Since its release on March 31, 1999, The Matrix has continued to shape both Hollywood and society in general — resulting in one of the most successful media franchises of all time — that is also respected for its gender politics and philosophy. But how exactly did filmmakers Lana and Lilly Wachowski create a film that is both revered for its visual style, and also its substance? Perhaps it's only something that can be explained after a long passage of time.
In honor of its 20th anniversary, we take a look at how the film changed Hollywood and pop culture forever.
“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us”
The Matrix’s influence can be broadly summarized into visual and philosophical aspects.
While its visual identity might be most recognizable today as a trend in fashion, the film’s imagery was groundbreaking in many ways upon its release. Directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski (then known as Larry and Andy) were heavily inspired by the Japanese anime aesthetic — particularly the seminal 1995 film Ghost In the Shell.
Today anime influences are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, where remakes of Japanese films —including Ghost In the Shell — have been watered down and plagued by accusations of whitewashing. These lackluster attempts at bringing Eastern cinema to the West have never been as strong as the original works, but the Wachowskis proved how to respectfully take artistic influences, give credit where it is due, and develop them into a style that can be considered one’s own.
Strengthening the anime-tinged visual style was The Matrix’s next-level fight sequences – another aspect indebted to Asian cinema — particularly Hong Kong martial arts films and especially those by director, John Woo. Working with martial arts choreographers from the Hong Kong action style, The Matrix brought Eastern fighting choreography into Hollywood’s spotlight. Soon after, everything from X-Men to Charlie’s Angels to Kill Bill adopted the so-called “wire fu” technique. It’s safe to say that The Matrix helped popularize this aesthetic in Hollywood, marking a turning point in the action genre that coincided with the new millennium.
It’s also important to note The Matrix’s casting of uncharacteristic heroes. An anomaly in the action genre at the time, the film’s leads comprise a slender and non-macho male protagonist (Keanu Reeves as Neo), a black teacher/father figure (Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus), and an androgynous female (Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity).
The Matrix was incredibly progressive and helped shift perspectives, allowing for the multitude of antiheroes Hollywood has welcomed ever since. Up until this point, serious action heroes were mostly white and hyper masculine with nary a woman in sight. The likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme dominated the genre. And while black action stars such as Wesley Snipes had broken through in Hollywood, their roles were often reduced to the periphery.
Despite these important aspects signifying The Matrix’s place in Hollywood’s evolution, it’s still mostly remembered for pioneering “bullet time,” a visual effect wherein time and space can be warped to show parts of a shot that would otherwise be imperceptible to the naked eye. So-called because it’s used multiple times in the film to show bullets that appear to have stopped in thin air, the impact this effect has had on the film and gaming industry is undeniable.
Another visual component that’s gone on to heavily influence pop culture is The Matrix’s “digital rain” code. Taking its cues from Ghost In the Shell’s opening sequence, the neon-green-on-black design features a mix of Latin letters and numbers, and Japanese half-width kana characters mirrored and falling down the screen. The design is so iconic that loose variations on it have come to signify anything related to the hacker/cyber sphere.
It’s easy to undermine this kind of visual shorthand 20 years on, when we take these comparisons for granted, but it’s without a doubt that due to the diverse range of influences executed by a strong team of creatives led by the Wachowskis, The Matrix has left an indelible footprint on Hollywood’s visual language.
Art is never static
Paralleling The Matrix’s rich visual legacy is its dense philosophy, which on the surface is perhaps best known for ushering Hollywood into the digital age. There were certainly movies based in information technology before The Matrix, but very few blockbusters are as wide-reaching and thematically complex. It’s no coincidence that the film’s release coincides with the height of the Y2K panic, which no doubt added to its success, as a future dictated by machines didn’t seem all too far off.
Its exploration of simulation theory was inspired by Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra & Simulation, with the theory gaining even more traction in recent years thanks to Elon Musk’s peddling of the idea. The Matrix — alongside Fight Club which was also released in 1999 — popularized the idea of questioning our reality. It appears as if the Wachowski’s predicted our world today which is littered with examples of false realities and fake news.
Finally, the most fascinating aspect of The Matrix’s legacy has only come to the fore in the last few years. It’s the theory that the film is an allegory for gender transition – an idea that’s had traction within the trans community since the film’s release — but which was not discussed widely until Lilly Wachowski’s coming out in 2016. She herself commented on this theory while at the GLAAD Media Awards of that year, stating: “There’s a critical eye being cast back on Lana’s and my work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static.”
It seems there’s no roof to The Matrix’s influence, be it technological or philosophical, moving now into metaphilosophy while tackling one of present society’s foremost topics.
Author Chuck Klosterman discusses this in his book But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. Upon discussing the film’s technological and philosophical achievements, he proposes that one day when these aspects are no longer ahead of our time, what will be remembered about The Matrix is its creators’ gender transitions and the impact on the film itself.
“The symbolic meaning of a universe with two worlds — one false and constructed, the other genuine and hidden — takes on an entirely new meaning. The idea of a character choosing between swallowing a blue pill that allows him to remain a false placeholder and a red pill that forces him to confront who he truly is becomes a much different metaphor.”
His thoughts mirror Lilly Wachowski’s statement that art is never static. It’s bewildering to think how an action blockbuster film — which although boasted strong critical acclaim for its many groundbreaking elements when it came out — can still deliver newfound radical meaning nearly two decades after its release.