Meaning we're now at the TWENTY YEAR MARK about freaking out over The Matrix.
Yeah, I know. I've been freaking out about getting old ever since they cast Winona Ryder to be Spock's Mom in the Star Trek reboot. Stay with me on this though...
Looking back, I remember 1999 being a big year because of something else: the long-awaited return of the Star Wars storyarc that Lucas had promised during the original trilogy. The Phantom Menace's release was such a big deal an entire webpage was created - countingdown.com (no longer valid, it's been outpaced by so many other sites especially YouTube and IMDB) - to report on the release and keep track of the building hype. Everything else that movie year paled in comparison: Austin Powers sequel? Pfft. This weird cult movie making waves on the 'Net called Blair Witch Project? Please. Bruce Willis in some psychological thriller called The Sixth Sense? Who's even directing that thing...!
So there's a level of irony here that the most anticipated movie of that year turned out to be the bigger dud. For all the advancements Lucas made in digital effects directing, Phantom Menace was just... meh, lacking any kind of reason or narrative focus fans were expecting.
It's been twenty years, Bilbo, it still hurts...!
Anyway, I vaguely remember the trailer for this Matrix film. Starring an actor I had grown up to - Keanu Reeves, from my high school/college years of Bill & Ted movies and then the surprisingly good Speed action flick - this Matrix thingee looked like some sort of computer heist / spy thriller that somehow involved giant spider robots. Yeah, it didn't make sense to me. I doubt the studio releasing it knew either 'cause they dumped it in the early April schedule before all the summer blockbusters were due to come out.
But as a Keanu fan, and with little else to do back then - my social life then and now was/is meager - on my day off from work I went to the Sawgrass multiplex in Broward County and caught an early screening (I was in the habit of trying to avoid the crowds).
And about two and a half hours later I stumbled back out into the bright sun of South Florida. I pulled out round sunglasses and slid them onto my face as I slow-walked to the nearest Burlington Coat Factory. I found a trenchcoat, paid for it with a credit card, alerting the computer overlords of my rebellion, and wore that thing back out to the heated parking lot where I sweated ten pounds off driving back to my apartment to play the PvP mods on Quake II until I became like Neo.
Okay. I might not have played Quake II. I was terrible at PvP. But the rest of it is real. I TOOK THE RED PILL, PEOPLE.
Even as I was watching it, I could tell the plot was a pretty straightforward "Hero Becomes Messiah" story. But the details of the thing were astounding. The filmmakers - at the time the Wachowski brothers - employed a mashup of cultural archetypes, ranging from Asian anime and kung-fu elements to Western shootouts and explosive overkill. The story blurred the line between Christian (Gnostic, which was probably the first time most people even heard of it) and Buddhist philosophies: "The Matrix is run by a set of rules." "Stop trying to hit me and hit me." "There is no spoon." There had been earlier movies that questioned the very nature of reality itself - Dark City had a similar vein and even shared the same sets - but The Matrix was the one that did so with a deep understanding of what had to be real and what wasn't. It's been called the best cyberpunk movie ever made, considering earlier attempts like Johnny Mnemotic (hi, Keanu again!) never tried to go as in-depth to cyber-reality as the Matrix did.
The movie was unafraid to create a universe that for all intents was a graphics-intensive computer game. The Matrix established in film how a Massive Multiplayer Online universe could actually work. (Ironically, a Matrix MMO game that came out after the third movie ended up too buggy and shut down in 2009) Using a revolutionary filming technique that became known as "Bullet Time," the camera itself did not remain static in a scene, it could move and rotate during a fight in-progress to make the fight more intense. Much in the way a gamer's POV moved during the FPS, or how it would float above a fight during a PvP death-match, the camera was now closer to the action than ever before.
Just the opening sequence of Agents attempting to capture Trinity, with unknowing human cops trying to arrest her only to face a computer expert who "cracked" the cheat codes to the Matrix, was a mind-blowing moment. A woman (Carrie Anne Moss) in an all-leather cat-thief outfit suddenly turned into a lethal gravity-defying assassin, pulling stunts that looked done real-world. Except for the moment where she jumps up, pauses while the camera repositions itself, and finishes off her flying kick move that sends the unlucky cop into the far wall. There had never been anything like that on film before.
From that point on, the Matrix was the defining film in a year - 1999 - crammed with them. It didn't do more than just revolutionize visual effects and cinematography, it changed storytelling. It challenged the Hero narrative (while, yes, sticking to the Campbellian template). It added a diverse cast of supporting characters (Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus leading a multicultural crew fighting the machines) and mixed in Eastern themes that most Western audiences rarely saw. The movie not only questioned the defined role of the hero - the machine Agents constantly call the hero "Mr. Anderson" as an insult, leading him to declare "My name... is NEO." - it questioned self-identity (are you an office drone or a superhero?), it questioned gender roles and gender itself (a funny but overlooked moment is when Neo meets Trinity - with a men's haircut and lack of feminine markers - for the first time: "I thought Trinity was a guy." "Most guys do.")
Just some other thoughts to throw out there: As noted earlier, I had a pretty good idea how the movie would play out once the plot got going (when Morpheus' crew unplugs Neo from the Matrix). While the filmmakers seem to make a big deal about the Oracle "not what we were expecting," I actually knew enough by 1999 about such archetypes - we call them tropes now - to expect the Oracle (Gloria Foster) to be a wise elder woman baking cookies in her kitchen. Still, I loved Foster's performance for the human grace it added to the story.
I'm not the only one being nostalgic for this: Other places are writing up their favorite moments and remembrances. As David Sims notes in that Atlantic review:
Watching today, Neo seems like the poster boy for a disaffected Generation X, a non-conformist who escapes his dull life as a cubicle drone to become a god. (In fact, one of The Matrix’s closest thematic companions from the fertile cinema du 1999 is probably Mike Judge’s Office Space—another sad ballad about humans being swallowed whole by faceless corporations, though Judge’s film has a few more jokes...)
There's some things to be said about the sequel films, which felt inevitable when the original Matrix became such a huge hit - it was arguably the best reason to start buying into the newly-introduced DVD discs (the tech came out in 1995), improving its revenue pull for the studio - but now is not the time to get into those arguments.
In terms of anniversaries, it may be time to look back at a lot of other movies that came out in 1999 - yes, I'm sure I'll talk about Phantom Menace when the time is right - and marvel at how we were poised in that moment to break free of the standard blockbuster formats of film watching (and film making). But for now...
EVERYBODY WAS KUNG-FU FIGHTING!
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THE MATRIX STILL HAS YOU, WITTY
...Dammit, Dark Computer Overlords, do NOT tell people my online gamer name...!