I’d completely overlooked the fact that just over 20 years ago, The Matrix hit silver screens across the world. Come, let us bask in its unfulfilled hype:
The reason I overlooked it is simple: the film that some thought would replace Star Wars as major cultural influence turned out to be nothing more than a quickly-dated passing fad.
Indeed, The Matrix could be a byword for the Franchise That Couldn’t. On it’s anniversary, let’s take an entire rack full of guns and a few hanging swivel-kicks to this justly forgotten box office phenomenon.
What If I Told You This Movie Made No Sense?
The central conceit of The Matrix – that we live in a false reality – isn’t a bad one for a science fiction film. In fact, there was a whole slew of dystopian takes during the 1970s where Charlton Heston would clench his jaw at the final horrific revelation that the world’s been overrun by sentient apes or Soylent Green is people or whatever.
No, what set The Matrix apart was that it had a cool, 90s internet-centric vibe combined with hilariously overdone special effects. I remember a friend marveling at how the producers managed to capture both the roar of the Gatling guns and the tinkle of the brass bullet casings hitting the floor. It was an amazing feat of sound engineering precisely because it was impossible.
In the real world, the close-up report of those weapons tearing away on full auto would result in immediate (and likely permanent) hearing loss. But in The Matrix, anything’s possible!
The whole movie’s a lot like that: awesomely unbelievable. Again, I’m willing to take a look a story about evil sentient computers that have turned humanity into their slaves, but the rationale of using human thoughts as a power source is beyond absurd. Still, the cool trench coats, slick shades, improbable martial arts and over-the-top gunplay kept people interested.
By the way, here’s a fun fact: the reason why people in movies with lots of gunplay wear sunglasses is so that you don’t see them blink and flinch away from the muzzle blast. It makes them look badass, but it’s actually a sign of their squeamishness. But I digress.
The lasting legacy of The Matrix was of course the Coolest Metaphor Ever, the whole “red pill vs blue pill” thing which is mostly what people remember today. I can only dream of my work achieving that kind of cultural impact.
Oh yeah, that’s some hip, heavy coolness right there. It makes me want to light up a bong and reflect on how there could be entire solar systems hidden in my thumbnail.
The First Rule of Franchise is: Always Stick the Landing
The Matrix series did well at the box office and sequels came quickly after – each one worse than the one before.
I’ve never thought Keanu Reeves was much of an actor (Bill and Ted was his best work), but even Laurence Fishburne was phoning it in. The Wachowski Brothers (who have since identified themselves as sisters) offered their increasingly disillusioned viewers odd discourses on French philosophy between street brawls that solved nothing
By the conclusion of the series, the special effects were no longer ground-breaking and the story was too awful to take.
There were enough holdouts to make The Matrix Regurgitated and The Matrix Recycled successful at the box office, but the franchise was effectively dead.
Superheroes Without Actual Heroics
In a sense, The Matrix prefigured the current crop of nihilist movies where special effects explosions and clever quips substitute for moral lessons or observations on the human condition.
Neo is in many ways the perfect nihilist character since his prior life – friends, family, loved ones -became irrelevant as soon as he took the red pill. Since reality’s basically an illusion within an illusion, nothing really matters and so he is free to make decisions that ultimately destroy the sense that he’s on an epic quest for human liberation.
He’s now free to roam around in homespun clothing between his sessions in the modified dental chair.
A fundamental rule of drama is that a last stand should mean something. It can be portrayed as doomed but heroic, or futile and wasteful. The Matrix managed to make it ultimately boring, which is a heck of a feat after three big-budget films.
I guess they did get some weirdos to buy into simulation theory, so they have that going for them, which is nice.