The Matrix at 20: How the Wachowskis changed sci-fi

Released 20 years ago, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix created a revolution in sci-fi action and visual effects that reshaped blockbusters for the 21st century.

Mark Salisbury
Updated:

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999) was a sleeper hit that became a cultural phenomenon. Written and directed by the Wackowskis – sisters Lana and Lilly – whose debut feature, the lesbian neo-noir Bound (1996), had them down as the next Coen brothers, The Matrix was released in March 1999 with little fanfare but went on to redefine sci-fi cinema in the same way that Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977) and Blade Runner (1982) had before it.

An eye-popping, mind-expanding fusion of cyberpunk fiction, comic books, computer games and Japanese animation, The Matrix was as heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll, William Gibson, Grant Morrison and Philip K. Dick as it was by the Bible, Greek mythology, philosophical texts and Eastern religion. “Every idea we’ve ever had in our entire lives is in this film,” admitted Lana back in 1999, the cine-literate siblings also borrowing from Sam Peckinpah, John Woo and Hong Kong martial arts movies to create something unique and groundbreaking.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

“It was the first film to deliver on what comic books always promised,” noted Laurence Fishburne who co-starred as philosophy-spouting warrior sage Morpheus. “They took the best elements of all the things they liked and used them in such a way that it’s not disrespectful. They’re taking all of the old stuff and trying to present it in a modern context.”

Released a month and a half before George Lucas’s much-hyped Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), The Matrix made the Star Wars prequel look decidedly pedestrian and prosaic. It starred Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson aka Neo, a software programmer by day/hacker by night who discovers he’s living in a computer-generated construct known as the matrix, designed by sentient machines to enslave mankind in order to generate energy from them. Neo is given a choice: take the red pill to wake up in Wonderland and join the human resistance; or the blue pill to remain in blissful ignorance.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

Will Smith was the Wachowskis’ first choice to play computer hacker Neo opposite Val Kilmer’s Morpheus. But Smith, riding high on the success of Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), passed, opting to make the ill-fated Wild Wild West (1999). He later explained that he hadn’t really understood the concept. Reeves, who made his name in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and had starred in 90s action hits Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994), stepped in, joining Fishburne as Morpheus, Carrie-Anne Moss’s PVC-clad super woman Trinity, and Hugo Weaving’s black-suited Agent Smith, a programme working for the machines to rid the system of potential threats/viruses.

With their dense, action-packed script, the Wachowskis plugged into a variety of subcultures – gamers, hackers, slackers – and weaved in the climate of paranoia sparked by the impending millennium as well as fears of a technological future. Ironically, they also took full advantage of the advances in computers to create a series of highly stylised action sequences, gravity-defying stunts and the then-revolutionary ‘bullet time’ visual effect – all of which raised the bar on what action movies could and should be. “I’ve been involved in several that have helped redefine the genre,” said Matrix producer Joel Silver, whose hits included Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988), “but they all pale compared to The Matrix. The Matrix changed the way we see things.”

The Wachowskis expected their cast to do many of their own stunts, and so Reeves and co spent months training with legendary Hong Kong martial arts choreographer and director Yuen Woo-ping – Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), Drunken Master (1978) and Fist of Legend (1994) – whose extraordinary fight scenes and wirework (dubbed ‘wire fu’) would prove new to most western audiences. Post-The Matrix, Yuen found himself in demand in Hollywood, going on to choreograph the fights in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) as well as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003), while his balletic style of action influenced everything from Charlie’s Angels (2000) to Sucker Punch (2011).

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

To depict Neo’s mind-over-Matrix abilities, the film’s famous ‘bullet-time’ effect accentuates the superhuman action and fight sequences and allows Neo to dodge bullets in slow-motion. While ‘bullet time’ had been used previously in films and commercials, The Matrix popularised both the effect and the term, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta using dozens of still cameras to record and ‘freeze’ time. “Our technique was significantly different because we built it to move around objects that were themselves in motion,” he explained. “We were also able to create slow-motion events that ‘virtual cameras’ could move around – rather than static action.”

The results were extraordinary, but the Wachowskis were interested in much more than cool-looking surface thrills, choosing to imbue their film with deeper meaning – the script raining down biblical, literary, mythological and philosophical references much like the matrix’s dripping digital code. They had Reeves read Jean Baudrillard’s philosophical textbook Simulacra and Simulation along with Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, and Dylan Evans’ Introducing Evolutionary Psychology before he even opened the script. Baudrillard’s book also made a cameo appearance in Neo’s apartment during an opening scene.

The Matrix premiered to stellar reviews and the kind of word-of-mouth studio marketing departments can only dream about, going on to win four Oscars — editing, sound, sound effects editing and visual effects – with the Wachowskis expanding their world via a series of anime-inspired animated shorts (The Animatrix, 2003), video games and comic books. While bullet-time was all-too swiftly appropriated into the mainstream and quickly lost its lustre, The Matrix proved that original sci-fi concepts and mythologies could succeed, and that not everything needed to be based on a book, comic or existing IP.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

Cinematographer Bill Pope’s bold, graphic compositions and green-tinged, desaturated colour palette became de rigueur for dystopian cinema for a while – see Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) – in much the same way that Blade Runner’s rain-soaked noir milieu became the go-to cinematic vision of the future. Meanwhile Kym Barrett’s fetish costume designs – all black leather and PVC – influenced the look of countless action heroes going forward, notably Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and Kate Beckinsale’s vampire warrior Selene in Underworld (2003). The Matrix, despite not being based on an actual comic, also helped pave the way for the current comic book movie genre, influencing the look and tone of the X-Men film franchise as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005).

The Matrix went on to gross $460m worldwide, becoming Warner Bros’ biggest hit until a certain Harry Potter came along, and it was the first film to sell a million units on DVD. A sequel – or rather sequels, since the Wachowskis always conceived of The Matrix as a trilogy – was inevitable. The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were shot back-to-back in Sydney, Australia where the original had been filmed. Production was long – 18 months – and difficult – two cast members died before shooting even began.

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Released within five months of each other, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions delved further into the architecture of the computer-generated construct and the artificial intelligence behind it, as well as the real world and the machine city housed within. Coming after The Matrix, Reloaded and Revolutions were written off as self-indulgent and pretentious, leaving audiences perplexed and disappointed. But if neither film reached the creative heights of the first, both sequels still have much to recommend. The 11-minute freeway action sequence in Reloaded, for which the production built a two-mile stretch of road on a former naval base in California, remains one of the trilogy’s highlights, dodgy CG aside.

As for the Wachowskis, The Matrix positioned them as visionary geniuses. Notoriously press shy, they used their newfound power to insist on a no-publicity clause in their contracts. Keen to continue their collaboration, Warners’ financed V for Vendetta (2005), a dour adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s comic, which they wrote and produced for their former first assistant director James McTeigue, along with Speed Racer (2008), a scintillating, day-glo big screen version of Tatsuo Yoshida’s Japanese kids’ cartoon that crashed and burned on its initial release, but which is now being re-evaluated as the masterpiece it always was.

Speed Racer (2008)

Speed Racer (2008)

Warners passed on Cloud Atlas (2012), which the Wachowskis co-directed with Tom Tykwer, based on David Mitchell’s Booker Prize-winning-novel, although the studio came aboard Jupiter Ascending (2015), their second attempt at an original sci-fi adventure. This messy space saga starred Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis and Eddie Redmayne and showed the Wachowskis had lost none of their visual prowess, but the film didn’t work narratively and underperformed at the box office.

Since then, the siblings have seemingly concerned themselves mainly with television, although their Netflix sci-fi show, Sense8 (2015-18), created with J. Michael Straczynski, recently ended after two seasons and mostly positive notices. Meanwhile, Reeves has continued to play the action hero, scoring himself another massive hit with John Wick (2014), directed by David Leitch and his stunt double on The Matrix, Chad Stahelski. The third in the series, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019), is released in May.

Twenty years on, Hollywood and the cinematic landscape is a very different place to when The Matrix was released, one dominated by giant superhero movies and remakes of past hits, and with fewer original movies. But with Hollywood studios intent on mining their back catalogues for brand potential, rather than take a risk on anything new, it won’t be too long before The Matrix is rebooted.

In March 2017, Warners announced screenwriter Zak Penn was developing a new treatment without the Wachowskis’ involvement. According to Penn, his story is not a remake, per se, rather a new adventure in the same continuity. But whatever the future holds for the franchise, The Matrix remains one of most celebrated, imaginative and influential sci-fi/action films ever made.

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