Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
It doesn’t matter if you took the red pill or the blue pill. One thing is inarguable. When The Wachowskis introduced us to the concept and world of The Matrix, they made a revolutionary film. But, over two decades later, I wonder, was it for better or worse? To find the answer to this question, I’ll follow the white rabbit down the hole and onto its new path with The Matrix Revolutions (2021), which is slated for release on December 22nd, 2021. Before we get there, though, we have to go back to the beginning with The Matrix (1999)!
Despite all the disagreement in the world these days, there’s still one thing most folks agree on — 1999 was a phenomenal year for movies. It might have been one of the best years for cinema of that particular decade. Not only were there some fantastic movies released in every genre, two legendary filmmakers made their return to the medium for the first time in a long time. Director Stanley Kubrick released what turned out to be his final film, the star-studded erotic drama Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Then, of course, there’s George Lucas, who resurrected Star Wars for a new generation by kicking off the prequel trilogy. Unsurprisingly, Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999) was one of the biggest movies of ’99. The same year, a team of fresh-faced filmmakers, writing/directing auteurs Lana and Lilly Wachowski — aka “The Wachowskis” — also made their sophomore effort that year, a little sci-fi/action picture that was more significant than anyone could have imagined with The Matrix. (A note for historical context: At the time, The Wachowskis presented as male and were credited as such in the film, which may cause some confusion until and unless Warner Bros. updates the credits.)
The siblings made their bones in Hollywood by penning the story for the Warner Bros. big-budget action flick Assassins (1995). While Assassins ended up being a box-office bomb, the studio saw potential in the duo. Thus, they struck while the iron was hot and pitched The Matrix, which they had been developing since 1994, to Warners. But, part of this pitch was that The Wachowskis would direct the film as well. WB was intrigued but told them that they needed to prove themselves by making a smaller movie first. Oddly enough, though, the studio did not offer to finance this required cinematic proving ground.
Lucky for everyone, The Wachowskis were confident enough in their abilities behind the camera to go off and make this prerequisite feature film debut. Moreover, they were smart enough to make a unique and trendy movie with the erotic crime-thriller Bound (1996). This directorial debut made an impression as it featured a lesbian couple played by Jennifer Tilly (Chucky) and Gina Gershon (New Amsterdam). Ultimately, Bound was not a box-office success in the indie market; but it was critically lauded. And like many movies of the 90s, it became a hit on home video and quickly gained cult classic status. More importantly, though, Bound allowed The Wachowskis to work with a group of cast and crew and a chance to develop a cinematic tone and style they would employ on The Matrix.
Upon seeing Bound, Warner Bros. greenlit The Matrix with a $63 million production budget — and that money only became secure after some test footage was shot. Warners also had one stipulation when it came to The Matrix: more expository dialogue to be written into the script as they found aspects of it difficult to understand; something Laurence Fishburne (The Ice Road), in turn, never understood about the studio as the concepts and ideas were clear to him. After this rewrite was done, the young filmmakers were given a lot of creative control and largely left alone throughout the entire production. Then again, it probably helps that the film was shot in Australia, putting The Matrix outside of the studio’s instant scrutiny.
Still, there was no question that the movie in review needed a large enough movie star to help sell audiences on its innovative narrative. Hence, why Will Smith (King Richard) was initially offered the role of Thomas Anderson/Neo but turned it down, saying he didn’t understand the story. I think Smith’s refusal was due to the fact that he had just finished headlining a sci-fi film in which he plays a guy who gets his world turned upside down in Men in Black (1997). Instead of staring in The Matrix, Smith chose to headline Warners’ ill-fated Wild Wild West (1999) instead — a choice the actor now says was “the worst decision” of his career. Following Smith, The Wachowskis suggested Johnny Depp (Minamata), but Warner Bros. said the movie needed a bigger movie star to play the lead. At which point, they immediately approached Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted Face the Music), who accepted as he was fascinated by the material.
All that being said, I suppose it’s time to address what The Matrix is actually about. The film centers on a man named Thomas Anderson (Reeves), who is very disenchanted with the struggle that is everyday life thanks, in part, to a soul-sucking office job as a computer software engineer. Mr. Anderson’s only pleasure in life is when he moonlights as a hacker, going by the handle of “Neo.” As Neo, he makes side money from his illicit skillset. Even still, our hero is looking for something more in life, which is precisely why he’s searching online for an individual known as Morpheus (Fishburne), an uber-hacker with knowledge of something called “The Matrix.” After one such night, our hero is finally approached by a gorgeous, PVC-clad lady named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss).
Accepting Trinity’s invitation to learn what The Matrix really is, Neo finally makes an acquaintance of Morpheus. It’s this meeting that will change the world as Neo knows it. Morpheus exposes Neo to an unsettling truth: life, as we know it, is a total illusion. More specifically, it’s a computer-generated simulation known as “The Matrix,” created by artificial intelligence to keep humanity in place. On the other side of the equation, there’s the real world. Unfortunately, it is a dystopian future where humans are essentially used as battery power. That is, unless an individual human chooses to disconnect from The Matrix and brave the grim nature of true reality. Beyond this revelation, Neo is also told that he is “The One” who could save humanity from this current entrapment. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Neo accepts all this and begins his hero’s journey.
If you sit down and think about it, The Matrix is, frankly, a silly concept. So why does it work so well? For me, it works so well narratively because it integrates a complex concept with a tried-and-true storytelling structure. The Matrix is largely original, even if it knicks just a bit from TRON (1982). But the idea of The Matrix can be easily understood because it uses the hero’s journey to structure its story. Granted, you do need to be paying attention. I mean, if this flick doesn’t convince you to put down your devices, I don’t know what movie will.
This narrative structure also allows The Matrix to play out like a fantastic comic book movie as well. A fitting quality considering The Wachowskis took inspiration from comics (like The Invisibles) and had previously worked in the medium when they wrote the scripts for the Clive Barker-created comic book series Ectokid (1993-1994), published by Marvel Comics. The Wachowskis were also inspired by the art style of comic book illustrator Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled). As fate would have it, Darrow would go to do concept art and storyboards for The Matrix.
In addition to drawing inspiration from comics, The Matrix is an all-on genre mishmash combining sci-fi, action, martial arts films, neo-noir, anime (or as The Wachowskis lovingly refer to it back then, “Japanimation”), and steampunk. Aside from its blending of genres, The Matrix also has many religions and philosophies on its mind. So much so that matters of the soul and mind are flat-out overtones in the film. Such overpinnings make sense if you consider the task the cast and crew were given during pre-production. Prior to filming, The Wachowskis required the majority of the production unit to read a lauded postmodern philosophy book entitled Simulacra and Simulation (1981) by French philosopher and author Jean Baudrillard. Reeves, however was also required to read two additional philosophy books as well: Out of Control (1994) by Kevin Kelly and Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (1998) by David M. Buss. Moreover, the star had to do all his homework before he could crack the spine on the script.
These inspirations help The Matrix stimulate one’s mind. But it’s the filmcraft and action on display that energizes one’s body, as it were. Firstly, I must say the cast of this film is perfect. Critics of Reeves can say what they want. In my estimation, he is usually good in roles because he is very much an empty vessel as an actor. Therefore, he has primarily been able to embody the characters he plays very well without the shine of his star power overshadowing the performance. This quality is tenfold when it comes to Reeves’ portrayal of Neo in this film. As the character, Reeves is essentially a surrogate for the audience. Thus, you can also vicariously live through him as the hero’s journey unfolds.
Then there’s Fishburne as Morpheus and Moss as Trinity. Where Reeves is a vessel, Fishburne and Moss become their characters. When I watched The Matrix for this review, it was for the first time in many years, although I’d seen it countless times before. Despite my numerous viewings of this movie, these two actors ceased to have prior roles; they were their fictional counterparts in this film. The same quality can be attributed to this film’s villain, Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving. I swear, Weaving embodies the terrifying coldness that a fully actualized and self-aware piece of artificial intelligence would be.
Aside from the cast, The Wachowskis also made all the right choices regarding this film’s crew. Many of whom they re-teamed with from Bound. These artists and technicians are working at the top of their respective games to create a world in which we, as viewers, can become invested. Despite this perfection in craft, I feel the need to point out a few individuals for their contributions to The Matrix. Cinematographer Bill Pope (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and the production design and art direction crews create a filmic environment that’s tangible. While watching The Matrix, I could feel myself simultaneously becoming engrossed and mildly disconcerted by the feeling these images deliver. That’s not something with which I can credit most films!
The action and martial arts choreography also needs to be given all the credit its due. But, that will also require a little background. You see, the cast underwent six months of physical and martial arts training as part of pre-production. This extensive training was overseen by none other than the legendary martial arts fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen. The master choreographer only took the job after realizing he could not get out of it by making negotiable demands. Not only did The Wachowskis pay the high salary he requested, but they also gave him total creative control over his department.
Frankly, the filmmakers and studio were right to do so as Yuen essentially innovated wire-work-based fight choreography in the West. Along with the cast, the stunt team put their total effort into this fight and firearm choreography. In fact, Reeves’ stunt double, Chad Stahelski, who would later direct Reeves in the John Wick films, broke several bones during production. When combined with the visual and special effects (spearheaded by John Gaeta), this action and its revolutionary bullet-time technique created something audiences had never seen before.
If I don’t seem very critical of The Matrix, it’s because I find it to be a perfect genre film. While it is not as original as some say, due to those aforementioned echoes of TRON, it’s still one of the most original movies I’ve seen. As such, The Matrix is a perfect subgenre cocktail that is also a Franchise Expansion. Not only is it narratively innovative, but it is also a leap forward for visual effects and “wire-fu” in the movie industry. Thus, it is no surprise that these stylistic creations had been endlessly copied by the time we re-entered the Matrix in 2003. And on a personal level, this movie introduced me and countless others of my generation to noir and martial arts films; genres I came to love.
Alas, this film did get saddled with some unnecessary baggage for a minute. See, The Matrix was released to theaters on March 31, 1999. Weeks later, on April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School massacre took place. This was the first — but unfortunately, far from the last time — I would hear the media propagate the ridiculous Movies make people kill” theory. Why was such an argument bandied about? Because the Columbine shooters were dressed all in black and sported trench coats. I knew this was asinine and the time, and it gets worse every time the “art inspires violence” argument gets pinned on whatever the latest thing is that happens to feature violence.
While The Phantom Menace was undoubtedly the biggest sci-fi tentpole of 1999, The Matrix went on to become a substantial hit. Produced on the aforementioned budget of $63 million, The Matrix went on to gross $466.3 million worldwide. Furthermore, the movie made the DVD format viable and the bonus content we expect from it to become mainstream upon its release. Thus, it’s no surprise that The Wachowskis were given carte balance to expand the universe they created into a trilogy with The Matrix Reloaded, which we’ll delve into next time around, and The Matrix Revolutions, both of which were released in 2003.
The Matrix (1999) is available on all home video formats & to stream on HBO Max.
Next time, we’ll re-enter the simulation with The Matrix Reloaded (2003)!
The Matrix Resurrections (2021) will be released simultaneously in theaters & HBO Max on December 22!