Seeing The Matrix for the first time was one of the most formative experiences in my personal cinematic journey. It was a few weeks before release, the film was screening early at my college, and everyone piled in for the random, free Keanu Reeves movie. No one knew what we were in for. Minutes later, film history changed right in front of our eyes. (I wrote about this at length here). For that reason, and many others beyond that, Matrix nostalgia holds a special place in my heart. I might be a big Star Wars fan but I didn’t see the originals in the theater. For The Matrix, I was there from the very beginning, and as a result, rewatching the film now is a powerful experience.
Obviously, I’m not alone in that sentiment. History has certainly been kind to The Matrix. The film shot Reeves into action superstardom (Speed helped too, of course), made household names of groundbreaking directors the Wachowskis, and upped the ante in terms of sci-fi visual effects with the invention of “bullet time.” But somehow none of that is what stands out while watching the 1999 film on the eve of the franchise’s return. Instead, what stands out is just how inventive, gutsy, and mind-bending the ideas in the film are. It’s a movie that has such a strong voice. This voice is saying things many people had never heard before. Meanwhile, the film executes those ideas with an in-your-face confidence that makes the experience enthralling even without all the action set pieces and visual effects. But when you add those in too, it just brings everything to another level.
In The Matrix, we meet Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), office worker by day, hacker by night. His hacker name is Neo, and Neo is contacted by a man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) with the promise of a mysterious truth. What Neo finds, however, is more than he bargained for. Morpheus reveals that Neo, and everyone else in the world, are actually all living in a digital simulation called “The Matrix.” Their minds believe they’re living normal lives, but in reality, artificially intelligent machines have taken over the real world years ago and have been using human bodies for their energy. Morpheus believes Neo is “The One,” a being born inside the Matrix and the only one who can defeat the machines. A bunch of helicopter crashes, gun battles, and close calls later, that belief is revealed to be accurate when Neo, aka the One, defeats one of the Matrix’s unstoppable, omnipresent authority figures, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), for the first time in history. Roll credits, cue Rage Against the Machine song.
Writing up this brief recap, I couldn’t help but imagine the looks on the faces of executives at Warner Bros. when they were first pitched the idea. You have to imagine they were positively dumbfounded. “You want us to pay for a movie about what?” In fact, in Brian Raftery’s book Best. Movie. Year. Ever, producer and then-Warner Bros. executive Lorenzo DiBonaventura is quoted as explaining this exact situation. “Nobody understood it,” he said. “[Executives] would go ‘How does this work? I’m sitting in a room but I’m actually living in a machine? What the fuck are we doing?’”
And yet, eventually, thanks to an elaborate presentation filled with detailed concept art and Warner Bros.’ willingness to gamble, the Wachowskis got it made. It helped that the story is impossibly smart. It makes you consider your own existence, real or otherwise, in all sorts of ways. And it uses tropes and genres audiences know and love to tell this new, inventive story in a very popcorn-friendly, digestible manner. In the decades since, so many movies have tried to be as cool, flashy, or clever but very few have even come close. These days, most studios wouldn’t even touch an original idea this big, especially not without a major star (which Reeves wasn’t exactly at the time), reputable filmmaker (which the Wachowskis weren’t quite yet), or franchise branding (which, of course, the film didn’t have). In fact, through the lens of 2021 it feels like a miracle that The Matrix exists at all.
That was my main feeling as I rewatched the film. Just in utter shock at how lucky I was to have experienced The Matrix as it slowly took over the world. Beyond that, I marveled at the propulsion of the storytelling, the dynamic characters in even the smallest roles, and the way complex ideas are floated into the story and then left alone, sucking you in deeper and deeper. By the time it gets to the big “What is the Matrix?” reveal, you are so invested they could have ended the film there and sold tickets to the second half. And that investment is crucial to fully appreciate and make everything that happens next—“I know kung fu,” “There is no spoon,” “Whoa!”—work. Because if you don’t care about these characters or believe in this “place,” all of that color would probably feel wildly random. But the way the Wachowskis set the film up is almost like a playground: here are the rules, now let’s see if we can break them.
Plus, for me, there’s just that simple nostalgic factor. Even though I hadn’t seen The Matrix from start to finish in probably five years, I basically grew up with it. I still know every little whisper and gesture that happens from beginning to end. And as the memories of each moment transported me back to 1999, I smiled, again and again.
But of course, I was going to enjoy and love The Matrix upon a rewatch. It’s the fucking Matrix. It’s amazing. But, here’s where this experiment gets interesting. On the road to Resurrections, I’m now going to watch Reloaded and Revolutions, the latter of which I have almost zero memories of. You’ll be able to read those thoughts soon and I’m anxious to see how they frame my expectations going into the new film. Because right now, with one film down and two to go, this new Matrix be one of my most anticipated films of all time. But then again, so was Reloaded, and that one ended up having an underground rave orgy.
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