Fifteen years later, it's easy to forget how remarkable The Matrix was in the summer of 1999. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the countless number of films that have parodied, mimicked, or flat-out borrowed elements of this film prove the impact that it made. It's a fate that's not uncommon to these kinds of works, especially in the realm of fantasy or science fiction. After being mercilessly replicated, something like H.G. Welles' novel The War of the Worlds or ABC's television show Lost are bound to feel a bit like the imitators they spawned. And The Matrix didn't really do itself any favors with its two less-than-inspired sequels, The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003).
What sets The Matrix apart, then, and why it's a terrific choice for the fifth season finale of The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," is the one thing that its imitators never had: confidence in its hodgepodge of influences. This was a studio-backed blockbuster that dared to be weird and challenging at a time when those same studios were taking less and less chances on weirdness.
More after the jump.
Make no mistake, The Matrix is a weird film made by two very singular directors. Andy and Lana Wachowski - here billed as "the Wachowski Brothers" (this being before Lana's transition) - are genre-mashup artists that don't often get billed as such, at least not to the extent that, say, Quentin Tarantino does. But where Tarantino draws mostly from B-movie schlock and the cheap videos of his youth, the Wachowskis blend more disparate elements into their films, often to messy results of varying degrees. They like to throw big ideas at the audience in the package of an entertaining blockbuster, and the audacity of their weirdness alienates about as many people as it draws (see: the polarizing reviews of Cloud Atlas, the shroud of confusion surrounding their upcoming Jupiter Ascending).
On the surface, The Matrix seems like a fairly straightforward story. Thomas Anderson, hacker name Neo (Keanu Reeves), is tracked down by two mysterious figures - Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) - and told he is the "chosen one" who will save humanity. The "real world" that Neo thinks he knows is actually a program used by machines in the future to placate the human race while they are harvested by the machines for energy. Once Neo is able to accept the truth of reality, he will be able to lead the resistance and defeat the machines.
But of course, the film is much more than the "chosen one" narrative and post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. There's a sense of Y2K malaise pervading the film, the fear that computers could become more advanced than the human mind and that our reliance on computer technology could result in our downfall. That's just one element, though. The Wachowskis have also tossed Baudrillardian philosophy, Zen Buddhism, film noir, steampunk, Hong Kong action cinema, and Japanese manga into the mix. I dare you to find another recent Hollywood blockbuster with that kind of cocktail of influences. Not only that, but they also find room for quick flashes of body horror, as evidenced in the below shot (I couldn't get a good screenshot of the interrogation scene, thanks to a shoddy DVD).
It's Japanese manga, though, that the film bears the strongest resemblance. This makes sense: the Wachowskis have claimed that the project initially began as an idea for a comic book, and even after the decision to turn it into a film it was relentlessly storyboarded. And the film's basic narrative borrows heavily from Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell, itself turned into a 1995 animated film by Mamoru Oshii that serves as a visual inspiration for a few scenes in The Matrix. The film's visual style is kinetic and undoubtedly cinematic (director of photography Bill Pope did incredible work here), but the use of freeze frames gives those scenes the appearance of comic panels in motion. It perhaps no surprise, then, that the best "sequel" to this film was the 2003 tie-in omnibus film The Animatrix, a collection of animated shorts set in the world of The Matrix.
What really gives The Matrix a comics-inspired feel, though, is the use of negative space. With large portions of the screen either completely black or completely white, these scenes feel even more as if they were ripped from the pages of a comic book. Take the very first scene, where Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and the police are closing in on Trinity...
Or, in a later scene, when the crew of Morpheus' ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, are hiding inside a wall...
Or even in the now-infamous image of Neo reflected in Morpheus' sunglasses, deciding whether to take the reality-shattering red pill or the ignorance-is-bliss blue pill...
The Wachowskis are utilizing the black (or, the case of the lattermost shot, blurred) negative space in the frame to focus the attention solely on certain elements, giving them the appearance of comic panels.
This comes across most obliquely in a scene, about halfway through the film, where Morpheus prepares Neo for his "training" by taking him into a basic program. Here, there's nothing but empty white space, soon giving way to two red chairs and an antique television set. It's striking for how much emptiness there is around the characters, which is essential given that Morpheus is deconstructing Neo's notions of reality and perception.
But it's also easy to imagine this image in a manga, given how illustrated it appears. The contrast between the characters and objects against the blank white background emphasizes the film's themes of philosophical transcendence, but the staging seems like something that was drawn more than something that was filmed. It's the perfect example of how much The Matrix looks like a live-action manga. This is the one aspect that none of the film's imitators have been able to replicate.
Quite simply, there hasn't been anything truly like The Matrix since its release. The film was groundbreaking in its use of visual effects (the "bullet time" sequence) and introduced "wire-fu" to American audiences (while making Yuen Woo-ping one of the most sought-after fight coordinators in Hollywood). But what really set it apart was how it masterfully blended the Wachowskis' wide variety of influences into a coherent whole, standing out visually as well as thematically.