The Matrix was never expected to be “a thing.”
Twenty years ago Sunday, the Warner Bros. release pulled off that which would be almost unheard of today for a blockbuster: It snuck into theaters with less-than-typical fanfare, appearing to most unsuspecting audiences as another William Gibson-y, Johnny Mnemonic knockoff starring that 1995 box-office failure’s lead actor, Keanu Reeves. Then, on opening weekend, ticket buyers saw Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) leap across rooftops in a way that was straight out of an anime. They saw Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) give his now-iconic “blue or red pill” speech. “Guns. Lots of Guns.” And, of course, Bullet Time.
Average audiences looking for matinee entertainment became borderline-obsessed fans of the Wachowskis’ film before the end credits rolled, finding themselves on the ground level of a phenomenon in the making. A movie that seemingly, from all reports, never fully intended to be a franchise but whose DNA was capable of being just that. With remakes and rebootquels having become load-bearing columns of the film industry, and with Netflix presiding over streaming like The Matrix’s harvesting machines do over farms home to human batteries, there has never been a better time for the often rumored Matrix remake (or reboot) than now … perhaps on WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service?
In the two decades since The Matrix changed the way we make movies (and forced us to endure countless “Bullet Time” homages and parodies with varying degrees of success), the original film and its themes of identity, man vs. machine, what we think we can do vs. who we are truly capable of being, have held up much better than its two misfire sequels: 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Mr. Anderson’s struggles to escape the confines of his cubicle life and embrace his inner Neo (Reeves) are ones just as relatable now (if not more so) than they were in 1999. And the world of the Matrix, one home to cities made out of code and those underground, home to a fierce, computer-savvy resistance force, deserve to be built upon better than the bloated treatment and emotionally shallow efforts the sequels afford them. (And fans deserve better than watching Neo and Trinity die onscreen and their mentor and father figure, Morpheus, being denied an opportunity to mourn those deaths.)
Such narrative oversights, perhaps the result of a feature film’s run-time constraints, have the potential to be alleviated in the serialized, binge-watching way Netflix has popularized. A new, deeper dive into The Matrix would benefit from an expanded, multi-episode arc. Basically, a more successful version of what the noble misfire The Animatrix was trying to achieve.
A limited series approach, or one that feels like one really long movie, a la the Wachowskis’ Sense8, is what feels best to truly service the world of the Matrix. It would allow for the type of world-building and character-driven storyline audiences can’t help but invest in for the long haul of several seasons binged on the couch over a rainy weekend.
Reeves’ Neo was blessed with Superman-level powers, but cursed by the sequels denying him a chance to really struggle with the consequences of having them. Or face the dangers of achieving self-actualization as a human who behaves like a god in the world he just freed himself from. There is an inherent conflict and dialectic in Neo’s power set, one that is ripe for dramatization in the Netflix format for consuming such entertainment. With the popularity of movies like Logan, ones that find iconic action heroes in the third act of their lives, struggling to find redemption for a life spent saving a world that can’t help itself from constantly needing saved, imagine how exciting it would be to put Neo through that lens.
Or take a page from 2018’s Halloween: Pretend that the other sequels don’t exist, but the time between now and the first installment does. What does life look like for Neo, Trinity and Morpheus? Are the latter two heroes forced to confront their savior when his newfound sense of god-like self threatens to consume his humanity? Will the people of Zion rise up against the machines using them as power sources, or is there a faction within their ranks that wants to pull a Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) and just enjoy their simulated steak?
The Matrix was not intended to be a thing, but it deserves that status. Its world is both rich and complex enough to warrant a return trip. If done right, Netflix’s The Matrix could do for streaming what the original movie did for Bullet Time, and give fans what they deserve: a second chance to experience this world with the same thrill they had the first time. Whoa, indeed.