“No one can be told what the Matrix is, they have to see it for themselves” was the trailer tag line that got me and my friends excited to see this film in the cinema, and against all odds it lived up to the hype and then some. With a fourth film only a few weeks away I thought it would be the ideal time to take a look at the original trilogy. Ground-breaking would be an understatement but what’s the film like to watch now in 2021, when the subsequent films were less well received, and the franchise’s innovations are now commonplace? Let’s take a look!
Thomas “Neo” Anderson, a computer programmer, is led to fight an underground war against powerful computers who have constructed his entire reality with a system called the Matrix.
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
I mean, I may as well start with the most obvious screenshot of them all…
The theory that we’re all living in a simulation is always an interesting one, the whole “how would you know?” question being a good one to get conversations going, but when this film came out in 1999 I hadn’t heard of the theory, I was very much a 15-year-old who just consumed entertainment in all its forms and didn’t look into these things. That is the basic premise of the film, our lead character Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a top-class hacker going by the name of Neo who is recruited a lady named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) to join a group of people led by a man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) after the question “What is The Matrix?” had been driving him crazy. After a nightmarish encounter with some “US agents” led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) Neo meets Morpheus and agrees to “take the red pill” and discover what the truth is. He wakes up in a pod completely hairless and sees a massive series of stacks containing countless pods of humans before being ejected from his pod by a large flying robot. He’s soon picked up by Morpheus in his flying ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, and is let in on the truth…
What Neo thought was the real world was just a computer simulation and the truth is that humans eventually created robots with artificial intelligence and these robots got smarter and smarter until they rose up and fought the humans in a war, a war humanity was soon losing. Apparently they had the great idea of using some type of bomb that blocked the sky with storm clouds and therefore robbed the robots of their needed solar power, but they soon found a new resource: humans. They harvested the human race and used them as batteries, keeping them alive and stimulated by plugging their minds into a simulated reality based on a time in the past. There is a small settlement of free humans deep underground, with a few strike teams fighting back against the machines that wish to “finish the job”. In order to fight back they plug back into the Matrix but with a bit of training and a lot of “hacking” skills into their Matrix avatars they use near-super-human abilities to find new recruits and in Morpheus’s case, find “The One”, the fabled person who will free humanity at last.
Mr. Smith is not amused …. like ever, at any point in the film.
It’s a lot of info to be dumped in such a short space of time but it’s well delivered via a series of Matrix-like programs where Morpheus can show Neo (and therefore the audience) everything with no immediate danger, plus have a few kung fu fights for the hell of it! Morpheus and co. head to The Matrix to show Neo to “The Oracle” (Gloria Foster) a female program that can foresee the future of those she touches, the same woman who told Morpheus he’ll find The One and we later find out what she told Trinity as well. Neo is disappointed to find out from her that he isn’t The One (though “maybe in another life”) but as the team head back they’re attacked by a bunch of Agents and find out that one their own had betrayed them. Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) had met with the Agents and agreed to give them Morpheus in exchange for being plugged back into the Matrix as a rich man who is completely oblivious to the truth, which is understandable from certain perspectives… mostly very selfish ones, but hey…
Some exciting scenes later and Morpheus is captured while Cypher is killed by the Nebuchadnezzar’s operator (basically the person plugs them in and out of The Matrix) Tank (Marcus Chong), with Trinity, Neo and the captured Morpheus being the only other survivors. Against all rational thought Neo decides to go back into The Matrix and try to rescue him, and Trinity goes along too, the two of them arriving at the building where he’s being kept with a tonne of guns leading to the classic shootout scene in the lobby. This also then leads on to a bunch of iconic scenes, including the helicopter crashing into the side of a building causing the glass to ripple like water, Neo dodging bullets in what has become known as “bullet time” as the camera pans around him (the most parodied scene in the film…) and a showdown between Neo and Smith in a subway. Neo manages to escape for a while but is cut-off at the pass and shot point-blank by Smith, several times. Trinity is confused because she was told by The Oracle that she’d fall in love with “The One” and that therefore Neo can’t be dead, kissing his still-plugged in body and wouldn’t you know it, he comes back to life!
Hey look, it’s the live action version of the Lobby map from Perfect Dark, the thieves! … What? This came first? …. Nah.
In yet more iconic cinematography Neo stands in front of a bunch of Agents who all fire their guns but their bullets are stopped mid-air by The One, who then blocks a bunch of Smith’s strikes with zero effort before “jumping into him” and destroying the agent completely and causing the others to flee. We then get a final scene of Neo phoning up the machines and telling them that he’s going to free everyone and there isn’t anything they can do about it before flying into the sky like Superman. That cliffhanger was so tantalising back in the day! Overall the film still stands up, the special effects are still great, well, the psychical effects anyway, the CG robots leave a lot to be desired (especially in the 4K Blu-Ray version I watched…) but overall this film by itself is still a classic, thankfully!
A not too unrealistic depiction of our future, let’s face it…
Not a great deal, honestly. I will admit that through fresher, older eyes and ears some of the acting is, erm, questionable. As much as I love the man himself Keanu is at his most monotone and emotionless despite some of the emotions he needed to pull off, and Marie-Anne’s Trinity isn’t far behind. At least Fishbourne and Weaving’s acting is intentionally odd in ways that work for their characters.
Also as mentioned the CG has dated, but that can’t be helped. As I’ve said before that’s the key difference between them and actual practical effects, that early practical effect still often look miles better than early CG. I’ve seen far worse offenders though, to be fair.
Nobody can be told what Morpheus looks like, you have to see it for yourself. …. Here he is!
While certain aspects have now lost their shine, either due to outdated CG or just being clipped and parodied so damn much, it still doesn’t take away from The Matrix’s ability to pull you into its world, explain everything well and then give you a bunch of great action scenes on top. No matter what came after or is yet to come, it can’t take away from the original’s pull, even in 2021.