Looking back at The Matrix

It was the effects movie that ushered in a new age of action cinema – as well as wire-fu fight sequences. Luke takes a look back at The Matrix...

Back in the summer of 1999, the eyes of cinema – nay, the world – were firmly fixed on the gelatinous jowls and wobbly quiffage of George Lucas. The thrilling, concussive trailer for Episode I: The Phantom Menace had landed in 1998, giving not a hint as to the turgid ineptitude of the film it abridged, and pre-release hype – a stifling, almost suffocating sense of Star Wars fever – had subsequently spiked to effervescent and dribblingly tangible levels.

There was no doubt that this was the film that would change everything; Lucas, once again, rewriting the rules of filmmaking to accommodate a vision that was simply too grand to be bound by those that had gone before. It was going to be great. It HAD to be.

Yet there was a surprise, an underdog, lurking within the omnipresent and corpulent shadow of Episode I. Action and sci-fi cinema was about to undergo a tectonic upheaval – not at the hands of Lucas’ lumpen and soulless FMV sequence (despite the beardy one’s incessant declarations as to the endless possibilities his proprietary technical wizardry had afforded him) – but at the four paws of the then comparatively-little known Wachowski brothers.

Buoyed by the critical (if not wholly commercial) success of 1996’s Bound, the Wachowskis’ follow-up project would give effects-laden action cinema the nose-into-the-brain murder-punch it had so sorely needed since the era of the wise-cracking action hero – your Arnies, Slys, Bruces and the like – had spluttered into aged obsolescence in the saggy midsection of that tumultuous of decades: the 90s.

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First, mysterious posters appeared in which Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne and Carrie Anne Moss scowled enigmatically from beneath funereally sexy, figure-hugging S+M attire.  Then, ambiguous trailers showed snippets of soaring martial arts and acrobatic gunplay, hinting at the spectacle and scope of the film without letting anything slip as to its actual premise.

We saw roundhouse kicks, lots of leather, Keanu Reeves letting fly with a helicopter-mounted minigun, and yet “What is The Matrix?” was still the phrase on everyone’s lips. With the knowledge of the film and appreciation of its influence that we carry with us 13 years after its release, it’s easy to forget that, back then, we really didn’t have a clue what it was. 

Released in spring 1999, its canny marketing campaign paid dividends. The film was an instant smash hit, and yet the tantalising ads only accounted for part of its success because, more than any film of recent memory, it was a film sold on excitable word of mouth: those who had seen it would espouse its brilliance to those who hadn’t; those who hated (or, worryingly, didn’t understand) its cod-philosophising conceded that it was unlike anything anyone had seen before.

The most important fact was that all seemed to recommend it on some level, even if it was a solely aesthetic one, because, obviously, if you’re told enough times that something’s like nothing you’ve seen before the chances are you’ll seek to address this situation as quickly as possible.

From the outset – the Warner Bros and Village Roadshow emblems, bathed in swampy green hues, giving way to the drizzling scrawl of the sparse, sinister Matrix code – it seemed like something completely new, despite the Wachowski’s Manga influences bleeding through the frame at even this earliest of stages. The opening sequence, showing Trinity slap her way through two squads of police officers as if they’re made of naught but soggy bog roll and ending with her ostensibly being the squishy filling in a phone box and truck sandwich, was a gripping statement of intent.

In this establishing scene alone we’re introduced to Fist Of Legend stuntman Yuen Woo-ping’s balletic choreography, the super-human abilities of some snappily dressed individuals and a startling, time-freezing camera technique which would come to be recognised as the then-new but soon-ubiquitous Bullet Time.

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Here was a film clearly aware of the importance of style – a mish-mash of disparate genres and influences with a nouveau-neon lick of paint, somehow swirling into an eddy that seemed completely original, despite the fact that this it demonstrably wasn’t. Indeed, the ‘artificial intelligence gone astray’ conceit appeared to have been plucked straight from James Cameron’s cold dead hands, while the West’s amazement at the elegant nature with which the film’s characters kicked a rainbow of excrement out of each other conveniently ignored the presence of a genre in Eastern cinema that had been doing the same thing for 80 years.

Martial arts aside, anyone with even a passing interest in Eastern animation could spot the less obvious tonal nods to Ghost In The Shell, Akira and Megazone 23, while even Western comic fans noticed, let’s say, ‘surprising’ similarities between DC Comics’ The Invisibles and the fundamentals of The Matrix (after viewing the Matrix sequels, The Invisibles’ creator Grant Morrison is reported to have said, “they should have kept stealing from me…”).

Of course, a veritable litany of traceable influences mattered not a jot when it came to the finished product of the film itself. The Wachowskis’ sticky-fingered amalgamation was the first time a large proportion of the mainstream audience had been exposed to such things and, for many, it was nothing short of exhilarating. 

First and foremost, stripped of its magpie predilections, The Matrix is a rip-roaring adventure with a fairly conventional central arc at its core. Neo’s story of destiny and realisation – an average Joe who learns he has special powers – is hardly original in concept (the existence of Luke Skywalker among countless others in popular culture means we don’t even have to peer east to confirm this fact), yet the tech-savvy late-90s world of computers and new-fangled, clicky-mouthpieced mobile phones allowed it to be imbued with a clinical and cool sense of the cutting-edge – one that has, admittedly, served to date it a little in the subsequent years.

What it is that makes the first Matrix so great is that, in essence, it’s the gradual unspooling of a dense and existential mystery. Much like Alex Proyas’ mind-bogglingly brilliant Dark City, it shared the idea that the world in which our protagonist dwells is nothing more than an elaborate fallacy. Interestingly (or not, depending on your opinion of pointless trivia) some of Dark City’s sets were actually reused in The Matrix, tracing a nice through-line between the visuals of the two.

On the first viewing of The Matrix we’re swept along with Neo’s utter bewilderment at the unfurling events (a bewilderment which is, it has to be said, brilliantly conveyed – intentionally or not – by Reeves) and on subsequent viewings we’re allowed to see the other side of the mystery, from the perspective of Morpheus and Trinity, who drip-feed Neo with clues and opaque allusions to the web of deceit and control that is threaded through his apparently benign existence.

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The first third of the film is brilliant for this reason – Neo is vulnerable and helpless, the Agents mysterious and omnipotent and their desires and motivations towards him unknown and unknowable. The propulsive pacing of the first act, with Thomas Anderson realising he’s being watched and pursued, before being eventually apprehended by the agents, sees the hacker’s life and reality crumble around him, with the fantastic use of mild Cronenbergian body horror (Reeves’ mouth being sealed; the insertion and painful-looking retrieval of the tentacled tracking device inserted into his poor, defenceless navel) reiterating the disconcerting effects of reality being skewed – not completely, but just enough to be extremely creepy. This puts us right there with Neo, on his side, sharing his panic.

Even in the ‘setup’ stage of the narrative in the most everyday surroundings there is a Gotham-esque, tar-like tone of intrigue. Don Davis’ hugely effective score is used to subtley hint at the nature of events to come (before swelling to cacophonous horror once Neo is faced with his true reality), and the Wachowskis keep the nifty visual flourishes coming, never passing up the opportunity to make each frame as striking and arresting as possible.

Shots sink into a CCTV screen; a single white pixel morphs into a policeman’s torch; there’s a vertiginous pan outward to reveal the street far below when Neo clings to the side of his office building; numerous acute camera angles convey either the abstract nature of this ‘real’ world or an otherworldly characters’ places within it (see the top-down establishing shots, repeated use of reflective surfaces or the odd, stylised ways in which Morpheus is captured, like a nebulous alien deity). Again, it’s our reality but slightly off-kilter; there’s a beguiling sense of mystery that’s lacking, by definition, from the sequels, and it’s this that is one of the first film’s biggest strengths.

Once the narrative shifts to the future, or present, or ‘real’ world or whatever you want to call it (the one with the shabby clothes, the Nebuchadnezzar, the bloke from Home & Away and the shit food), we’re presented with a much more conventional sci-fi visualisation of human kind’s bleak future, all steampunk’d ship interiors and homicidal mechanical menaces.

You can hardly blame The Wachowskis for these ‘future’ scenes’ relative lack of innovation – just about every possible permutation of mankind’s demise has been played out in some form already (a possible indictment of humanity’s relentlessly cheery collective imagination)  – but the future they construct is still a solid, if gratefully pilfered, one.  

It’s when they begin to drip-feed us, through Neo’s training programs, snippets of the hyper-real kinetics to come that the fabled action set-pieces begin to emerge. The sparring scene between Neo and Morpheus is an early example: it’s just two blokes, in a room, having a beautiful looking scrap, and yet it remains one of the finest Western one-on-one combat scenes ever filmed, giving us a crash course in the elegant style wirework. At the time, of course, it was also, for many, a crash course in martial arts cinema itself.

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Reeves, Fishburne, Moss and Hugo Weaving all trained for four months before filming began (training which left both Reeves and Weaving requiring surgery), and their efforts were more than evident here. Snappily captured, coolly edited and meticulously choreographed, this scene was only the second in a precession of memorable action set-pieces: there was also Trinity’s bum-kicking at the beginning of the film, the claustrophobic toilet fight between Morpheus and Smith, the gymnastic lobby gun battle, the rooftop scrap and helicopter, the epic subway dustup – The Wachowskis kept these scenes rolling past us, each seeming to exceed the last.

It’s difficult to recall another film built so successfully on a series of superlative action sequences – scenes only bolstered by the use of Bullet Time which, in 1999, seemed truly futuristic and extraordinary. It continues to impresses in 2012, for that matter (the swooping close-up to a bullet hitting Fishburn’s calf as he attempts to leap from the skyscraper is still superb), and The Matrix’s use of the technique still manages to be leagues ahead of the copycats that yelled ‘me too!’ in its wake (we’re looking at you, Swordfish).

Action wasn’t the only feather in The Matrix’s bow, either. For one, the casting was nigh-on perfect, with Reeves in the centre and Fisburne and Moss at his flanks. Added plaudits must also go to Hugo Weaving, who takes his opportunity to ‘go big’ and runs to the horizon with it, relishing each delectably evil line as if channelling nipple-chewing Foster-lover Hannibal Lecter himself.

Smith’s combat is also choreographed in such a way as to make him appear, not only solid, but truly immovable – in the first film (as opposed to the shark-jumping sequels) Smith is an absolute treat of a baddie. (Special mention must also go to the wonderful Joe Pantoliano as Cypher – if the world was a kinder place, Joe Pantoliano would be allowed to be in just about everything.)

The Wachowski’s love of quotable stunt-dialogue also helped sear the film onto the collective consciousness of 1999: “I know kung fu,” “Guns. Lots of Guns,” “There is no spoon” and even “Whoa…” are up there with “Yippee ki yay” and “Hasta la vista, baby” in terms of cultural penetration. The brothers, clear and confessed lovers of action cinema, clearly knew what they were doing with a script like this, and – hey – it worked: The Matrix is now, if not revered in Media Studies coursework terms, recognised as a true classic of several genres all at once.

Kept refreshingly free of the baggage of much of the over-wordy and allegorical chin-stroking of the sequels (yet still a source of existential conversation between frazzled conspiracy nuts and star-gazing stoners alike), the first Matrix succeeds so emphatically because it’s a lean, smart, well-executed mongrel, taking its favourite parts of sci fi, martial arts, action and adventure and kneading them together into something that wants nothing more than to entertain and amaze you as much as it possibly can.

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Like all the best paradigm-shifting effects movies, it will be remembered as an event as much as a film; a definable point on the chart of history, after which, because of its influence, the course of filmmaking was refracted in a slightly different direction.

Most of all, it’s just a cracking popcorn movie – one that, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you’ll find yourself watching it again if you happen to stumble across it amongst the murky depths of the late-night TV schedule. And it is this that is the mark of a true classic.

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