3 Apr 2019

The Matrix 20 Years On

From Widescreen, 4:13 pm on 3 April 2019

Dan Slevin looks back 20 years to the groundbreaking, franchise-inventing, sci-fi classic The Matrix.

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Photo: Roadshow

While most of the world is celebrating this week’s 20th anniversary of The Matrix, my mind goes back to a slightly different date. In Australia and New Zealand, the film hit cinemas a week after America (and about ten weeks before the UK). On Friday 9 April, I drove all day from Auckland (where I was living) to Wellington (where my girlfriend was living) so we could see the Friday night session of The Matrix together at Wellington’s Embassy Theatre.

Back then, the Embassy wasn’t quite the restored Jacksonian picture palace it is now but it was still the biggest screen in the country and the only place you would choose for a film like this. We settled into our seats, the now familiar green glyphics started tumbling down the screen and… I promptly fell asleep. Yup, I slept through not just one of the greatest films of the 90s but one of the loudest.

Matrix background with the green symbols

Photo: Roadshow

The result was that I only had the vaguest idea what was going on. I missed the whole red pill/blue pill bit – and thus failed to comprehend all of the repulsive political movements that commandeered it – and also most of the exposition around what the Matrix actually was. It should be no surprise that this lack of knowledge affected my opinion somewhat, not only of this film but also the two sequels.

Last night, with the anniversary in mind, I finally managed to rectify this anomaly and slipped my Blu-ray copy into the special playing machine.

And, lo, it was good.

Keanu Reeves (already a star from Bill & Ted, Point Break and Speed) still pulls off that innocent-caught-up-in-the-conspiracy role perfectly as Thomas Anderson/Neo, a low level programmer and part-time hacker who is told that everything he knows is a computer-generated hallucination that has been created by AI computers who decided at the turn of the 21st century that they knew better than us and would rather harvest humans for energy than take our orders. As you would.

The revolution – at least this branch office of it – is led by skinny Laurence Fishburne and his job is to persuade Neo that he is ‘The One’ – the Chosen One according to prophecy – the One who will bring the enslaved humans to a Promised Land (or Zion as it is called in the film).

So far, so Robert McKee, but the execution is superb. The Wachowskis – the writer-directors – have harnessed every little piece of the latest digital technology to a coherent and satisfying aesthetic where everything feels balanced. The action sequences – delivered sparingly in order to maintain their surprising power – complement the themes that are being laid out by the steady exposition from the core cast. It all feels like it belongs with itself which is not something I see very often these days.

Skinny Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix.

Skinny Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. Photo: Roadshow

Lots of other things jump out at you. The cityscapes are unapologetically Sydney. Nowadays, producers will go to extraordinary lengths to disguise a shooting location, either digitally or with art direction. In The Matrix, every local shop sign and building logo remains intact and the only concession to geographic neutrality appears to be cutting before we see the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge. And there are Aussie accents and Kiwi actors sprinkled throughout.

Without The Matrix, there would be no Lord of the Rings, partly because of the presence down under of producer Barrie Osborne, and partly because it proved to the Hollywood studios that antipodean production could be cost-effective and profitable. It also proved the power of franchises and now we don’t see very much else.

The Matrix is much darker and more violent than the family-friendly franchises we are used to. There’s plenty of cursing and – even though the home video version is still rated M – I’m doubtful that a studio would greenlight this now without a few cuts.

My final observation – apart from, duh, it’s a masterpiece and so much better than the films it has inspired – is that the second word you see on screen is “trans” which is startling when you consider the personal trajectory of the directors, Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Trans critic Caden Gardner digs a bit deeper into The Matrix as a trans text here:

The signifiers and images are irresistible. Neo starts as Mr. Thomas A. Anderson, who in this ordinary world is accused of living a double life when confronted by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) for his computer hacking. The protagonist is already breaking from his normal, boring, and soulless office desk job in conscience and action. Thomas Anderson then becomes Neo, the name he will be referred to as for the remainder of this film and its two sequels, while Agent Smith and those tied to the matrix will continue referring to him as Mr. Anderson.

Seek it out if you can, and watch more closely than I did 20 years ago.

The Matrix is still available on DVD but appears to be out of print in NZ on Blu-ray, either alone or in box sets. This seems like a missed opportunity. Amazon has it on UHD 4K if you feel like importing it in that format (and I’m told that UHD has no region restrictions). Alternatively, you can also rent or buy a digital copy from Apple, Google or Microsoft. At time of writing, The Matrix is not available on any NZ streaming services.

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