The Class of 1999: 'The Matrix'
The film was not supposed to be a massive cultural sensation. Why did it succeed?
1999 was a historically-great year for film and dramatic narrative as a whole. I’m using my 2024 to look back at, reconsider, and celebrate these stories as they all celebrate their 25th anniversaries. I recently re-reviewed Office Space; next up on the docket is Following. But first… it’s time for…
The Matrix - written and directed by the Wachowskis - March 31, 1999
The Matrix was not supposed to be a massive cultural sensation.
Much as The Blair Witch Project was the preordained hip horror movie of 1999, so George Lucas’ much-anticipated first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, supposed to be THE mega-hit blockbuster of the year. If any big sci-fi action/adventure film was gonna come in second, it would surely be Wild Wild West, which reunited Men in Black star Will Smith with that film’s director, Barry Sonnenfeld. Whereas people generally didn’t know who the Wachowskis were1, and the last time Keanu Reeves starred in a cyberpunk movie, we got Johnny Mnemonic, a film which, despite being based on the work of acclaimed writer William Gibson, the presence of Dolph Lundgren playing Jesus as an assassin, and a plot hinging on a psychic dolphin and the possibility of Keanu’s head exploding, was not good.
Did The Matrix have an unbelievably cool trailer? Sure. But so had Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla a year before. The world would not let itself be fooled again.
Of course, anyone who hasn’t been a coma since 1998 knows what happened: everyone hated The Phantom Menace but it made money anyway, everyone hated Wild Wild West and it tanked, and The Matrix became one of the year’s biggest cultural sensations, a film so beloved that four years later, its own much-anticipated sequels would be met with the same level of disappointed vitriol previously reserved for Lucas and the Star Wars prequels. Talk about knowing you’ve made it!
The Matrix, you are almost certainly aware, is a spiritual/philosophical cyberpunk kung fu messiah narrative about Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. “Neo.” A respectable cubicle jockey by day and disreputable hacker by night, Neo feels that there is something inexplicably wrong with the world. He is recruited by a group of revolutionaries, lead by the sagacious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who reveal unto him a shocking truth: he, and the rest of the human race, have been living in a simulated reality generated by artificial intelligence while their bodies are used as batteries (it is from this simulation that the movie takes its title). Morpheus and his band of rebels - which also includes Neo’s eventual love interest, the no-nonsense Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) - are fighting a guerrilla war to free humanity, using the fact that the Matrix isn’t the real world to their advantage by not worrying about pesky things like physics.
Morpheus et al. are thus pursued by Agents - basically, the Matrix’s secret service/gestapo/Men in Black, but with kung fu - personified primarily in the form of the perpetually low-key irritated Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). No human, we’re told, has ever defeated an Agent, and if you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world, too.
Morpheus, we soon learn, believes Neo is the One, a messianic figure prophesied to defeat the machines and free humanity. But the rest of the guerrillas, including Neo himself, aren’t so sure. The audience, however, having seen movies before and being proficient at anagrams, are already fairly confident in the veracity of Morpheus’ claim.
Morpheus is definitively proven to be correct after Neo not only wins a climactic fight with Agent Smith, but rises from the dead, Christ-like, after Smith pumps him full of lead.
The film concludes with Neo promising the machines that he’s going to free the rest of humanity before flying into the air like Superman.
At the time of its release, The Matrix was just one in a string of sci-fi movies that played with the notion of characters living in a false reality. Dark City, released more than a year before The Matrix, was about the unknowing victims of an alien race’s psychological experiment that alters their identity and memories every day. David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, about a VR video game that blurs the lines between what is and is not real, hit theaters just a couple of weeks after The Matrix… and roughly a month after that came the release of The Thirteenth Floor, in which a software engineer realizes that he lives in a simulation and is, himself, a computer program (it was based on Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulacron-3, which was previously adapted into a 1973 German miniseries, World on a Wire, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder).
One doesn’t need to work all that hard to figure out why, as the millennium drew to a close, there was suddenly this prevailing anxiety and technology and the effect it might have on our very ability to accurately perceive the truth. And what a goddamn bummer - these concerns turned out to be prescient, even if in a less-literal sense.
Despite being part of a trend, The Matrix was revolutionary in more ways than one.
Most Western audience members had not yet been exposed to so-called ‘wire fu,’ which intensifies martial arts battles by doing away with the laws of gravity.
The film also introduced viewers to the nifty visual effect that soon became known as “bullet time” because, well… y’know:
And then, of course, there was the fact that The Matrix is ACTUALLY about revolution (in fact, the third film in the franchise is even called The Matrix Revolutions).
But what kind of revolution?
When it was released, most people assumed that The Matrix was really a metaphor about capitalism and social class. Neo escapes his humdrum cubicle life - like, he literally escapes a cubicle, and then he literally escapes his life - and learns that there is indeed more to existence than he has been told. The song that Neo flies off to at the end of the film is “Wake Up,” by the ultra-liberal protest band Rage Against the Machine. The eventual DVD included commentary by Cornell West (who also cameos in two of the sequels). And the movie draws a direct correlation between Neo’s boss and the agents - they dress alike, they speak alike (both call Neo “Mr. Anderson,” neither uses conjunctions), and they both lecture Neo on the importance of falling in line and being a good little worker bee. The movie just seemed so CLEARLY to be on the same anti-capitalist wavelength as its 1999 brethren Fight Club, Office Space, and American Beauty.
Years later, however, both of the film’s writer/director siblings, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, transitioned (when The Matrix was produced, they were known as Larry and Andy Wachowski). And Lilly has since said that The Matrix is indeed a “trans metaphor” - in fact, originally, the appropriately-named character Switch (Belinda McClory) was going to be one gender inside the Matrix and a completely different gender in the real world - although Lilly has also said that she doesn’t know “how present my transness was in the background of my brain as we were writing" The Matrix.
Meanwhile, in his essay collection The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman makes a fairly compelling case that the movie is about television:
“There are a handful of news events from the nineties that are now used as historical data points. The Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991. The chasing of O.J. Simpson in a Ford Bronco in 1994. The shootings at Columbine High in 1999. These events destroyed lives and altered the future, and they happened the way they happened. Yet the collective experiences of all those events were real-time televised constructions, confidently broadcast with almost no understanding of what was actually happening or what was being seen. The false meaning of those data points was the product of three factors, instantaneously combined into a matrix of our own making: the images presented on the screen, the speculative interpretations of what those images meant, and the internal projection o fthe viewer.
“What is real? How do you define real?
“The Matrix resonated not because it was fantastical fiction, but because it was not.”
I am semi-convinced that, in terms of semiotics, The Matrix truly only works if it’s about how systems of control affect one’s sense of self, not simply how they enslave us. There’s a scene in the movie where one of the rebels, Cypher (the great Joe Pantoliano), dines with Agent Smith and makes a deal to betray his comrades; the scene features a cogent assertion that reality does not matter nearly so much as what we perceive to be reality:
I think Cypher’s argument, that you can’t really tell the difference between what is and is not real, is especially persuasive if you consider that everyone is collectively living in the same “false” reality - because in that case, then, truly, the fantasy might as well be reality, because experientially, everyone is in the same boat. Only if the manufactured reality prevents you from being who you want to be - like, say, if you feel as though you were born into the wrong body - does the reality that’s forced upon you truly matter.
Having said that, ultimately arguments about The Matrix’s “real” meaning both miss the point and undervalue the power of science fiction and other fantastical genres to smuggle meaningful conversations into sensationalist entertainment. The Matrix isn’t “really” about capitalism or class or gender or race or religion or television - it’s about escaping the societally-imposed confines that seek to define your reality, regardless of the subject to which those confines relate. The Wachowskis may have been inspired by one or more of the preceding specific issues when making The Matrix, but what makes the movie sing - what makes it register for so, so many people around the world - is that, as an allegory, it works for ALL of those issues. Even right wing conspiracy theorists find the film deeply meaningful, which makes about as much sense as… well, pretty much anything else right wing conspiracy theorists do (did I mention that the filmmakers are trans and the movie ends with a Rage Against the Machine song?).
What its creators specifically intended is irrelevant; The Matrix, like all true genre classics, endures even as its once jaw-dropping special effects and set pieces become dated and comparatively slow-paced.
And that’s because of the way the narrative was crafted, and the fact that Neo is arguably the ULTIMATE audience surrogate.
Many sci-fi/fantasy/adventure stories include a character who is a stand-in for the viewer/reader. It not only allows the consumer to project themselves onto the hero, but it provides an organic excuse to deliver the kind of exposition necessary to follow a fantastical narrative. If you’re gonna drop people into the middle of an intergalactic civil war or a planet inhabited by talking apes or pretty much any reality that’s so vastly different from our own, you’re gonna need to catch people up on how everything works and what the rules are. And because a seasoned character like Morpheus (or Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Dumbledore, or whomever) has no reason to constantly say things aloud that he would already know, the story requires someone to come in and ask him questions for our benefit as well as their own. To wit: on average, Neo asks one question per minute for the first 45 minutes of the film.
What sets Neo apart from other, similar characters is the severe degree to which people consciously or unconsciously slide themselves into his role. This is part of what makes The Matrix so potent, and why so many different people have interpreted it as being about so many different subjects, including ones that are often at odds. They watch the movie and feel that they are Neo.
How did the Wachowskis achieve this feat?
Well, for one thing, they didn’t actually give Neo very much of a character.
That myriad of questions Neo asks in the film’s first 45 minutes? It makes up more than half his dialogue: he only eighty lines total during that time.
But talking isn’t a prerequisite to being a great character. How does Neo fare in the adjective game… and how many of those adjectives are conveyed via the Law of Show, Don’t Tell?
We’re told he’s technologically adept, but we never see that in action; we’re told he’s a nice guy who helps his landlady carry out her garbage, but we never see him do anything so kind; we’re told he’s having some sort of existential crisis, but we don’t see how that’s actually affecting his life.
Neo is really kind of bland.
It’s not even as though the Wachowskis stack the deck in Neo’s favor in terms of getting the audience to root for him. Think about other large-scale genre narratives and how much work the storyteller usually does to make their protagonist sympathetic and relatable and generally “likable”:
In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is basically just a kid who wants to go hang out with his friends but has to stay home and do chores. He never knew his father, who he’s told was viciously murdered by the bad guys, and soon, the aunt and uncle who have raised him are also viciously murdered by the bad guys.
In Harry Potter, the title character is an orphan whose parents were viciously murdered by the bad guy and is thus forced to live with a family that treats him terribly.
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is affable, demonstrably well-liked by his community, and a dutiful nephew who is genuinely altruistic.
In Avatar, Jake Sully is paraplegic, his twin brother is murdered, and he’s shipped off to a foreign planet where both his peers and the indigenous population are initially hostile towards him.
In Back to the Future, Marty is an average kid with a big dream. But he comes from a family of losers and is explicitly told he has no chance of achieving said big dream.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss is poor, persecuted, and loyal to such a degree that she’s willing to sacrifice her life to save her sister.
Now think about our friend Neo:
In The Matrix, Neo gets chewed out by his boss.
That’s it. That’s everything they do to make you care about this dude.
Does Neo have family? Unclear. Does Neo have friends? Unclear. Does Neo have a big dream? Doesn’t seem that way. That love story with Trinity? It’s easily the weakest part of the film, a plot contrivance that seems to come out of nowhere, based in nothing more profound than the fact that both characters are physically attractive. Shit, even when his boss chews him out, he chews him out for oversleeping and being late to work, which is a fairly reasonable motive for disciplining a paid employee!2
Neo isn’t even a particularly proactive protagonist!! From the time he accepts the red pill to the time he decides to go save Morpheus from Agent Smith, Neo really just lets himself be lead him around. And it’s not fair to argue that this is part of his arc - many of the aforementioned characters are messianic figures, and none of them are as passive as Neo.
Which brings us to Keanu Reeves.
As Film Crit Hulk noted in 2018, Reeves “was really perfect for the role of Neo… At once a quiet zen master and simple everyman, he could channel the broad archetype and sell you on the entire conceit with one very well-timed ‘whoa.’”
And yet Reeves was legendarily not the first choice to play Neo.
Every male movie star under forty seems to have been approached about playing the lead, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, and Val Kilmer (who also declined the role of Morpheus - as did Sean Connery!). Most famously, Will Smith passed to do Wild Wild West, which, again, was not his finest hour.
I can maybe - maybe - see Brad Pitt working in this part and being as impactful. But Will Smith, Nicolas Cage, or even Leonardo DiCaprio aren’t known for playing introverted, passive men. They would have brought too much of themselves to the part, which in turn would have diluted Neo’s effectiveness as an audience surrogate.
Keanu Reeves is a better actor than people have traditionally given him credit for… but there is also kind of blankness to him (which is the whole reason that people think he’s a bad actor anyway). And that blankness clearly served Neo very well. The combination of Reeves and the fairly thin characterization means we care about Neo even though we have no real reason to and we can see ourselves reflected in him.
The Matrix launched the Wachowskis into the rarefied strata of filmmaker whose name might actually put butts in seats. But they never again made anything that connected with audiences the same way. It’s my opinion that either they succumbed to their own hype as “visionaries” and their intellectual ambition ultimately exceeded their storytelling ability, or otherwise somehow misunderstood what made The Matrix so successful in the first place. Whereas The Matrix dramatizes its various philosophical concepts, the sequels - The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and The Matrix Resurrections (which Lana made solo after Lilly declined to participate) - frequently stop dead in their tracks to have characters just kinda stand around and talk about philosophy. And then the action sequences are totally disconnected from the larger narrative; they rarely have the inherent thematic meaning of Neo training with Morpheus or standing up to Agent Smith, and sometimes, they don’t even really advance the plot.
That same inability to marry story and meaning plagues other Wachowski projects, too, including Speed Racer (2008) and Cloud Atlas (2012), which, like the Matrix sequels, I would call nobly-ambitious misfires (wheras 2015’s Jupiter Ascending is just indefensible crap - albeit inadvertently very funny indefensible crap). Outsized aspirations synthesized as wobbly narratives has kind of become the Wachowski’s M.O.
That’s a bummer for sure. But there’s also something admirable about their stubborn refusal to take the easier path: the Wachowskis could make boring, generic movies and it would probably serve them better both in terms of studios paying them the big bucks and fans giving them all kinds of shit. Instead, they’ve used the clout afforded to them by The Matrix to keep swinging for the fences, trying to once again show audiences something we’ve never seen before. Isn’t that exactly the kind of chutzpah we want from our filmmakers?
The Class of 1999
The Wachowskis had written the Sylvester Stallone movie Assassins in 1995. The movie was not well-received. They made their directorial debut with the excellent indie queer neo-noir caper Bound a year later, and while that movie was relatively well-received, not a ton of people had seen it. Point being, when they made The Matrix, they had virtually no cachet.
Now, of course, there ARE genre protagonists who we never really get to know, like James Bond and Indiana Jones. But those characters are just conductors for adventure. They usually don’t have very much of an arc (whereas Neo does) and the way the storyteller makes us like them is by casting a movie star and giving them an awesome introduction that makes them seem like the coolest motherfuckers to ever walk the planet:
The Wachowskis did get a movie star to play Neo, but they did not give him an awesome introduction that makes him seem like the coolest motherfucker to ever walk the planet: when we first meet him, he’s asleep at his desk.