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Groundbreaking, trend-setting, and quasi-problematic, “The Matrix” still stands as an unparalleled sci-fi/action masterpiece.

The Matrix

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Unlike many of the railcars on Hollywood’s hype train, it is nearly impossible to understate just how large of a phenomenon The Matrix was when it dropped on March 31st, 1999.

To say that The Matrix hit at just the right time is like saying water is wet.

Digital was hitting big at the time: more and more people were surfing and chatting via AOL and other internet providers, DVD players were now affordable enough for the average home, and Y2K fears were building into a subdued (yet still palpable) mass hysteria.

Society was well and truly primed for a movie that proved (fictionally, of course) that with computers, even a mild-mannered corporate drone could be a “chosen one” type action hero. That anything was possible within a digital realm.

25 years on, we are edging ever closer to the conceits and concepts at the heart of The Matrix.

VR is now a viable source of entertainment and industry, digital worlds are becoming more realistic by the day, and AI is now one of THE hot point topics worldwide.

It’s a little scary just how prescient The Matrix turned out to be.

Action movies of the late 90s were, by and large, primarily gritty affairs, eschewing fantastical elements for more grounded takes.

When a beautiful stranger leads computer hacker Neo to a forbidding underworld, he discovers the shocking truth — the life he knows is the elaborate deception of an evil cyber-intelligence.

Sci-fi action, what little there was, tended to skew towards a lower budget and an unfortunate level of camp, ending up on rental shelves instead of theater screens.

While there were a few movies that were peddling what The Matrix ultimately sold to the masses, they just didn’t quite resonate enough to get the accolades they should have.

Dark City came out in 98, and while it nailed the aesthetic, it was a little ahead of its time as far as concepts went. A lot of people just didn’t get it.

Blade also came out in 1998 and was Marvel’s first actual “good” movie, and a damn fine action flick in its own right (think what you will, but Wesley Snipes was the de facto action badass back then), and yet it didn’t make a strong mark on the public conscious.

These films did prove, however, that high-concept action movies could work. They also helped pave the way and prepare moviegoers (and action lovers) for something way outside of the realm of what they were used to.

So, when The Matrix hit, it hit hard.

The big question on everyone’s mind was, “Have you seen The Matrix?” If someone hadn’t seen it, they were urged, in no uncertain terms, to drop whatever it was they were doing and get their asses to their theater of choice on the double. From the actors to the set pieces, the action, the cinematography, the occasional body horror, and the techno-industrial soundtrack — there was, quite literally, nothing else like The Matrix.

In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer saw it twice, back-to-back, on its opening night and then again a few days later, dragging friends along for the experience.

Naturally, much of what The Matrix accomplished then is old hat now, but minds were blown back in 1999.

The Matrix

The bullet-time and camera tracking shots were completely unique but also incorporated into the film in a way that heightened the proceedings, making the digital “fantasy” world that much more fantastical and removed from our own.

The narrative twist of the story was also a game-changer.

Yes, The Sixth Sense is the movie that most people think about when it comes to an unexpected rug-pull, but The Matrix did it first. It also dropped that nugget early on, which was necessary, as it informed the plot of the rest of the movie.

Of course, no matter how excellent a concept is or how amazing the effects are, a movie cannot survive on those aspects alone.

Arguably, THE MATRIX’s greatest strength was its cast, which consisted of a mix of established performers and unknowns who synergized perfectly.

Sure, Keanu Reeves had a few action beats prior, a la Point Break and Speed, but he was still nobody’s first choice as an ultimate shoot-em-up hero. Yes, he now absolutely owns that landscape as John Wick, but back in 1999, he was still considered the pretty boy. However, it’s precisely that impression that helps sell Neo’s transformation from wide-eyed N00B to chosen one throughout the film’s two-hour runtime.

As Morpheus, Lawrence Fishburn was the perfect choice. He managed to be a tough-as-nails mentor while absolutely nailing the more emotional beats. Fishburn was, at the time, a highly underrated actor, and it was awesome to watch him act circles around some of his costars.

Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity, was the final piece of the puzzle. There’s quite a bit of online chatter about her character being slightly problematic or just a male fantasy brought to life. I cannot speak to all that. All I saw was an unknown actress who brought her A-game, standing her ground when the bullets were flying and taking no shit while doing so.

And then there’s Hugo Weaving, who was freaking brilliant as Agent Smith: the manner of speech, the unflinching gaze, the smiles and grimaces. Weaving is absolutely menacing in the role, making every gesture seem larger than life — one of the absolute greats as far as movie villains go.

The rest of the cast were outstanding in their roles. Yet, outside of Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher, they’re not given much to work with. Still, they’re a colorful bunch (which is ironic, given the film’s intentionally drab palette).

On the action front, the movie holds up very well, even 25 years on.

The first fight scene (Neo and Morpheus) is ace, and despite some of the special effects looking somewhat dated, the shootout in the federal building’s lobby and the fight with the agent on the rooftop are still impressive.

Less impressive is Neo’s showdown with Agent Smith in the subway station; it’s good but also a little hokey. When Neo finally becomes “the one,” it also looks wonky compared to modern effects. Back in the day, however, it was very unique (almost anime-esque).

One can’t talk about The Matrix without also mentioning the soundtrack.

Industrial was still huge at the time, enjoying a popularity it likely won’t ever see again. Featuring acts such as Marilyn Manson, The Prodigy, Rob Zombie, Rammstein, and Rage Against the Machine, it was a “who’s who” of rock & electro/industrial and gelled perfectly with the images on the screen.

Of course, Juno Reactor (one of my favorite bands ever) would go on to be the main musical force for the sequels, which made this electro-lover a happy camper indeed.

As mentioned earlier, some things in the film don’t quite hold up today (the same goes for most films).

Much has been said about how Trinity’s character is written and her purpose in the film, the white-collar, male power fantasy, and the mashup of philosophical mumbo-jumbo — plenty of Reddit threads are available if you want to pick the movie apart.

Objectively, I can’t call The Matrix a perfect film, but I can call it perfectly entertaining. 

Despite the still-impactful, mind-blowing experience of seeing the film for the first time, hindsight and maturity have helped me be a little more objective. I can see the flaws and cracks in this film. Does that make it less of a masterpiece? I’d argue no.

Problematic elements notwithstanding, I still love The Matrix — as a movie, as a piece of personal nostalgia, and also as the undeniable phenomenon it was.

This flick had people flocking to the theaters, and even folks who were impartial to action movies fell in love with the look and concept. It got people talking AND wanting to learn martial arts. Hell, coworkers and I would square off in the hallways at work and play fight each other like a bunch of kids.

If that doesn’t define a good film, I don’t know what does.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5

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