Ren Zelen looks back at some of the films that made her fall in love with cinema in the first place with The Films That Made Me. This time she revisits The Matrix (1999)...
Directors: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski (then as ‘The Wachowski Brothers’)
Writers: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano
It’s universally acknowledged that The Matrix is a milestone in science-fiction film history, but on a more personal level, it was a film that seemed to contain everything I loved – it was a sci-fi, it was philosophical, it had complex ideas, it had interesting female characters and mind-blowing action scenes strongly influenced by the best of Asian movies, and my goodness, it had tons of style! I saw it alone as young woman during a morning screening, and by the time I’d left my seat in the theatre I was convinced that the Wachowski’s had raised the bar for all subsequent genre movies.
When The Matrix was released in 1999 it opened up new vistas of imagination in screen science-fiction – a domain of cyber existence that no film had yet explored. It was to become a cinematic breakthrough in technique and ambition.
The Wachowskis declared “Our main goal with ‘The Matrix’ was to make an intellectual action movie. We like action movies, guns and kung fu, but we’re tired of assembly-line action movies that are devoid of any intellectual content. We were determined to put as many ideas into the movie as we could”.
The movie they created appears to be an amalgam of many cultural elements - from the Bible through sci-fi, graphic novels, Japanese animation, music videos, to Hong Kong Kung Fu films. Their cinematographer, Bill Pope, shared their love of comics and had started his career in music videos for artists such as Metallica and Sting before going into film.
The Matrix also drew on major tropes of literary science-fiction created by writers such as George Orwell, Philip K Dick and William Gibson, featuring a dystopic, machine-dominated future populated by industrial behemoths who have subjugated humanity. One of the underlying messages that the Wachowskis present throughout the movie is that while we think we control technology, technology in fact, controls us.
All this overlaid an earlier, more mythic structure – one dealing with the lone hero who saves his people using extraordinary abilities and insights, found in fables such as Beowulf and St George and the Dragon. This triumph, however, often comes at great cost.
Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer by day and a hacker by night who goes under the name of Neo. The Matrix is at core, a messiah story filled with Judeo-Christian allegory. Neo (an anagram of One) is thought to be the ‘second-coming’ prophesised by ‘The Oracle’ (Gloria Foster) to free mankind from enslavement.
He is sought out by Morpheus (the ever-elegant Lawrence Fishburne) who appears as a kind of John the Baptist figure, and his crew : Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) an allusion to the Holy Trinity, who soon takes her place as Neo’s ‘Holy Ghost’, inspiring him with belief and strength and at one point reviving him with a life-giving kiss, and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) - a nod to Lucifer but here playing the role of Judas the betrayer.
With the help of this group of renegades, Neo discovers that the life he has been ‘living’ is merely a computer-generated illusion created by machines to dupe human beings into passivity.
Neo’s explicit ‘birth’ from a biotechnical womb spits him out like a new-born infant, blinking, hairless and covered in mucus. Around him he sees millions of still enwombed humans plugged into the Matrix’s mainframe and functioning as organic ‘batteries’, now that a solar source of energy is no-longer viable. In the virtual prison of the mind that is ‘The Matrix’, human beings are maintained in a dream state, unaware that they are being used as biological fuel cells.
Thomas Anderson awakens from his illusory life into the ’real world’ of 2199 - a dismal, long-decayed environment of ruined cities and a blighted atmosphere, where the last free humans have sought refuge from their mechanical overlords in an underground city named Zion.
In one of the first scenes, Neo goes to a bookshelf and takes down a copy of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. The book itself turns out to be a mere shell, a container for computer disks containing illegal software. It’s the first clue to Neo’s preoccupation with appearance and reality – with the real and the unreal. Baudrillard’s main idea was that in the postmodern world the real has been displaced by the simulated. He claimed that the real survives only in vestiges, “here and there in the deserts…the desert of the real itself” a phrase later borrowed by Morpheus.
For viewers who have not read Baudrillard’s work, The Matrix also presents variations on the theme of the real versus fantasy by referring to other works of literature where we see this opposition, namely Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Frank Baum’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
One of the reasons for the enduring appeal of the film is the fact that it never insults the viewer’s intelligence. Does its attraction lie in its form as a Buddhist allegory built upon a Judeo-Christian foundation? Or is it more to do with the protagonist’s ability to walk up walls in stylish patent leather and kick butt in slow motion while pulverising the masonry? Clearly, it’s the successful combination of both.
The casting of Keanu Reeves as the central figure of Neo was an interesting choice. Often criticised for his apparent lack of emotional range as an actor, Reeve’s passive beauty and international background (his heritage is a mix of Chinese, Caucasian and Hawaiian) worked well as a universal everyman, thrust into a fantastical scenario. Reeves is also known to be an incredibly graceful and hardworking physical actor (he’s still proving the fact as John Wick, though well into his 50s).
Despite its overt allusions to highbrow contemporary philosophy, The Matrix became a popular box-office hit. It successfully married science fiction with conspiracy thriller conventions and spectacular martial arts action scenes (the actors worked daily for 4 months with the legendary Hong Kong martial arts choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping).
Examining The Matrix's digital effects and how they were achieved, shows how the film represents a melding of cinematic techniques and video games. We recognise ‘bullet-time’ as a response to the challenge presented by the immersive experience of video gaming which was becoming prevalent in the late 1990s. Shot from the observers’ point of view the optical perspective swoops through 360 degrees in a 3D space, without revealing all the film making paraphernalia and apparatus.
The Wachowski’s highlight the art of the film and the manipulation of the viewer by the technology that delivers a different perception of reality – they make it clear they’re not just dealing with the concept of the real but also of ‘the reel’.
The Matrix was THE end-of-the-millennium movie, a statement of the Zeitgeist, and a template for the future of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. It had a profound effect on pop culture and changed the history of cinema. The year after its release, Matrix-like special effects were being taken up by scores of action movies. The combination of ‘bullet-time’ and wire fighting effects have been commonplace in sci-fi and superhero movies ever since, but it’s worth remembering Morpheus’s advice: “No one can be told what ‘the Matrix’ is. You have to see it for yourself”.
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2020 All rights reserved.
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Images - IMDb