Should I Watch..? The Matrix
What's the big deal?
The Matrix is an action sci-fi thriller film released in 1999 and was the first in the Matrix trilogy, followed by The Matrix Reloaded (1) and The Matrix Revolutions (2) in 2003. Written and directed by the Wachowski brothers for only their second film, the film concerns a disaffected computer programmer who finds himself drawn into a complex conspiracy that challenges his perception of reality. The film stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving and Joe Pantoliano. As well as the sequels, the film led to an entire franchise that also encompassed video games, comic books and animated short films. Winning four Academy Awards, the film has since been hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time as well as a pioneer of digital effects including the much-copied use of so-called Bullet Time.
Inducted into Benjamin Cox's Hall Of Fame
What's it about?
Thomas Anderson is a computer programmer in a non-descript job, living a double-life as a hacker known as Neo. He is puzzled by repeated references online to something called The Matrix and a mysterious man known as Morpheus, who is being sought by covert agents. After being contacted by another hacker called Trinity, Anderson eventually meets Morpheus who promises to explain everything assuming that he still wants to make that choice. He offers Anderson a red pill which will have the answers he seeks or a blue pill which will maintain Anderson's status within society. Anderson takes the red pill and almost immediately finds the world around him dissolve.
He wakes up in a strange pod, connected by sub-dermal cables to a vast machine stretching as far as his eyes can see. Rescued by Morpheus's ship, Anderson learns that the reality he knew is an artificial construct designed to subdue mankind into slavery by intelligent machines. Worse still, Morpheus has been told by a mysterious figure called the Oracle that he will find The One - a man capable to overthrowing the machines and destroying the Matrix once and for all. And Morpheus believes that Neo is the One...
Thomas Anderson / Neo
Andy & Lana Wachowski
Andy & Lana Wachowski
Release Date (UK)
11th June, 1999
Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects
What's to like?
It's fitting that for a decade which opened with James Cameron's ground-breaking action sci-fi Terminator 2: Judgment Day (3), it should close with what I like to think is the first 21st century action film - one which is even more pioneering. The Matrix has become an instant classic, blowing away audiences with its stunning use of CG, energetic and inventive martial-arts sequences and action scenes to rival those of any video game. The Wachowskis pushed the technology available to them beyond what anyone thought was possible and presented a story that, whilst not as original as they claimed, had never been presented in such a way before.
But the CG is only part of the story, albeit a rather large part. The cast rarely struggle against the digital destruction around them and perform their impressive array of stunts at a highly polished level. Take the dojo scene between Reeves and Fishburne - neither actor previously known for their martial-arts provide a scene of real tension and drama, a fight that tells its own story without the need for dialogue but still one that excites fans of a once-long lost genre. Reeves displays a bit less charisma than I would have liked but Fishburne's fanatical Morpheus and Moss' ballsy Trinity more than make up for Reeves' shortcomings. But the star of the show is Weaving as Agent Smith, becoming a baddie for the ages as the increasingly rogue computer program pursues the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar with ever-increasing zeal.
- Initially, Warner Bros. only committed $10 million to the film's production. The Wachowskis spent every cent of that money on the first ten minutes (the scenes with Trinity fleeing across the rooftops) and then presented this back to Warner Bros. They were so impressed that they then coughed up what the Wachowskis had originally asked.
- Reeves was recovering from neck surgery by the time pre-production had started but he still insisted on training, despite wearing a neck brace for the entire four months.
- In addition to Alice In Wonderland (4), the Wachowskis were heavily influenced by the 1995 anime film Ghost In The Shell (5) - their original pitch was simply trying to replicate that film in real life.
What's not to like?
The film takes a while to get going, teasing us with Trinity's blistering rooftop escape from an Agent as a prologue and then spending too much time with Reeves' antisocial hacker before things start getting weird. Even after wakening up in "the real world", the film doesn't offer much of a story other than asking the question of whether Neo is the One or not. For anyone not used to a sci-fi film asking philosophical questions (as all good sci-fi should), it can make The Matrix seem a little dull at first. However, stick with it because the pay-off once it does get going is superb.
In the years after its release, the rest of the movie industry wasted no time snatching tricks for the film's playbook and in no time at all, turned what was once innovative and exciting into something stale and passé. Watching The Matrix nowadays, it's quickly apparent how much of the film has been ripped-off and reheated by films as diverse as Charlie's Angels (6), Swordfish (7) and parody film Scary Movie 2 (8). Those who missed it the first time around may find themselves wondering whether they've seen this particular sequence before but for people like me who did catch it on a big screen at the time, there is no such issue. One thing I will say about The Matrix is that it demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible and in as high a definition as you can get. Ideally, a Blu-Ray on a 4k TV screen would really show this movie off in the best possible light.
Should I watch it?
Frankly, if you haven't by now then the chances are you are never going to. And that's a pity because The Matrix is a landmark picture in terms of effects, visual trickery and imaginative storytelling. It's an astonishing blend of high-tech trickery, old school martial arts and immersive storyline that makes this film such a winner. The plot might lose some viewers as the film lacks the basic good-vs-evil simplicity of Terminator 2 but this is deeper and more rewarding. It's just such a shame that the Wachowskis couldn't save some ideas for the sequels...
Great For: action junkies, sci-fi fans, sales figures for sunglasses, trench-coats and old Nokia phones
Not So Great For: the squeamish, the easily confused, conspiracy nuts
What else should I watch?
What the Wachowskis would like me to say is that the two sequels to The Matrix complete the story as well as continuing to bombard the viewer with digital effects upon digital effects. But in my heart, I just can't - there's not that much wrong with The Matrix Reloaded but there is a much heavier emphasis on the pseudo-philosophical dialogue and the plot complicates itself to such a degree that you lose interest by the time of the stunning finale in the middle of a crowded highway. The same cannot be for The Matrix Revolutions which spends most of its time in "the real world" and the lost human city of Zion in particular. Which means no bullet-dodging, very little Agent Smith, battles between Sentinels and the besieged population and a story so confusing that I'm still not sure what happens in the end.
These days, viewers can now choose whether they like their action high-tech or old-school due to Hollywood's predictable habit of churning out action movies at regular intervals. Traditionalists will probably get a kick out of The Expendables (9) series which rounds up all your favourite action heroes of yesteryear (Sly, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Lundgren, Statham, etc) and pits them against each other to a backdrop of explosions and machoism. Tech heads have arguably a greater selection of films to choose from ranging from comic book adaptions like Wanted (10), the equally mind-bending dreamscapes of Inception (11) to the mildly interesting Sucker Punch (12).