What is The Matrix?
The question at the heart of the classic 1999 movie crossed over into the real world when Warner Bros made it integral to its marketing campaign. In fact, it was almost poetic that a film set inside a giant computer-generated construct would be the one to show the potential of the internet as a promotional tool.
Although numerous Star Wars fans didn’t get the memo – many bought cinema tickets to random movies just so they could watch the trailer for the (then) hotly anticipated The Phantom Menace – rapidly improving internet access meant that watching trailers at home or in the office was suddenly a viable option.
But The Matrix’s groundbreaking online marketing campaign was way more sophisticated than simply showing us a trailer we could watch on the big screen. The earliest teasers gave few solid clues about what to expect, instead delivering a barrage of random, fast-cut images that made little sense out of context. Crucially, however, they directed us to whatisthematrix.com, a site that – although undeniably basic – played on the core mysteries at the heart of the movie. As The Blair Witch Project would do a few months later – making the world believe the events of that film actually happened – The Matrix blurred the lines between fiction and reality by inviting fans to dip a tentative toe into its computer world.
It was a notable example of the right plan being executed on the right film at the right time. Even ahead of its release, The Matrix was the hottest movie around because those first glimpses – the stylish outfits, the sunglasses, the physics-defying stunts – were perfectly aligned with the chatter growing around that “what is the Matrix?” mystery. It didn’t matter that the answer – humans being forced to live in a vast digital metaverse, meticulously built by machines who’ve taken over planet Earth – wasn’t all that hard to grasp, because as soon as people had seen the film, positive word-of-mouth started to spread.
Now, more than two decades on, it’s easy to forget how big a deal The Matrix was. Despite its numerous influences (notably anime classic Ghost In The Shell), the film’s ingenious setting felt like nothing else in Western cinema, and it was subsequently absorbed into the zeitgeist in a way that (arguably) no movie since the original Star Wars has. Lofty philosophical conversations about the movie’s many subtexts became commonplace – Are we really AI constructs? How would we know if we are? – while the innovative CG effects pushed the boundaries of what’s possible on screen. Within a couple of years, even ads for hotel chains were aping the famous bullet-time effect. In 2021, the chances of a movie that isn’t part of an existing franchise having such a significant cultural impact are practically zero.
And yet the success of The Matrix proved something of a double-edged sword when its sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, arrived six months apart in 2003. On one level, the follow-ups were so eagerly anticipated that the promotion effectively took care of itself, with every new piece of material about the universe – including a series of cartoon shorts known as The Animatrix – eagerly dissected by fans. The iconic cascading green letters and numbers representing the Matrix were so familiar that they’d become an easy shorthand for the movies. And famously publicity-shy writers/directors the Wachowskis – widely hailed as visionaries for creating the movies’ digital world – reportedly had it written into their contracts that they wouldn’t have to do press. Their silence effectively added to The Matrix’s mystique.
“Resurrections brings the franchise back for a whole new generation, and lands in a very different world to its predecessors. When the first three movies were released, the internet was still in its comparative infancy – social media hadn’t been invented, smartphones were a way off, and the idea of being connected to a computer 24/7 remained in the realms of science fiction”
The flipside? Living up to the hype ultimately proved impossible, because although both Reloaded and Revolutions have their moments, they added little to the mythology of the simulation that gives the franchise its name. Too much of the action took place in the post-apocalyptic real world, while the movies became rather too pompous for their own good – most notably in the famously info-dumpy Architect’s speech.
Although we long believed that the third movie was the end of the road, we now know there’s more story to tell. This week, The Matrix Resurrections brings the franchise back for a whole new generation, and lands in a very different world to its predecessors. When the first three movies were released, the internet was still in its comparative infancy – social media hadn’t been invented, smartphones were a way off, and the idea of being connected to a computer 24/7 remained in the realms of science fiction. Plugging a computer directly into our brains is still the stuff of fantasy, of course, but if The Matrix is to remain relevant in a world where sophisticated metaverses are commonplace – whether they’re in gaming (Second Life, Fortnite, Minecraft) or fiction (Ready Player One) – returning writer/director Lana Wachowski needs to bring something new to the table to reflect our tech-infused present.
The trailers for the new movie hinted that there’ll be some twists on familiar ideas, with Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss’s characters having no recollection of their previous adventures, and the suggestion that your Matrix avatar no longer has to reflect your real-life persona – the latter a neat echo of the way we interact anonymously with present-day tech.
But most intriguing is the way that the footage leans so heavily on the first Matrix movie and its iconography, whether it’s black cats, white rabbits, or sharp-suited agents. That famous red pill/blue pill dilemma is also resurrected on the rebooted whatisthematrix.com site.
What is the Matrix in 2021? Warner Bros are clearly banking on there being enough of us who still want to ask the question.
The Matrix Resurrections is released in cinemas on 22nd December.