Did 'The Matrix' Teach Hollywood the Wrong Lessons?

Audiences and filmmakers rose to the challenge and responded to the Wachowskis' groundbreaking film, which turns 20 on March 31, but also became limited by it.

Blue pill or red pill? In the words of Laurence Fishburne’s sage Morpheus, “You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: All I'm offering is the truth.”

Twenty years ago, the Wachowskis offered audiences a choice. We could stick with the status quo of what we expected the sci-fi blockbuster could be, or we could follow these bold new filmmakers down the rabbit hole and see what strange sights they had to show us. The Matrix (1999) ushered us into the 21st century and the next level of science-fiction spectacle like Star Wars (1977) had done 22 years before. But looking at The Matrix’s very specific and chartable influence, there’s a chance we learned the wrong lessons from the film, that our digestion of the red pill was incomplete and we stopped halfway down the rabbit hole and made it our comfort zone instead of exploring further.

We chose to embrace The Matrix, at least seemingly so. The Wachowskis’ cyberpunk kung-fu story of messiahs and free will set against a world where robots rule and humans are used as batteries grossed $453.5 million on a $63 million budget. It scored high with film critics and filmmakers alike, and counted the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon, Darren Aronofsky and cyberpunk godfather William Gibson among its fans. At the 72nd Academy Awards, The Matrix won Oscars for best editing, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. Perhaps we should have taken it as a sign of things to come right then that The Matrix wasn’t nominated for best picture, director or original screenplay.

Two decades removed from the movie, and taking into account the response to the sequels, The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003), along with the Wachowskis’ subsequent filmography, I can’t help but question what exactly it was that led us to respond to The Matrix like we did. To reflect on The Matrix is to not only talk about the greatness of that film, but the landscape of cinema that came after and the questions it posed about influence, audience response and the minds of two of Hollywood’s most thought-provoking filmmakers. All I’m offering is the truth.

The Matrix begins with a beautiful rarity — it drops us into a world both familiar and unfamiliar, a world in which the rules are not yet laid out. There’s a starkness to the setting in which Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) has fashioned a half-life for himself. Lana and Lilly Wachowski, along with cinematographer Bill Pope, created a neo-noir backdrop for their false reality, one of heavy shadows, bright swaths of white light and a general sense of seediness that comes with a ground-eye view of urban living. This noir influence is heightened by the genuine sense of mystery that both we the audience and Reeves’ Anderson are part of. The world of the Matrix is recognizable, but off in a way we can’t quite put our finger on. We don’t start getting exposition, answers to the mystery, until about 27 minutes into the pic, and even those answers don’t provide a full sense of clarity. What’s so incredibly striking about The Matrix is how patient it is, without the Wachowskis feeling a need to provide the instant gratification we expect from films that carry the sci-fi/action label. There are no easy answers, and once Anderson, redubbed Neo, emerges into the true reality, is rebirthed from his pod and meets Morpheus and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) face-to-face, The Matrix becomes even more challenging. But the philosophical and religious questions it raises are opened up through the Wachowskis’ versatile cinematic language, a language not limited to American influences and expectations.

The Matrix and its sequels created a cinematic landscape without limits. The film references, both directly and indirectly, Japanese anime and manga, Ghost in the Shell (1995), Philip K. Dick, Joseph Campbell, The Bible, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and others, while being unrestrained by any of those influences. For 20 years, invested audiences have watched and read detailed descriptions and analysis highlighting the philosophy, technology and theology at play in The Matrix. That information is out there and has been covered by people whose understanding of the subjects far exceeds mine. But the central takeaway from all of the Apocrypha surrounding The Matrix is that the Wachowskis created an original world that, as a whole, felt unlike anything we’d ever seen before and as a result, we had to dig deeper.

The Wachowskis invited filmmakers to break the mold, to push boundaries and ask their audiences to think about supposedly narratively simplistic action films on another level. As filmmakers, they brought a lot of what worked in animation to live-action. Arguably, that’s what many audiences remember most about The Matrix — its action and visual effects. While the movie attaches those action beats to queries — every punch, kick and gun shot a test on the boundaries of this world and its notions of agency, martyrdom and fate — we as filmmakers and moviegoers walked away from The Matrix en masse perhaps more interested in seeing the follow-through of a bullet in slow-motion or the ripple of glass shattering in a burst of gunfire than an examination of human nature and our need to believe in something larger than ourselves for survival.

We rose to the challenge and responded to The Matrix, but we also became limited by it. The most persistent vestiges of The Matrix’s influence are black leather costumes, gun-fu, bullet time and dystopic realities. But I question if what those aspects meant in the context of the pic really stuck with us, or if they just became aesthetics made to box the slick new millennium in an easily digestible format. We as pop culture enthusiasts wanted a repetition of The Matrix, rather than the next step. To reference the film, we wanted to embrace the black cat of déjà vu and live in that reality despite the double-whammy of corrupted code and bad luck it promised. In turn, we saw movies that were inspired by the physical form of The Matrix but not its soul. X-Men (2000), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Equilibrium (2002), Resident Evil (2002), Underworld (2003), Aeon Flux (2005), Ultraviolet (2006) and Wanted (2008) all borrowed something from The Matrix; some with entertaining results and others not so much. Right up until The Dark Knight (2008), The Matrix was the most influential and imitated genre blockbuster of the 21st century (even if it opened nine months before the millennium). 

While The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions fared well at the box office, earning $742.1 million and $457.3 million respectively at the global box office, they are still looked at as diminishing returns on the original film. The steep drop off in both box office and critical reception for Revolutions can’t be overlooked. But I’d argue that while the sequels are at times overly ambitious, they are the movies that best represent the core of who the Wachowskis are as filmmakers. While general audiences went in looking for more gun fights and battles between Neo and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the Wachowskis seemed more interested in The Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) and exploring the nature of myth both within and outside of the Matrix. The Wachowskis made sequels that weren’t interested in maintaining a comfort zone or feeding into audiences’ desire to be in-the-know and ahead of the narrative after a single viewing. If we were onboard and eager to learn from the first film, then by Revolutions we had decided we’d had enough, and like bored students we left class early and gave the teacher a scathing review when we couldn’t catch up.

Looking at the Wachowskis’ filmography post-The Matrix Trilogy: Speed Racer (2008), Cloud Atlas (2012), Jupiter Ascending (2015) and Sense8 (2015-2018) and their public and box office reception, we arguably weren’t interested in the Wachowskis’ ability to continue push us out of our comfort zone in terms of effects, narrative and tone. None of those films or series are perfect by any means, but they are fascinating examples of narratives being so full of ideas that they use pop culture references as construction material to fashion stories that truly feel novel and unlike anything else we have playing on our screens. I can’t help but wonder if the Wachowskis would fare better in Asia, where filmmakers like Joon-ho Bong, Jee-woon Kim and Takashi Miike are less confined by audiences who bring certain expectations about tone and grounded concepts with them.

The Matrix predates our modern fascination with superhero movies and cinematic universes, and I think it’s a film, despite our recognition of it as a great work, that would not fare well if released today. The Wachowskis unfortunately can’t seem to thrive by today’s filmmaking standards, and I’m not sure they want to. But it’s telling of how much we wish to confine the Wachowskis within that field by how often their names are bandied about by fans online looking to pin them to the next superhero movie, despite their interviews stating a disinterest in following someone else’s canon. For a general audience that shudders at any major change or shift from the norm in regards to a film’s handling of source material, the thought that audiences would embrace the Wachowskis bringing their weird sensibilities to a character like Superman or Thor is amusing. This isn’t an admonishment of franchise filmmaking, but I do think it’s interesting that The Matrix paved the way for superhero films and live-action remakes of animated movies, and as a result those superhero films and Disney remakes have largely superseded interest in original sci-fi blockbusters that have either tried to launch their own franchises or depart from a previously established franchise formula.

The lack of blockbuster success or the struggle to break even we’ve seen for films like Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Mortal Engines (2018) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019) is something no amount of award nominations can change. Filmmakers may have taken up the Wachowskis’ invitation on occasion, but audiences have largely failed to show up for them in the same way they do for what’s familiar, tested and guaranteed to be a success. This is where I could easily make use of another Morpheus line and position it as the truth. What truth? “The truth that you are a slave.” But I don’t believe that is true, not entirely. Modestly budgeted high-concept pics have fared better when it comes to capturing a spirit similar to The Matrix: Looper (2012), Snowpiercer (2013), Arrival (2016) and Annihilation (2018). But in terms of creating pop culture events, Christopher Nolan (and to a lesser extent James Cameron) is one of the only prominent live-action filmmakers of the 21st century who has managed to get audiences, by way of their wallets, to respond to big-budget original films that challenge us by blending classic genre elements with mythology, philosophy and spirituality.

We may have moved beyond the black leather imitators, but we’re still holding onto the wrong lessons from The Matrix, if we’re still holding onto any at all. Our entire struggle to learn from The Matrix is best summed up with a piece of news that dropped in 2017: Warner Bros. is considering a Matrix reboot film series without the Wachowskis, hiring Zak Penn to write the treatment. The Matrix without the Wachowskis speaks of wrong lessons learned from the film more than anything else, because The Matrix is the Wachowskis, it’s their minds stretched across celluloid. Without them, The Matrix is just something we’ve seen before, heroes in black fighting robots in a film that will only gain traction because it’s a familiar brand. That’s a hell of a pill to swallow. Twenty years later and it seems we’d rather be plugged into the Matrix than find out what else might be waiting for us out there. But there is hope that we can not only support original genre films, but ask that they challenge us, force us to learn and let go of our expectations. To quote Morpheus for the final time, “Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”