Hundreds of new movies come and go each year. Some have theatrical debuts. Some stream online or are released direct to video. All feature stories that someone, somewhere, thought were interesting enough to warrant the trouble of making them.
Most of these movies vanish, metaphorically speaking, into our cultural memory. Functionally forgotten, as if they’d never existed.
A few, however, rise above that fate, becoming “classics,” cinematic touchstones whose stories, characters and images become woven into to our culture in a way that transcends the moment in which they were made.
In 1999, The Matrix was one of those movies.
Released on March 31 20 years ago, this R-rated actioner starred Keanu Reeves as a computer hacker who soon discovers that the reality he’s living in … isn’t real. A stylish, hyper-violent, mind-bendingly original sci-fi spectacle, The Matrix pondered our increasingly fraught relationship with technology. It also stirred a mélange of ideas that everyone from Christians to Buddhists to atheists wanted to claim as their own. It was a film that exercised immediate cultural influence.
Stylistically, the film’s sibling creators, the Wachowskis, pioneered a new filmmaking method that came to be known as bullet-time. The technique depended upon a ring of cameras around the subject being filmed, and it allowed a stop-motion-like shifting in perspective that was groundbreaking at the time (though much imitated ever since). Writing for The Conversation in Nov. 2018, Bruce Isaacs says,
Bullet-time broke the common rules of perception as I knew it. How can a film freeze-frame and move during the still image, where the entire visual frame rotates on an axis? It was stunning, bold and new. And it has become one of the most influential special effects in the history of cinema.
But the film’s sleek, dark look also accomplished something else: It made the slow-motion shots of guns, bullets and combat look impossibly elegant. In fact, I’m hard pressed to this day to think of another film that made gun violence look as enticingly cool as The Matrix did.
Thus, part of The Matrix’s stylistic legacy is also a potentially grim one, with many voices in the years since pondering an alleged link between the film’s trench-coat-wearing heroes and similar garb worn by Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold just three weeks after the film was released.
Parallel to the conversation about the film’s violence was how The Matrix reflected and reinforced the emerging postmodern moment in which it was birthed.
Neo eventually learns that everything he thought he knew was really a very, very sophisticated simulation intended to keep humanity blinded from the truth. As Morpheus tries to help Neo understand reality—from within a computer program—Neo responds, “This, this isn’t real?” Which prompts this philosophical response from his mysterious, spectacled mentor:
What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
Morpheus goes on to explain that Neo has been trapped in what he characterizes as “a neural, interactive simulation that we call The Matrix.” Then he concludes, “You’ve been living a dream-world, Neo.”
The Matrix, perhaps more than any other film in the late 1990s, encapsulated our ambivalence about technology and finding meaning in a world more and more shaped by it. “What is real?” is the film’s core, tantalizing question—one it both tried to answer … and avoided answering. Is life predetermined? Or do our choices matter and make a difference? Yes? No? Maybe? The genius of the story is that it can be made to provide any of those answers to the questions it asks, depending on your perspective.
That slippery point of view mirrored the postmodern age in which it was made, an era that was increasingly untethered from “the real,” one that was set adrift in subjectivity. That’s why the film could be “claimed” by people of vastly different beliefs who all saw facets of their faith within it.
For those reasons and more, The Matrix has endured culturally. In fact, it may even be more relevant now than it was 20 years ago. That said, this movie remains every bit as stylishly violent as it was back then, no matter how much fans of this film might be tempted to dismiss that violence as being merely the virtual variety.
Because just as Neo discovered, sometimes the line between what’s real and what’s not isn’t as clear as it seems—and we need to be grounded in what’s true to discern the difference.