A common movie mantra is that special effects can’t be the point of the movie. They have to serve the higher function of the movie’s story and its characters. That’s why some movies drenched with effects reach a higher plane of storytelling while others just become a kind of noisy chaos. But in 1999, right as computer CGI was hitting another threshold in terms of quality and what could actually be done with them, a little movie nobody really saw coming arrived and blew everybody away. And it did it not just with the quality of its visual effects, but how the mere ability to present certain visuals enabled a certain kind of story to be told that without which would have been impossible. That movie was the Matrix, a mind-bending mashup that drew on a dozen different geeky wellsprings to create a kind of unforgettable, hyperkinetic action epic that some 20 years later has lost none of its punch.
The story takes place in a green-tinted urban near-future in which a lonely hacker named Anderson has a nagging feeling that maybe something is deeply not right with the world. When his mercenary code-writing efforts gain him the attention of both mysterious cyber rebels and creepy, sunglasses-wearing federal agent-types, he knows he’s stepped into something serious. That doubles down when he meets a deeply weird dude in pince-nez mirrorshades named Morpheus—who seems to know more about Anderson than Anderson knows about himself. Morpheus explains that, yes, the world is not what it seems, and that he can enter the ultimate underground on a one-way ticket, if he wants. Anderson takes it, and…that’s when things get really weird. Turns out, Anderson, like the rest of humanity, is hooked up to a massive virtual reality so that intelligent robots can harvest his body’s heat and electricity for power. It’s way farther into the future than Anderson realizes, a war between humanity and intelligent robots ended with humanity becoming cattle for their robotic servants, and Morpheus is part of a legitimate rebellion against the new mechanical order. Renamed Neo, Anderson undergoes an intensive training regimen that involves hacking back into the Matrix – the artificial world he once thought was reality, so he can undermine the Agents who run things and perhaps unlock his potential as a supposed savior of humanity. Like anybody else who knows how to hack the Matrix, Neo can give himself superhuman abilities and endless firepower, which sets up some of the most memorable action sequences in the history of cinema.
Much has been made of the philosophical underpinnings of the Matrix: is reality really what we think it is? And even if it’s not, how would you ever know unless you disbelieved it so much that you truly detach yourself from it? Personally, this conversation never much interested me. Sure, The Matrix offered a neat take on these age-old arguments, but what really blew me away was the way the movie looked and its style. The Wachowskis, who wrote and directed the Matrix, drew from geek inspirations that ranged from comics books, video games and Westerns to manga, anime, wuxia, and a bunch of others. They somehow combined this insane list of ingredients into something that was greater than the stylistic sum of its parts, which is no mean feat. And to make these various aspects all work required a whole lot of CGI, practical stunt work, and a ubiquitous green filter to give both sides of reality an unnatural green light. The visual and narrative result was so stirring that it set the standard for movie cool for years afterward, and it was a sure sign that Generation X would now get its chance to make the kinds of movies that had inspired it. The stuff that fueled the Wachowskis’ vision for The Matrix was the bedrock of the modern geek culture, and at last we had a movie almost entirely informed by that. The reason why so many people could not understand the success of the Matrix is because a lot of them hadn’t been part of the lifelong preparation effort for this movie. But those who were…they were defenseless against the shockwave that The Matrix aimed to deliver. And what a shockwave it was, too.
The greatest trick of the movie is its simplest: simply cutting between the real world and the fake one where if you’re smart enough and skilled enough, you can make anything happen in your fight against cyber-tyranny. In the Matrix, you don’t have to be bitten by a radioactive spider or hail from an alien planet to have superpowers. You just need to be smart enough to know what you want, and mentally strong enough to impose your will on a world hellbent on resisting it. That’s a pretty engaging concept, and it sets up a moment of truth within one of the most entertaining fight scenes ever filmed: a training duel between Neo and Morpheus.
Turns out, you can bestow any skillset to yourself in the Matrix, and we see it when Neo is given martial arts training and after a few seconds of having his mind blown, he tells the audience, “I have kung fu.” Hell, yeah! But there’s more to it than that: Neo must learn how to harness this power he’s got, and as we watch his skills rapidly develop and finally fight Morpheus to a standstill—all while other characters cheer from the sidelines like they’re around a Street Fighter II machine—we see a hero who is going to succeed not because he’s the Chosen One. He’s the Chosen One because he knows how to game a rigged system in his favor. That’s all. To an audience trying to figure out how they’re gonna hack their way through a world that will increasingly tell them it would rather they not push so hard, Neo is the kind of hero you could get behind.