The Unconventional Heroism of “The Matrix”

The Matrix Carrie Ann Moss & Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, from Warner Bros.

(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Since June is Pride Month, we’re taking a deep dive into the works of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, two of the most prominent – and fascinating – transgender filmmakers around. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of the Wachowskis here.)

Trying to fully appreciate just how widely The Matrix impacted cinema in the wake of its March 1999 debut is like trying to calculate how impactful The Beatles was on the world of rock music. Everything changed once The Matrix entered the scene, and we’re still feeling its profound ripple effects to this very day. But one doesn’t need to step back a thousand feet to fully appreciate how much of a game-changer The Matrix was, or why. One could tell it was just that from the moment it opened, particularly in regards to what a welcome deviation it was from typical late 1990s American blockbusters.

The 1990s had been populated by a bevy of blockbusters using cutting-edge digital technology to create heretofore unknown visual effects. However, such technology was most often put to use in Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich features that eschewed even the possibility of incorporating greater thematic resonance into the proceedings. All the splashy visual effects in the world couldn’t make us care about Matthew Broderick’s worm aficionado in Emmerich’s Godzilla.

Meanwhile, The Matrix also employed all kinds of state-of-the-art visual effects technology, not to mention revolutionary stunt choreography and camerawork, but it didn’t exclusively rely on cool new toys. Instead, it put those elements in the service of a story that was all about intellect. The Matrix took a high-concept premise concerning humanity unwittingly living at the whims of robotic organisms and wrung all the potential contemplative possibilities out of the proceedings.

You left The Matrix talking about your favorite moments in the fight scenes, no question about it, how could you not when the movie delivers such cathartic showdowns like Neo’s final confrontation with Agent Smith? But unlike the other empty blockbusters that were in such high supply in the late 1990s, you could also leave this particular big-budget affair actually talking about greater ideas contained in its script about the very nature of existence itself.

The more intellectual nature of The Matrix was apparent upon release, but the core ideas in its story have taken on more and more layers in the years since its release, due to both the personal lives and expanding filmography of its directors, Lana and Lilly Wachowski. In terms of their personal lives, the fact that Lana and Lilly have come out as trans women to the public in the years since this feature’s release recontextualizes the plot of a movie that hinges on contemplating who or what defines a person’s identity.

Thomas A. Anderson, A.K.A. Neo (Keanu Reeves), occupies a world where everyone rigidly adheres to narrowly defined society standards of normalcy without questioning things, while his freedom comes from defying society’s narrowly defined norms. As if to drive the point home, the main villain of the piece is Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who can create endless indistinguishable copies of himself.

In The Matrix, the heroes are those who dare to deviate from what’s considered to be the norm, while the villain is explicitly depicted as a cisgender white male, a member of society who benefits most from the aforementioned narrowly defined conventions of this world’s concept of normalcy. One can’t help but see The Matrix now as being especially powerful as a story about trans individuals, along with other members of marginalized communities, fighting for the right to exist as themselves in an unaccepting society.

This is especially hard to ignore given how much thoughtful exploration of how The Matrix explores this perspective has been penned over the years by people like Twitter user SuperShip ’79, allowing one to truly appreciate The Matrix on an entirely new level.

As for how The Matrix takes on extra layers of resonance in the greater context of the Wachowski Sisters filmography, it established a number of core tenants for their work. Most notably, it established that The Wachowskis worked in science-fiction storytelling that employs high levels of audacious visual effects to tell tales involving everyday individuals just trying to pursue their own ambitions in the face of villains usually defined as evil by benefiting from opulent wealth and/or a corrupt societally-ingrained system.

From the very start, Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s films defined their heroes and their villains through the lens of who benefits the most from the status quo. It’s a perspective that could only come from a member of a marginalized community, lending their works a unique vision among the American blockbuster scene dominated by cisgender heterosexual male points of view, while the recurring critiques of capitalism in their works are similarly unique.

Though that perspective and definition of heroes and villains endures throughout the Wachowskis’ filmography, how it precisely manifests itself varies from feature to feature. Certainly, Speed Racer explores such concepts vastly differently from Cloud Atlas. But those elements introduced in The Matrix still endure throughout their works, as does another key part of The Matrix: ambition. The same kind of ambition that pushed The Matrix far ahead of other late 1990s blockbusters has been a core tenant of the Wachowskis’ work.

Just as people thought “bullet time” was an impossible feat to pull off back then, so too did people think that making a live-action movie like Speed Racer look and feel like a classic piece of anime was a fool’s errand. Did any studio executive possibly think Cloud Atlas wasn’t a risky as hell endeavor? Even their most notable foray into TV, Sense8, was riddled with ambition, including the fact that it was one of the earliest original TV shows to air on Netflix.

From the very start, Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s films defined their heroes and their villains through the lens of who benefits the most from the status quo.

All of that ambition that’s been found throughout their works makes the filmography of the Wachowskis a fascinating one to pore over.  Even a more flawed work like Jupiter Ascending still has plenty of fascinating and endearing qualities to it. What other filmmakers would have the courage to have Eddie Redmayne play a villain who talks like that? What other filmmakers would revel in the fact that their big-budget family movie utilizes a live-action chimpanzee? The answer, it turns out, is the same women who delivered The Matrix twenty years ago. All of that swing-for-the-fences audacity that fueled this landmark piece of American cinema has been running throughout their other works as blood runs through a living organism.

From the very first scene, The Matrix uses its ambition to hit the ground running with a story that wastes no time in introducing the viewer and Neo to a vast world that is not what it seems. Unlike in Jupiter Ascending, all of that world-building doesn’t end up tripping the overall storytelling of The Matrix. Instead, there’s an efficiency to how The Matrix conveys its ambitious mythos, most notably in how it chooses Morpheus to be the perfect guide for both Neo, and the audience. He gives us just enough information to understand what’s happening in this digital realm, while still leaving some to the imagination.

With all of that basic world-building out of the way, The Matrix is free to use its ambition on greater means, namely action sequences that still impress to this day. Not a single instance of clunky editing mars the extensive shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat scenes in The Matrix. The Wachowskis realized all the punches in the world are pointless if you can’t see them, so set pieces like Neo and Trinity’s rescue mission to rescue Morpheus are filmed in a cogent manner that allows one to savor the intricately choreographed fight scenes.

The Matrix doesn’t just thrill in terms of explosions and gunfire, of course. The aforementioned ways it defines its assorted heroes & villains, as well as how it utilizes the concept of being in a world where your being is more than just a body, help it work as a larger allegory contemplating the nature of identity. That’s not an easy feat for any movie to pull off, but for the two women responsible for delivering The Matrix, it’s one of many instances in their filmography of defying the odds and delivering something ambitious, something memorable and something reality-altering.

The Matrix Trailer:

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