1999: The Matrix
Written and directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski
1999 was supposed to be the year of Star Wars. The special editions two years earlier had kindled the flame, and The Phantom Menace was going to come along and show us all the error of our ways and make the cinematic world right again. In terms of box office, it did just that, and many of us, so desperately wanting to believe, convinced ourselves it had done so in all the other ways as well. The reality was Episode I had been trumped two months earlier by a film nobody really expected much from, and which came nowhere near the dizzying financial heights of its more successful competition. The Phantom Menace was a pretender. The Matrix was the One.
Of course, I didn’t think so at the time. In my Lucas Kool-Aid drinking days, I’d convinced myself that the furor over The Matrix was simply due to wanting to have something Not Star Wars to cling to. People wanted to bash Lucas, and here was a convenient poster child to hoist up above its actual station in order to do just that. Oh, it was good, but revolutionary? Visionary? Come on. I’d seen all this stuff in anime and cyberpunk RPGs years before. Old ideas in a pretty new package. Never mind that that’s pretty much what Star Wars was back in 1977. Boy, I really was kind of an idiot about those films back then.
What was really going on was denial. Deep down, I knew. I knew that even though both were recycling ideas, The Matrix felt fresh and new, while Phantom Menace, even with all its new-fangled technology, felt like the retread. There was an excited energy to The Matrix, an elation at this new playground the Wachowskis were running around in. And while I wasn’t as blown away by the whole concept of “bullet time” as some were, it was a technique that existed in service to the story, not simply as way to show off a neat trick they’d thought up. And if the film’s ideas about free will and choice weren’t exactly original, well, neither is the idea of a communal force binding us all together. You can use the same old ingredients as long as you’re cooking up something interesting with them.
What’s more, I loved the ending. When Neo soars up into the sky, it really makes The Matrix into one big super-hero origin story. I was excited about the potential of more stories in this world, at how the film had gone to so many lengths to justify and legitimize a super-hero in it. And the idea of freeing minds by Neo’s example was a thrilling one to me. He would be an inspiration, a vivid example of what was possible in the Matrix. Which is why I was so crushingly disappointed when The Matrix Reloads felt the need to essentially have Neo take his hero’s journey all over again, and have most of the battle fought not within the Matrix, but outside of it. The first film had a triumphant ending that the sequel undid in order to give itself a reason to exist. Gone was the confident, powerful Neo from that final shot, replaced by the same unsure, questioning Neo we thought had learned what he needed to already.
So, for me, The Matrix exists as a solitary film. I’ve never even see the two sequels since I first saw them in the theater. The Matrix exists as this perfect expression of ideas and technology and craft that I’d rather have exist as a singular experience, without knowing I’ve got two disappointments to follow. Which, when I think about it, prepared me for what I’d ultimately do with the Star Wars prequels. So yes, a film from 1999 did show me the way. Just not the film, or the way, I expected.