll talk about those very soon.