MATRIX MADNESS: ‘The Matrix’ (1999)

A Sequential Cinema Event

“What is the Matrix?”

The Matrix ad campaign

The four-word ad campaign sent people into an absolute frenzy back in 1999. The Matrix would help change the way action storytelling was viewed. It changed how science fiction can blend into our present becoming a phenomenon. It was a moment in time directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski that combined philosophical understandings, love of anime, and admiration of genre cinema into a wondrous blend. It’s a series, flaws and all, that is a stone-cold work of art in the realm of film.

In other words, The Matrix is damn fun. I saw The Matrix for the first time in high school when my creative writing teacher put it on during a lesson on storytelling in film. I only knew the posters, the games Enter the Matrix and Path of Neo, and the parodies at this point. I was hooked on it. It only knew of the action sequences and how everyone borrowed from them. Yet, the story itself was a twist on the old prophecy deal i.e. the chosen one. It played to the trope, but also subverted it at times to make us question this. As time goes on, I myself am not the biggest fan of this trope, but The Matrix is the one I feel got this right.

A caveat up front though. To write about The Matrix is something that can remain quite surface level (most reviews are that). But, if one wishes to go deeper, they can. I will say that the reviews might get deeper with each entry. The deepest I’ll get while writing is more than like when we get to Resurrections. Same for The Animatrix as a first-time viewer of that film.

Neo (Keanus Reeves) attempts to stop bullets in The Matrix. Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a hacker named Neo on the side of his normal boring desk job. One day, he is greeted by a message on his PC telling him to follow the white rabbit. He follows a woman with a tattoo of one to a club. Here he meets fellow hacker Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) who informs Neo that Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) is looking for him. Morpheus calls Anderson the next day at work to have him escape the agents that seem to be on the lookout for him. After being bugged at an interrogation by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), he is found by Trinity and company to be taken to Morpheus.

Here, Morpheus asks him to take the red pill or blue pill. Red is to go beyond what Neo knows. Blue is to remain in place with no knowledge of what has occurred. Neo takes the red pill to uncover what exactly is the Matrix and wakes up in a pod to the real world of 2199. Machines have taken over the world and now use humans as batteries and resources. Morpheus and his crew (including Joey Pants!) aboard the Nebuchadnezzar inform Neo may be the ones to help the humans who broke free in the real world in Zion to rise above the machine’s rule. The only way to do so is to take The Matrix out from the inside with advice from the Oracle (Gloria Foster). With a whole crew ready, Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity head out to the Matrix to combat with agents all while there may be a mole within the team itself.

Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Neo (Keanu Reeves) dressed to the nines to take out agents within a bank in The Matrix. Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Matrix is a pure science fiction classic. With the action aside, it makes for a great play on the old standard prophecy trope twisting it with a modern cyberpunk feel. The story also has the typical love interest, but rather than feel tacked on, it feels natural. It also combines the Wachowskis influences without the need to reference, rather have the feel. There’s an anime influence to the storytelling, right down to exposition. For the action, a mash-up of martial arts such as kung fu and wuxia, with the gunplay of 80s and 90s action romps. The idea of a world inside a simulation was nothing new when this film did it.

Yet, it’s the one that honed in on the concept by perfecting it and remains in the pop culture sphere. It was one of three films in 1999 to have a story about simulated realities in everyday life (eXistenZ and The Thirteenth Floor being the other two). To go deeper, the previous year had Dark City and The Truman Show focused on characters discovering the true reality beyond their own.

[Sidenote: The Matrix and Dark City share sets as both were filmed in Australia such as the first sequence of Trinity escaping the agents.]

Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) offers Neo a choice between being his true self with the red pill or staying in the illusion with the blue pill. Source: Warner Bros.

For years, there were books written about the philosophies of The Matrix. Those who watched it trying to get a sense of how it was influenced by religion, what understandings can be taught and what we can learn. It turns out The Matrix is in fact a trans allegory. The directors are transwomen and had intended that from the start in a world that was not quite ready for such allegories.

The 90s were not very kind to trans people. Transphobic jokes were in style on the sitcom Friends with Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) being an absolute dick towards his mother (he refers to her as father still) who has transitioned. Transwomen in particular were used as twists in movies such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. This was to have cruel jokes resulting in men being revolted by the situation by vomiting and gagging. Even in modern media, transphobia is still persistent. In The Hangover Part II with a twist that a sex worker Stu (Ed Helms) hooked up with is a transwoman. Hilarity should ensue. I remember seeing this movie and that joke sent me over the edge to downright hating it. All three pieces of media I pointed out are all produced by Warner Bros. who also produces The Matrix franchise.

I myself am a cisgender male, so admittedly, I do not share the same experiences of those who are trans and their journey of transitioning. Yet, to talk of the allegory is to reflect on such an experience. I’ll redirect that part of the conversation over to Emily St. James’ (formerly VanDerWerrf) excellent article on Vox about the allegory and their own transition in relation to it. The following is an excerpt from the article:

“The plot of The Matrix mirrors the online gender experimentation of the early digital era, when some unsuspecting egg might log in to a chat room as a woman and discover how much better it feels to embody that version of themselves. Inhabit that experimental space long enough and you might eventually find yourself breaking through the shell containing the hermetically sealed world you thought you lived in to some other reality entirely. That reality might reduce everything else in your life to rubble, but getting to experience it is worth the fallout.

The sense of using the internet to find a true identity permeates every scene of The Matrix. In the movie’s first exchange between hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) and badass hacker girl Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), he says he assumed she was a guy, and she replies, blithely, “Most guys do.” The characters reject the names they were born with — in Neo’s case, Thomas Anderson — in favor of their chosen names. Their wardrobe grows increasingly androgynous and leather-bound. The entire movie is about transcending the limitations of the physical form to explore what the mind is capable of. Bodies are, at best, a suggestion. Your brain is what really matters.”

Emily St. James, “How The Matrix universalized a trans experience — and helped me accept my own,” Vox, Mar. 30th, 2019

It also has universal aspect audiences can relate to. That is to go beyond what is expected or perceived by others to become your own true self. This is present in the conversation with The Oracle right away telling him he isn’t “The One.” Neo accepts this, but in sure enough time assures himself he is after Trinity tells him that the one would be whoever she falls in love with. Neo may not be the one for everyone, but he is definitely in the one in the eyes of Trinity and of himself. This also adds to the love story and how The Matrix can be a story about accepting what you know and wish to know.

[Sidenote: I can see why there were tons of books written about this now the more I write and read into it as well as others’ interpretations.]

Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) go toe-to-toe in a martial arts training program. Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

The action itself is what many may remember the most. The inventive mix of styles has it achieving what other films wish they could do at the time. “Bullet time” made every lose their minds. Unfortunately, it became a joke thanks to the constant parodies of it (even becoming fodder for a joke in the latest film).

The use of slow-motion didn’t feel egregious either making it another part of how they can manipulate The Matrix to their will. With every sequel, the action gets bigger and louder. Let’s say for now before we get into those reviews that time has not been kind to Reloaded and Revolutions. Here the action holds up better by still keeping it rooted in reality with hand-to-hand style present. The wuxia influence has the flipping of the characters, flying and dodging with the best, yet there is not an over-reliance on computers quite yet. Being able to see the action also helps without ten-thousand things flying about is also helpful. That’s more so an old man complaint about modern action being all over the place.

The Matrix is a benchmark of science fiction cinema that has yet to be replicated by going beyond the grain of sci-fi. It set a precedent for the next decade of what one thinks of science fiction storytelling and fantastical properties. The film explores the theme of being one’s true self in a society that is unwilling to accept change and progress. The Matrix is magnificent.

The Matrix: 5 out of 5
The Matrix Series 1 out of 5 Complete

Next week, the madness continues as we get Reloaded to pay a visit to the Merovingian and get exposition explained via the Architect.

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