Film: The Matrix
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television
Some films change the game. After their release, film changes to incorporate what these films do. References are made to them that virtually everyone understands—they become a part of the culture, part of the collective knowledge base of a generation. The Matrix is a film that manage this feat. Even if it weren’t an incredible thrill ride, it would still have changed the game and become a part of the vocabulary of even the most casual filmgoer.
It’s hard to imagine that there are people who haven’t seen The Matrix, but I know they exist. I use the film as an example in a number of classes I teach because it’s such an accessible piece of cultural history for most students that they can follow the lecture without needing to watch the film again. And yet, I have never done my short “symbolism in The Matrix” lecture to a class in which every person has seen the film. There are always a couple of people who haven’t seen it.
So if you happen to be one of those people, here’s a brief run-down. A guy named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) has a typical work-a-day job, but he is also an extremely talented computer hacker who goes by the alias Neo. He starts to have a number of strange experiences that relate to something called The Matrix—he can’t quite put his finger on what that is, though. He encounters another legendary hacker named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who tells him that he is in danger and that the most legendary hacker in the world, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) wants to meet with him.
At the same time, Neo is plagued by visits from government agents from a faceless, nameless agency. This trio, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), seems possessed of limitless power to the point that Neo’s encounters with them seem very much like intense, realistic nightmares. Eventually, Neo meets with Morpheus, who offers Neo a choice. He can swallow a blue pill and leave, never getting any answers, or swallow a red pill and figure out what The Matrix really is. Neo, naturally, takes the red pill and discovers that the world he thought he lived in was nothing more than a simulation.
The world is actually run by machines. The machines took over, and all of humanity is now essentially a collection of bio-electric batteries that run the computer world. The world as Neo (and everyone else) experiences it is nothing more than a mental projection designed to keep the humans from waking up to the real world, in which civilization has fallen and people live in cocoons, powering the machine world. The only free humans fight against this by sometimes freeing talented and powerful individuals (like Neo) to continue the fight.
What Neo learns is that the computer simulated world has rules, but that by learning those rules, he can find ways to bend and break them. This means that an experienced human in the Matrix world can jump long distances, run at super-human speeds, and perform the impossible. Neo has been saved because, according to Morpheus, a long-ago prophesy claimed that a man would come who could save humanity—and Neo is that man.
We’ll get into the symbolism in a minute. What this means for those of watching the film is that we’re going to be treated to a special effects extravaganza. We’ll get slow motion battles, bullet dodging, gun fights, people performing impossible feats, and camera trickery the likes of which had never been seen to this point. The most iconic of these is what the filmmakers call “Bullet Time.” Essentially, a huge camera rig allows for action to freeze and rotate almost instantly, switching perspective in the middle of a fight by stopping the action and shifting rather than simply switching to a new camera angle. While this is now commonplace, when the film was originally released, this effect was staggering, and the sort of thing people went to the film to see over and over again. It’s also why, when I bought my DVD copy of the film years ago, the guy who sold it to me guessed correctly that I had also just purchased my first DVD player. According to him, at that time almost everyone who purchased The Matrix bought it as their first ever DVD purchase.
Symbolically, The Matrix isn’t that hard to track. Neo is roughly 30-ish, believes that he is capable of more, and is suddenly told that he is the man told of in legend to save humanity and the world. He is baptized with the red pill, learns he is capable of miracles in what passes for the real world, and fights for the salvation of people. Eventually, he is betrayed by one of his own (Joe Pantoliano), dies, comes back to life because of his girlfriend (who is, again, named Trinity, for cryin’ out loud), and ends the film by flying into the air in the crucifixion position. Oh, and “Neo” means “new.” This means he’s the Second Coming—Jesus with uzis, if you prefer.
The wild success of this film spawned two and a half sequels—two live action ones with essentially the same cast as well as a collection of animated stories. I haven’t seen the animated films, but the two standard sequels are really sub-standard. Additionally, the film spawned hundreds of imitators, parodies, duplicates, and homages. For a few years, it was impossible to turn around without seeing a Matrix reference in another film. Bullet Time has become de rigueur and is no longer as exciting as it once was.
But that’s what happens. Something is so groundbreaking that it’s immediately copied and perfected so that it becomes a part of the vocabulary of film. The Matrix expanded that vocabulary by adding not just a new word or concept, but a whole new lexicon.
Why to watch The Matrix: One of the most culturally important films from the ‘90s—a film that changed the way films are made.
Why not to watch: After this first film, it got pretty stupid.