RETRO REVIEW: The Matrix (1999)

Carrie-Anne Moss as ‘Trinity’ and Keanu Reeves as ‘Neo’ in THE MATRIX — Photo: Warner Bros.

Directed by Lana & Lilly Wachowski — Screenplay by Lana & Lilly Wachowski.

Sometimes you need a good excuse to rewatch something that was released decades earlier. It could be a re-release, it could be a remake, it could be an anniversary, but, as was the case with The Matrix for me, it could also be a fresh trailer for a new chapter in its franchise. In a couple of months, Lana Wachowski and Warner Bros. will release the fourth film in the Matrix-film series, and, to be perfectly honest, its first trailer got its hooks into me. After watching it, I felt compelled to rewatch the 1999 modern classic, The Matrix, and, let me tell you, I’m glad I did. This movie was much better than I remembered it being, and I think the film, its central ideas, the action, and the overwhelming world-building holds up.

The Wachowskis’ original science-fiction action film — and true modern classic — The Matrix, of course, takes place in a dystopian future where intelligent machines have taken over the world, started farming human bodies for energy, and created a simulated world in which humans live without a clue as to what is really happening. Inside the simulation — the titular ‘Matrix’ — we meet Thomas Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves), a hacker also known by his screen name ‘Neo.’ Neo has received several messages from someone talking about this matrix, and, one day during his day job, he is apprehended and interrogated by these nondescript Men In Black-style agents clad in black-and-white suits and sunglasses — led by Agent Smith (played by Hugo Weaving).

These agents believe that he may be associated with someone known only as Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), who, indeed, is searching for Neo. And yet, Neo doesn’t know what to make of anything. He doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t. He’s about to become even more confused, when he finally meets Morpheus, who tells him that Neo may, in fact, be the ‘chosen one’ to free humankind from enslavement.

Widely — and rightly — regarded as one of the most influential science-fiction films of the 1990s, The Matrix is a film that not only captured the public imagination when it was released, but it is also a precious original story that successfully launched a franchise. And yet, I, admittedly, haven’t ever been entirely entranced by these films before. I remember watching the films when I was very young, I remember feeling a special connection to the central idea at the heart of the first film (and I still do), but, perhaps, more than anything else, I remember being disappointed by the continuation of the trilogy. For that reason, I haven’t felt the urge to rewatch it in a long time. That is, until now.

In a way, it feels like I am watching the film again with fresh eyes now that I am older, and I have to say that I still greatly enjoy this first film. I think The Matrix is an undeniably phenomenal original story. It was innovative and yet relatable, and I think it is also a perfect encapsulation of the state of the art form at the turn of the century. I think it is an extraordinary film. Ahead of its time and trend-setting, the action is second to none in western cinema at the time, and it has come to inspire so much that has come out since then. The stunt work, the impeccable wire work and action choreography, the cinematography from Bill Pope, the green tint, the iconic slow-motion shots. I think pretty much all of it still holds up, even though it may take some getting used to initially.

What the Wachowskis created here has also became so ingrained in our culture that I’m sure a lot of people feel like they’ve already watched this film through cultural osmosis, even if they’ve never actually seen the films. It has been parodied or remixed again and again, which is, in a way, a shame, but it is also a testament to just how pivotal this film is, and was.

Although the film features some rather long expositional scenes, the film still moves at a brisk pace, and the ‘stranger-in-a-strange-land’ science-fiction dystopia — almost Alice in Wonderland-esque — storytelling is just so compelling that the exposition is easy to excuse. Keanu Reeves is just perfect as the film’s audience-insert blank slate, and the way he grows in confidence on screen and as a fighter is extremely satisfying to watch, and I think Hugo Weaving also deserves special recognition for his strange but unforgettable turn as Agent Smith.

I’m sure that some people believe that it relies a bit too much on action and exposition and that the characters are too thinly written. These are merely minor nit-picks for me, but I can understand if some people feel differently. From my point of view, though, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix succeeds with its generation-defining and trend-setting action and fight choreography, as well as its central idea and world-building. It isn’t just one of the best films of the 1990s, it is also a near-masterpiece.

9.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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