Film In 1999: The Matrix
The final year of the 20th century was pivotal not only for me but for the world of film. I left the safety that lay under my parent's roof and moved to Milwaukee, leaving my job managing a movie theatre and entering a short-lived stint in film school.
This is the first time in my generation when the medium of film was changed and the old guard started to crumble. I'll never forget the excitement we felt as we saw cinema change before our eyes.
Throughout the year, I'll explore in chronological order the films of that year that made an impression on me, some for the good and some for the bad.
The Matrix: March 31
I knew within five minutes of watching The Matrix again it wasn't going to hold up in 2015.
As we're introduced to the character Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, she is running through the rooftops of a metropolis. She is being chased by suit-clad "agents," the evil security force behind The Matrix, a program created by Artificial Intellegence to control the minds of the humans they enslaved years ago. Watching this sequence on my HDTV on the cardboard-packaged DVD I purchased along with my first player 16 years ago, it was obvious she was running through a cheesy set with a matte painting behind it.
I remember when I worked at the movie theatre I managed I placed the trailer in front of every movie we showed so I could watch the "bullet-time" sequence over and over again. Looking at it now, it feels like a routine trick a five year old with iMovie could pull off on his parent's Mac. It took less than a year for that ground-breaking special effect to be used in commercials and Charlie's Angels. The innovative visuals of the film was co-opted so quickly as we were about to enter the 21st century.
I sighed in disappointment. At least the visuals attempted the look of a cinematic comic book, but everything about this movie reeked of the late 90's, from the Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, and Propellerheads (whatever happened to those guys?) playing in the background to the gaudy Nokia cell phones used by Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves. They're dialing into The Matrix through a modem for Zion's sake. The Matrix takes place a few hundred years into a dystopian future, but the film is a reflection of 1999. The character Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving, claims the AI took mankind when it was at its peak and created a virtual world for our minds reside in. I take issue with his idea of what a peak is.
The Wachowskis took a page from Quentin Tarantino's directing handbook and merged their influences in comic books, a love of anime, some philosophy, and John Woo movie action sequences and created something just as derivative as Pulp Fiction but with a slick look. My college professors that year were introducing me to Descartes and Akira and I instantly understood the visuals and the metaphors referenced in The Matrix. I thought I got the movie on a much deeper level than everyone else. Watching it now, it feels like the Wachowskis wrote down some cool things they looked up in a Brittanica, added some references to Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, and passed it off as dialogue.
Much of the film influenced the viewpoints I held in my early twenties. I began questioning the status quo, reading issues of Adbusters, and doing everything in my power to find a vocation that didn't crush my soul. Yet the movie was part of the machine it claimed to be raging against. Warner Brothers, which released the film, merged with AOL, owned numerous news and media outlets, and turned the film into a disappointing franchise. Much like the character Cypher, played by Joe Pantoliano, you have to know when it's time to give up and give in, but you don't have to sell out your friends and beliefs for a steak.
If there is one lasting effect I can take from The Matrix, it was the Wachowskis' ability to create a mystery and an universe around an idea. The film's website, www.whatisthematrix.com (now defunct, I checked), offered clues about the heady plot. If you stayed through the credits of the movie, you were given a password which would allow you to unlock more material. Even the DVD menus had red pills and blue pills scattered throughout that lead to short documentaries about the making of the film. As the sequels were released, online games and short anime films were created around the franchise's heady concepts. J.J. Abrams was obviously taking notes when he created Lost and started marketing Cloverfield. It was the unique marketing of the found footage creature film, with its websites and Easter Eggs, that put butts in the seats.
As much as I've tried to defend the Wachowskis' output through the years, it now seems obvious their peak was the 1996 indie thriller Bound. They're now the type of directors that make interesting but expensive movies. Soon they'll be entering television with a Netflix show called Sense8, which looks intriguing.
I started to wonder what would happen if The Matrix were made today. It would be the pilot of a cable television show. The audience would get to spend more time with the characters and the writers could expound more on the themes the films touch on but don't get to explore deeper. I'd binge-watch that.