”I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin.” — Neo (Keanu Reeves), “The Matrix”
The future of the movies began with “The Matrix,” an action blockbuster that was as electric, invigorating and visionary as it was unlikely.
The Wachowski siblings — then Andy and Larry, now Lilly and Lana — had written and directed only one previous feature, the twisty crime thriller “Bound” (1996), while the career of leading man Keanu Reeves wasn’t exactly on an upswing. It had been five years since “Speed” barreled its way into the top 10 at the domestic box office in 1994, and the years since had seen Reeves splitting time between little-seen dramas (“A Walk in the Clouds,” 1995; “The Last Time I Committed Suicide,” 1997) and commercial flops (“Johnny Mnemonic,” 1995; “Chain Reaction,” 1996). The supporting cast included virtual unknowns Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving, and while Laurence Fishburne and Joe Pantoliano already had made names for themselves, they hardly could be counted on to fill movie theaters on their own.
Then there was the movie itself — ponderous and talky, an amalgam of ideas from a variety of religions and philosophies, until it erupts into some of the most stylized action ever put to film, relying heavily on digital effects, and wire-fu and action choreography straight out of Hong Kong.
Somehow, the Wachowskis, and producer Joel Silver, got Warner Bros. to pony up more than $60 million — keep in mind this was two decades ago — to make a film that essentially was a giant question mark.
And movies haven’t been the same since.
Watching “The Matrix” 20 years later, it’s remarkable how well it holds up, solidifying how ahead of its time it was in 1999. The visual effects — the celebrated and oft-parodied “bullet time” foremost among them — are as impressive now as they were then. By comparison, they make the first “X-Men” feature, released the following year, look like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Thematically, the Wachowskis tapped into our collective fear of technology as Y2K rapidly approached. Today, with artificial intelligence becoming more and more prevalent — Siri on our phones, Alexa in our homes — those anxieties resonate just as loudly.
That underlying tension, those mind-bending effects, the sleek visual style and the creative martial arts choreography of Yuen Wo Ping, a legend of Hong Kong action cinema, give the movie an unrelenting kinetic energy even in a scene that literally consists of Fishburne’s Morpheus, sitting in an empty room with Reeves’ Neo, spouting expository dialogue.
One could spend more column inches than I have available breaking down and analyzing the multitude of philosophical ideas and questions the Wachowskis throw out to the viewer. But above all, “The Matrix” is a film about awakening — opening your eyes to the world around you and considering it from a different light, even if there appears to be nothing to second-guess. The Wachowskis drive this point home quite literally by beginning scene after scene with Neo waking up — after dozing off in front of a computer screen; from a night’s sleep (unknowingly) inside the virtual reality world of the Matrix; in the pod where he’s kept in the real world, where he and virtually every other human in existence are used as a power source for the machines that dominate the planet; returning from one of many trips inside the Matrix.
As Neo absorbs the startling information that everything he has known in his life is a lie, the movie maximizes the one state Reeves has played well consistently throughout his career — confusion — and turns him into a perfect audience surrogate as we, too, are inundated with the rules — or lack thereof — of the Matrix. Fishburne provides the gravitas we need to take all his mumbo jumbo about prophecies and the like seriously, while Moss turns her Trinity into the kind of capable female action hero that was lacking sorely in the ‘90s and, with a handful of exceptions, still is today.
No one makes a more indelible impression than Weaving as the sinister Agent Smith, delivering his dialogue with complete disdain for everything and everyone around him — humans, fellow agents, even the Matrix itself. At the same time, he seems to take private delight in stamping out the objects of his contempt. Combine that with Smith’s near-invincibility, and you have one of the most unforgettable heels in movie history.
Structurally, the film is surprisingly simple. Good guys and bad guys search for Neo, believing he is “the One” prophesied to free the humans and end the war against the machines. Good guys get to him first, explain what’s really happening and wake him up. Then a betrayal leads to a desperate rescue attempt. And that’s it.
But not a second of its 2¼ hours is wasted. The Wachowskis pack every scene with vital information, eye-popping visuals or endlessly quotable dialogue, and sometimes all three simultaneously.
It all comes together to tell a beautifully self-contained story, ending with optimism, a hope that with Neo and Morpheus leading the way humans now have a fighting chance against their mechanical oppressors.
Then the movie was released, became a critical darling and grossed over $460 million worldwide. It even won four Oscars (best film editing, sound, sound editing and visual effects). So the band got back together for two sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” both released in 2003, which are ambitious but collapse under the weight of their own self-importance. (That didn’t stop them from raking in boatloads of cash at the box office, though). There also was a collection of short films, titled “The Animatrix,” released in the same year. (Recent years have seen talk of rebooting the franchise.)
None of it diminishes the original film and the influence it continues to wield today. Its reach has been far and wide, having been parodied in “Shrek” (2001) and countless other films; blatantly ripped off in “Equilibrium” (2003), “Wanted” (2008) and many more; and given inspiration to a long list of titles, including “Inception” (2010) “Oblivion” (2013), everything Zack Snyder has made and just about every modern superhero movie.
Outside of the death-defying stunts of the “Mission: Impossible” series, action movies of the past two decades haven’t done anything the Wachowskis didn’t do first. As Neo told us, the future is now, and “The Matrix” saw it coming 20 years ago.
Rated R for sci-fi violence and brief language. 136 minutes.
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