In the early months of 1999, Americans were met with something strange and intriguing: the first trailers for a mysterious new film called The Matrix. They offered a series of haunting images: people leaping across skyscrapers; a woman suspended in air, mid-kick, while a camera swirled around her; and — perhaps most notable — Keanu Reeves leaning back at an impossible angle, dodging bullets in slow-motion. As Reeves himself said, “Whoa.”
So much about this unknown film seemed … odd. It appeared to be a big-budget studio sci-fi movie from a couple of relative unknowns. (The Wachowskis had had a modest hit with Bound, but that didn’t portend a future in epic sci-fi.) Reeves had once proven his action bona fides with Speed and Point Break, but he was not thought of as much of a draw, or even that much of an actor. And it was opening in March, which back then was not a good sign.
All that changed, of course, after The Matrix, which opened 15 years ago today, made $178 million. (Back then, that was real money, especially for an R-rated movie.) Within a couple of years, things like “bullet-time” and “speed-ramping” and overuse of slo-mo became commonplace. So too did the peculiar mixture of gunplay and martial arts that was once the exclusive domain of Asian action cinema. Dystopias became cool again. Geek culture, which had been slowly emerging, solidified its grip on the popular imagination.
What The Matrix presented to most moviegoers in March and April of 1999 was exactly what those teasers had promised — something they’d never seen before.
To be fair, the film had lots of predecessors — the Hong Kong films of John Woo and Tsui Hark, anime classics like Akira, even some overlooked Hollywood movies. (Dark City fans, now is your chance to pipe up.) Hell, this wasn’t even the first time Keanu Reeves had played the Chosen One: In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, he had played Siddhartha; in The Devil’s Advocate, Satan’s human son. Despite the surfer-dude knock on his acting throughout the '90s, there had always been something otherworldly about him. Yes, he had the multiethnic background, but there was also a combination of both innocence and courtliness. This occasionally came off as Keanu being stiff, but just as often it conveyed an inner peace, or at least the potential for it.
Like other visionary blockbusters before it, The Matrix took all these preexisting elements and found a compelling way to channel them into the mainstream. We like our movies to be escapist fantasies, but we also like to pretend that they have a semblance of realism — that they are on some level plausible. We don’t generally like it when ordinary people fly through the air with guns or make impossible jumps. But in The Matrix, all these actions are happening in a virtual world — a world that, while it mostly adheres to the contours and rules of reality, can be hacked. And so, when characters walk on walls and dive laterally from one building to another, it’s a sign not of their physical strength, but of their ability to cheat the rules of the real. The movie establishes a framework in which the impossible can happen.
And the damn thing still holds up. Even now, after its dire sequels and its mostly blah imitators, The Matrix is a singular cinematic experience. It’s a mystery in which the object of pursuit is not a priceless antique or the solution to a murder but the human condition. It skips genres with the kind of ease with which its characters leap across buildings. Its heroes turn the hard noir angles of this world into liquid ripples of possibility. Chiaroscuro lighting gives way to blank white fields, cold green clutter and chaos to warm, clear-eyed symmetry. The movie hacks itself.
The film’s dime-store philosophy also captures a genuine unease, one that maybe came of age with the wired generation of its time but still persists. It’s a sense that this world — our world, the one in which I’m writing this article and you’re reading it — is not real. It’s an attitude that in its darkest manifestations mirrors the ravings of a schizophrenic (which is probably one reason why The Matrix was unfairly singled out as an inspiration for the Columbine shooters), but in its most common, hopeful version simply expresses a healthy rebellion against the increasingly unreal nature of modern life. Remember, this was still a time when a decent segment of society thought that the whole world was going to shut down thanks to the Y2K bug.
Above all, though, The Matrix is a great have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too movie. The film’s central monstrosity, the Matrix itself — “a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control” — is also its chief vehicle of wish fulfillment. In the Matrix, you can instantly download a program that makes you a kung fu master, or gives you the skills to pilot a helicopter. You can be a badass in the way you could never be in real life.
In that sense, The Matrix, for all its international popularity, is a quintessentially American dystopia. Our postapocalyptic futures are in essence variations on the frontier myth. The frontier may present us with emptiness while the dystopia presents us with a wasteland, but they are both canvases against which an individual — the right individual — can invent their own destiny and lead humanity to the promised land. At the end of the film, Neo speaks to the machines in the voice of a prophet:
“I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”
What’s interesting is that the world he’s describing, “where anything is possible,” doesn’t sound anything like the human reality presented in the film. Because the “free” humans of The Matrix are confined to rusty, crowded ships diving through sewage systems. They eat gruel and live in a dark, cavernous city near the Earth’s core. The world “where anything is possible” that Neo is describing is, in fact, the Matrix itself. As much as we may want to destroy it, we can never quite let go of the dream world it promises. It has us, still.