The Matrix (1999)

In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, an average guy living an average, unfulfilling life in an average and anonymous American city, somewhere at the end of the 20th Century.

Anderson works in a dull job as a computer programmer by day, while by night he is a computer hacker who goes by the name of Neo. Neo is looking for something. Specifically, he is looking for Morpheus, a shadowy figure wanted by the government for unspecified crimes.

When Neo is contacted over his computer by another hacker, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), she tells him that he is in great danger. But she also tells him that, just as he has been seeking Morpheus, so has Morpheus been seeking him.

When Neo and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) finally meet, Morpheus reveals to him the startling and uncomfortable truth about the world in which he is living.

Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo (Keanu Reeves) & Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) Matrix poster image
Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne),
Neo (Keanu Reeves) & Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss)

The Matrix is a very famous film and almost everyone must know by now what its premise actually is. So I'm not going to attempt to be coy about it. I also think this is one of those films where it helps to know going in what it's all about, because otherwise the first third or so of the film can be disorientatingly weird.

One character makes an astonishing and impossible leap from the rooftops of one city block to another. Trinity survives being crushed to death by an oncoming truck by disappearing into thin air. And Neo's mouth is somehow made to disappear from his face, and then he has a weird electronic arachnid of some kind inserted into his naval, a hole far too small for the huge bug to actually enter.

The Matrix is quite bold at keeping the actual nature of its premise a secret from its audience despite all of this. It's not until more than 40 minutes into the film that we start to understand how these seemingly impossible things can occur.

Although Neo believes the year to be 1999, it is in fact nearly 200 years later, and this anonymous city is in reality a giant computer simulation. Neo, and most of the rest of the human race, have been enslaved by machines after the rise of artificial intelligence. A war between humans and machines ended in the defeat of the humans. A few remain free, hidden deep underground in the last human city, Zion. The rest are farmed by the machines to provide energy to power their world.

The virtual reality simulation of the Matrix has been created by the machines to keep the humans docile. For those who can infiltrate the Matrix from outside, like Morpheus and Trinity, seemingly impossible feats become possible, as long as they learn the reality, or unreality, of the computer simulation, and how to successfully manipulate it. The Matrix is policed by a group of sinister, suited agents, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), whose abilities inside the Matrix exceed even those of our heroes. No human has ever defeated one of these agents in combat inside their home environment of the Matrix.

Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, wearing dark glasses and sitting in a red leather chair
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) makes Neo an offer he could easily refuse

The Matrix is arguably a prescient film, but it's also very much a film of its time, a film of the millennium and of millennial angst. The internet had taken off and was no longer the preserve of geeks and nerds, but was beginning to infiltrate everyday life. The population of the Western world was increasingly plugged into the internet and the worldwide web, and slowly beginning to become dependent upon it. People were also starting to develop dual identities, adopting a separate persona for the online world in addition to their identity in the offline one. Just as Thomas Anderson does with his hacker alias Neo, and just as Neo, Morpheus and Trinity have their own individual avatars in the world of The Matrix.

Like its contemporary, the same year's Fight ClubThe Matrix points to the dissatisfaction of a life based around corporate drone work in a fragmented society. The virtual reality city in The Matrix is infused with a sense of nihilism, futility and ennui. People live in bland cities, working identikit jobs for anonymous corporations. They try and party, use drugs or get wasted to try and eek out some enjoyment from life. Neo seems to have no real friends, partner or family. He spends his evenings alone in a room with his computer. It's no wonder that he thinks there must be more to life than this.

In The Matrix people are increasingly separated and isolated from each other and are left able to communicate or interact only through technology. But the real world, the world outside the Matrix, reflects this even more clearly. People are literally separated, kept apart in their own little pods, never touching, never interacting, never really seeing. Any interaction there is can never be truly satisfying or meaningful, because it happens only through technology and only in the virtual world. Everyone is kept at a distance, but no one truly understands that or why their lives feel so empty and dissatisfying. Yes, The Matrix is a great big metaphor for the increasing atomisation of human society and our over-dependence on technology, to interact, to communicate and to relate to one another.

The irony of The Matrix is that it's a film that's both a warning about the perils of over-reliance on technology and a film in thrall to the possibilities of technology for excitement, spectacle and adventure.

And the premise and much of the action in The Matrix are almost certainly inspired by that technology, specifically video games. Characters can tool up with an arsenal of whatever weaponry they want or need, and can simply learn kung fu or how to fly a helicopter with a quick download of the instructions into their brains, the equivalent of taking a quick glance at the manual to see which buttons do what.

The scene where Morpheus directs Neo across an office and through a building, giving him split second instructions on how to avoid the bad guys coming after him, is like a level from one of those annoying computer games where you need to know exactly where your enemies are in advance in order to complete the level. This usually means playing it over and over again. But here Neo has the equivalent of a cheat code in the form of Morpheus's instructions, like one of those online game walkthroughs.

Keanu Reeves firing two pistols in The Matrix
"We need guns ... lots of guns."

The Matrix offers a very solid sci-fi premise for its action. The real world as we used to know it no longer exists, and the characters are all interacting in a computer simulation. But for an action movie premise it's pretty great too, as it means all kinds of outlandish stunts and set pieces become possible without straining credibility.

And The Matrix does deliver as a thriller and as an action film. The film's finale, with Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves leaping about in dark glasses and leather trench coats and spraying bullets left, right and centre, is bombastic, ludicrous and a little bit awesome. You do have to feel a bit sorry for all those security guys they gun down though, who are presumably just ordinary Joes doing their jobs. The role of ordinary people in the Matrix as unwitting tools of the computer simulation is not one the film really delves into that much.

The premise of The Matrix is also quite an unsettling one, and the film contains some disturbing and frightening sequences. Like the scene where we first see the real world, and the humans suspended in their bio-mechanical pods, farmed by the machines. Or the sight of a baby, sealed in its own pod, wired up to a mass of tubes and wires to farm it like a battery cell, while pacifying it with the illusion of the Matrix.

Or the scene when Neo's mouth is made to disappear from his face and the electronic bug is forced into him. If you thought this scene was kind of rapey, then you're not wrong. After Neo's mouth is sealed shut so that he can't scream, the bug is inserted directly into his belly. And when we first see the bug it's even shaped like a giant sperm.

One other reason that The Matrix is so intriguing is that its premise is as much, perhaps more, of a philosophical one than a sci-fi one. In fact, it's a film predicated on some ancient and deeply philosophical questions. How do we know that the world as we perceive it is truly the world as it exists? Can we be sure that our senses are not deceiving us? How do we know that others see what we see? And how do we know that what we see is not an elaborate charade played out for our benefit, as with Truman Burbank in the previous year's comedy-drama The Truman Show? And who hasn't questioned if there is more to the world than meets the eye, if something is being kept from us, or if there's a greater meaning or significance that we are not seeing?

This notion that the bulk of humanity is kept unaware of the true nature of the world, and that we should question the reliability of our own senses recalls Plato's Allegory of the Cave, or perhaps Rene Descartes. Or Jean Baudrillard, whose book, Simulacra and Simulation is hollowed out (ironically) and used as a hiding place in the film by Neo.

Keaneu Reeves holding the spoon in The Matrix
"Do not try and bend the spoon - that's impossible.
Instead, only try to realise the truth: there is no spoon." 

The film also contains many allusions to myth and fairy tales. In fact The Matrix is a sort of dark, modern, urban fairy tale for the digital age. Morpheus is named after the Greek God of sleep and dreams. Somewhat ironically, as his role in the film is to awaken people from a literal and metaphorical slumber and to make them confront reality. Similarly, Neo, Trinity, Zion, or Morpheus's ship the Nebuchadnezzar, are all names offering meaning or potential meanings for the audience to ponder on.

There are also continued references to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, a book Morpheus explicitly refers to more than once. When Trinity gives Neo his directions to first meet her she tells him to follow the white rabbit, another Alice in Wonderland reference. When Neo glimpses a tattoo of a white rabbit on a woman's shoulder, he understands that he is meant to follow her, down the metaphorical rabbit hole. When Neo is taken out of the Matrix, the first sign of freakiness is when he sees his own image becoming increasingly distorted in the mirror, perhaps a subtle nod to the book's sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Despite its "Man fights back against the machines" premise, there's a vein of pessimism about the human race that runs through The Matrix. It was humans who blotted out the sun, we're told, killing off the machines' power source. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, designed to defeat the machines but also effectively destroying the human world in the process. And of course it doesn't defeat the machines anyway, as they find an alternative source of power. Humans just destroyed their own world and turned themselves into battery animals.

Later on, Agent Smith gets his little speech about how humans are really a virus, not living in harmony with their environment, but instead consuming everything in their path. And humans are depicted as so docile, so unquestioning, that they can be enslaved for their whole lives by a virtual reality simulation.

The film also has elements of adolescent fantasy. Neo is an unprepossessing young guy stuck in a dull cubicle job in a crushingly anonymous city. He spends his evenings at home, alone in his room and on the computer, watching internet porn (probably). His life is turned around by an attractive young woman, who contacts him out of nowhere and even sends someone to bring him to her. When he meets her, she falls in love with him and tells him that he's there to save the human race. You see, Neo, you're not just a stinky loser with no mates, you're a really special guy! And there's a sexy girl just waiting to meet you. All you have to do is switch off your computer/unplug from the Matrix/get out of your damn room.

Trinity and Neo wearing black leather coats in the lobby in The Matrix
Trinity and Neo prepare for the final showdown

There is also the woman in the red dress, who is placed into a computer programme and encountered by Neo during his training. She is there to distract him, to take his mind away from his real purpose. Maybe she is some kind of metaphor for the dangers of uncontrolled sexual desire.

And like many an adolescent male fantasy, the Matrix is a world where problems can be solved by simply getting good at fighting skills and kicking the bullies' butts. If only life was more like one of your video games. Well guess what, spotty nerds, you're in luck, because it is.

Like many an adolescent, The Matrix is a film that's also very self-conscious about trying to look cool. The good guys ride motorbikes, wear black leather coats and shades, and are trying so hard to look cool that they even keep their dark glasses on indoors and at night. They also have access to an enormous arsenal of virtual weaponry and there's quite a serious level of gun fetishism going on, particularly in the film's later scenes.

The notion that Neo might be "The One", a special figure of fate or destiny, like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, is a popular sci-fi and fantasy trope. In Neo's case his is also a virgin birth, since he has been produced inside the Matrix and not the old fashioned way, through normal human reproduction. This plays into the film's elements of Christian allegory. The marks left on Neo by his physical unplugging from the Matrix could be seen as representing stigmata. There's even a scene early on when one of the characters tells Neo "You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ!" Neo is betrayed by one of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, his own Judas Iscariot, and even has his own resurrection scene later in the film.

Morpheus releases Neo from the Matrix as he believes him to be The One, someone who can save mankind from the machines. But The Matrix offers an appropriate level of ambiguity, because Neo is explicitly told by the Oracle (Gloria Foster) that he isn't The One, meaning that Morpheus's faith in him may be misplaced.

This apparent contradiction and uncertainty hangs over the characters and the film and leaves the audience unsure of just what Neo's role in events is going to be. The Oracle tells Neo "You've got the gift, but it looks like you're waiting for something." But by the end of the film it seems as if that something has arrived. What Neo (an anagram, of course, of "one") was waiting for was an infusion of faith, to believe in himself and in his own powers as The One, or a potential One. So perhaps The Matrix is partially a religious allegory. Or maybe it's just an invocation of that most trite of self-help slogans, to believe in yourself.

Neo faces off against Agent Smith in The Matrix
Neo faces off against Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving)

The Matrix was produced by action specialist Joel Silver, the producer of Lethal Weapon (1987), Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988), among many others, and written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. The Wachowskis were two brothers from Chicago who later changed gender, becoming Lana and Lilly Wachowski. They had previously sold their screenplay for Assassins (1995) to Warner Bros. and then wrote and directed the crime thriller Bound (1996), before making The Matrix.

Will Smith and Nicolas Cage were both offered the role of Neo, although the Wachowskis preferred choice was apparently Johnny Depp. Depp was still seen as more of an arthouse actor then and presumably not a big enough name for Warner Bros. to accept. Keanu Reeves wasn't an A list name either, but he had some decent action credentials following his leading roles in Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994).

Reeves is acceptable in the role, although he is not the most expressive actor. When Morpheus leaps across the city rooftops from one building to the next, Neo's response is to just say "Whoah!" which is like a parody of what you might expect Keanu Reeves to say. Or maybe Reeves's character Ted, from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. There's some irony that Reeves, a man who could almost be a computer generated acting bot himself, should be the representative and apparent last hope of mankind against artificial intelligence. Still, it could have been worse. It could have been Nicolas Cage.

Laurence Fishburne gets the best role in the film as the mysterious Morpheus. Fishburne gives us a sense of mystery and danger, but it's softened by an almost paternal concern for Neo, and faith that he can raise him to be capable of greater achievements than himself. If you think Nic Cage as Neo is bad enough then take heart, because Val Kilmer was in the frame to play Morpheus. Nic Cage and Val Kilmer? That version of The Matrix was almost certainly doomed to failure.

It's often been claimed that the role of Morpheus was offered to Sean Connery, who passed on this, as well as on Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy at around the same time. Other sources say that it wasn't Morpheus but the role of the Architect in The Matrix sequels that Connery was offered.

Carrie-Anne Moss was a relatively obscure Canadian actress who was given the eye-catching role of Trinity. Although Trinity is dressed up as a modern action film character, a butt-kicking bad ass girl who wears leathers, rides motorbikes and takes on the bad guys, she also serves a classical narrative role. She's a character who helps to release Neo from the Matrix and reveals its secrets to him. But she also encourages him to learn and grow and develop his innate skills and abilities. Only with the love and support of Trinity can Neo become the man he is destined to be.

Also prominent in the cast is Australian actor Hugo Weaving, as Agent Smith. With his sharp suit, dark glasses and slightly off-kilter delivery and mannerisms, Agent Smith is reminiscent of the Men in Black, mysterious government agents of UFO lore. The Matrix was Weaving's first American film, albeit one filmed in Sydney, and he would later be used by the Wachowski brothers for V for Vendetta (2005), which they wrote and produced.

Neo and the human battery pods in The Matrix
Welcome to the real world: Neo wakes up to the unpleasant reality

The Matrix's concept of "The Red Pill", the dark and unpalatable truth that will set you free, is one that's been taken up by fringe groups. It's a handy metaphor for the unwillingness and failure of the ordinary masses, the "sheeple" to see the world as it supposedly is, or as whatever a particular group believes it to be. Take the red pill, and you'll see the real world, not the one the left, the right, big business, big government, or whoever, want you to see. The truth revealed by the red pill is so brutal and unpalatable that some characters in the film wish they had never taken it and would prefer to return to a life of blissful ignorance in The Matrix. The red pill is the harsh truth that will set your mind free but only at a heavy price. This illustrates one of the film's other philosophical questions - is it better to know and understand an ugly reality, or is ignorance truly bliss?

In the late 1990s, films like Hackers (1995), The Net (1995), Virtuosity (1998) and eXistenZ (1999) had explored computer hackers, the internet and virtual reality, but none of them entirely satisfactorily. The contemporary films The Matrix has the most in common with are probably The Truman Show and Dark City, both from 1998, and both set in worlds that are not entirely as they seem

The Matrix also draws a lot on martial arts films, cyberpunk and Japanese anime, as well as esoteric philosophy and religion. The action takes its cues from a combination of video games and Hong Kong martial arts movies, filtered through a dystopian sci-fi sensibility seemingly influenced by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) in particular.

The Matrix is cleverly directed and art directed, from its slightly blocky, grey, ultra-generic city to its try-hard cool leather costumes. The world of the Matrix is differentiated in the film through a subtle, if slightly icky, green tinge, while the real world uses more earthy and realistic tones. The film's action sequences are beautifully staged and the film is a visual triumph, successfully delineating its different worlds and making its vision of the Matrix itself as visually distinctive as it is viscerally unappetising.

Other western films around this time were attempting to incorporate elements of the martial arts and action cinema of Hong Kong, although none as successfully as The Matrix. The previous year's Rush Hour had helped to make a Hollywood action star of kung fu legend Jackie Chan, John Woo had recently made the leap from Hong Kong to American action film director, and even the Bond films had cast Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese agent with some nifty martial arts moves in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies.

The sci-fi premise of The Matrix allowed western audiences to accept its outlandish action and martial arts sequences without complaint. The Wachowskis hired Yuen Woo-ping, a stalwart of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, to choreograph the fight scenes. The film also created the concept of "bullet time", slowing down the action or freeze framing it for a moment, often while rotating around the characters in the middle of an action sequence.

The Matrix was made at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia, and used locations in the same city to portray its anonymous North American metropolis. It was one of the first major productions to be made at the studios and led the way for other big budget American films to shoot there, including Mission Impossible II (2000), Superman Returns (2006) and the Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).

Agent Smith pointing a gun at Neo and Morpheus in the training program
Neo and Morpheus meet a replica of Agent Smith in the training program

The Matrix was a huge hit when it was released in the Spring and early Summer of 1999, building through strong word of mouth. It was released not long before George Lucas returned to the director's chair with The Phantom Menace, the first Star Wars film in 16 years, and helped to emphasise just how lacklustre and unimaginative that film's notion of the sci-fi blockbuster was.

The critical response to The Matrix was generally good, although some felt that the film had squandered its fascinating premise. The details of the plot clearly confused some of the contemporary critics, several of whom seemed to think that it was partly about time travel (Morpheus telling Neo that he is 200 years in the future is presumably what confused them). Todd McCarthy's review in Variety is particularly amusing to read now, as he obviously had no idea what was going on. This does point to the fact that The Matrix was unusually complex for an action film of its time, or probably of any time.

In the years since, The Matrix has firmly established itself as a modern classic, and was inducted into the U.S. National Film Registry in 2012. Although even The Goonies (1985) is in the National Film Registry now, so maybe that doesn't mean very much.

Four years after the release of The Matrix, the Wachowskis returned with two ambitious, but not entirely satisfactory, sequels made back-to-back, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both released in 2003. Neither seems much loved now, although The Matrix Reloaded is probably a little bit underrated. The same year the Wachowskis also produced The Animatrix, a collection of nine short animated films set in the Matrix universe.

After their two Matrix sequels, the Wachowskis later made the flawed, but ambitious epic Cloud Atlas (2012), based on the novel by David Mitchell, and two expensive action flops, Speed Racer (2008) and Jupiter Ascending (2015). Given this track record since 1999, maybe it's not a surprise that Lana Wachowksi has decided to return to the world of The Matrix for a fourth film, presumably in search of another hit.

It's inevitable that a film as rich with allusions as The Matrix should be the source of so much fan theory and analysis. In fact The Matrix is probably the most analysed and over-analysed film of the 1990s. Partly that's because the film makers just throw so much out there. The film is a warning about our over-reliance on technology and the rise of A.I. No wait, it's actually a metaphor for the loss of identity in a modern post-industrial society. No, actually it's a Christ allegory. Or maybe it's a meditation on the illusory nature of experience. The more you look at The Matrix the more possibilities it seems to offer for interpretation. And the transitioning of Larry and Andy Wachowski into Lana and Lilly has added yet another avenue for the development of fan theories.

We can lament the fact that The Matrix takes such a fascinating philosophical premise, freights it with so much meaning, metaphor and allusion, and then simply uses it as the basis for increasingly bombastic action. Or we can celebrate the fact that this is an unusually thoughtful and intriguing action film and, in its own way, probably the most significant film of its year.

The Matrix 

Year: 1999
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action, Thriller
Country: USA
Directors: Larry and Andy Wachowski

Cast  Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Gloria Foster (Oracle), Joe Pantoliano (Cypher), Marcus Chong (Tank), Julian Arahanga (Apoc), Matt Doran (Mouse), Belinda McClory (Switch), Anthony Ray Parker (Dozer), Paul Goddard (Agent Brown), Robert Taylor (Agent Jones), David Aston (Rhineheart), Marc Gray (Choi), Ada Nicodemou (Dujour - white rabbit girl), Deni Gordon (Priestess), Rowan Witt (Spoon boy), Elenor Witt, Tamara Brown, Janaya Pender, Adryn White & Natalie Tjen (Potentials), Bill Young (Lieutenant), David O'Connor (FedEx Man), Jeremy Ball (Businessman), Fiona Johnson (Woman in red), Harry Lawrence (Old man), Steve Dodd (Blind man)

Screenplay Larry and Andy Wachowski  Producer Joel Silver  Cinematography Bill Pope  Production designer Owen Paterson  Editor Zach Staenberg  Music Don Davis  Costume designer Kym Barrett

Running time 136 mins  Colour  Widescreen Panavision

Production company Silver Pictures; in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Groucho II Film Partnership  Distributor Warner Bros.


  1. Nice review. I believe I haven't seen The Matrix since it came out.

    I think you're absolutely right in saying that it's a movie about Millennial angst and a world that was becoming increasingly digitalized. But my guess is most people just watch it for the action, leaving any philosophical question out of it.

    Somehow these dystopian sci-fi fantasies don't do much for me I admit. I find movies like Enemy of the State (1998), which I just rewatched, so much more frightening. It shows a world under constant surveillance that is not sci-fi and as such it scares the hell out of me.

    1. It's definitely worth returning to. I also think that it stands on its own, more or less, without the sequels.

      I've read that some people were a little freaked out by the film. The futuristic premise can make it seem less threatening than a contemporary thriller, but the possibility that the world we live in is artificial and that we're being tricked, is disconcerting, semi-plausible, and difficult to disprove.


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