With the release of The Matrix Resurrections, it is worth looking back to the beginning. What made The Matrix movies such a behemoth in an era before Marvel and DC even really got their footing? These are the reasons the original, The Matrix, is still some of the best sci-fi out there, and why The Matrix Resurrections needs to return to its roots.
The Matrix Revealed
In the first scene, we meet a hacker, known only by his handle “Neo”, wallowing in the cyberpunk hacker slacker subculture. He is quite abruptly confronted with the fact that his entire world is a lie. Through some beautifully enigmatic characters and plot points, we are introduced to the concept of a dystopian future where humans exist as a power source for a race of evil robots. All humans, apart from a small group of rebels, are kept docile by plugging them into the “matrix”. Neo must come to terms with his new reality, his new abilities, and the burden of being “The One”.
The Hero The Matrix Deserves
Time and again Hollywood has proven that no matter how much mind-blowing CGI you cram into a film, you can’t tell a great story without a relatable hero. Through most of The Matrix the protagonist Neo is completely baffled by the reality in which he finds himself. All of the fantastically freaky functions and possibilities of this virtual world are brand new to him, and us. In subsequent films, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, Neo lost his sense of wonder and disbelief, and with it, he lost the ability to truly connect with the audience. There is a reason the most memorable line from the entire trilogy is “…woah”.
Two Worlds, One Movie
The Matrix was an introduction to a drastically dystopian future. It took on the task of building two worlds that were separate but directly linked. The film paid homage to this by spending an adequate amount of time in both the real world and the virtual one. This gave a sense of a full and well-rounded universe and reminded us that what happened in one world could have dramatic effects on the other.
The sequels, unfortunately, were not quite so well-rounded. The Matrix Reloaded takes place mostly inside the matrix which makes it easier to forget that there is a real-world to save. The Matrix Revolutions showed us more of the real world, but to keep the excitement going it resorts to the low-hanging fruit of giving Neo some random new, and completely unearned, superpowers.
A Matrix of Balanced Effects
One of the biggest reasons for the initial excitement around The Matrix was a direct result of the stunning visuals, exciting action sequences, and filming techniques like “bullet time” used in ways that we just hadn’t seen before. It was easy to be dazzled by the next level (for the time) CGI, but none of it would have worked without the practical effects beneath it.
Real squibs crumbling real (fake) concrete pillars, real vehicles smashing real phone booths, and real actors jumping around in real slow-motion fight scenes. Even within the matrix itself, the world looks rough and dingy. The sequels forgot about this, showing the matrix as brighter and glossier, abandoning practical effects in favor of some CGI sequences that, while advanced for the time, overreached and wound up looking cartoony.
The Plot Was Just Right
Despite what some might think, the plot still matters in films. Even with the best effects, the coolest characters, and the most saturated color palettes, movies struggle if they don’t have relatable characters and a solid story arc. Some of Warner Bros’ recent ill-fated attempts to bring the world of DC Comics to life are a testament to that fact.
The Matrix understood this and focused on the story of Neo, a normal guy trying to figure out who he really is and why he can now leap tall buildings in a single bound. The plot felt sensible and contained. The sequels tried to do the same thing, but bigger. As the world, events, and characters expand it became harder to relate to them and their noble cause.
The reputation of The Matrix has suffered slightly over the years, but it is still regarded by many as a pivotal moment in science fiction filmmaking. It was technically revolutionary and still gave us the kind of story we love. The characters were solid and interesting, the world felt fantastic yet grounded, and the concepts were imaginative, if not entirely scientific. Even with its flaws, the original film is easily the best of The Matrix franchise, and future matrix movies would do well to remember that.
Update: How did The Matrix Resurrections do?
Does The Matrix Resurrections return to its roots? With the theatrical release, we finally get our answer. That answer is… sort of.
The original The Matrix presented a dim and gritty version of its virtual world set in a nameless cityscape full of rust, ruin, and dilapidated buildings. The Matrix Resurrections presents a bright and colorful San Francisco as its virtual prison. While this change could feel like a departure from noir, I prefer to think of it as an upgrade. It only makes sense that the creators of any virtual reality would apply graphics updates and mods from time to time.
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