“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”
On Easter weekend twenty years ago, movie-goers took this message to heart when the question was on everyone’s mind: “What is the Matrix?” Released on a Wednesday evening to get a jump start on the holiday weekend, The Matrix made nearly $37 million in its first five days, eventually going on to make $463.5 million from a budget of only $63 million and winning four academy awards. It spawned two sequels, an animated short anthology, multiple video games, and left such an impact on action movie-making and pop culture that it won a place in the national film registry for preservation. Its sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, also became the highest-grossing R-rated film in history for 13 years until Deadpool took that title. With its beautiful aesthetic, incredible special effects, and stylized action sequences, it is a trilogy that is still as watchable two decades later as it was on opening night and fuels countless conversation starters and philosophical debates that still remain prescient to this day.
The impact The Matrix had on our society is clear, but there was so much that went into this movie and trilogy that in honor of its 20th anniversary, we will be revisiting the story behind the making of The Matrix.
The Matrix was the brainchild of Lilly and Lana Wachowski, two siblings (who went by Andy and Larry at the time of the film’s release) who had spent their childhood creating radio plays, comic books, and even their own role-playing game. They were raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago’s south side by their mother (a nurse, artist, and ex-Catholic turned shamanist), and their father (a hardcore atheist businessman). Their parents encouraged the siblings’ love of art, especially in the movies. The Wachowskis loved morally gray ‘50s classics and ‘60s and ‘70s thrillers, but one movie that really stuck with them was 1982’s Blade Runner.
The Wachowski’s entrance into script writing began with a script called Carnivore, an original story about a soup kitchen serving body parts of the rich to feed the poor. Although impossible to adapt into a movie, it captured the attention of Lawrence Mattis, a New York City-based talent scout. With the help of Mattis, the Wachowskis sold their next screenplay, Assassins, for $1 million. However, much to the dismay of the Wachowskis, Brian Helgeland completely rewrote the screenplay to such an extent for this big-screen flick that the Wachowskis called it “our abortion”. Directed by Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner and featuring both Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, the Wachowskis learned an important lesson early on—that they would have to demand serious control over any future content they created.
This led to their first proper commercial success, Bound, without which would never have led to the greenlighting for the Matrix trilogy. As the Wachowski’s first directorial debut, a film about lesbian lovers who swindle the mob out of millions, the lusty piece premiered at Sundance in January 1996 and became a minor hit for Warner Brothers.
Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a top development executive at WB at the time, also knew what project they wanted to make next—because he had already bought the rights to the screenplay. Because of how audacious the project was, WB had given the Wachowskis a smaller budget for Bound to see how they could handle themselves as directors, and when they did, it led to them greenlighting The Matrix.
But first, some context.
“More important than what, is when.”
The Matrix came out on March 31st, 1999, the Wednesday before Easter weekend. Although they had planned for a release later that year, producers feared the film could not compete with another highly anticipated movie that was coming out that year: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. 1999 would end up being a year filled with major blockbusters, including Fight Club and American Beauty, the latter of which swept the red carpet with multiple Oscar wins.
1999 was the year of fearing new technology, in particular with the “Y2K bug”. It’s hard to believe now after the big nothing that was the reality, but at the time, people were very much afraid that the whole system would come crashing down once the clock struck midnight on the 31st of December because of how mainstream technology was becoming. Home computers were now for the first time commonplace, and CGI was starting to become a thing in the movies. Just four years earlier Toy Story was released, one of the very first blockbuster movies made entirely on a computer. The new technology becoming rapidly prevalent in society, along with fears of the apocalypse stemming from these new technologies, made the market a ripe for a movie like The Matrix to be released at the time.
What is the Matrix?
“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now in this very room…It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
The Wachowskis had always fantasized about creating a comic book that would combine all of their cultural obsessions. Things like making mythology relevant in a modern context, relating quantum physics to Zen Buddhism, investigating your own life. They also loved Hong Kong action movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the rising power of the internet, and Homer’s Odyssey.
So as a result, the Wachowskis filled page upon page of notebooks with ideas for something they called “The Matrix”, writing to the music of Rage Against the Machine and Ministry. They eventually scrapped the idea of a comic book in favor of concepts and sketches for a screenplay instead.
Luckily for them, Mattis, who had studied philosophy in college, was able to recognize the similarities between The Matrix and ideas of René Descartes about man’s inability to truly know reality. At the time of the 1990s as the internet was becoming big, people were starting to reinvent themselves online with avatars or emails, being able to choose new names, genders, hometowns, physical attributes, etc. So if people were starting to be able to create their own realities every day, the Wachowskis budding film offered a timely question: which one of those were real?
The Matrix, however, was a complex concept that could not be easily distilled into one sentence, and was already chock-full of other things like kung fu, guns blazing, car chase scenes, and even helicopters smashing into the sides of high rises. Even after creating Bound, the other board members at WB needed more convincing. This is when the Wachowskis hired hyper detailed comic artist Geoff Darrow to design the tech they had envisioned along with Steve Skroce to draw nearly 600 detailed storyboards breaking down their vision shot by shot.
Trinity: “No one has ever done anything like this before.”
Neo: “That’s why it’s going to work.”
Casting and Characters
It seems hard to imagine it now, but at the time, Keanu Reeves had reached a lull in his career. Despite some moderate successes like Point Break, Speed, Devil’s Advocate, and Bill & Ted, the end of the 1990s found Reeves going from one off movie to the next. By the time he showed up for the casting of The Matrix, WB had already gone through a surprisingly long list of potential actors. The role had been passed up by Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio…they had even considered changing the role to a girl in order to cast Sandra Bullock. Can you imagine? Sandra Bullock as Neo???
Anyway, when Keanu read the script, he fell in love with it. When they mentioned he would have to train for four months prior to filming, Keanu didn’t flinch. He was game. When they told him he’d have to read dense books such as Simulacra and Simulation and a couple other textbooks, he basically said to keep them coming.
The Wachowskis had found their intellectual lead.
Next to cast was the titular secondary main character, Morpheus. Warner Brothers offered the role to more actors that, in retrospect, makes one cringe to think who could have wound up being Morpheus instead of Lawrence Fishburne. Options had included Michael Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Again, can you imagine? “Do ya wanna GET OUTTA DA MATRIX, Miss Anderson?” (snorts) “Yea, I do,” responds Sandra in an alternate reality.
Fortunately, the Wachowskis had been pushing for Lawrence Fishburne all along. “I had a dream about a man who wore mirrored sunglasses and spoke in riddles,” Lana Wachowski once told Fishburne, “and when I met you and heard your voice, I knew that you were that guy.” Still, WB wasn’t convinced Fishburne could ensure the movie would attract enough of an audience. They thought Val Kilmer should get the role, despite his reputation for being hard to work with. But after meeting with Kilmer, it was clear he could never fill the part. When they finally did offer Fishburne the role, he said of the role that he always thought of Morpheus as “Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader rolled into one—and maybe some Yoda.”
Not only was Fishburne a perfect for the role, his character itself made a statement. Fishburne was a bit like a John the Baptist to Keanu Reeve’s Jesus-like figure. He was one of the most respected and influential leaders of humanity, and the fact that he was black seemed irrelevant in this futuristic dystopian society. This was because in the Wachowski’s vision of the future, it included people of color who played pivotal roles, and fit as both an intentional and natural choice.
Speaking of diversity, the third main character was Trinity, a female badass leader in her own right. Not only does she set the tone for the entire movie by unleashing a gravity-defying can of whoopass to multiple policemen in seconds, she is also a legendary hacker, brave liberator of enslaved fellow humans, and Morpheus’ most trusted right-hand woman. Jada Pinkett Smith had auditioned for the role, but she had no chemistry with Keanu Reeves. Thus, the role went to Carrie Anne-Moss, and Jada would later take the role of Niobe in Reloaded and Revolutions.
Finally, the most important secondary characters, the Oracle. Talk about casting diversity naturally. In The Matrix, the oracle is presented as somewhat of an omniscient being/program with her ability to unlock and visualize the future. In the trilogy she comes to the aide of those who need it, encouraging people to think for themselves and to help maximize their own underlying potential. Her ultimate goal is peace and coexistence between the machines and the humans, and as such she helps Neo by planting seeds of guidance not for him, but for everyone. She helps prepare him to be reborn from not being the One, just Mr. Anderson, into being Neo, the hero that both worlds need. I admit it was somewhat thrilling to see the door open to the all-powerful Oracle and see a black mother figure baking some cookies in her kitchen.
In the first two films, the oracle was played by Gloria Foster, a distinguished stage actress who also portrayed generations of African-American characters on and off Broadway. Unfortunately, in 2001 she died from complications due to diabetes before filming for Revolutions could finish, so her role was picked up by Mary Alice, who won a Tony award in 1987 for her role in Fences.
Training and Action
“I know Kung Fu.”
In addition to required reading for the roles, the actors had to train extensive hours to be in their absolute best shape for the shooting. A lot of this training was at the request of the stunt coordinator Yuen Woo Ping, who is a legend in Kung Fu choreography for movies in Hong Kong. The Wachoskis also, however, preferred that the actors learn the fights themselves instead of relying on stunt doubles, because it would provide for a more seamless experience for the audience. As part of her days-long screen test, Moss practiced with stunt performers so hard that she “couldn’t walk for days”. “After the first day, I was so shattered and shocked…I realized I was so unfit,” said Hugo Weaving. Not long after training started, Weaving would injure his femur, requiring him to walk on crutches until he could heal. In the late 90s, Keanu Reeves found out that he had two fused vertebrae, which was causing him to fall over and could have resulted in him becoming quadriplegic. As a result, he underwent surgery before filming, and then had to wear a neck brace and was forbidden to kick for several months. Fortunately, punching was still allowed, and he also participated in “kung fu dojos” they set up to allow cast members to stretch and watch kung fu movies.
The cast members trained for a solid 6 months. Nowadays this might not sound like a big deal, but back then in the 1990s, this was completely unheard of. It was considered an eccentric request at a time when, if anything, training lasted one month and rarely included the actual actors. This was a time when Rambo-style wholesale slaughter reigned supreme, and although you might have some fighting like in the Jean Claude Van Damme films, they tended to have big impressive moves rather than small, fast moves. This was an explosive era of Michael Bay-style explosions in films like Predator or Demolition Man. Intricate martial arts sequences would have been a huge risk at that time, especially as a major set piece in a big blockbuster film.
So why did it work? Because that’s how good Yuen Woo Ping is. More than just flashy wire work that was common at the time, he emphasized speed and intricate fights that made the actors look like badasses and emphasized the style of martial art being used. Amid countless feints and blocks, when each blow does land, it feels weighted and well-earned. It lends the fight sequences a certain level of quality that allows for fun viewing time and time again. And Yuen was always incredibly hands on and present throughout, putting those auditioning through a rigorous training routine just to see if they’d be a good fit. It’s a level of detail that wasn’t expected from Hollywood back then. As a result, almost overnight, The Matrix became the gold standard for blockbuster action films. After it came Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a new era had cemented itself with its success. Even now, with explosions and car chase-focused movies like Fast & Furious, films often still have action sequences that are complex and intricate at the forefront of the film, instead of ancillary as they were before. Thanks, Matrix!
Neo: “What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
Morpheus: “No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”
Yet the legacy of The Matrix wouldn’t stop there. Connected with the incredible action sequences, audiences would see something so incredible, so mind-bending, that it would cement this phenomenon that bended space and time with the Matrix name itself. This technological feat, which came from the vision the Wachowskis had in their mind but didn’t know how to create at the time, was called Bullet Time.
Technically, Bullet Time had been around before The Matrix, seen for the first time in a short intro sequence from the anime Speed Racer (which, coincidentally, the Wachowskis adapted into a live action film as well). But no one did it as well as The Matrix at the time, or made it so popular.
The scene that introduced audiences to the move is the very first opening scene where Trinity fights three cops in the Heart o’ the City Hotel. As a cop steps forward to handcuff her, she breaks his arm, spins around, strikes him, and then jumps up in mid-air about to kick. Time then freezes, and the camera rotates around her to another angle, when she kicks the cop into the wall across the room.
The most iconic scene, however, is where Neo dodges bullets on the roof of the building where Morpheus is being held hostage. As an agent shoots at him, Neo bends over backwards and time slows down, as the camera moves in around Neo in slow motion while the bullets approach him. This was the first time audiences had ever seen anything ever like it before, and in fact, the term WB would then trademark the term Bullet Time itself from this scene.
Indeed, as they were filming the movie and reached the part of the script where Bullet Time is described by the Wachowskis, it was a real head-scratcher to everyone involved.
“[Jones’s] gun booms as we enter the liquid space of— Bullet-time.
The air sizzles with wads of lead like angry flies as Neo twists, bends, ducks just between them . . . Neo bent impossibly back, one hand on the ground as a spiraling gray ball shears open his shoulder.”
With this excellent but brief description, the reader could imagine the scene, perhaps in an anime, but…how in the world to create it? What was liquid space exactly, and how was Keanu supposed to bend impossibly back if he had just undergone neck surgery?
That’s when the idea presented itself: to have a camera move at regular speed but capture the movement in slow motion, but to surround the scene with cameras taking still shots on a rig timed just right with the help of computers. To pull this off, the Wachowskis enlisted the help of Manex Visual Effects, a 90s CGI startup that was one of the many new special effects companies in a time where the industry was dominated by George Lucas’ Industrial Lights and Magic (ILM). Manex at the time was working out of an old building at a decommissioned naval air station in San Francisco, a run-down facility filled with empty weapons-testing areas and the remains of charred computers. In short, just the type of place to create Bullet Time sequences.
On an all-green soundstage in Sydney, they used two motion picture cameras and 120 still cameras set up to a rig. Wires were connected to Reeves’ body to pull him backwards at the impossible angle they needed, while the cameras went off in quick succession around him as the 2 motion picture cameras captured his movements. All the elements were later blended together with CGI bullets to create the finished product, at a cost of $750,000 for that one scene! It was definitely worth the investment, however. When producer Joel Silver saw the scenes for the first time, he reportedly got up and said “That’s it! This is where everybody’s going to get up and scream!”
“Welcome to the desert of the real.”
The Matrix trilogy is so chock full of philosophy that if you buy the Ultimate Collection DVD Box set, you can watch the movies with audio commentary overlaid from 2 different prominent philosophers at the same time.
When the film was pitched to Mattis and he read the screenplay, he luckily had a background in psychology so he was able to recognize and appreciate what he was reading. “This is amazing! You wrote a script about Descartes!” he told the Wachowskis after reading their script. “But how do I sell this thing?” The 17th century philosopher was famous for writing about man’s inability to know what is truly real.
As I mentioned earlier, Keanu had to read Simulacra and Simulation before he started taking on the likeness of Neo. The book is actually in the film too–it’s the hollowed-out book that Neo uses to retrieve his hacked discs in his apartment in room 101 at the beginning of the movie.
There are countless books that have spawned from the movie’s metaphors on philosophy and the nature of reality, as well as society’s relationship with technology.
One culture critic, Slavoj Zizek, suggested that The Matrix was a Rorschach test of sorts for the time the media is viewed. Feminist readings, Trans ideas, Cartesian parallels, Plato’s allegory of the cave, Descartes’ questions on reality, religious imagery, there’s so much to choose from. The Matrix even spawned a new line of philosophical thought, simulation theory, which suggests from Nick Bolstrom that we may be living in a computer simulation. Hilary Putnam took Descartes’ idea further and postulated we may all be simply brains floating around in vats being manipulated by electrical impulses, an idea the Wachowskis likely pulled from.
The great thing about The Matrix is that it takes all these things but does so subtly. The questions may have hit a bit harder in the second film, but nonetheless, the beauty of the movie is that it really encourages the viewer to think about these questions for themselves. Take Mouse, for instance. He asks how the machines knew what tasty wheat truly tasted like. Or Cypher, a secondary but relatable villain, asks a simple question: what if ignorance is bliss, and it’s better not to know the true nature of the world?
“I know what you’re thinking, ’cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”
Cypher’s question relates back to Morpheus’ offer of the blue pill or the red pill, a question from a scene which in itself has become a symbol.
Regardless of what answers the viewer comes to, the Wachowskis always wanted the viewers to think for themselves. In that same vein, another way to view The Matrix trilogy from the Ultimate DVD box collection is to watch it with critics who didn’t like the movie. That’s right. Watch all three movies with running commentary of film critics who hated the films, to keep your fandom in check. That’s how much the Wachowskis wanted to promote critical thought.
“You just have to make up your own damned mind to either accept what I’m going to tell you, or reject it.”
“Zion, hear me!”
The final element of The Matrix trilogy, which to many may be a huge part of the trilogy itself, is the excellent musical score as well as different artists whose songs are featured in the film. The Wachowskis spent a lot of their time listening to punk music like Rage Against The Machine, which is why RATM’s “Wake Up” is the perfect song to accompany Neo’s own awakening at the end of the film. Other punk and industrial artists that were featured included Rob Zombie, Propellerheads, Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, Ministry, Rammstein, and Rob Dougan. But underlying the entire film is the original score composed by Don Davis.
Instead of an electronic score similar to one made by Daft Punk for Tron Legacy, the Wachowskis told Don Davis that they always knew they wanted a proper orchestral score, despite the cyberpunk style of the film. As a result, a barrage of French horns, lush string work, piano, percussion, and waterphone amplified and punctuated the heavy mix of Kung Fu wire action and deep philosophical moments. Because Davis had also worked with the Wachowskis before on Bound, he had a good idea of what they wanted, even if they weren’t available to communicate that vision with him all the time. One sound that the Wachowskis had resonated with was with the song “Pile Driver”, which had used a recording of an actual pile driver. The Wachowskis wanted something similar, an orchestral score used in a minimalist, post-modern way. Thus it made its way into The Matrix. Where, you ask? Listen for it at the very beginning of the lobby shootout scene, you can’t miss it.
Davis had a lot of fun naming the tracks he created for the soundtrack as well. After all, it wasn’t every day that a composer was scoring a movie as philosophical as this one. So if you scan the track listings, you’ll notice “Exit Mr. Hat” which is an anagram of The Matrix, as well as “Ontological Shock” which references being forced to question one’s world view. He also enjoyed working with a choir that represented humanity in crisis in the film.
Although they finished working together when the series ended in 2003, one can still feel the effects of Davis’ score in pop culture. Nods can be heard in games like Shadow of the Colossus and films like Wreck-It Ralph and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
“You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind.”
Of all the many reasons why The Matrix (and its sequels) is an excellent film, the ultimate reason why I, like many others, have always held it as one of the best films of all time is because of how damn rewatchable the film was. You can watch it countless times and still enjoy every viewing. Why? Because it’s a bit like a work of art, a Rorshach test as I mentioned above. There are so many different ways to look at it, that even though the media itself doesn’t change, the viewer does, and thus what you get out of it when you see it earlier and later in life changes as well. Perhaps when you saw it in your youth you loved the action sequences and the cool coats and shades, but all the philosophical stuff flew over your head. Maybe you thought that Joe Pantaliono’s character Cypher was simply a selfish bad guy, or thought that the character names of Morpheus or Neo or the ship Nebuchadnezzar were simply names.
But as one matures, the different elements of philosophy comes in full view, and the scope of what The Matrix achieved and how it left an indelible impact on pop culture and society at large can truly be appreciated. We now have a concrete metaphor to explain a reality that we cannot believe, that we are trying to wake up from. Our action sequences in films, and the technological abilities of cinema to bend time and space, will be forever changed. Our appreciation for the musical score and the incredible action sequences can be compared to their next of kin, raising the bar for both. And we can keep on asking ourselves timeless philosophical questions that humanity has asked since the dawn of time, but in a way that is easy to understand for the everyday human. What is the nature of reality? How much free will do we really have, or is everything predestined to fate? How do we know what is real and what is just a dream? And how free are our minds, really?
About the author
Alexander Vera is a cyberpunk fan who first got plugged into the genre by seeing the Matrix. He is an English teacher by trade, speaks multiple languages, and is currently living in France with his wife. You can read more from him at www.cyberdystopianmatrix.wordpress.com
This article was originally published on 5/12/19