In March of 1999, Warner Bros. pictures released a strange little action movie from a pair of relatively unknown filmmakers named the Wachowskis. That film, “The Matrix,” went on to become one of the biggest films of the year, with a $463 million worldwide box office, and four Oscar wins. Massively influential, the movie left its mark upon the visual language of cinema with its signature green and black “digital rain” and bullet special effects. It also introduced cultural concepts that remain to this day, including the “red pill” philosophy. Now, Warner Bros. is bringing back the series — and stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss — with the hopes of once again tapping into our collective anxiety about technology and loss of control.
Looking back, "The Matrix" feels almost like the “Star Wars” of its day. It hit upon the right fear at the right time in the right style.
Looking back, "The Matrix" feels almost like the “Star Wars” of its day. It hit upon the right fear at the right time in the right style. The cyberpunk aspect of the story coincided perfectly with the dawn of Web 2.0 and the rollout of broadband. Though virtual reality was barely in its infancy, “The Matrix” realized that we were heading for a time when humans would no longer be able to trust their senses.
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And then, not unlike the future it predicted, the sequels became big, bloated and incomprehensible. Obsessed with deconstructionist themes, the Wachowskis created two sequels that both over- and under-explained their story. (There have been six versions of the Matrix. All this has happened before, all this will happen again. Or something.) It was boundary pushing and beautiful to look at, but as a story it failed to make a lot of sense. “The Matrix” accidentally became shorthand for a certain kind of big budget flop. And with both leading characters Neo (Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) killed by the trilogy’s end, it felt like one of those franchises that had made its mark but might not age well.
But despite the narrative shortcomings of “The Matrix: Reloaded” and “The Matrix: Revolutions,” 20 years later the original film feels almost prophetic. Much of those fears in the original film have been realized. The planet is changing faster than anyone expected and our future is far from secure. Tiny computers in our pockets mean we are ever more enslaved to the concept of connectedness. “Deepfakes” make it so that videos and truth can be easily manipulated. And the idea of the “red pill” has been appropriated by a generation of violent, disaffected young men. Meanwhile, the internet has become so pervasive, if it went down tomorrow, the world would grind to a screaming halt.
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Maybe this newest “Matrix” sequel will be another big flop, a byproduct of the current Keanussaince. The Wachowskis have become known for those, especially after 2015’s “Jupiter Ascending,” a massive production that was part of a planned trilogy but barely made $50 million domestically. (It is now viewed as a cult classic at best.) But there’s also a good chance this newest sequel will offer a glimpse at what we fear next.
“The Matrix 4,” as it’s currently being referred to, has not yet gone into production, though Variety suggests it will do so in early 2020. Lana Wachowski is set to write and direct. Sister Lilly is not involved, though she was recently interviewed saying she gave any new projects her blessing.
The bigger news, though, is that both Carrie-Anne Moss and Reeves will be reprising their roles as Trinity and Neo. Reeves has been experiencing a career revival of sorts the last couple of years with his “John Wick” series, a role in “Toy Story 4,” and a return to the first franchise that made him famous: “Bill & Ted.” (Moss starred in the well-received Netflix series “Jessica Jones.”)
Unfortunately, it is not clear how the story plans to bring back either of these characters, as both are supposedly dead, and have been for many years. But that's the struggle many reboots in this era face. One must rely on bringing back characters that could or should have moved on. It’s unclear how “The Matrix” could have returned with a new cast and been successful. Moreover, Hollywood has the technology to digitally de-age both actors if needed, in the process tapping into our fears about humans being replaced by digital alternatives. Perhaps the film world is more meta than anyone is ready for. To quote Reeves: “Whoa.”