In the near future, a computer hacker named Neo discovers that all life on Earth may be nothing more than an elaborate facade created by a malevolent cyber-intelligence, for the purpose of placating us while our life essence is "farmed" to fuel the Matrix's campaign of domination in the "real" world. He joins like-minded Rebel warriors Morpheus and Trinity in their struggle to overthrow the Matrix.
Ninety-nine was to be a huge year for science fiction. A movie event was on the way that was about to blow the metaphorical socks off of just about everyone and define a new generation of movie geeks. There was just one little surprise. That movie turned out not to be George Lucas' return to the Star Wars mythos, The Phantom Menace, but a strange cyber thriller called The Matrix.
The Matrix as an immediate proposition isn't easy to grasp (indeed, intuitively, the marketeers made a boon of its ambiguity with a teasing "What is The Matrix?" campaign). Reality is virtual reality, a monstrous programme called The Matrix generated by an evil empire of man-built artificial intelligences who rule the dystopian horror of the real world. Mankind's entire existence is being hardwired directly into human brains, while the machines imprison them in womblike pods, tapping their neural cortex for battery power.
There is, though, a band of rebels who have broken free and are intent on liberating humanity from their unsuspected bondage by downloading themselves into the manufactured dreamworld. What they need is a messiah. Enter Thomas "Neo" Anderson (Keanu Reeves) — the archetypal reluctant hero who may, if he can be convinced, have just the cyberchops to undo The Matrix. Former construction workers, the brothers Wachowski harboured their vision for five and a half years, working their way through 14 drafts of the screenplay and, as comic freaks, projected their vision onto 500 elaborate storyboards.
After the witty slice of lesbian noir (now: there's a genre) Bound, they looked to be hotshot tyros for the future. However, no one could have foreseen the hyperspace jump that was to be their cinematic vision for The Matrix. With the concept sly enough to allow almost anything — this reality is virtual — superpowers are permissible (leaping from tall buildings, dodging bullets, hyper-kinetic kung fu). To represent this, they tapped an emergent visual technology known as flo-mo, a process which allows a seemingly impossible time-jamming graphic where Keanu freezes mid kick while the camera rotates dizzyingly around him. Dazzlingly versatile, it presented an entirely new type of visual lexicon. The Matrix looked like nothing you'd ever seen before at the movies.
Reeves' Neo is a reactionary part, but it plays on his sculpted beauty, and dressed up in patent leather and designer shades he evokes an effortless cool. The burden of explanation falls to Lawrence Fisburne's Morpheus, the man is a well of gravitas and no matter how ludicrous his expounding it still rings with an ironclad conviction. The bad guy fraternity (all MiB in suits and the obligatory shades) are defensive programmes led by the unearthly clipped tones of Hugo Weaving — also able to toy with the fabric of The Matrix.
And entirely on the surface — a grim noir sheen somewhere between a Depeche Mode video and Blade Runner's retrofitted near future — the movie operates satisfactorily as a good against insurmountable odds of bad axis. But if you think The Matrix is just brainless action, think again. Beyond the gawping pleasures of its flo-mo prowess and the more obviously reverential stylistic nods (Alien, Blade Runner, Film Noir, German Expressionism, Star Wars, 2001) the Wachowski's script is a labyrinth of classical references melting into William Gibson's cyberpunk milieu.
Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland is broadly expressed (the whole film an ironic reversal of Alice's adventures: Neo passes from safe, reassuring virtual reality into a bizarre, unpredictable real world). Elsewhere you can tot up the clever-cleverness of Marx, Kafka, Zen, and Homer's Odyssey. Quite deliberately, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's sizzling page-turner Simulacra And Simulation can be seen lying open at the "On Nihilism" chapter in Neo's apartment. The becapped Wachowski brothers are clearly into Baudrillard's influential theories of postmodern theology, terrorism and hyper reality.
Just a Keanu-in-shades-kicks-arse movie? Don't think so. And then things get really fun — try The Matrix as Christ allegory.
It works. It was first released in Easter 1999. Reeves' character's full name is Thomas "Neo" Anderson — Thomas as in Doubting Thomas; Anderson means "son of man"; Neo means "new" or "change" and is an anagram of "One". Then there is the rebel team as disciples (with Joe Pantoliano's duplicitous Cypher as Judas) and the fact that Neo "dies" for 72 seconds on screen (translate that into 72 hours and it's three days) before being born again by the power of Trinity (Anne Moss)'s love. Hogwash, perhaps, but it grants The Matrix a measure of analysis that is hard to deny.
In the end, though, the Wachowski's triumph is a much more immediate, much more visceral one. They've amalgamated comic book morality, the Hong Kong action tradition (orchestrated by guru Yuen Wo Ping), a prime chunk of Hollywood star, cyberpunk paranoia and a visual effects revolution to creatre a new brand of movie.
In the clearest sense of the term The Matrix is a classic, not only a great movie, but a film that simultaneously redefined its own medium. Forever.