Under the Matrix influence
by Stephen Dowling
As the long-awaited The Matrix Reloaded premières in the UK, BBC News Online examines its cult status.
When The Matrix hit cinema screens in mid-1999, the sci-fi film community were waiting with bated breath for George Lucas' belated return to the Star Wars universe.
But come the end of the year, as film critics and moviegoers totted up their best of the year lists, The Phantom Menace was appearing in the year's great turkeys, not triumphs.
The Matrix, however, had made an enormous impact.
It was not hard to see why. When the Wachowski Brothers' big-budget debut appeared on screen, it instantly added a handful of iconic moments to cinema history, and has become a major influence.
Its heroes were almost impossibly cool, its premise both simple and brain-boggling, its design and special effects familiar and groundbreaking at the same time.
The Matrix took place in a dark future, where evil machines had enslaved the human race and cocooned them in pods, plugging them into a gigantic virtual reality.
What is 'real life' for the humans is just an illusion, created to keep their brains active while the machines milk energy from the cerebral cortex.
Hero Neo, (Keanu Reeves), has been chosen as the leader of a group of breakaway rebels intent on overpowering their robotic overlords and saving the human race. He is an unwilling messiah with no inkling of his powers.
On the face of it, the Matrix's plot was no different to a raft of dystopian, the-machines-have-taken-over sci-fi flicks.
But on screen it was different.
Neo's ability to move inside The Matrix (ie the apparent real world) and defy its physical laws led to some of the film's most eye-popping moments.
The Wachowski Brothers pioneered the use of a device called flo-mo - a set up of dozens of still cameras arranged around a subject so that actors seemed to stop in mid air while the cameras wheeled around them.
First seen when the rebel Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) beats up a 'virtual' police officer at the start of the film, it was pure visual poetry. And it is a line that has been cribbed time and again.
In Charlie's Angels, Cameron Diaz floats through the air while the cameras flo-mo around her.
Even Shrek, the animated adventure featuring a giant green ogre, used the effect - though for laughs.
Though The Matrix owed its martial arts fight scenes to respected choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, it in turn allowed an Asian fight film an audience it might not have had - the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon owe plenty to the film's balletic fight scenes.
Just as Star Wars led to a raft of imitations, so other film-makers have picked up on The Matrix's dark production design, kung fu choreography.
The most blatant of these, it seemed, was this year's Equilibrium, starring Christian Bale, whose characters even wore long black leather coats like Reeves' Neo.
It is not just the influence the film has had on other films, however. The fluid design and 'bullet-time effect' (where bullets zip by in slow motion) has been used in computer games such as Max Payne.
The Matrix's complex philosophy - one drawing on everything from Christianity to Buddhism and the laws of higher mathematics - has reached out to fans in a way, for example, The Lord of the Rings or the Terminator films, could only dream of.
Not since Star Wars has a film's guiding philosophy been taken so seriously.
Despite Hollywood's caution at religious movies (young moviegoers are not supposed to be into spiritual films), the Matrix managed to promote them alongside other ideas to which teenagers could relate.
These are 'outsiderness', choice, responsibility, faith in oneself, as well as the fear of technology and authority.
The Matrix's success in taking complex philosophical ideas and presenting it in way palatable for impressionable minds, may after all, be its most influential aspect.