This month marks 20 years since the release of The Matrix. Join us as we take a journey back through those two decades to see just how much has changed as a result of The Matrix’s innovations.
Like Neo’s famous line, The Matrix was a movie that made us go “whoooa!”. It blew our minds back in 1999 upon initial release, and to this day remains an entertaining and impressive example of action filmmaking. What made The Matrix stand out 20 years ago and what makes it stand out still today are the film’s many innovations. This was a project which not only exhibited cutting edge filmmaking technology and techniques, but introduced mainstream audiences to concepts and ideas they hadn’t seen before in a big-budget R-rated action movie. In many ways, The Matrix ushered in a new era of filmmaking, an era which saw benefit to filmmakers in utilizing improving technology to achieve their creative visions and satisfy diversifying audience expectations.
Traditionally, action movies have had a stigma of being brash and dumb. They existed because of the impact of explosions, the machismo associated with fighting, and the exhilaration we feel from a quickened pace. Higher concepts were rarely associated with violent action movies. After all, thinking is the opposite of doing. The Matrix changed our assumptions about what an action movie could be. Here, the filmmakers blended two things that generally we wouldn’t have thought would work together - a frantic action style with mind-bending philosophy. But it works because the film uses the philosophy to motivate the action. More importantly, the philosophical takeaways from the film are just as interesting as the action sequences.
It begins by pushing its characters to the brink. The world around us, everything we’ve known in our lives is a lie - a fabrication built to disguise what is actually happening. Essentially, The Matrix pulls the ground out from underneath our feet and the audience is tumbling into the abyss. There are no established parameters as far as what is or is not possible. The action movie tropes and boundaries we have been accustomed to aren’t there to assist in our viewing pleasure. And so, without the typical crutches, our eyes turn inward to the only recognizable thing left - ourselves. It becomes an existential investigation - we have to establish what is real in order to fight for it. Rather than take what the film offers and align it with our own reality, the film forces us to accept a new one. It challenges the viewer in a way very few heavy-action films had done before.
The Wachowskis’ influences came from Hong Kong action movies, anime, and graphic novels. These influences offered storytelling techniques, characterizations, and worldbuilding that hadn’t commonly been see in film at the time. Indeed, The Matrix is one of the first modern films which would begin a fascination with dystopian settings. It was a forefront of a new breed of big-budget action movies which empowered characters fighting to make a difference in an unjust world. The Matrix would also go on to modernize the film franchise by going cross-platform too. In addition to existing on the screen, there would be Matrix books, graphic novels, and animated features. This media could be found outside the theater and allowed audiences to explore the world of The Matrix even more than what they saw in the film. This decision was more than just merchandising, because the film itself was inspired by animated media, and so it was only natural for it to exist there as well. This started a movement of major movie franchises to expand beyond the big screen. Movies became something to obsess over.
But as much as The Matrix is a film about mind-bending philosophy and kick-ass action, its largest impact on audiences isn’t part of the script. Instead, the legacy of The Matrix revolves around its innovations in technology related to the production, post-production, and distribution of the film. Through the 90’s, advances in computer technology made CGI possible in film. It increased the possibilities for creative filmmakers and enhanced the entertainment value for audiences. For example, The Matrix was the first film to sell 1 million copies on DVD home release. DVD’s were still in their infancy at the time, and the success of The Matrix in the format helped to ensure its longevity. Part of the reason The Matrix DVD was so popular was because of the enhanced video quality allowed better viewing of the film’s impressive special effects.
Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, and Armageddon, all advanced the state of CGI as an emerging technology during the 1990’s. The Matrix was no exception, but the success of the film was more closely tied to how it looked than those other big hits of the 1990’s. Specifically. The Matrix was unique because it used CGI in a way that was more involved than what we had seen before. Of course, The Matrix was not the first film to place such reliance on CGI. Pixar had made two films entirely out of CGI by the time The Matrix had been released. Other films released around the same time period such as Fight Club, Star Wars: Episode I, and Gladiator all had more sophisticated CGI scenes than anything we had seen before. And so, The Matrix isn’t necessarily alone for its time period in exhibiting a next-generation approach to special effects. And yet, besides Star Wars: Episode I, it is the film from the era we most associate with advancement in special effects. Part of the reason for this is because today, the film still looks good. Despite using similar technology, and Star Wars: Episode I, The Matrix’s special effects have aged better. The reason for this, is primarily the WAY The Matrix utilized its CGI.
First of all, the film actually minimizes its use of computer-enhancement to the necessities. With less CGI, there is less opportunity for audiences to lower their suspension of disbelief. The entire hotel lobby shootout was completed sans computer effects, besides the erasure of the wires used by the actors to perform their action acrobatics. In an early scene where the agents insert a bug into Neo’s body, both the bug and Neo’s body were animatronic replicas. For the scene where the actors are crawling through a wall to escape the agents, a specially-designed set was created with the actors being supported by a harness from above. All of the pyrotechnics, and resulting damage to the set, including wood splinters, dust, and ceramic fragments were real. And this wasn’t just a creative decision made by the Wachowskis as it might be today. These scenes were filmed without CGI because the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time for them to do it any other way. Today it would be much cheaper to make these sequences with CGI when you compare to the cost of materials and labor when having to build the sets, practice the action, and train the actors/crew.
Likewise, The Matrix utilizes other cues besides visual to enhance the effects of the film. The film is very much motivated by sound and feel. Sound in terms of effects and music; feel in terms of the visual textures of the picture. The Wachowski’s chose to tint the entire film an eerie green so that it felt as if the viewer was watching through an old monitor. The film’s use of slow motion put emphasis on flying projectiles, dust, and debris which brings a more gritty and visceral feel to the action - it is also a nod to John Woo’s style in his Hong Kong action films. Finally, the sound track itself was cutting edge for the time, a blend of electronic and trance with traditional orchestra-composed music. The music only adds to the film’s edge and unique perspective, which in turn makes the special effects even more memorable.
Finally, when The Matrix does have to rely on CGI, it does so in a way that tricks the eye. The bullet-dodging sequence is a perfect example. Here is a sequence that relies heavily on CGI, and yet it was made in a practical matter, with a set of cameras surrounding the actor. The focus of the sequence is on Neo himself, rather than the CGI-generated background. We all know how difficult it is for CGI to replicate a person realistically (I would argue we still haven’t figured it out yet) - skin is notoriously difficult to light properly and since we are so familiar with our own anatomy, we can recognize instantly when a CGI person doesn’t move realistically. The Matrix’s CGI doesn’t try to do the impossible. The focus remains on the actor(s) filmed in live action, and instead generates the world around them. Even if our eyes have complaints about the realism of the CGI (especially all these years later), our mind doesn’t necessarily complain because the character serves as the anchor. Contrast this to some of the special effects in the sequels and the sequences which have aged the worst in those two films both have to do with scenes where the characters are CGI-generated.
In many ways, The Matrix was a film with perfect timing. Had it been released a few years earlier, technology might not have been developed enough to allow for such a mind-blowing viewing experience. Had it been released a few years later, it may have blended into the smorgasbord of big-budget films trying to take advantage of the rapid sophistication of CGI. It accomplished so many things that either hadn’t been attempted on the big screen, or else hadn’t been delivered in a big-budget wrapper. It also pushed the boundaries of what a movie could be, beyond the actual movie. The Matrix is a film that is a perfect representation of its time, but also one we don’t need to make excuses for all these years later. This is what makes it so fascinating, and is the reason why it remains one of the most entertaining films ever made.