[For Hollywood — by which I mostly mean mainstream U.S. movies — 1999 was one hell of a year. The films released in those 12 months mined millennial fears and postmodern angst, heralding the arrival of daring new talent and offering modern masterpieces from up-and-coming directors. Ten years later, it’s easy to see that’s when the 21st century really began. This entry is the first in a series examining some of the key films of that year.]
It’s something close to sublime that The Matrix came out the same year as George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. Lucas’ film had been building hype for decades, but the Wachowski brothers’ sci-fi/action flick opened inauspiciously in March 1999 and relied on effusive word-of-mouth praise to carry it home. The film was an effects-heavy techno-thriller that’s fantastic in its own right, a well-made, tightly paced machine, but it also served as the Star Wars for the millennial generation, and it did so for a few simple reasons: It offered dazzling modern effects based on vintage technology; its screenplay was perfectly plotted and followed classic structural and archetypal set-ups; and its name would come to be sullied by lifeless, embarrassing sequels. Such is life.
The Matrix was the third film written by Andy and Larry Wachowski and their second directorial effort (after Bound), but it’s the one that put their names on the map. The opening sequence set the tone for the film, a rooftop chase and gun battle between men in suits, referred to as agents, and a leather-clad heroine named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who could apparently defy gravity on a whim. The sequence does a marvelous job at confounding expectations, allowing the Wachoskiwis enough wiggle room to create a story that literally couldn’t happen in the real world. By the time they introduce Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a hacker who operates under the handle Neo, they’ve succeeded in establishing a stylish world with its own rules.
The first act follows Neo’s pursuit of the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a purported leader of a group of hackers known for bringing down major institutions, which is an adorably 1990s profession and premise. But the real surprise comes when Neo meets Morpheus, who informs him that everything he knows about the real world is wrong, and that existence bends to the whims of the Matrix. Morpheus ominously tells Neo that “no one can be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself.” This is accurate in the sense that only being directly exposed to the Matrix will allow for maximum effect on the viewer, but really Morpheus could have just told the truth: The Matrix is a simulation of the real world achieved by plugging a jack directly into people’s brains. The screenplay raises interesting questions about the nature of reality that would soon dominate the thoughts of dorm-room pseudo-intellectuals nationwide, but the real fun of the gimmick is that Neo — once extracted from the Matrix, reintroduced to the postapocalyptic wasteland the world has become, and allowed to plug back into the program at whim — basically gets to inhabit a giant video game. Action movies have long felt like console shooters, with the lone hero cutting his way through progressively more challenging enemies until he meets the boss, but it wasn’t until The Matrix that the two fused so perfectly. The film is beautifully and powerfully of its era, as subtextually rooted in gamer entertainment as it is pop philosophy and classic archetypes.
The bulk of the film revolves around Morpheus’ belief that Neo is the one who will bring an end to the war between humans and the machines that have risen up and enslaved them in the Matrix, and the good guys periodically plug back into the Matrix in order to fight its operatives. But because what was formerly the real world has now been proven to be a digital construct, its rules can be fudged or ignored altogether; just like any video game, this one can be overridden with cheats. The best — or at any rate, the most imitated and resonant — way this makes itself known is in the stunning slow-motion camera work in which the Wachowskis rotate the camera around their subjects. In the world of the Matrix/The Matrix, it’s possible to dodge bullets, and the Wachowskis make this look dazzling while relying on a technique pioneered by 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who used a series of 24 cameras along a track to capture a horse’s gait and prove its legs left the ground. The Wachowskis simply took that line of cameras and wrapped it in an arc around their actors, shot them in high-speed against a green screen, and played it back at a regular frame rate. Their creation is often referred to as “bullet time,” and it’s been used in countless movies and games since, and they made it by using the oldest trick in the book.
The screenplay also turned on classic beats and plot points, just as George Lucas’ film had 22 years before. Neo’s journey from outcast to redeemer feels perfect because from a structural standpoint it is; there are no real surprises in the film, but it’s still so tightly made and effortlessly energetic that it remains tense and exciting after multiple viewings. This is in large part because the Wachowskis outdid themselves on action sequences, merging their computer-generated visions with old-fashioned squibs and set demolitions. The fight scenes live up to their characters’ belief that the rules of their world can be bent or broken, and no moment captures this as well as the extended gunfight in the lobby of a giant building where Morpheus is being held prisoner after sacrificing himself to save Neo and Trinity on a mission. Mounting a rescue attempt, Neo and Trinity load themselves up with guns in a pornographic tribute to modern games and take the building by storm, unleashing three solid minutes of mayhem on a host of unsuspecting guards and wrecking everything in their path. It remains a classic moment of the series because it’s clear the Wachowskis are honestly having fun — they just want stuff to get blowed up good — and haven’t yet begun to crack under the pressure to make their franchise mean anything more than a good time.
Because this film is, ultimately, a good time. It’s a rock-solid blockbuster that’s just self-aware enough to avoid self-parody, and it packs in moments of genuine characterization alongside fantastic effects sequences and genuinely thrilling escapes. The problem is that the film has been conflated with its legacy, and that in turn has been tangled up in the sequels, 2003’s double blast of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, a pair of films as gleefully free of form and skill as their grammatically questionable titles would suggest. The second and third films in the franchise were bloated, lumbering movies that leaned too much on effects, diluted the strength and simplicity of the main story, and wound up turning Neo into the cheap allegory for a Christ figure that some had been unwise to wish he had been all along. And that’s a shame, because those sequels cloud people’s memories and make it easier to forget that the first film is still a blast. It’s tightly done, remarkably well made, and functions perfectly within its own universe. It creates a story of rigid lines and then bends and blurs them. It changed sci-fi and action and pop movies for years to follow, and no one saw it coming.