I have a confession to make. I keep a list. A secret list I’ve kept for over 20 years and never shown to anyone. But I’m letting you in on it: It’s a list of movies I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never seen. In 2021, I finally crossed one crucial sci-fi movie off that list.
Since its premiere in 1999, The Matrix has changed filmmaking, created catchphrases, and made a lot of money for a lot of people. The world hasn’t been the same since the franchise sprung from the mind of the Wachowskis. 22 years later, I was told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t see 2021’s The Matrix Resurrections without first seeing The Matrix.
The plot of The Matrix is nothing new, especially in sci-fi. A ragtag group of rebels search for a Chosen One who will lead them to victory against an impossibly powerful foe. We see it in Star Wars, The Terminator, Dune. But there’s something unique about The Matrix.
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Keanu Reeves’ protagonist, Neo, feels particularly relevant in 2022 as he struggles to grasp the fact that his whole life has been a lie. One minute he’s a cyberpunk hacker dude trying to survive in a big corporation, and the next minute someone is offering him a red pill that will show him the truth: He’s been hooked up in a pod experiencing a computer-generated simulation.
Watching The Matrix for the first time in 2021, I felt Neo’s pain right in my gut. Like Neo, my old life was a lie. After traipsing to a cubicle for years through bumper-to-bumper traffic, rain, snow, sickness, and crazy breakups, I discovered that working full-time from home is completely doable. I couldn’t help thinking that my Pfizer booster was my red pill, my ticket to walking around in the real world — and damn if those sentinels didn’t look like nasty variants.
Regardless of the context you watch it in, there’s no denying the adrenaline induced by the stunning visual style and nonstop action sequences of directors Lilly and Lana Wachowski. These would all be rewarded with four Academy Awards, albeit in the usual categories for science fiction films (Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Editing). Still, this is no small accomplishment in a year heavy with horror and sci-fi contenders like The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, and The Phantom Menace.
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But while all those movies went on to claim their own place in pop culture history, The Matrix is different. Or, to quote Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, leader of the rebels and guru to Neo, “The Matrix is everywhere.” We see echoes of these stunt pieces, fight scenes, and chases in countless shows and movies.
But the best part of The Matrix is the performances from Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity). For all the servers, digital screens, and telephones, it’s Morpheus soldiering on because of his unflagging belief in Neo, and Trinity defying her fears to finally believe that Neo was not just the One to save them all, but the One she has longed to love. That’s what makes you sit through over two hours of sensory over-stimulation. In the subway fight when Neo finally realizes that he is indeed the One, this audience of one let out a cheer.
The stunts pieces, martial arts, rooftop chases, black trench coats, designer sunglasses, and all those guns are what makes The Matrix so beloved, and I’m there for it all of it. But the real strength of the film is its heartfelt story. The big payoff isn’t Neo beating Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith. It isn’t the rescue of tortured Morpheus. It’s not even the defeat of a very dastardly Joe Pantoliano as Cypher.
After all the bullets are spent and the robots vanquished, the big payoff comes in Trinity and Neo’s heart-swooning kiss. That’s some damn good storytelling, and it’s why The Matrix still thrills over two decades later.
The Matrix is streaming now on HBO Max.