In spite of wearing its own influences on its sleeve and many countless imitators that have followed, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix is truly a film of its own kind – one that has went on to define its own era and not without good reason. Blending the cyberpunk aesthetic with Hong Kong-inspired action set pieces, what the Wachowskis have managed to create was no ordinary action film but a film that stretches even beyond the set expectations for the genre. Yet its long-lasting appeal doesn’t ever feel limited, and it’s easy to see why because the Wachowskis also became a household name ever since this. It’s a film that bridges the gap between blockbuster cinema and philosophical cinema, from its weighty thematic content to the stunning action choreography and in the twenty years that have followed ever since it has only ever remained talked about in extensive detail. To take Morpheus’s own words, “The Matrix is everywhere” and for all I know its influence will only continue spreading because it still finds a way into the changing cultural landscape as if there were truly any other sign that the film has only aged like fine wine.
Keanu Reeves stars as the computer hacker Neo, who is called into joining a group of resistance fighters after realizing that he has been living in a simulated reality otherwise known as the Matrix. The Matrix presents itself like the world as we knew it, nearing the end of the 20th century, but upon a wake up call, Neo realizes that it is actually the 22nd century and a war had been waged between machines and their human creators, leaving much of the human race enslaved within the system. The Wachowskis have already made a case for their impressive worldbuilding in here, but also worth noting is the political allegories and how the literary influences also come into play with allowing The Matrix to remain every bit as stunning today as it was in 1999. If there was ever a film that truly defined “postmodern,” this would be that film without doubt, because it only finds new ways to remain revolutionary from generation to generation.
Observing the inside of the Matrix as being an authoritarian state where humans are enslaved to feed into a corrupt system, the Wachowskis work around this template in order to create another allegory of their own. It’s easy enough to note the philosophical influence that The Matrix has left upon its audiences, because it also begs the question about what would one do if they had the choice to see the world for what it really is or to continue living inside a paradise constructed to suit oneself. Yet there’s also an obvious queer subtext to moments like the iconic “red pill or blue pill” scene, one that has only become more evident thanks to the Wachowskis both having come out as transgender women (encouraging another hint that alludes to fighting against transphobia with Agent Smith referring to Neo as “Mr. Anderson” akin to deadnaming a trans person). It begins simply enough, with those choosing to live a lie in order to suit higher authority amidst homophobia being the blue pill option, and the red pill being equated to coming out of the closet; living one’s own truth and putting up with the world around themselves no matter what the consequences may be. The many political readings don’t limit itself only to this extent, but as much as many films attempted to recreate the accomplishments of the Wachowskis, nothing has matched the sense of genuineness that their film has presented.
There’s another case being made regarding how The Matrix presents gender roles onscreen (an obvious visual cue can be found near the film’s ending), but Trinity’s arc would also present many ideals that can ring off as being progressive in today’s world. Although she may appear to be your usual “tough girl” in an action movie embodying masculine qualities to work together with the film’s main hero, she is still crafted in an endearing manner. In part this is indebted to the performance of Carrie-Anne Moss, but the film also presents another idea at hand especially with how she realizes her own power through setting off on the word of the Oracle. The religious allusion also makes it clear enough in her name (Trinity akin to the Holy Trinity, with Morpheus being the Father, and Neo being the Son), but noting how she starts off as only being one among the group assembled by Morpheus to wage war to preserve the human race, there’s another quest that she also finds herself a part of without ever feeling like she allows anything to control her. It’s the realization of her own power that allows her arc to remain so impactful, effectively subverting the heteronormative romance that would normally be found in action films of this sort.
Despite many of the characters feeling stoic for the good lot of the film, especially in the way they present the many ideas that the Wachowskis sought to deliver to the screen, they still manage to stick inside your head. This is also a big factor as to what makes Keanu Reeves’s portrayal of Neo so engrossing, because he starts off as an observer trying to piece together how everything he had known about the world was an absolute lie – and the confusion is one that the Wachowskis still understood could easily get into the heads of the audiences. But for as passive as Neo may come off to be to some viewers, there’s still a sense of growth to him as he goes along the familiar “hero’s journey” to save Morpheus from the system and even as he stands up to Agent Smith, declaring his own title – and even realizing what potential he has. There’s still a sense of human instinct present in him, and it starts to become even more fully realized as the film shifts over towards the direction heading into the action genre. Yet as we continue sticking around Neo, he still remains an engaging presence because of how he echoes the amazement regarding what is real and what isn’t.
As the film quickly moves towards action, there’s no denying that the choreography still remains impressive especially in its resemblance to Hong Kong action cinema, but it also makes a case for why it remains one of the best films of its own sort. It’s a film that appears so visually “1999” yet never in a sense that it’s already dating itself, but in the sense that everything about it still remains so visually attractive from the special effects (one among many obvious standouts being the famous “bullet time” sequence) and the primarily green colour coding resembling the “programmed” world of what’s inside the Matrix. But the way in which these sequences come together with the film’s philosophical undertones, especially in the more contemplative nature that the Wachowskis employ for most of the film’s first half already makes clear a case that a film can be both philosophical and pure escapist fun at the same time. The Wachowskis already know the very nature of what they’re handling in one film, and they utilize everything they can to allow the film to be so stimulating – just like the very best auteurs would craft such a film.
We continually ask ourselves about what truly is “the Matrix,” even with Morpheus’s own words declaring that it is everywhere. If there’s anything else that perfectly sums up what allows the very impact of The Matrix to remain so long-lasting, it has to be that one moment. It’s truly a film where so many possibilities can come to be, and in the twenty years that have come since its release it still remains so heavily talked about for good reason. And even amidst its overwhelming popularity with audiences ever since its release, it also remains misunderstood even by a certain group of its own admirers. Everything that can be said about the film’s philosophical values to its visual aesthetic to pure entertainment factor would already have been said many more times by others, but what’s also heavily underestimated are the political undertones that allow the film to stand atop many others. Of course, the queer subtext worth noting given it being a creation of the Wachowskis, but also in how it bands together people of all different sorts to start up their own revolution against an oppressive system – there’s a whole lot more to a film like this than many would realize. And admittedly, it was one I had underestimated for so long. You don’t often come across films like The Matrix, especially in how they define a generation the way the Wachowskis had done so.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski
Screenplay by Lana and Lilly Wachowski
Produced by Joel Silver
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss,Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano
Release Date: March 31, 1999
Running Time: 136 minutes