With this year marking the 20th anniversary of the cinematic release of ‘The Matrix’, Annie Hariharan ponders how – even with all the money and special effects in the world – there’ll never be another movie like this one: a film that crossed so many genres so brilliantly, it continues to appeal to crossover audiences.
Back in 1999, mysterious posters of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss dressed in leather began to appear in mass media and even in the form of street graffiti. This was followed by a vague action-filled trailer where Moss jumped over buildings and a stoned-looking Reeves asked the now-iconic question “What is the Matrix?”.
A website www.whatisthematrix.com soon followed but did not offer much details about the movie’s premise either. In fact, we didn’t even know the movie’s genre. Was it sci-fi? Buddy comedy? Action hero? Dystopian fantasy?
In fact, it was all of the above and then some: anime, kung-fu, philosophy, biblical reference, resistance and rebellion. For young adults raised on a staple of summer blockbuster movies like Jaws and Armageddon, The Matrix was like nothing we had seen till then. The first six minutes of the movie was intense and remains unmatched as we saw Moss single-handedly fight a bunch of police in riot gear, leap off a building, run into a phone booth, answer the phone and then vanish just before a car ploughs into her. I still remember the tittering in the cinema at this point as people shifted in their seats and asked, “What is this movie?” … “Where are the opening credits that usually tells us about what we’re about to see?”
Today, movies have a long release process seemingly to include the audience to a point where we feel like we are entitled to comment about the casting, script and directorial choices. By the time the movies come out, there is no element of surprise… With ‘The Matrix’ there were plenty of surprises.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but twenty years ago we genuinely did not know what The Matrix was or that it was even in the making until the day it came out because there was no call for extras to be in the movie (a la Star Wars), no media scrutiny of a character’s wardrobe (e.g Catwoman’s outfit in The Dark Knight Rises) and no cast panel in Comic-Con (e.g just about any Marvel movie).
Today, movies have a long release process seemingly to include the audience to a point where we feel like we are entitled to comment about the casting, script and directorial choices. By the time the movies come out, there is no element of surprise; in fact we feel like we know it already.
This was not the case with The Matrix. The element of surprise worked in its favour because we had to quickly learn and dissect the movie, else we could not participate in one of the most popular conversation topics of the year: would you take the blue pill or the red pill? Remember that this was in the early stages of the internet so there was no Wikipedia to give a synopsis, no Reddit boards to read about fan theories, no Buzzfeed quiz to tell us which Matrix character we are. Part of The Matrix’s cult status is that years later, we are still revisiting the movie and picking up details we missed in the first few viewings.
The Matrix’s storyline is actually a very basic and unoriginal Hero’s Journey. One where there’s a reluctant hero who is tasked with a mission. He has a mentor who seeks to guide him but he resists. There’s an evil villain out to destroy everything the hero loves. The hero then accepts his fate and duels with the villain. There’s also usually a training montage and final battle scene. Audiences would have seen a similar storyline in everything from Harry Potter to Bridget Jones’ Diary.
But The Matrix’ focus on technology and the dystopian future struck a nerve at a time when we were fretting about the Y2K bug and luddites were warning us about our future robots overlords. We wanted to dismiss them but this movie made us wonder, what if, what if, what if. We were just starting to get accustomed to the idea of hand-phones as a convenient communication device but if The Matrix is right, everything that we thought is a convenience will start controlling us.
I think ‘The Matrix’s biggest pop culture contribution was that it tapped into a generational uncertainty about this new millennia and said, screw it. Let’s rebel in style but let’s also philosophise it.
And then there’s the stop motion bullet time technology which was groundbreaking when it first came out, yet in a few years after that, this technology was used in over 20 movies. And then it was spoofed in Shrek, which is when you know it has crossed over to being daggy. The time between groundbreaking technology and spoof worthy technology was starting to become very short.
It’s been twenty years since The Matrix came out and since then we’ve had dystopian and rebellion movies like Hunger Games and District 9. But I think The Matrix’s biggest pop culture contribution was that it tapped into a generational uncertainty about this new millennia and said, screw it. Let’s rebel in style but let’s also philosophise it. The heroes wore cool sunglasses and black leather and had fancy handphones. They took on the bad guys with Rage Against The Machine’s Wake Up playing in the background. They were old fashioned cool, strong and brave heroes when in comparison, today’s fictional heroes and superheroes are more human, vulnerable or funny. Just look at Thor in the first movie (2011) and then compare him to Thor: Ragnorok (2017). What a difference six years makes in changing our idea of heroes.
We might not get another movie like The Matrix because all the elements that made it work the first time have changed, which is also why I choose to forget the next two movies in the trilogy. You cannot recreate movie magic, no matter how much money you throw at it.