A-RON’S FILM REWIND SERIES TAKES YOU BACK IN TIME TO 1999 FOR THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE GROUNDBREAKING POP CULTURE PHENOMENON “THE MATRIX”
When released 20 years ago on March 31 1999. “The Matrix” had instantly become a milestone in movie history and of American pop culture. It was referenced, copied and parodied time and time again. It even influenced itself in one of the most horrific school shootings and evoked both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of the Columbine school shooting, to dress as Keanu Reeves’ character Neo.
Filmmakers and screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski, best known as The Wachowski Brothers (who have since a couple years ago now go by Lilly and Lana Wachowski, or The Wachowski Sisters). The sisters who are Chicago natives got their start writing for Marvel Comics in the early ’90s, having made their film debut with the lesbian crime caper “Bound”, starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. The Wachowskis harbored their vision for five and a half years, working through fourteen drafts of the screenplay. Although most studio executives who read the script loved their ideas, they had extreme difficulty imagining how this would translate onto the screen. The Wachowskis then hired leading illustrators Steve Skroce and Geofrey Darrow who created over six hundred storyboards. Executives were reportedly sold immediately after seeing the bold vision on display, and green-lit the film.
If you factor in the sisters move from a small indie project to something this big and ambitious and the lasting impact it has lasted over the 20 years is impressive. The Wachowskis build the world of “The Matrix” from comic books, Hong Kong action films, cyber-punk fiction, video games, and every American science fiction conspiracy and tech noir thriller from “Tron”, “The Terminator”, “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”. They used the coolest cutting edge digital toys of their time to create the most stylish, inventive, kinetically dynamic action and science fiction epic.
Neo played by the man-boy of Hollywood, Keanu Reeves who was something of in a slump at the box office before filming “The Matrix”. While starring in good films like “A Walk In The Clouds” and “The Devils Advocate” which both failed to make a splash at the box office. “The Matrix” brought him back to a being the action star he once was. Reeves had brought to his performance as Neo a new confidence and poise that is refreshing, just check out his “John Wick” Trilogy.
It’s hard to think what the film would have been like with the original casting. Johnny Depp was the Wachowskis personal first choice for Neo, but Warner Brothers wanted Brad Pitt. After Brad Pitt said no, Warner Brothers was willing to consider Johnny Depp, and then it came down to Johnny Depp, Will Smith (talk about wrong choice that would have been!) and Keanu Reeves. Keanu was always really tuned in to the concept, which won him the part. Laurence Fishburne plays Morpheus (a role that was once meant for Val Kilmer and Samuel L Jackson). Morpheus is the leader of the human resistance, and the Zen-master mentor of Reeves’ Neo.
Morpheus, playing an Obi-Wan Kenobi to Neo’s Luke Skywalker, trains his protégé as they become kung-fu masters in a cyber-dojo in a marvelous sequence which combines the ballet elegance and furious moves of Hong Kong movies, all courtesy of fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, a martial arts maestro and former Jackie Chan director. Yuen Wo Ping who also served as fight coordinator for Keanu Reeves underrated directorial debut “Man Of Tai Chi”. Yuen Wo Ping had initially refused to work on the film. Even after receiving the script, which he liked, he hoped that by asking for an exorbitant fee, it would turn off the Wachowskis in wanting him for the film. It didn’t work. He next formulated what he considered an impossible request. He said that he’d agree only if he had complete control of the fights, and that he trained the actors for four months before they shoot. The Wachowskis complied with his request and Ping became the fight trainer and choreographer. The Wachowskis mixed up the ballet of martial arts with computer effects frequent scenes of gunplay violence and tricked-up camerawork, that leaves all of the action sequences with a fluid smooth motion.
To re-cap for those who don’t remember Keanu Reeves’ Neo is a software developer by day and a hacker by night. Enveloped in his computer world, he senses there’s a hidden dimension to the life he knows and longs to break through. He seeks as his guide a legend of the hacker underground named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). But meeting Morpheus turns out to be trickier than Neo could imagine, as ruthless Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) are also on the trail of the mystery man. Morpheus’ followers, including a woman in black named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), have extraordinary abilities, leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper and fighting by hanging in midair for seconds at a time and then kicking and leaping at the speed of light. Neo discovers that their powers seem to stem from something called “The Matrix”, the very thing the group is fighting against.
The then Andy and Larry Wachowski, used advances in computer technology to their fullest, creating a world that has never been seen quite so well in some time. Wachowskis have dubbed their technology “bullet-time photography” or known as “Flow-Mo,” a physics defying effect inspired by the Japanese anime. Clearly the Wachowskis are obviously interested in their cinematic toys, but they keep the complex science fiction story flowing and well told. The action and gunplay a nod to John Woo they stage a bullet-riddled showdown that lovingly records every spent shell that spills to the ground in slow motion. That lobby shootout holds the ranks as one of the great gun battles in cinema. A helicopter crashes into a great glass skyscraper and shockwaves roll across the surface like a pulse across a sea of silver. They’ve obviously put a lot of thought into the look and feel of the film and the result is a consistently elegant action movie.
“The Matrix” is a movie experience like no other, and experience is what it’s all about. It explodes with dazzling visuals and a transcendent sense of excitement. “The Matrix” won four Academy Awards, for editing, sound, and special effects and was added to the National Film Registry in 2012. It provides a master class on the joys of fight choreography, courtesy of the bullet-time camerawork, slow-mo freezes and the legendary Yuen Wo Ping opening up his bag of tricks.
“The Matrix” feels like something right out of a Philip K. Dick novel (“Blade Runner”, “Total Recall”). The effects are astonishing. It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s smart and it’s filled with well choreographed fights and guns, lots of guns. It’s a landmark film that the writer/director siblings have gone further with the action genre than you’d have ever thought possible.
“The Matrix” has endured because of their unique sensibilities, and the way they conveyed that in a new and different form within a genre that we all thought we knew by heart. It is an old fashioned crowd pleaser that have kept audiences enraptured in its created reality. “The Matrix” is a cautionary tale about the rise of artificial intelligence that echoes “The Terminator” and an exploration of the dream world vs. the real that brings to mind the fantastical nightmare of Alex Proyas film from the year before “Dark City”. But despite its heavy resonances it really is an original film. I loved re-visiting the film earlier this month. It still blows me away the day I saw it back in 1999. It goes where digital effects have never gone before, and for fans of action, science fiction or the art of the imagination, it is why it’s kept it’s place in pop culture for 20 years.
“The Matrix” Is Available On:
•Blu Ray As “The Matrix Trilogy” A 5-Disc Set With 35 Hours Of Bonus Material and The Entire “Animatrix” Series (an Anime series inspired by the film)
•Also Available As A 4K and Blu Ray Combo Pack