'The Matrix' 20th Anniversary Of Keanu Reeves Choosing Between The Red Pill And The Blue Pill
On May 19, 1999, sixteen years after the release of Return Of The Jedi, Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace opened in theaters and took the world by storm, which came as a surprise to absolutely no one. It was the first in a trilogy of prequels that would answer questions asked by Star Wars fans (who was Anakin Skywalker before he gave in to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader? Who was Luke and Leia’s mother and what was she like? Do we finally get to see The Clone Wars?), questions that fans didn’t really need or want any answers to (anything and everything having to do with midichlorians and Jar Jar Binks), and gave them new contributions to the Star Wars universe for them to geek out and obsess over (Darth Maul and his double-bladed lightsaber, Jango Fett, Mace Windu and his purple lightsaber, the podracing scene). For better and for much, much worse, the release of Star Wars: Episode 1 brought together the new generation of Star Wars fans as well as the older generation of Star Wars fans in expressing both their enthusiasm and their vitriol towards what they were seeing, and it has continued ever since.
But when it was all said and done, Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace wasn’t the sci-fi film that kept everyone talking and singing its praises and had Hollywood taking notice of its accomplishments so that it could follow in its footsteps. That sci-fi film, an R-rated, cyberpunk action film from Lana and Lilly Wachowski that was inspired by classic works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra And Simulation, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Ghost In The Shell (the good version, not the one with Scarlett Johansson), Fist Of Legend, and the action films of legendary director John Woo, with a diverse cast that seemingly came out of nowhere to become a classic of its genre when it opened in theaters on March 31, 1999, was The Matrix.
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a regular-degular-schmegular computer programmer by day, and by night, he is a notorious computer hacker who calls himself “Neo.” He is soon approached a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who has been keeping an eye on Neo and informs him that she knows all about the confusion he’s been feeling about the world he’s in, and that she can introduce him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the one person who can answer the question that’s been plaguing him for so long: What is The Matrix?
Once he finally meets Morpheus, Neo soon discovers that everything he thought he knew about the world he lives in is nothing more than a horrifying fiction designed by an intelligent and malevolent artificial intelligence designed to control all of human civilization; that Trinity, Morpheus, and others are fighting a war against The Matrix to destroy it for good and free all humans from its grasp; and that there are certain computer programs in the form of Agents such as Smith (Hugo Weaving) determined to do anything and everything to keep humanity under control. Even if it means forcing Neo into a life-or-death situation where he will have to choose between his own life and the life of Morpheus.
One of the best decisions made during the marketing campaign for The Matrix that made it look even more appealing to potential audiences was to keep the actual Matrix and what it was a secret that could only be fully revealed by seeing the film itself, as evidenced by the many commercials that would end with this line of dialogue from Morpheus: “Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” And though that seems like nothing but bait to make people invest their time and money into the film, when Morpheus finally explains to Neo (and to us) what The Matrix really is, we pretty much discover that he wasn’t at all kidding.
If you grew up watching films like Five Deadly Venoms and Master Of The Flying Guillotine, or even American Ninja and The Last Dragon, then you understand the joy that comes from watching the fight sequences in martial-arts films and then wanting to replicate every move you see. Even if you’re not at all capable of replicating said moves and you end up hitting yourself in the face with your knee from being too reckless with your attempt at a high kick and end up busting your nose as a result. (Not that I know anything at all about doing stuff like that. Not at ALL!) And if you grew up watching The Matrix, seeing the beautifully choreographed fight sequences crafted by the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping and his stunt crew had quite the similar effect. Michael Jackson once said (and yes, I’ll give you a minute to stop rolling your eyes at the appearance of his name in this post. You finished? You still here? Good.) in an interview that when he was growing up and studying the dance moves and techniques of others like Elvis Presley and Gene Kelly, what always infuriated him the most when watching them dance onscreen was when the cameras would go in for close-ups instead of pulling back to show their feet so that he could see what they were doing and how they were doing it. And fortunately, in the case of The Matrix, none of the action sequences, least of all the fight scenes, bear any resemblance whatsoever to Batman taking on his enemies in Batman Begins (yes, I get what Christopher Nolan was going for in treating Batman like something out of a horror movie and that we were supposed to be just as nervous and confused as the criminals he was fighting, but if you wanted a clear look at Batman’s martial-arts skills, you were sh*t out of luck) or Liam Neeson running and climbing a fence in Taken 3, or the members of Queen simply conversing with one another in Bohemian Rhapsody, and the camerawork allows us to fully absorb what the actors are doing when they’re being combative with one another onscreen. And considering that the main cast spent up to six months training with Yuen Wo-Ping’s stunt crew for all of the fight choreography they’d be doing, the effort is greatly appreciated.
At first, Cypher seems like a snarky, but loyal and fully devoted member of Morpheus’s crew on his ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, only to reveal that after nearly a decade of being on the run from Agents and giving maximum effort only to get minimal reward in return, he’s grown tired of it all and takes the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach in proving that his joke to Neo about wishing that he could’ve taken the blue pill instead of the red pill is not a joke at all. Even if it means killing his closest, and only, friends.
The longer we get to observe Agent Smith in his pursuit of Neo, Morpheus, and company, the more we get to see his stoic demeanor collapse when least expected, whether it’s showing arrogance at forcing Neo (or “Mr. Anderson” as he insists on calling him) to carry a tracking device that could lead him to Morpheus, or expressing anger in admitting to Morpheus how much he absolutely hates being around humans in carrying out his duties and how he wants nothing more to break Morpheus for the information he wants so he can finally destroy Zion and leave, to irritation at having his easily replaceable sunglasses destroyed by Neo as their fight begins (“I’m going to enjoy watching you die…Mr. Anderson!”), to even more anger with some impatience added to the mix when Neo comes back to life and proves himself to be a thorn in his side that just refuses to get gone and stay gone. Agent Smith clearly views humankind as nothing more than ants to be viewed underneath a magnifying glass, and if they weren’t needed to keep The Matrix operational, he would most definitely use that magnifying glass with the right beam of sunlight to burn them all to a crisp.
Any person who holds a position of power and influence (and who is also wanted by the authorities for being, in Agent Smith’s words, possibly the most dangerous man alive) needs someone at their side who is just as effective in getting things done. And when it comes to getting things done, looking damn good while doing so, and being an absolute ride-or-die in the best possible way, very few are as good at it as Trinity. Not only do we get to see her run like hell as she escapes capture from the Agents, and use every move in her vast repertoire to fight alongside Neo and Morpheus and the rest of her crew in order to keep them safe from harm, but we also see Trinity slowly falling in love with Neo as she believes she is destined to, even as she’s told that her destiny could be wrong. And yet, she doesn’t let that stop her from putting Neo in check for thinking that he can go rescue Morpheus all by himself. Because she truly is that bitch.
As he tells Neo more than once during his education of all things regarding The Matrix, “I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.” It becomes very clear from his very first scene why Morpheus is the guide, fighter, and leader that has inspired so much loyalty and commitment from his crew, long before he meets Neo and explains to him everything that he needs to know about the world he now lives in, while also teaching him how to fight and stay alive in that very same world until he achieves his destiny and becomes “The One,” who has been prophesied to use his powers and abilities to bring humankind together and end the war between the humans and the machines. Morpheus is the brilliant college professor that you’re eager to impress, while also having more than enough swagger to prove that he’s highly capable of ending any fight that he finds himself in, but not starting one unless it’s absolutely necessary.
It has become a rather well-known fact that Will Smith was one of several actors in consideration to play Neo before Keanu Reeves took the role, and turned it down so that he could appear in Wild Wild West instead. That decision wound up being great for Keanu, and not so much for Will. Though Will did accurately point out that if Will had played Neo instead of Keanu, it would be very unlikely that Laurence Fishburne would’ve been hired to play Morpheus, as having two Black leads in The Matrix would automatically turn it in to a “Black film” and possibly result in the film being a lot less successful. We don’t know how true this is, but unfortunately, it’s also not that hard to believe that the people who call the shots in Hollywood would share such a perspective.
All of that being said, it’s damn near impossible to picture anyone else playing Neo other than Keanu Reeves. He isn’t known for being the best actor or for having skills that would give Denzel Washington, Dustin’s all-time favorite actor, a run for his money, but the way he approaches his roles and brings them to life works in his favor and is far more effective than most people would think. To quote Vulture writer and Keanu Reeves enthusiast/historian Angelica Jade Bastién, from her essay about Keanu for Bright Wall/Dark Room:
“Keanu is still stuck in the amber of our first impression; we don’t treat him with the seriousness he deserves. At best, Keanu is regarded as a guilty pleasure. At worst, he’s seen as a truly bad actor of little worth. No matter where you fall, you likely believe he isn’t worthy of critical study or even much respect for his craft. But this image—of odd blankness, affability but dim wit, worth only found in action films—ignores how purely cinematic his acting style is. For Keanu, acting isn’t a mode of transformation but a state of being. He transmutes story into flesh.”
This very state of being that Keanu conveys is what makes his performance as Neo so memorable. Before he learns the truth about The Matrix by Morpheus and Trinity…before he finally becomes “The One” and gives The Matrix a reason to be very afraid as he makes it clear that he intends on using his newfound powers and abilities to help humankind instead of distancing himself from them or looking down on them, Doctor Manhattan-style…Neo clearly has questions about his life and very existence that he cannot yet articulate, but which refuse to go away, partly because the idea of not being in control of his own life holds no appeal to him. And once he is truly awakened and welcomed to “the real world,” Neo’s curiosity and confusion is the perfect approach for Keanu in this role because he is finally getting the answers he has been seeking for so long, even if those answers may be terrifying and force him to question everything about himself, his life, and about humanity in general. When he begins his combat training and is able to tell Morpheus “I know kung fu,” there is also a sense of relief. Not because he’s happy about his present circumstances, but because the wool has been removed from over his eyes and because he is gaining some of the control over his life that he needs and wants in order to keep going. It’s somewhat similar to a person suffering from an invisible illness and having no idea what is ailing him or her until the right doctor is found, and they are given all of the necessary answers so that at the very least, he or she can decide what to do next. (For a good example of this, watch this classic scene from The Golden Girls) And if you need an actor who can give off a vibe of “I don’t know what the hell is going on or what I just got myself into, and I’m clearly in way over my head, but…I’m willing to keep going and keep my head up while doing so,” Keanu Reeves is one of the best actors you can possibly get to give off that exact vibe for whatever story that is being told, especially this one.
Let’s be real: if you were talking to someone on the roof of a skyscraper, and he or she leaped all the way to the roof of another skyscraper in a single bound without breaking a sweat, you’d respond like this as well.
Though if you chose to respond like this instead…
…no one could or would really blame you.
After the critical acclaim and box-office success of The Matrix, it wasn’t too long before the Wachowski Sisters announced that there would be sequels, and that they would be shot back to back under an intense cloud of secrecy in order to prevent any plot details from getting out. The Matrix Reloaded was released in May of 2003…
…and The Matrix Revolutions was released later that same year in November.
While Reloaded was greeted with plenty of enthusiasm, that didn’t prevent the film from receiving several complaints and mixed reviews, mostly concerning the rave scene that takes place in Zion, and towards the speech by the Architect near the end of the film, which came off to many like the Wachowskis trying a little too hard to show how deep and intelligent their storytelling was when that wasn’t at all necessary. And by the time Revolutions opened several months later, the gloves came off, and lots of people weren’t hesitant in expressing their anger and disappointment in how the rest of the trilogy turned out.
Reloaded and Revolutions weren’t the only chapters used by the Wachowskis to continue telling their story in the universe of The Matrix. They also released The Animatrix, an animated anthology film using nine different stories to further explain the backstory of The Matrix and its creation.
They also contributed to the creation and development of the video game Enter The Matrix, which contained an hour of original footage shot with cast members from the trilogy, and focused on two side characters, Niobe and Ghost (Jada Pinkett Smith, Anthony Wong) and their attempts to stop an oncoming attack against Zion.
The impact and influence of The Matrix could be seen and felt in so many ways upon its release. It’s often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in Hollywood, there were a lot of other films that deeply felt the need to flatter The Matrix and its style of action. From Charlie’s Angels to Romeo Must Die to Kill Bill (which had its fight choreography also handled by Yuen Wo-Ping and his stunt crew) to X-Men to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (also with fight choreography by Yuen Wo-Ping), almost every production to come after wanted to look and be just as cool as The Matrix. Even the video game Max Payne made no secret of the fact that it was heavily influenced by The Matrix (and also by the action films of John Woo), as evidenced by the protagonist Max Payne being able to move and fight his enemies in Bullet Time just like Neo.
There were other ways that the film’s impact and influence could be seen and felt, and not in any way that could be seen as positive. On April 20, 1999, two teenagers who don’t deserve to be named in this post and who referred to themselves as members of the Trenchcoat Mafia entered Columbine High School where they were both students and used pistols and assault rifles and homemade pipe bombs to brutally murder at least twelve other students and one teacher before they both died by suicide. And though there were people who blamed bullying and ineffective gun control measures for the circumstances leading to this massacre, there were also people who blamed the media for seemingly influencing the two shooters to commit mass murder. Some of them blamed video games like Doom and Quake, others blamed musicians like Marilyn Manson, and then there were some people who blamed The Matrix and felt that seeing characters like Neo and Trinity dressed entirely in black and wearing black longcoats while exchanging gunfire with pistols and shotguns and machine guns are what made the two shooters want to turn their school into a bloodbath.
As if that wasn’t horrible enough, the term “red pill” or “taking the red pill” was adopted by the ridiculous-and-means-nothing Men’s Rights Movement, who choose to believe that taking the red pill is a sign that they refused to accept feminism and political correctness in any way, and that they choose to live their lives and express themselves on their own terms, even if this approach eventually leads to some members joining alt-Right groups and expressing their equally similar and harmful beliefs as well. It also led to the creation of a group on Reddit called Reddit Red Pill, where users could also express their beliefs and support of the Men’s Rights Movement, and was actually founded by a Republican state house member from New Hampshire named Robert Fisher, who resigned once this discovery was brought to light. Granted, most of the people involved in this Reddit group and who proudly identify themselves as Redpillers seem to either not know or not care about the fact that their entire philosophy is from a film that was created by two trans women, but it’s not as if logic, common sense, or intelligence are qualities that the Men’s Rights Movement is known for possessing in the first place.
There have also been some accusations of plagiarism against The Matrix and the Wachowskis. Comic-book writer Grant Morrison, considered by many to be one of the best and most influential in the industry, co-created a comic-book series for Vertigo in 1994 called The Invisibles, which was about a secret group of freedom-fighters going up against a massive conspiracy by powerful non-human entities to keep humanity enslaved. the book had many fans, and some of them (even Morrison himself) strongly felt that The Matrix ripped off much of its subject matter from The Invisibles.
And much like the rumor of there being a dead Munchkin seen hanging from the neck in the background of The Wizard Of Oz if you look hard enough, a very persistent rumor about The Matrix and its origins have repeatedly popped up online. Sophia Stewart, an African-American woman stated that in response to a classified ad placed in a magazine by the Wachowskis in 1986 requesting new science fiction-themed content to be published, she submitted a short story she wrote and copyrighted back in 1981 called “The Third Eye.” The Wachowskis never responded to her submission, but Stewart says that once The Matrix was released and she saw it for herself, she realized that much of the ideas in the film were ideas that she originally wrote in “The Third Eye.” So she went forward with a lawsuit against the Wachowski Sisters, against the film’s producer, Joel Silver, and both Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox claiming that both The Matrix and The Terminator films were based on her ideas and demanded both credit and compensation in the form of one billion dollars. Despite the fact that the lawsuit was dismissed due to insufficient evidence of Stewart’s claims, along with the fact that Stewart herself never appeared in court for a preliminary hearing of her case, a newspaper article somehow felt the need to state that Stewart had actually won her case and received the multi-billion dollar compensation she was asking for. There are many a website that proves how false this rumor is, Snopes definitely being one of them, but the story of a Black woman being mistreated and ignored by Hollywood, only to fight back and get the money and respect she rightfully deserved, is one that many people find believable for reasons that are too vast and understandable to list in this post.
After the release of The Matrix trilogy, the Wachowskis went on to make other films. In 2005, they wrote the screenplay for V For Vendetta, which was based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and was another film adaptation of his work that Moore wanted nothing to do with. It starred Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, and was directed by James McTeigue (who was an assistant director for The Matrix trilogy), though there have been rumors of V For Vendetta being another Poltergeist-type situation in which the director wasn’t in as much control of the production as many would be led to believe, and that it was mostly directed by The Wachowskis themselves.
In 2008, they wrote and directed Speed Racer, based on the anime/manga series of the same name from the Sixties, starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon, Rain, and John Goodman. It opened to mixed reviews (with some people assuming that they were due to critics lashing out at the Wachowskis for their disappointment with how The Matrix trilogy) and underperformed at the box-office, though time has been kind to the film since its theatrical release, and it has gained a devoted cult following since then.
In 2012, The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer (who wrote and directed Run Lola Run) worked together in writing and directing Cloud Atlas, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. To say that the film was polarizing would be a massive understatement.
In 2015, the Wachowskis wrote and directed Jupiter Ascending starring Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis. I’ve never seen the film, but apparently, it’s quite popular with the other Pajiba writers in our Slack chat, if only because they just can’t get enough of Eddie Redmayne’s delightfully over-the-top performance.
And they co-created with J. Michael Straczynski (who created Babylon 5) the Netflix series Sense8, which aired for two seasons before it was abruptly cancelled by Netflix due to low ratings (despite the fact that Netflix practically never shares their ratings information with anyone else) and budgetary concerns. Many of the show’s viewers were infuriated by Netflix’s decision (and unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time that Netflix canceled a beloved show with much-needed diversity and representation for bullshit reasons) and enough noise was made on social media that Netflix decided to bring back Sense8 so that it could wrap everything up with a two-hour film.
From the music by Don Davis, to the cinematography by Bill Pope, the visual effects overseen by John Gaeta, the impressive performances by the cast, and all of the exemplary work done by the crew, The Matrix remains, after twenty years, a masterful accomplishment by the Wachowski Sisters whose writing and directing helped bring all it together and make their visions a reality. And for the film to celebrate its twentieth anniversary and for their accomplishments to be recognized on Trans Day Of Visibility is just a wonderful cherry on top of a very awesome cake.
(There is also a lot more that I could probably say about The Matrix and its themes, and what it all means to the trans community and why the film is so important in that regard. But what I know about the trans community and about being trans couldn’t fill a shot glass, which is why it’s best for me to fall back like Homer Simpson disappearing into the bushes and leave that particular discussion to those who are far more knowledgeable about it than myself.)
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.
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