Running time: 2h 16min
Directed by Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Written by Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
The Matrix (no relation to John Matrix of Commando (1985)) is one of the most influential films ever made, and not only in the genres of action and scifi. It was a huge hit that shaped the landscape of film-making and teen fashion trends for years, and spawned a franchise that got its latest entry in 2021 — not to mention all the memes. But does The Matrix have the same impact and remain as watchable as it was in 1999? Not quite, in my opinion, but it is still a monumental piece of action cinema that cannot be dismissed from the conversation about the greatest of the genre. During the years since its release, it has been endlessly viewed, analyzed, discussed, and reviewed. There is not much to say about the film that has not already been said, but I will give my two cents on it anyway.
Is it necessary to go over the plot at all? At this point, 23 years after its release, whoever has not seen The Matrix and is into action and/or scifi (or cinema in general) is a true rarity. If such a unicorn exists and reads this, I would say that it is best to go into it blind. And it is futile to attempt to describe The Matrix. The film gradually reveals things as they are revealed to the main character, Neo (Keanu Reeves) — and it is done so well that it is hard to not become invested into the story.
The characters are distinct, interesting, and at least somewhat likable, and their motivations are clear. There is no time wasted with unnecessary drama, as the film moves at a good pace. Neo as “the chosen hero” who is destined to be the savior of humanity is, of course, a worn out trope, and he is subsequently one of the least interesting characters in the story, but this cliche can be forgiven as the rest of the film’s quality overshadows such relatively minor flaws (and it is subverted, as well). Underneath all the scifi-dystopia, action, and references, the story is a simple hero’s journey — and that’s fine.
The love story between Neo and Trinity is not well executed, and my girlfriend who had not seen the film before thought so as well. One of the issues I have with the film is something that was imposed upon it by the studio, so I can partly forgive it; it makes almost no sense to use vat-grown humans as living batteries, and the original idea of using them for computing power instead is much better. The Matrix is not perfect, but the flaws merely dent the ship, and do not manage to sink it.
This might be controversial, but I do not think Keanu Reeves is a good actor. I do think that he fits well in the role of Neo, however. While all of the cast is quite good, I think the real standout of the film is Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. A great villain is a necessary component in a superlative action film, and Agent Smith certainly fits the bill. As an aside, Mr. Weaving is also fantastic in V for Vendetta (2005), where he does not even show his face — a testament to his acting abilities.
Every aspect of The Matrix is stylized, and it is a significant factor in it being so memorable. The black leather outfits and sunglasses of The Matrix are iconic, but they are, at the same time, slightly ridiculous — especially when viewed with 20+ years of hindsight. It does not make much of a difference in a negative way, as The Matrix is a fun action/scifi film that mostly takes place in a virtual world; the stylistic choices fit the tone of the movie and are by now clearly associated with it. The style is cool and badass, and I think it still works, but I would completely understand if someone were to consider it laughable.
The philosophical aspects and the sci-fi ideas are somewhat shallow, but can they (and should they) even be more than that in the context of a 2 hour Hollywood blockbuster? In my opinion, the film does not need to be deeper than it is. For a more cerebral experience, one should read a book instead; while The Matrix has more depth to it than your average action flick, it is entertainment first and foremost.
As it almost never does, the CGI has not aged particularly well. None of the effects are laughably bad, but the CGI is quite obviously CGI, which can take the viewer out of the movie. It no longer elicits the patented Keanu woah, especially when not viewed in a movie theatre. And to be fair, it must be said that some of the effects still look great. The near-perfect execution of the numerous action set pieces of the film is a major reason for it becoming such a phenomenon. The Wachowskis’ direction was spectacular for people making their second film.
As an action film, The Matrix is one of the all-time greats. The lobby shootout is one of the best action sequences ever filmed, and one of the reasons that it is so good is that it does not need to be realistic. If it were not done as well as it was, it could easily come across as corny (as would the whole film). The action style is a perfect blend of kung fu and guns. This is a movie that can get away with almost anything due to it taking place in a virtual world, and it makes good use of the fact. The action defies the laws of gravity and human endurance, and that’s just fine. Even so, the world of the Matrix has an internal logic that is not violated without justification; there are rules even in the realm of the spectacular.
The cultural impact of The Matrix is evidenced in the copycats it has inspired, such as 2003’s Cubic (which is not bad), and how its stylistic choices and themes have been used in science fiction films throughout the years. Another example of its immense influence is how terms such as the blue pill and the red pill have entered the lexicon. The Wachowskis, who used to be brothers but are now sisters, are understandably not happy about how their creation has been used in online discourse.
As a franchise, I think The Matrix franchise is one of the weaker ones. Surely it has made lots of money, but it is quite clear that only the first film is truly great. The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) are forgettable and nowhere near the level of the original in any category. I saw them once, and while Reloaded was kind of fun as an action film, it was not as impactful as the original, and Revolutions was just an unamusing mess. The Matrix Resurrections (2021) I have not yet seen, and might never see, but apparently it is some form of meta commentary with poorly choreographed action sequences. I do not think that the relative poor quality (or at least lesser quality) of later entries in the franchise diminishes the original, as I do not think the several subpar Star Wars films made after 1983 make the original trilogy any worse. It must be said, though, that it is extremely difficult to make a sequel that lives up to (let alone surpasses) the original.
The Matrix is a hugely successful blend of ideas and styles and remains among one of the best action films ever made. It has lost some of its power, however, and some of the effects are dated by now. Despite of this, I predict that it will still be recommended viewing for fans of scifi and/or action in 20 years.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Rating in 1999 as a teenaged boy: 9.5 / 10
Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 5+
Would I want to rewatch this film? Eventually, yes