The Legacy of The Matrix
by Kim Newman
1999 was one of the most important years for modern cinema. From defining originals like The Matrix and Fight Club to sleeper favourites like Office Space and Election, 1999 was a landmark year for the internet generation of movie fans and set a high standard for the big screen as we headed into the new millennium. Ten years on, we're celebrating a remarkable twelve months of movies with new features around some of the year's best and most important releases.
The big science fiction blockbuster of 1999 was going to be Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, but by comparison to The Matrix, which took audiences by surprise on its release exactly ten years ago today, it turned out to be the most eagerly-awaited sci-fi film of 1978. The Matrix was the phenomenon which made George Lucas' serial-style adventure seem as quaint as tie-dye loon pants. It did the proper sci-fi job of surfing the zeitgeist exactly in every single aspect: The long leather coats and cool shades (influenced by the look of Chow-Yun Fat in John Woo movies). The pounding techno music which would have given John Williams a headache. The frenzy of paranoia about computers whipped up by the millennium bug (remember that?). The notion that a computer geek could be an outlaw rebel hero. The end-of-century sensation that an apocalypse was coming even if all our Windows 98 platform PCs kept on working. And, of course, the notion that Keanu Reeves was potentially the wisest dude on the planet.
The Matrix didn't come from nowhere, and indeed arrived in the midst of a batch of similar projects it left standing commercially. Like Star Wars in 1977, it was the film of its moment -- it even dared to set its artificial city in the late 20th Century as if aware of a sell-by date -- and has seeped into subsequent movies which have either blatantly or subtly drawn from aspects of The Matrix -- ranging from its action-friendly fashion sense to franchise-building business plan. Join RT as we explore ten movies released in the ten years since The Matrix came out that owe a little something to one of 1999's most exciting releases.
Marvel's main mutants had been stalled in development limbo for decades, handicapped as potential screen icons by their frankly naff, gaudy comic book costumes. From The Matrix, the X-Men movies took a sturdy, black-leather-based look which became the default fashion statement for angsty 2000 superheroes just as red-white-and-blue tights (or, in Wolverine's case, yellow spandex) had been in earlier eras. The influence might have been two-way -- like Star Trek's Holodeck and Doctor Who's (um) Matrix, the X-Men's Danger Room (a virtual reality training ground as seen in X-Men: The Last Stand) was an important precursor of The Matrix's Matrix.
Like Keanu Reeves' Neo, Guy Pearce's amnesiac keeps having the rug pulled out from under his reality, and learns not to trust Joe Pantoliano while getting mixed up with Carrie-Anne Moss. It wasn't only the casting director of Christopher Nolan's breakthrough movie who took cues from the Wachowskis. While it uses a tricky, backwards Chinese box structure and a mental aberration rather than a computer-generated reality, Memento is able to tell its complicated story confidently because of the precedent. If audiences understood The Matrix enough to make it a big hit, then they could be trusted to follow and enjoy Memento.
The Matrix owes much to Japanese anime and s-f cinema in general, and would not have been possible without an audience who were literate in computer games -- this live-action picture from anime god Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) replays the compliment, going The Matrix one better by pulling back from a virtual post-apocalypse world which is the arena of a combat game to the players' reality, which turns out to be equally pixel-based with no end in sight. It also surrounds its protagonist with enigmatic guru figures who nag her on through her quest -- the heirs of Morpheus tend to be a lot more prone to explaining things than the likes of Yoda or Gandalf.
This smart, underrated paranoia movie from Vincenzo Natali (Cube) even takes its name from one of the characters in The Matrix -- the Joe Pantoliano traitor, which hints at its trickiness. Like The Matrix, it's influenced by author Philip K. Dick as ordinary suburbanite Jeremy Northam takes another identity to infiltrate a rival corportation as a cyber-spy, only to wonder which if either of his personalities is real. With Lucy Liu in the Trinity role and the sexiest helicopters ever, this is as endearing a knockoff as the style pilot fish movies Roger Corman used to get on the market following big hits in earlier decades.
One of the breakthroughs of The Matrix was 'bullet-time', a photo-process designed entirely to show off John Woo-style gunplay (and swirling coats). This dystopian vision from Kurt Wimmer, which cops its plot from 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, elevates 'bullet-time' into a whole martial art called 'gun-kata', as mastered by futuristic killer goon turned rebel Christian Bale in a Neo-look outfit. This is a movie which literally rides on the coattails of The Matrix. The film would be po-faced were it not for the elegant, if ludicrous gun-kata scenes.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Though worlds away from The Matrix in subject matter (if equally fond of gravity-defying duels), this franchise copped the Matrix business model (itself influenced by Back to the Future) -- an unexpected, runaway success made on a moderate budget within tight restrictions, followed by two much more expensive, self-indulgent and lengthy sequels shot back to back and released six months apart with a 'to be continued' at the end of part two. The only thing Pirates missed was getting a bunch of cartoon visionaries to turn out The Anipirates.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Like Memento, this could be seen as The Artimatrix -- an adoption of the Matrix narrative devices by an indie-type, contemporary-based puzzle movie. Before The Matrix, it would have been difficult to sell a story told from the viewpoint of a character whose subjective perceptions (here, his memories) are being overwritten by external forces during the course of the plot -- and expected the audience to follow all the threads. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet may be less cool-looking than Keanu and Carrie-Anne, and their interior worlds may be smaller, but they are in the same business of wiping and rewriting reality.
Keanu Reeves' place on the cool-o-meter has never been secure -- for every Bill & Ted or Point Break or Speed, there's a Bram Stoker's Dracula or Little Buddha or Johnny Mnemonic. The Matrix may have been the major spike of his career, giving him a use for his signature bewildered-but-determined look and kitting him out in an iconic coat. The comics' John Constantine, originally drawn to look like Sting (unkind people said Freddie Starr), was another trenchcoat-wearing defier of dark forces -- demons, rather than rogue robots -- and Keanu took a lot of his Neo look and mannerisms over into this film version of the DC title.
The Island (2005)
Remember the one Michael Bay film critics and audiences had trouble with because it was too clever? It's another film which is only loosely in the same genre as The Matrix (futuristic, Earthbound sci-fi) but borrows a lot from the Wachowskis' plot-book: a long first act set in a strange, but calm enclosed world peopled by pretty folks who don't understand its nature -- then a violent 'awakening' that reveals shocking truths about the way the characters are being exploited and a series of action-movie chases (with a motorway chase specifically influenced by The Matrix Reloaded) until a big conceptual crisis changes the whole world again. We're still wating for The Island Reloaded and The Island Revolutions, though...
If, as some fruit-loops have suggested, the Wachowskis have discovered the true nature of the universe and The Matrix is actually true, then our computer masters could create no more insidious and effective a propaganda movie than WALL-E. The Pixar triumph is The Matrix told from the point of view of the machines -- with the human race depicted as fat, consumerist dolts who deserve to be plugged into their hover-chairs because they're useless for anything else, and a dauntless, sensitive, intrepid robot hero who looks after the blasted remains of a planet which has been abandoned by people who used it all up and ran away.
The Matrix is available on DVD and Blu-ray.