Party Like It's 1999: The Matrix
For the next several weeks, we are celebrating films celebrating their 20th anniversary this year that have stuck with us!
One of my big regrets is that I didn’t push my parents harder on seeing The Matrix in 1999 (as of this writing I still don’t think either of them has seen it). I’ve written before about that first viewing experience, and while I don’t think the impact on me was all that lessened by seeing some of the effects shots out of context numerous times before seeing the film, I do wish I could have experienced that collective mind explosion, the same way I wish I could travel back in time to see 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first opened.
Revisiting The Matrix on its 20th anniversary is a remarkable experience for several reasons. Made for a mind-blowing cheap $63 million, the film looks better than films that cost more than twice as much twenty years later. And all of the key effects shots totally work, even on a good home theater setup. There’s one computer generated door that sticks out like a Playstation graphic, but “bullet time,” Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) frozen while the camera moves around her–which is the film’s longest-lived visual legacy–and the helicopter crashing into the side of a building all hold up incredibly well. Each moment has the veneer of coolness, but what makes them cool is the sublime execution by the directors.
When you feel satisfied with quick-cutting action that obscures the flow of the fight choreography, watch The Matrix again and you’ll be raging against the machine. John Wick is the only current film series to consistently match the kinds of things The Matrix was doing from a stunt perspective, but is somewhat more rooted in realistic physics.
But what makes The Matrix such an evergreen viewing experience is not only the special effects. The film has a distinct vision. Yes, it is a blend of cyberpunk fiction, Buddhist philosophy, electronic/industrial music, and martial arts movies, but Lana and Lilly Wachowski filter all of that through their own particular point of view. And it is a strong one. Viewing the film as a 14- or 15-year old William Gibson-reading teenager, I was struck by how cool everything in the film is and how difficult it would be to assess if we are living in some kind of giant simulation.
Watching the film as adult still reaches that part of me, but I am even more astounded by the film’s other strengths. I love how smoothly the Wachowskis deliver exposition. For example, the film starts by dropping us into the scene of Trinity running from the cops, there’s no long prologue–as popularized by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. That choice works for an adaptation of a Tolkien epic, but screenwriters have run with that idea carte blanche in the years since. Not every film is–or should be–an epic worthy of a multi-minute voiceover, and it’s a lazy way to give the audience background directly instead of allowing us to digest it in the film itself.. For all of the immense worldbuilding The Matrix has to deal with to take us from the poorly understood world of “90s hackers” to human-batteries powering robot overlords, we are always given as much of it as we can handle it at a time, and we have Keanu Reeves’ understand performance as Neo to hold onto.
The structure of this film is incredible, and I can’t think of a film since The Matrix that does a more efficient job of using the classic Campellian hero’s journey to also set up a world. Each action sequence not only adds to the story, but also fleshes out the reality of the film. The Wachowskis understand the lessons of Nintendo’s best video games. Like a Mario game, the audience is given all the pieces to understand the basics of the world, and then the Wachowskis dazzle us by forming those pieces into new and unforeseen combinations right before our eyes.
“What's really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything.”
The other thing that seems plain as day in retrospect is how much of the film is about questioning and asserting one’s own identity. Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburn) all go by names they gave themselves rather than birth names (we know this for sure about Neo, but I think it is safe to assume that there were no infants named Trinity and Morpheus crawling around in the Matrix). Because they adopt them as hackers, and then keep them when they wake up in the real world, these names represent their true identities. Neo thinks of himself as Neo, not as Mr. Anderson (only the bad guys in bad suits call him by his Coppertop Name). And beyond that, the way you appear in The Matrix is a truer representation of your own self-image than you can create with your body alone. Hair, clothing, and everything else in the Matrix is the mind’s representation of the self, regardless of what the body is doing.
All of this is evident in the film itself before bringing in its creators. The fact that the Wachowskis are trans women has popularized new readings of the film, which don’t feel forced in the way many other allegorical readings of popular films do. In trans community parlance, Mr. Anderson would be Neo’s “deadname,” the phrase for a person’s name pre-transition. I never want to guess at the intentions of filmmakers, nor am I well-versed enough in transgender issues to construct a full trans reading of the film. Others much more familiar with the subject are much more capable at doing so. This book except by Andrea Long Chu speaks a bit more to that. However, I do think the idea of Switch (Belinda McClory) presenting as different genders in the real world and the Matrix, though ultimately dropped from the script before filming, is a fascinating idea that adds to this being an evidence-based reading of the film.
All of this makes The Matrix my absolute favorite kind of movie. One that is endlessly fun and entertaining to watch, but also provides hours, if not years or decades of thoughtful discussion and new things to discover about it. Movies are alive, and the way The Matrix has permeated the culture proves it.