Countdown to Jupiter Ascending, Part 3, in which the Wachowskis drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century with this landmark film...
I’ll be honest with you; I was a little nervous in writing this one up.
Because make no mistake about it: The Matrix was a seismic shift in the filmic landscape, in many ways the first true twenty-first century film. The Wachowskis took the clockwork precision of their camera on Bound and multiplied the budget and ambition tenfold, and the results are as predictably spectacular as one might imagine, winding up with a movie that is true to the mathematical definition of its title, only instead of having the rows and columns filled with numbers, it’s the legion of influences which include cyberpunk, Asian action movies and cutting-edge anime. The Matrix is such a blending of high- and low-art that it makes such delineations obsolete; a sci-fi concoction owing to the works of Phillip K. Dick and Beaudrillard that comments on our media-saturated corporate culture, but with gun-fu and kicksplosions. In short, The Matrix is kind of fucking awesome.
Revolutionary, as well. It terms of action filmmaking, it brought cinema up to an entirely different level. The action films of Hollywood had long gone stale at that point, and seemed to be aware of it, what with their desire to appropriate the Hong Kong action stalwarts into their glossy, big-budget fold, but it was The Matrix that proved to be the tipping point. If you were to look at a map of action cinema history missing the slot where The Matrix goes, you could still be able to pinpoint its location with relative ease, just by the sheer amount of films where everyone is all of a sudden obsessed with slow-motion bullet hits and wire-assisted martial arts. By hiring the legendary master Yuen Woo-ping and putting the lead actors through an intense, four-month training regimen, the filmmakers ensured that the action would carry an air of authenticity (looking at the movie now, as fantastic as much of it is as a whole, the fight choreography is noticeably staged and blocky; tailor-made for actors who weren’t used to fighting) - so much so that for a while there in Hollywood, if your big action movie didn’t have some legendary Hong Kong fight choreographer, you might as well just pack your bags and go on home (I can still remember promos for 2001’s The Musketeer proudly proclaiming it as “featuring choreography from Xin Xin Xiong”).
Also important to the film’s success was its implementation of effects-work. Much like Star Wars before it, The Matrix utilized the special effects of its day to show just what was possible in cinema. The movie came at a watershed moment for visual effects, where CGI was a significant element, but not yet the dominant presence it would become in effects-driven films, where CG became less a tool and more of a crutch. What was key to The Matrix’s success with its effects was creating a world where such visual ideas were plausible. Action heroes’ ability to dodge bullets and outrun explosions were already a source of eye-rolling by the time The Matrix came around, but by making the characters avatars in a digital world, the Wachowskis were able to reinvent that cliché, as breaking gravity and the laws of physics became key to the world and the story being told. The elaborate bullet-time sequences are visual feats that still look incredible to this day, making action previously only capable on the comic book page come screaming into life believably in live-action, but their true effectiveness lies in tying them into a story that has gotten the audience invested and tricked them into buying into this world that the film invents. That makes The Matrix still possibly the best cinematic display of superpowers, just in terms of audience investment.
An investment that is well-developed by the script, which manages a deceptive amount of simplicity and infinite amounts of complexity. The Wachowskis’ script for The Matrix is one written by thoughtful filmmakers just biting at the bit for a chance to make a movie, containing almost an entire lifetime’s worth of ideas and concepts. The same storytelling hunger that was present in Bound’s twists and subversions also permeate The Matrix - just like Lucas with Star Wars, the Wachowskis implement the hero’s journey and mythic structure into their sci-fi parable, but not in the Mad Gabs, “insert story beat/character arc here” way that countless unimaginative hacks have driven into the ground over the years. Instead, the Wachowskis use those tropes and clichés to their own ends; there’s nothing inherently wrong with those tried-and-true Campbellian approaches, after all, it’s just all in how they’re implemented. Take Neo’s journey throughout the movie: the surface elements all follow the typical “Chosen One” ballyhoo, but look deeper at what the film portrays and you begin to see the Wachowskis at play, subverting that simple mythic structure and making it a key point to the story they’re telling. Neo is not the One simply because the story demands it, like so many of the children of Star Wars - he must first earn it. What Morpheus tells him towards the end of the film holds true for those lesser movies and their unimaginative screenwriters every bit as much as it does for Neo: “There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.”
Taking away all of the effects and influences and philosophizing, the film is still remarkable in its construction. The first time I saw The Matrix was one of the first times I became aware of pace. Look at the final acts of the movie, once Neo and the others leave after visiting the wonderfully without pretense Oracle, and the way the film smoothly flows from one scene into the other. From there, we are taken to Morpheus’ capture all the way to the lobby shoot-out and the helicopter rescue, and from there to the final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith - it’s a master-class on pacing a film and having one event seamlessly flow into the next without interruption. The central mystery of “What is the Matrix?” that occupies roughly the first hour also plays out with effective panache, with each reveal that Neo is exposed to coming with just enough explanation to carry the movie forward: Neo leaves the Matrix at about the thirty minute mark, whereupon we’re then taken into the real world, a reveal so shocking and massive that it still works for me to this day, sixteen years on and countless viewings in the meantime, and I think a large part of the reveal’s success comes from its careful construction and placement in the story.
There’s so much to talk about when discussing The Matrix: it’s central concept of the nature of reality and whether or not that’s reflected in the world around us - a question that’s been around almost from the moment humanity could stop having to worry about its day-to-day survival and pause to ponder such things - reshaped and presented in such a way by the film that it similarly had movie-goers wondering if they were caught in the Matrix themselves, once they stopped raving to themselves how cool it was when that girl in the leather pants kicked that one dude… Or the dry, incredibly deadpan sense of humor that keeps the movie from taking itself too seriously, a sensibility that the otherwise impenetrable themes of the narrative desperately needed… Or how Neo transcends the physical action the genre demands at the end by literally stopping bullets and rewriting the villain’s code from the inside out… Or how each and every frame is so graphically composed it looks like it could be a panel of the best sci-fi comic you never read… Or how the film took that dystopian Blade Runner aesthetic and paranoid, X-Files-esque “they’re all out to get you” vibe of the nineties and pushed them into the more cautiously-optimistic, coming of the Age of Horus sensibility of the new millennium (which, newsflash, didn’t quite turn out to be all that)… There are literally pages that could be written about every minute of this movie.
If Bound established them as filmmakers to be watched, then The Matrix pushed the Wachowskis into genuine force-of-nature territory. This duo was not content to sit back and produce the simple entertainments that had held their attention in their youth, but instead looked at the staid field that surrounded them and thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” For good or ill, they would settle for nothing less than to push the medium as far as they could each time they started a new project, and, at least in The Matrix’s case, they wound up pushing the entire industry around them further, too. The fantasy/SF author Michael Moorcock once said that all storytellers take part in a giant pot of inspiration, where old ideas are taken out and new ones put back in their place. If that’s the case, then while the Wachowskis took their fair share from that communal pot, they certainly put back in a whole hell of a lot more.