A few days ago, I watched “The Matrix” for the third or fourth time. I’ve always liked this movie; it is well-paced, has a cool science fiction atmosphere and elegant action sequences. But this time, I realized just how incredible and truly special it is. “The Matrix” was groundbreaking for both action filmmaking and pop culture when it came out, but even without considering the weight of its legacy, it stands strong as its own entity.
Front and center are its action and science fiction elements, but on this viewing, what I noticed was how the fantasy aspects and hero’s journey play into themes of belief and confidence. Neo (Keanu Reeves, “John Wick”) is an everyman who, through heaps of motivation and trust from Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, “Black-ish”), realizes that he is “The One,” an individual prophesied to save humanity from the machines. Neo’s journey throughout the film is directly inspired by Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
“The Matrix” puts a unique spin on this framework, and its synthesis of genres and styles is every bit as innovative as something like the Star Wars franchise. There is action, cyberpunk, noir, dystopia and more that surrounds the mythic story at the center. There is nothing in it that is completely new, but the fusion of all these elements is what makes the movie feel so fresh and exciting, even over two decades later.
Genre and style building blocks aside, this movie is an amazingly paced, well-written and structured film that delivers the perfect balance of thrilling moments and intelligent ideas. I love how some of the lofty ideas are delivered to the audience as visual demonstrations from Neo to Morpheus and not just as boring expository dialogue. We are shown how real the simulation feels when Morpheus tells Neo to jump off a building. We understand how the rules of the simulation can be broken through their wild kung fu battle. Demonstrations of philosophy such as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and the work of René Descartes have never been more fun than in the back-and-forth between these characters.
Much attention has been given to these specific philosophical ideas. The real world is a simulation; What is the true, “real world?” Once you learn the truth, you can never go back. The “questioning reality” themes are the most apparent, alongside the ideas of the power of “belief.” Neo at first doesn’t believe that he could have been living in a machine-created simulation all his life, and for most of the movie he doesn’t believe that he could ever be “The One.” But Morpheus’s belief in Neo is unshakable.
That brings me to the confidence that is felt in every layer of this film. It is present on a textual level: Morpheus’s faith that Neo is “The One” gives Neo the confidence to transform into the individual befitting of that title. It is also present on a filmmaking level, as none of the disparate influences and ideas would have worked together so seamlessly if the Wachowski sisters (“Jupiter Ascending”) hadn’t had a secure belief in the potential of their project.
But one of the movie’s greatest strengths is just how fun it is. The premise, on paper, is very bleak and dire; with a different tone and style, the same story could have been much darker and nihilistic. But this is a badass action movie, and its characters and atmosphere feel energetic and alive. I also love all the fantastical movements that don’t make any sense. Many of the scenes feature Neo and the crew spending a lot of time on slow-motion kicks and random flips just to look cool. Do these physics-defying gymnastics contribute in any way to the plot? Not really, but they’re epic anyway.
In the midst of writing this, I think I’ve convinced myself to watch “The Matrix” yet again. I am in awe of all the moving parts and aspects that flow together to create such an amazing whole. From the technical expertise to the ease with which ideas and influences flow, this movie is incredibly crafted from top to bottom. But it’s also just a really great time. If you’re looking for something that will tick all the boxes of a movie-watching experience, “The Matrix” is still the one.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at email@example.com.