If it had solely been for the special effects, similar to James Cameron’s mega-hit Avatar, The Matrix would’ve went on to be viewed as nothing more than a relic for its time. Its revolutionary special effects — which blended slow-motion videography and point-of-view perspective of bullets that highlighted the split-second reactionary movements of their targets — would have gone on to be a source of parody material and object of visual datedness. Certainly, the special effects and action sequences of The Matrix have been subjected to plenty of spoof material, but the film itself not only holds up decades later, but still mesmerizes by way of its fascination with a world that may or may not exist. Even if it does, we may or may not ever concretely know about it. Who can say?
The perplexing qualities of The Matrix are still very much present in the current day; the Wachowskis didn’t make a film that could easily be dissected nor grow more obvious and discernible with age. In fact, the rise in technology perhaps further complicated matters in this regard. This is why The Matrix has gone on to inspire a legion of fan-fiction pieces, graphic novels, and elaborate fan theories in order to piece together the world.
Inspired by such complex thinkpieces and essays that questioned reality and simulation such as Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulation and Simulacra” and Plato’s famous cave allegory, The Matrix concerns the idea that perceived reality by most human beings is actually an artificial reality known as “the Matrix.” It’s a carefully orchestrated world controlled by sentient machines in order to maintain order on the human population, with the prime goal being the harvesting of energy. Body-heat and electrical activity summoned by large, hulking machines and computer code power this world and the entire thing looks as if it were birthed from a computer scientist’s nightmare.
One day, while working on code, a man named “Neo” (Keanu Reeves) learns of the Matrix and is abducted by a team of specialists who are attempting to infiltrate, essentially leaving their “dream world” and their fictitiously created reality. Neo is instructed by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who, upon having his agents kidnap him, gives him the free-will to decide whether to swallow a red pill or a blue one. The red pill will allow him to plunge deeper into the world of the Matrix, whilst the blue one will return him to his old life with no recollection of any of these events. Neo bravely swallows the red one, only to wake up in a vat of liquid, encapsulated in a pod and hooked up to tubes that make him almost appear as a grown fetus.
Sidebar: later on in the film, a character named Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) ponders the idea of returning to the Matrix despite knowing its roots as a simulation. It’s a plot-point integral to the rising action later. In the moment, however, he uses the steak he is eating as an example of his reasoning for returning to his previous, ignorant life. “I know this steak doesn’t exist,” he says. “I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
Give me the blue pill eight days a week. I overthink enough without the alleged privilege of seeing how the sausage is made.
Back to the plot. Morpheus explains to Neo that at the dawn of the 21st century, humans and machines began to wage a war and not in the sense of artificial intelligence vs. humankind. When humans found a way to withhold machines’ access to solar energy, the machines began harvesting the bioelectrical energy humans produce in order to power the world. In order to destroy these machines, one first has to recognize their existence. Then, one needs to find a way to puncture the simulation of the Matrix by infiltrating it and unplugging humans who are solely used for their energy.
This causes a grand divide between what is perceived as real and what is actually real, which is what The Matrix is all about. Neo and Morpheus also recruit Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), upon freeing her from enslavement from the machines in order to help with the brain-power to defeat the machines.
As with most complex, layered science-fiction films that test the weight of the genre by exploring the existential, there’s only so far I’ll go before I wave the white flag in either defeat or acceptance of fact or narrative. One of the many elegant attributes about The Matrix is I never felt that rush of defeat. I won’t pretend to know all the intricacies, but the Wachowskis have created something so accessible despite being inherently complex. This is a film that’s incredibly interesting, even if its complexities can get muddled in the midst of a lot of technological conversation. It’s the kind of film you can lose yourself in if you’re not careful.
The Wachowskis balance the level of conversation and elements of simulation with some more gripping, technologically subversive action sequences, making this almost unquestionable in why it continues to end up as one of the most praised and elaborate works of science-fiction of all-time. In addition, all three performers — Reeves, Fishburne, and Moss — give performances that are shockingly fun to watch despite how frequently monotone and straight-forward they can be.
The Matrix is that rare sci-fi film that’s equal parts smart, enjoyable, and complex enough not only enough to warrant but almost demand multiple viewings. It’s also the even rarer work of sci-fi that could be released today with desperately few elements unchanged. Its quick, almost out-of-the-blue inception and its lickety-split wrap-up four years later leads to my personal belief that the Wachowskis sat on this well-thought-out fever dream of a movie for a number of years and knew exactly how they wanted to write it and introduce it to the world. It’s proven to possess the ability to inspire someone enough after seeing it to do something as crazy as this, like actually believe they’re part of a simulated universe.
You needn’t travel too deeply down the bowels of Reddit to see that particular theory manifest itself into reality.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano. Directed by: The Wachowskis.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality in North Central Illinois. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!