What is the Matrix? I remember seeing that question everywhere when I was 10. It was at the forefront of the marketing, efficiently creating mystery in a mere four words. What? is? the? Matrix?
(If that’s a question you don’t know the answer to, I believe I am required to say two things. First, to make the traditional asinine comment about your head being buried in a shoebox under the crust of the Earth for the last decade. Second, to warn you: do not read this. Do not. You are a very lucky person. Go and find The Matrix on DVD, now. Your mind is purest white snow, before the first muddy footprint. Don’t read the back of the box, don’t do anything, just watch.)
What was the Matrix? I had no idea. Working off the snippets I’d seen on TV, I did exactly what you’d expect a 10 year old boy’s mind to do, I extrapolated. Somewhere in the recesses of my young mind are elaborate answers, whole imagined films. None of which, I am sure, bore any resemble to The Matrix.
I don’t remember first seeing it, or how much of the answer I’d picked up by then, but it was a couple of years later, on a fuzzy VHS, and it immediately became my favourite film.
Released in 1999, it hit the zeitgeist perfectly enough that it still felt brand new when I saw it then, so much it still seems convincing now. The Matrix is set in a future extrapolated from the end of the 20th Century, and all the stuff that seemed important and futuristic then: the internet, the idea of avatars and the fluid identity they brought, AI… And, for most of the film, that is the setting: a slightly tweaked version of 1999, and the technology available then, in all its clunky analogue glory. Modem-punk, if you will.
(I love the way that the Matrix-specific technology they sneak in – the bug the Agents put in Neo’s stomach, and the big vacuum cleaner Trinity uses to get it out – don’t quite fit with the smooth modern aesthetic. Like they can’t quite be constructed from the simulated-1999 vocabulary of the Matrix, and have to be cobbled together from odd bits and pieces.)
Everything manages to look more-or-less plausibly real. It helps how recognisable the inside of the Matrix is: the freedom fighters are just guys in trenchcoats and shades, exits are landline telephones, world-changing glitches are just moments of déjà vu. Its props belong to our world, just slightly twisted.
All of which allows it to go on flights of fancy. Primarily, in those action scenes full of impossible spectacle. I would’ve expected time – all the copies and parodies and rewatches – to dilute the balletic grace of the fights. But no, they’re still awe-inspiring. The way they move is how I imagine I’m moving when I’m really, perfectly drunk and dancing to my favourite song. Then suddenly gravity is being bent and the fight is in the air, on the walls…
But again it’s grounded: in how clearly it’s really the actors, not stunt men, and they are really doing really beautiful kung-fu. In the perfect intimate body-horror connection of… well, those connections. Things are always penetrating: the bug’s journey into, and out of, Neo’s belly button. The umbilical -giving that are pulled out when Neo wakes up. Syringes into bare flesh. Most of all, that big spiky ethernet cable sliding into the place where skull meets spine. The most horrifying deaths aren’t by machine gun, or helicopter explosion, or kung fu. It’s Apoch and Switch, comatose, having their connectors pulled out and tumbling down dead inside the Matrix.
But… oh, those fight scenes.
This film is the reason now, as a sort-of grown-up, I don’t accept the oh, it’s just a dumb action film argument. This is not a matter of meeting quotas.
The Matrix has action scenes that go beyond watchability, beyond the mathematics of x bodycount, y explosions and z headshots. They are beautiful and grounded in a real and present threat – and when that’s not enough, the Wachowskis are clever enough to pile on a threat in the other world, too, one that’s been neatly set up an hour before.
But then on top of that it piles other stuff: symbolism and references and and callbacks structure and all of that – this is after all, a film that reaches its climax in the same motel room it opened in. And a sense of humour and a plot and human characters and most of all, constant cool ideas. It’s sci-fi as it should be- just about plausible enough to have you questioning the stuff that matters, but more importantly never letting up, never catching its breath. As full of ideas as it is full of action.
I saw this film when I was 12 years old. I’ve been metabolising it, on and off, ever since. And then, we’re a decade on, and you give me Transformers 2? You feed me that and you expect me to be satisfied?