The Matrix (1999) has become such a touchstone of American pop culture—referenced, copied, parodied, and parroted)—that it’s hard to remember just how new and different and distinctive it was when it debuted in 1999.
Which is not to say that it is completely original. Image Tron as a Greek Myth, or Sim City as an action movie grounded in existential spiritualism. Filmmakers and screenwriters Lilly and Lana Wachowski (formerly Andy and Larry) draw from comic books, Hong Kong action films, cyber-punk fiction, video games, and every American science fiction conspiracy and tech noir thriller from Colossus: The Forbin Project to Tron to The Terminator. Using the coolest cutting edge digital toys of their time, create the most stylish, inventive, kinetically dynamic computer game we’d ever seen at the movies.
Keanu Reeves, man-boy of American cinema, is Neo, a techno-geek computer hacker nagged by the feeling that something is seriously wrong. As if to prove him right, mysterious phone callers whisper enigmatic dictums and super-agents in black glasses and nondescript suits steal his face and torment him with a giant crawfish-like insect that crawls inside his belly. Black leather clad computer outlaw Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) lures him to the hacker underground, dangling the promise of “the truth” before disappearing. All of this nightmarish confluence revolves around the forbidden question: “What is the Matrix?” Cyber guru Morpheus (a bald, commanding Larry Fishburne, his calm tenor carrying an edge of danger) offers Neo an answer. “Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”
Actually you can explain what it is, it’s just not as much fun as showing off images borrowed from Metropolis and covers of “Amazing Stories” magazines. Simply put, life is a virtual reality dream controlled by a master artificial intelligence, a computer ruling the world in the conspiracy to end all conspiracies. Morpheus is a rebel leader in the post-apocalyptic physical world of the future who staged guerrilla forays into the virtual world of the computer, and Neo is the hope the future, the answer to a prophecy: Keanu Reeves is the cyber-messiah.
The Wachowskis proceed to turn the world as we know it into a virtual reality landscape with a 20th century tech-noir look (lit with a sickly green hue, like the glow of an old IBM computer screen) and the physics of a video game. Morpheus, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi to Neo’s Luke Skywalker, trains his protégé in the virtual world; they become kung-fu masters in a cyber-dojo in a marvelous sequence which combines the ballet elegance and furious moves of Hong Kong movies (courtesy fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, a martial arts maestro and former Jackie Chan director) with computer effects and tricked-up camerawork.
Clearly the Wachowskis are more interested in their cinematic toys than their story. With a nod to John Woo they stage a bullet-riddled showdown that lovingly records every spent shell that spills to the ground in slow motion. A helicopter crashes into a great glass skyscraper and shockwaves roll across the surface like a pulse across a sea of silver. They’ve obviously put a lot of thought into the look and feel of the film and the result is a consistently handsome, often quite elegant action movie.
As for the heady philosophy and rules of engagement, they blur in the frenzy of bullets and kung fu fighting while the talky, pseudo-philosophical center sags for lack of action on repeat viewings, but the sheer kinetic energy and visual inventiveness drives the film beyond logic. Carrie-Anne Moss is the lithe, leather-clad action Fury Trinity and Hugo Weaving the cyber-cop Agent Smith.
The Wachowskis get even headier in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), where “Know thyself” is taken to the level of computer code and chaos theory is introduced to the well-ordered digital universe. Neo discovers an entire subculture of rogue programs with their own agendas, including Agent Smith, who clones himself into an army of slow speaking, blank faced golems with a single-minded purpose. The Wachowskis push the potential of software to the limits. They don’t come up with anything new, but it’s bigger, louder, and mighty impressive, even if the dialogue sounds more and more like a preprogrammed video game. Harold Perrineau, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Monica Bellucci join the cast on the second act of the trilogy, which sets the stage for the finale.
The Matrix Revolutions (2003) – As Neo leads the few free souls in the revolution against the cyber-masters, to break mankind out of its virtual world prison and reclaim the physical world, the computer prison-masters have unleashed their army of the apocalypse against man’s final outpost deep in the crust of the Earth. The Wachowskis may have something in their theory that the world is simply a complex operating system and humans are simply virtual programs interacting with actual programs posing as humans. Their dialogue feels written by a computer program, and for that matter acted by a collection of CGI figures. Yet it’s nothing if not dazzling. The Wachowskis set the bar for CGI spectacle, with a climactic blood and thunder battle between a monster swarm of flying octopus machines and giant robot suits blasting unending rounds of small missiles. Everything that has a beginning has an end. This one comes none too soon: it becomes so overwhelming that it practically bludgeons the audience into submission.
The Matrix won four Academy Awards, for editing, sound, and special effects and was added to the National Film Registry in 2012.
All three films rated R.
Also on DVD and Blu-ray and on SVOD through Amazon Video (The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions), iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Ultimate Matrix Collection [Blu-ray]
The Ultimate Matrix Collection [DVD]
4 Film Favorites: The Matrix Collection (The Matrix / The Matrix Reloaded / The Matrix Revolutions / The Animatrix) [DVD]
The Blu-ray and DVD collections present each of the three features with an introduction by the Wachowskis and two commentary tracks (one track by philosophers Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilbur, the other by critics Todd McCarthy of Variety, John Powers of Vogue, and author and critic David Thomson). The feature-length documentary The Matrix Revisited (2001) features behind-the-scenes footage from the original film, interviews with cast and crew, background on the origins of The Matrix, development of the special effects, and the grueling training undergone by the performers under the supervision of fight choreographer Master Yuen Wo Ping. Also includes the featurettes “Behind the Matrix” and “Take the Red Pill,” 17 “Follow the White Rabbit” mini-featurettes (including “That is Bullet Time?” and “What Is the Concept?”), and over 3 hours of music. “The Matrix Reloaded Revisited” features 5 documentary “pods” with 21 featurettes, under the chapter headings “Car Chase,” “Teahouse Fight,” “Unplugged,” “I’ll Handle Them,” and “The Exiles,” and “Enter the Matrix, with 23 extra scenes shot for the videogame. “The Matrix Revolutions Revisited” features 6 documentary “pods” with 28 featurettes, under the chapter organizations “Crew,” “Hel,” “New Blue World,” “Siege,” and “Aftermath.”
The Ultimate Matrix Blu-ray set also includes the animated anthology The Animatrix (2003) (reviewed on Stream On Demand here) with the 22-minute documentary “From Scrolls To Screen: The History And Culture Of Anime,” short “making of” documentaries on each short film, director commentaries on four of the shorts (in Japanese with English subtitles), bios, and a trailer for the Matrix video game. The Matrix Experience features three discs of further supplements. “The Roots of the Matrix” investigates the philosophical and technological roots in the documentaries “Return to Source: Philosophy and The Matrix” and “The Hard Problem: The Science Behind the Fiction.” “The Burly Man Chronicles” profiles the “society” of craftspeople, actors and filmmakers who shaped the movie trilogy and the “Enter the Matrix” video game in a full-length documentary and 21 additional featurettes. “The Zion Archive” features extensive galleries of concept artwork, storyboards, drawings, music videos, TV spots and trailers for each film. Also features a 24 page program guide with a new introduction by the Wachowski Brothers and a bibliography.