1999, a great year for film and blockbuster cinema, saw audiences waiting with bated breath for a science-fiction film that would bring back the biggest game-changer that had emerged from Hollywood in the 1970s. It was a year that was meant to be all about The Phantom Menace but come the end of the year, it was a completely different type of science-fiction blockbuster which captured the zeitgeist in a spectacular manner.
Written and directed by The Wachowskis, The Matrix was the second film from the sibling filmmaking team, after wowing critics with their low budget debut Bound, a brilliantly subversive noir thriller that on top of its intricate plotting also boasted a superb directorial style that would carry on into their second film, one with a substantially larger budget.
The Matrix wowed audiences with its mixture of imaginatively staged action-packed set pieces, but it earned even bigger points for how smart and intelligent it all was. Even more amazingly, while the film may have seemed incredibly fresh to mainstream audiences, which it was, it did so by clearly being influenced by a whole influx of previous science-fiction texts, the works of many philosophers, and Hong Kong action cinema.
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Its mixture of spiritual hero’s journey for its lead character Neo (Keanu Reeves in a superb central performance), paranoid thriller stylings in its first act, high production values, and philosophical themes, left audiences in awe upon its debut, and its handling of action sequences and visual effects would prove incredibly influential on Hollywood in the proceeding years.
While we all had our eyes on The Phantom Menace (and its more family-friendly nature meant that it would easily be the biggest commercial success of 1999), the darker stylings of The Wachowskis’ world, with its brilliantly portrayed visuals and its stylish filmmaking approach, not only felt fresher, but gained critical acclaim and an adoring audience, who would rewatch the film for many of its hidden meanings and references to other works. It also had a stellar box office gross of $463 million.
The Matrix‘s release year of 1999 not only correlated with the turn of the century, meaning the film’s apocalyptic setting of the year 2199 (or thereabouts) was something in the forefront of the minds of many due to fears of the Millennium Bug, but also emerged just when a new home entertainment format called DVD was starting to become the dominant home viewing format over VHS, meaning that it would become the first major commercial success for the format, with many wanting to use the film as a means to show off the new format with its widescreen presentation and crisp 5.1 digital surround sound.
Aesthetically the film was a triumph, but none of it would mean anything if it didn’t have substance to correlate with its sense of style. The Matrix would prove to be a deep work with hidden themes, meanings and references that were dotted throughout by The Wachowskis, that meant it found that hardened cult following who devoted themselves to deciphering it further, and who also celebrated their love of it on the internet. The Matrix – along with The Blair Witch Project – was one of the first films to use the emerging technology of the internet as a new means to promote itself.
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Forums and chatrooms on the internet would see fans discuss the many references to Alice in Wonderland, the influences of Philip K Dick, Jean Baudrillard and William Gibson, as well as the many films that were a massive influence on the its iconic fight choreography.
The work of Yuen Woo-ping would bring kung-fu cinema to a new generation of Western film-going audiences and also ensure a ready and willing audience for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a year later, where Yuen Woo-ping was also the fight choreographer.
With its cast boasting brilliant central performance from Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie Anne Moss, (with the latter involved in the iconic opening sequence), and a show-stealing villainous performance from Hugo Weaving, as well as some brilliant world building, The Matrix has proven itself to be a film that is very much of its 1999 year of release but also one that has transcended it. And nowhere is that more clearthan when it comes to its writer/director siblings.
Many commentators and fans of the film over the years had picked up on the film carrying transgender themes and ideas, a notion which has become more accepted with both Lana and Lilly Wachowski coming out as transgender women in recent years. Another layer that indicates how deep the rabbit hole goes with The Matrix, but which also means that it carries within itself a touch of emotional poignancy.
Twenty years after its release, its continuing popularity proves as well that The Matrix has always been more than just a mere action film. The spectacular trailers may have boasted many of the film’s key visual moments, including its massively popular bullet time special effect, subsequently borrowed by many films and television shows of the era, but it’s also a more complex and brilliant piece of work, one that remains of its time but has also transcended it. Many of us who walked into the cinema in 1999 when it debuted – such as fifteen year old me – were never quite the same person walking back out.