The Matrix: Ten Years Later
by Andy Frisk
Studios: Groucho II Film Partnership, Silver Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures
Writer(s): Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker,
Directed by: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Produced by: Bruce Berman, Dan Cracchiolo
Running Time: 136 minutes
Release Date: 31 March 1999 (USA)
Distributors: Warner Bros. Pictures
On March 31st, 1999 THE MATRIX opened in U.S. theatres. It was no small coincidence that it opened on the Wednesday before Easter since it was a tale of a modern day man, most likely in his early 30’s who has an awakening of epic proportions, doubts the reality of this awakening, dies and is reborn as the savior of mankind. Or was he? Was this savior, born in The Matrix with its systems of control and prophesies that create a religious like following lead by its high priest Morpheus (the prophet who called forth Thomas Anderson aka Neo from the dream world of The Matrix and captain of the late 22nd Century hovercraft ship The Nebuchadnezzar) truly a cyber-Savior or just another of The Matrix’s systems of control? Ah, but we get ahead of ourselves here. Let’s take a look at this modern classic from two different viewpoints: as a groundbreaking film for special effects and an intellectually and philosophically stimulating masterpiece. By the end we’ll see why 10 years on, THE MATRIX still stands as one of the greatest movies ever made.
I remember the teaser trailer for THE MATRIX that debuted during the Super Bowl that year, in fact I remember it more vividly that which teams were playing. I was a Super Bowl party and remember having a few beers (since the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t playing in the game I didn’t really care who was winning) and generally having a good time with some friends from college and work when the teaser trailer came on. I had heard something somewhere about this new Keanu Reeves flick and remembering BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE and more recently from my high school years POINT BREAK and SPEED, I figured it’d be pretty good. The girls I dated at the times those films were out just “had to see Keanu because he’s sooo cute!” Of course I ended up enjoying the films as well because they were either funny or were decent action flicks. When I saw the trailer for this film though I realized that it was going to be something much bigger than a decent action flick, simply from the snippet of the “bullet time” bullet dodging scene we were treated to.
Eagerly anticipating the release of THE MATRIX, I couldn’t wait for its opening day. I remember getting my ticket and seeing it for the first time on the evening of its opening day. Of course the biggest and most interesting special effect was the use of bullet time by John Gaeta and his crew of special effect artists. This innovative use of this technique created new perspectives for the movie watcher that proved as fascinating as the story in THE MATRIX was, and as challenging. The famous scene where Neo attempts to dodge and Agent’s bullets during a rooftop showdown gave its viewers a perspective hitherto unseen in a major motion picture. Going beyond the visual ground being broken in special effects, a new way of viewing perspective on film was being born. We are taking in a single event from all angels at once as it was occurring. It was a subtly powerful way to provide a metaphorical and psychological analogy for Neo’s awakening mind. In order to be “The One,” Neo had to see the code, or the entire picture, behind the scenes if you will, which would allow him to encapsulate all time as one moment, at this point to dodge bullets moving at incredible speeds (he wasn’t fully The One yet) and later to stop bullets in mid air (after being reborn as The One). The visual image of the moment Neo dodges the bullets created through the use of bullet time gives the movie watcher a glimpse at just what Neo is attempting to do, namely see a moment in time all at once from all angels at once and bring it to a near halt in order to get out of the way of certain death.
The use of bullet time in THE MATRIX was so visually engaging that it started popping up everywhere one looked on the TV and on other films. Toshiba created a “Matrix Inspired Time Sculpture” ad which utilized the principles of MATRIX-style bullet time and can be seen here (http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/matrix-inspired-ad-toshibas-bullet-time-sculpture [sic]). Some argue though that the 1998 “Gap Swing” ads (seen here: http://theinspirationroom.com/daily/2005/gap-khakis/) inspired the use of bullet time in the film. Either way, the use of bullet time in THE MATRIX captured and spread to a wider audience the zeitgeist happening in visuals at the time. Other films incorporated elaborate uses of bullet time as well, including SWORDFISH (2001) staring Hugh Jackman, which used bullet time in its opening sequence. It also pretty quickly got parodied in various comedy films like SCARY MOVIE.
Beyond the special effects and visuals in the film, the amount of philosophical, post-modern and religious themes and theories utilized by the film’s plot and overarching tale proved to be just as engaging. We find out what The Matrix is in the same way Thomas Anderson/Neo does. We cannot be told what it is; it has to be shown, to paraphrase Morpheus. For many friends who I’ve spoken with who enjoyed the film, and some who didn’t particularly enjoy the film, this slow revealing trip we take with Neo from the dream world to the “real” world (ironically referred to as such by Morpheus who pointedly asks Neo “What is real? How do you define real?”) was what was so captivating about the film. The revelations about what The Matrix is are conveyed in an incredibly powerful way by taking the movie watcher on a trip of discovery bound by the perspective of its protagonist only. Going “further down the rabbit hole,” as Morpheus refers to Neo’s trip of discovery, the film itself goes philosophically deeper than just the shock of the revelation that the world around us is not real. We immediately are drawn to the philosophical dialogue that is reminiscent of the analogy of Plato’s Cave and its relevance to the world of The Matrix and the real world. As the film progresses and we discover that The Matrix is a “computer generated dream world” generated by a race of machines in order to enslave mankind, the image of Descartes’ brains in a vat theory, and the more sinister idea of the “malicious demon” who has, like the machines of THE MATRIX, generated an illusion that we perceive to be the world around us in order to manipulate us, comes to mind and obviously was an inspiration to the Wachowski’s, the films writers and directors. Another, and perhaps the greatest, influence on the Wachowski’s was a particular work of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard entitled SIMULACRA AND SIMULATION in which Baudrillard’s “claim is that we now live –and he says this is something new, part of the current historical period known as ‘postmodernity’- in an imitation world, a highly artificial world of images, signs, copies, and models In this high-tech, computerized world of virtual reality and media saturation, the idea of a ‘real’ world underlying the dizzying parade of images and simulations has dropped out of sight” (Irwin 94). Baudrillard argues that the world around us is nothing but a simulation and the meaning is either lost or totally insignificant since it is the image that is foremost of importance. The metaphor that the Wachowski’s put forth in their film for this real world theory is that of The Matrix and its dominance of the sign over the signifier or the dream (fake) over the real. All of these philosophical theories and their relationship to the film are explained way better than I ever could explain in their source works and in many of the works written about THE MATRIX and its sequels and I include a list of them at the end of this article. All of them are worthy reads and definitely worth checking out.
THE MATRIX has many, many, religious themes as well as philosophical ones. As I mentioned at the outset of this article, it was no small coincidence that the film opened the Wednesday before Easter. Neo’s character can easily be seen as a Christ-like character that has to die and be reborn to save humanity; he also travels a path much like that travelled by The Buddha, a path of enlightenment. There is also a strong current of Gnosticism that runs through the films. The humans must, in order to free their minds, realize that the world they see all round them is illusory and imperfect and must awaken to the knowledge of this in order to manipulate it and see the truth. Like one of the child “potentials” (to being The One) states to Neo in the Oracle’s living room while “bending” spoons with his mind, “Do not try to bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead try to realize the truth.” “What truth?” Neo responds. “That there is no spoon.” answers the potential.
The truth about THE MATRIX, like all films, novels, poems, paintings, sculptures, and comic books that are works of art, is that all of them have at their core a truth, a metaphor or lesson that enlightens the intellect and raises the consciousness of its reader or viewer. THE MATRIX gives us a metaphor for our everyday lives. No, we most likely are not living in a dream world controlled by a malicious outside demon or machine (but for Descartes that argument may not be settled!) but we are all, over the course of our lives, and for some of us daily, faced with obstacles and systems put in place to hold us back, down or simply lull us into complacency and we all have the power to penetrate through these blinders and systems of control if we only use our intellect and will to affect change, the change that is necessary, to beneficially raise our standards of life, thought and love. We only need to stand up to our own inadequacies and fears and we can overcome whatever it is in our lives that imprisons us and help others who are struggling to be free as well, be it from bigotry, racism, poverty or ignorance by believing in the power of ourselves and the goodness to which not all respond, but most. When faced with a challenge, I like to think of the simple little phrase that was taught to Neo by a child, “there is no spoon,” then forge ahead and try to discover the truth at the heart of the problem or challenge and master it. It is this empowering message of THE MATRIX that, to me, makes the film and its sequels true works of art. They collectively attempt to raise the consciousness of their viewers.
For much better explanations of the many ideas and philosophies so poorly recapitulated by my meager explanatory skills in this article, check out the following books and many others to long to list here:
Philosophers Explore The Matrix. Edited by Christopher Grau
The Matrix and Philosophy and its sequel More Matrix and Philosophy. Edited by William Irwin
Matrix Warrior: Being the One. By Jake Horsley
Beyond The Matrix: Revolutions and Revelations. By Stephen Faller