REVIEW: The Matrix [1999]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 136 minutes
    Release Date: March 31st, 1999 (USA)
    Studio: Warner Bros.
    Director(s): Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski
    Writer(s): Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski

There is no spoon.

Who better to realize humanity is living inside a simulation than hackers? They’re the ones with knowledge of computer systems and the glitches and backdoors within. And when one gets too close to the truth, who better than government agents to be the hunters trying to eradicate them? It isn’t national security that they’re worried about, though. It’s the viability of a world that has been constructed to keep them alive. That’s the secret being threatened. Not bank accounts or confidential files. Reality itself. So, when Thomas Anderson aka Neo (Keanu Reeves) thinks about the ones who came before him (Laurence Fishburne‘s Morpheus and Carrie-Anne Moss‘ Trinity), he thinks about disruptors in the sense of civil rights and anarchy. The scale is much bigger, though. They’re liberating mankind.

This shift in perception is quite ingenious because it utilizes something we know (America’s penchant for labeling hackers as terrorists/traitors despite their actions mainly being in service of democratization) and turns it into an elaborate science fiction conceit steeped in philosophical ideas about existence. Lana and Lilly Wachowski built The Matrix atop our real world in a way that not only made it fun popcorn entertainment with groundbreaking special effects and camera techniques, but also an intellectual call to arms against the type of governmental oppression that has only increased in the two decades since. They asked us to wake-up from the nightmare assumption that boring, monotonous lives were our only fate. We could take the red pill, enter Wonderland, and cut ourselves loose from our puppet strings.

Exposing our world as a fake, however, isn’t the endgame. It is the game. More than waking Neo up to the fact that he was born as a battery circa 2199 to power Earth’s new overlord (Artificial Intelligence) in an incubation pod while believing he lived in 1999 via a massive simulation known as the Matrix, the Wachowskis are creating the origin story of a hero. Maybe it’s Neo. Maybe it’s not. Morpheus believes it is for whatever reasons he has in his head. So much so that he’s willing to sever Neo’s mind from the infrastructure regardless of his age (they generally only awaken children so that they aren’t so fully entrenched in the lie). He’s also willing to risk his own life to prove it true.

The journey is thus very fast-paced despite the two-plus hour runtime. We have Agents (led by Hugo Weaving‘s brilliantly rigid and suffocating Smith), who can hijack the digital bodies of anyone still asleep in the Matrix, hunting Morpheus down for information that will lead to the awakened humans’ underground base. They don’t necessarily care about Neo as anything more than a disciple they can turn to capture the king. Morpheus is counting on that underestimation both to free Neo’s mind and help push him to the point where he can fully embrace his destiny. Trinity, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), Apoc (Julian Arahanga), Switch (Belinda McClory), Tank (Marcus Chong), Dozer (Anthony Ray Parker), and Mouse (Matt Doran) join him in that quest. Except one of them has also turned traitor.

That means a race against time and subterfuge both in real life (their human bodies travel the sewer systems of a now uninhabitable Earth thanks to a hovercraft named the Nebuchadnezzar while sentient machines known as Sentinels give chase) and the Matrix. The latter becomes the wilder of the two environments thanks to the Wachowskis leaning into its fabrication to make it so anyone plugged-in can be upgraded with skills like Kung-fu or helicopter flying and accessories like weapons or clothing. Upload data and suddenly Neo and the gang can handle anything thrown their way. They can still die (die in the Matrix, die in real life), but these tools will help them run. Or, if he is the “One,” Neo might match the Agents’ speed and fight.

It’s a lot to process narratively and even more philosophically once the curtain is raised and Neo begins to get accustomed to the endless possibilities his awakening provides. For example: physics can’t be real if the world by which its rules apply isn’t. That means Morpheus’ good guys in black leather trench coats and sunglasses can bend time and space when able. They can jump impossible distances, dodge bullets, and increase physical speed and strength simply by willing it to be so. And if things get too hot (the Agents hear everything that happens in the Matrix via their earbuds to intercept and anticipate), they can answer a landline targeted by the Nebuchadnezzar to bring their consciousness back into their bodies—becoming merely flesh and blood once again.

There’s exposition into the mythology. Training sessions to understand the world’s constraints (and lack thereof). And a two-fold awakening that opens Neo’s eyes to (hopefully) open his potential as well. The bullet-time effect lends an aesthetic that had never been seen before to create 360-degree spins around actors engaged in battle. The speed effects and bending of solid matter amp up the possibilities of what can be done while the soundtrack keeps our adrenaline pumping with cool stylistic visual flourishes to match. The Wachowskis are turning bad into good (hackers fighting back against power) and good into bad (law enforcement as enemy rather than protector) before doing so became popularized off their backs. The Matrix was a trendsetter beyond genre that helped to revolutionize the depiction of “authority.”

And whether a product of hindsight courtesy of the Wachowskis coming out as trans-women years later or not, there’s underlying thematic elements at play in that regard too. From Switch originally being envisioned as a character who switches gender between being plugged-in or not to the notion of having the ability to hack the system and be yourself through enhancements and enlightenment, there’s a ton to unpack. The Wachowskis also made their principal cast read Jean Baudrillard and other philosophers so they could fully grasp the ideas behind their script before even letting them read said script. This was always about more than just action. They sought to shock the system and open minds by getting Warner Bros. to spend millions on niche concepts beneath their flashy package.

It worked too. The Matrix won four Oscars and was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012. It sparked copycats, sequels, anime shorts, and videogames. That we’re about to get a new chapter with many of the original creators still involved twenty-two years later is mind-boggling, but that’s what happens when you tap into a subculture in such a way that you end up bringing it out of its fringe infancy and into the mainstream. That much success and time passing along with cultural changes in how we deal with topics like gender could mean that Lana Wachowski is given even more latitude with what she’ll be allowed to bring to the screen. And let’s be real: many people still need to wake up.

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