The Matrix. Everyone’s favorite late 20th-century, existential-crisis-inducing, groundbreaking sci-fi cyberpunk, slo-mo-happy film. Keanu Reeves, grunge, sunglasses, leather pants, guns for days, kung fu… What more could any sci-fi movie fan want?
The Matrix, the Wachowski’s first blockbuster hit, came out on March 31, 1999. Twenty years ago. This is mindbendingly hard for me to believe, maybe because deep down, some part of me is convinced it’s perpetually 2005-ish.
With such an auspicious anniversary, I re-watched this favorite of my pre-teenage-hood, to see if it holds up to modern storytelling, movie craft, and sensibilities.
(There will be spoilers. This movie is 20 years old. I don’t feel bad.)
The Matrix is generally classified as cyberpunk: a science-fiction sub-genre that features low quality of living with high-level technology in a dystopian setting. It definitely fits this definition, but, technically, The Matrix is a post-apocalyptic story. The reality of the world Neo wakes up to is that humanity has scorched the sky, the war between humans and the machines has ravaged the planet, and it is uninhabitable at the surface level. The world within the Matrix is definitely cyberpunk, and so is the world Morpheus and his crew operate in. But it is the direct result of the post-apocalyptic conditions of a destroyed world. The ways these sci-fi sub-genres interact makes for fascinating worldbuilding.
It’s Kind of Buddhist/Taoist
Living in a conservative part of America, I’ve seen Christianity overlaid on this film with dubious success. But I was surprised to see that eastern religion seems to have more to do with The Matrix. Reality as a dream to wake from: very Taoist. Even though Neo has the ability to warp the Matrix from the inside, he can’t use that skill until he disciplines his mind to believe that what appears to be reality is not. Neo isn’t able to fight Agent Smith one-on-one until he achieves the peace and inner stillness that comes from that right perspective. And in the fight sequences after his enlightenment (as it were), he has a very Zen-like calm about him: he fights without struggling, without rushing, without working, and observes himself without distress.
He’s the super-scary, invincible villain: the insidious Matrix program designed to destroy the resistance, played by internet-proclaimed god of the nerds, Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta, Lord of the Rings). And Weaving is delightful. As in, hilarious. I was constantly cracking up at Weaving’s enunciation choices, and his timing. Weaving definitely made the most of his screen time. He is a terrifying, well-rounded villain, but he also delivers unexpected comic beats that lighten the dark, oppressive ambiance. He gave me the impression of a computer program trying, rather badly, to approximate human speech patterns.
When I first saw The Matrix, it was a no brainer. Stop the delusion. Take the red pill. Wake up. But this time, watching Neo adjust to the very bleak reality outside the Matrix, seeing the quality of life, the constant danger, the likelihood of death, I found myself wondering if it really was better to wake up than to keep dreaming.
In general, a good protagonist creates the plot by making decisions and acting on them. One major weakness of the plot of The Matrix is that Neo only makes two real decisions that create plot. (1: Taking the red pill. 2: Going back for Morpheus. …well, okay, maybe 3: Following the white rabbit.) For most of the middle of the movie, he’s learning how to live outside the Matrix, and he lets himself sort of float along, now listening to Morpheus, now Trinity, now Cypher, and doesn’t give any sign about his intentions, or what he thinks about his new reality, or whether he thinks he is the One. Morpheus says they’re going to the Oracle? Cool. Neo’s along for the ride.
Neo does hit the main points of the hero’s journey (leaving home, new allies, learning new skills, seeking wisdom from the goddess, returning home with new skills/perspective), but it feels accidental. By the end, Neo has claimed his agency, and is making decisions apart from Morpheus and the group. The Wachowskis had to rely on the coolness of their world to carry the story through the parts where Neo really doesn’t do/decide/act much. It works, because the world is so bizarre and so interesting, but on a rewatch, Neo comes across as pale, expressionless, and wishy washy for most of the film.
Technology Plot Hole
Power is a huge part of the film, in no small part because it’s why the humans destroyed the sky, and why the machines are enslaving the human race. Morpheus’s ship is wired to the nines, cords and screens and plugs galore. They send people in and out of the Matrix. They’re constantly flying through underground sewers. How? What is the ship’s power source? There’s a natural opening for a one-sentence explanation when Morpheus is introducing the ship to Neo (“How are you doing all of this?” “Well, Neo, we…”). Neo’s a tech freak, so it seems a natural question for him. If it’s explained in the other two movies, fine, but this unexplained detail bugged me (“…like a splinter in my mind…”).
The Final Verdict
The Matrix holds up.
The animation and effects still look stellar.
The leather-and-sunglasses/grunge aesthetic still reads super slick. Morpheus’s squad is VERY cool.
The slow-motion sequences are gratuitous, but self-aware. The Matrix isn’t reality, so if Neo and Trinity want to shoot up a thousand columns in a lobby while doing cartwheels and running straight up the walls, they sure as hell can.
The acting is fabulous. Hugo Weaving shines, as mentioned, but so does Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and, of course, Keanu Reeves. Everyone is perfectly cast, and pulls their weight.
The story still feels relevant and provocative.
I highly recommend this movie, especially if you’re never seen it, or if it’s been a decade or so. You won’t be disappointed.