The Matrix at 25


Hasitha Fernando | Flickering Myth

The influence The Matrix had on cinema as a whole is undeniable and even a quarter century later the effort continues to trigger discourse and stir debate amongst cinephiles and movie critics the world over. The film is the near perfect amalgamation of a thought-provoking narrative, high-brow concepts, and popcorn entertainment, and therein lies its true beauty. But behind the video game sheen and killer anime vibes much went on behind-the-scenes during the making of The Matrix. This is that story…

The entire film was storyboarded beforehand to get approval from the studio

The story of how The Matrix came to be was indeed a fascinating one. Back in 1994 the Wachowskis were a pair of up-and-coming creatives hungry to get their singular vision of a dystopian sci-fi actioner out to audiences. But there was a slight stumbling block – they had to first convince the producers and the studio they could deliver the goods. So, first they presented their spec script for the film Assassins to Warner Bros. in 1994 and the studio brought it to the attention of Lorenzo di Bonaventura, their then president of worldwide production. Impressed by what he read di Bonaventura purchased the spec script for $1 million and included two more pictures, Bound and The Matrix, in their contract.

The Sly Stallone and Antonio Banderas headlined Assassins (1995) proved to be a disappointing experience for the Wachowskis, as their script was heavily revised by Brian Helgeland and the end product received scathing reviews by critics. Fortunately, Bound (1996), which was written and helmed by the duo, turned out to be a critical hit and this success emboldened them to ask the studio for the option to direct The Matrix.

However, Warner Bros. remained skeptical and were not ready to commit to the effort by risking $60 million on an unknown IP that would feature prominent actors and complex visual effects. The Wachowskis therefore hired underground comic book artists Steve Skroce and Geoffrey Darrow to create a 600-page, shot-by-shot storyboard for the entire movie to get the studio execs on board… and it worked. The studio green lit the project immediately and it was decided to film in Australia to make the most of the budget.

The Wachowskis drew from a multitude of influences when crafting the script

During numerous interviews, from 1999 to the present, the Wachowskis have stated that sci-fi anime functioned as a major influence during the story development process of the film, as well as, in crafting the movie’s look and feel. The cyberpunk actioner Akira (1988) and the mind-melding sci-fi thriller Ghost in the Shell (1995) were just some of the efforts who’s visual and storytelling elements found their way into The Matrix’s narrative. The movie’s story also wrestles a lot with heady philosophical concepts and ideas, and most of these were drawn from the likes of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacrum and Simulation, Plato’s allegory of the cave, Socrates’ visit to the oracle of Delphi and the work of Descartes.

Will Smith, Val Kilmer, Johnny Depp & Sandra Bullock were considered to play the film’s leads

Will Smith was approached very early on in the casting process to play the role of none other than Neo. This of course made sense because back in the late 90s Smith was a major star on the rise following his back-to-back successes on Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997). But of course, the actor turned down the tantalizing offer in favor of starring in the much-maligned steampunk Western Wild Wild West (1999). Smith later admitted during an interview that, at the time, he was “not mature enough as an actor” and that, if given the role, he “would have messed it up”. The actor harbored no regrets, further stating that “Keanu was brilliant as Neo.”

Had Smith been cast the studio’s plan was to get Val Kilmer on board as the rebel leader Morpheus, which would have effectively torpedoed Laurence Fishburne’s chances, thereby depriving us of his iconic performance. Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp were also strongly considered for Neo’s role with Leonardo DiCaprio nearly accepting the offer before passing it over. At one point the studio was even considering a gender swap by casting Sandra Bullock as Neo but this notion was scuttled fairly early on. Bullock was also offered the role of Trinity, but the actress turned it down because of Will Smith’s involvement in the movie. Had she taken on the role she would have reunited with Reeves, with whom she previously starred in Speed (1994). Rosie Perez, Jada Pinkett and Salma Hayek also auditioned for the role which eventually went to Carrie-Anne Moss.

Hugo Weaving nearly got recast following an injury

With Agent Smith Australian actor Hugo Weaving created a villain for the ages – a cold and calculating antagonist who truly packed a proverbial, pun intended, punch. Walking the fine line between over-the-top villainy and nuanced character work, Weaving’s characterization of Agent Smith was so good, that he easily outshone his co-stars whenever they shared scenes together. However, the uber-talented actor nearly got recast at a very early stage of the shoot due to an injury he suffered to his leg. The cause of his problems turned out to be a polyp which had to be surgically removed. With the assistance of the Wachowskis however, Weaving was able to shift the schedule around so that all of his stunt work could be done at the tail of the shoot, and this allowed the actor to fortunately keep the part.

The cast were required to understand the nuances of the story before production kicked off

During the lengthy pre-production period, before even the rigorous martial arts training had begun, all cast members of The Matrix were required to understand the concepts and nuances of the story as per the Wachowskis directives. Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacrum and Simulation was required reading for most of the principal cast and crew members. But Keanu Reeves had to go a step further, so in addition to Simulacrum and Simulation the Wachowskis had him read Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, as well as Dylan Evans’ musings on evolutionary psychology before handing even handing him the script. Because of this extensive preparation Reeves was able to get a better grasp of the twisty-turny narrative than other cast members.

Yuen Woo-ping tailor-made the fighting style according to the actors abilities 

The Wachowskis had long been admirers of Hong Kong action cinema, and they’d always wanted to incorporate elements of that style of action into a movie and pay homage to such films. So, they decided to hire veteran Chinese martial arts choreographer and movie director Yuen Woo-Ping to craft the jaw-dropping fight sequences of The Matrix. To prepare for the wire work assisted action set pieces more popularly known as ‘wire fu’, the martial artist put the principal cast of the film through a rigorous training program which lasted several months. Woo-Ping and the Wachowskis initially estimated four months of training would suffice but halfway in Woo-Ping realized that he’d overestimated the fitness level of the actors involved. To overcome this obstacle and save precious time Woo-Ping developed their fighting styles around each of their individual strengths. Thus, he built on Reeves’s steady diligence, Fishburne’s fiery resilience, Weaving’s surgical precision, and Moss’ inherent feminine grace, when crafting their fighting styles.

Keanu Reeves suffered a major spinal injury before pre-production

Prior to undergoing his intense training program for The Matrix, Keanu Reeves underwent a two-level fusion of his cervical spine due to a spinal cord compression brough on by a herniated intervertebral disc. This tragic injury came about following an accidental fall in the shower one morning. Reeves was still in recovery at the time pre-production on the movie began, but in spite of his physical limitations the actor insisted on undergoing his training sessions. Woo-Ping let Reeves practice punches and lighter moves and even entertained the actor’s request to be trained on off days. However, the complex neck surgery hindered him from performing kicks for a vast majority of his training and as a result we don’t see Reeves do a lot of kicking in the movie.

The Matrix Code was inspired by sushi recipes in a cookbook 

That’s right. Those iconic, green tinted code which we saw frequently in the film were inspired by sushi recipes from a cookbook, which belonged to production designer Owen Paterson’s Japanese wife. In addition to the mirror images of half-width kana characters, Western Latin letters and Arabic numerals also composed the code which used a custom typeface designed by Simon Whiteley. The color green was used since it reflected the green tint which was commonly utilized on early monochromatic computer monitors. The Matrix code also served as an homage to the opening credits of the Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell, which was an immense influence on the movie.

Ingenious methods to minimize production expenses had to be utilized 

As mentioned before the Wachowskis had a tough time trying to sell their idea to studio execs from the get-go. It was a radical, high-brow concept birthed by two industry newbies which also involved a massive price tag. I mean, its no wonder Warner Bros. got cold feet. Because of this The Matrix was given only a production budget of $63 million to work with, and at the studios suggestion the entire shoot was shifted to Sydney, Australia where production costs were relatively cheaper due to government subsidies. According to Warner Bros. execs the same movie if shot in America would have cost over $90 million at the time.

Sets from the neo-noir sci-fi thriller Dark City (1998), which included rooftops, buildings, and a multitude of other exteriors, were also reused for The Matrix. Remember that unforgettable chase sequence at the very beginning? Yeah, those rooftops that Trinity ran across were the same ones used by Rufus Sewell’s John Murdoch in Dark City. Even when it came to the principal cast’s wardrobe, they had to go for cheaper alternatives due to the budgetary restrictions. According to costume designer Kym Barrett Trinity’s costume was made with a cheap PVC material and Neo’s billowing black coat was composed of a wool blend purchased at $3 a yard.

The origins of the famous bullet time effect

There’s no visual effect that had been aped more than The Matrix’s ‘Bullet Time’ effect. But as the old adage goes, nothing comes close to the original. Visual effects supervisor John Gaeta was the visionary genius behind the pioneering of this awe-inspiring effect. During the early stages of development, he and DOP Bill Pope constructed multiple gimbals and dollies in the mad hope of pulling this off the old-fashioned way. The original dolly they constructed for the camera would be led around the action, as it took place in real time, at a tremendous speed, but after a multitude of failed attempts Gaeta decided to go with computer graphics. This meant writing a completely new program specifically for that effect, however, the ‘Bullet Time’ sequence did eventually use one old-school technique: still photography. Gaeta claimed that he was inspired artistically by Otomo Katsuhiro’s work on Akira and Michel Gondry’s experimental view-morphing music videos.

High critical praise & shining Oscar glory

Neither the studio nor the film’s producers had a clue regarding the profound impact The Matrix would go on to have on the movie making industry as a whole. At the time it went into production Warner Bros. viewed the effort as a high-risk and low-profit venture and therefore only allocated $63 million to finance the film’s production costs, to minimize potential losses. However, the flick exceeded all expectations when it debuted, raking in an astounding $467.2 million at the worldwide box-office. Additionally, the film marked the biggest opening weekend for a Keanu Reeves movie since Speed (1994).

The Matrix was also a major hit with critics who showered high praise upon it. Ian Nathan of Empire described his surreal experience in this manner, “From head to tail, the deliciously inventive Wachowskis (watch them skyrocket) have delivered the syntax for a new kind of movie: technically mind-blowing, style merged perfectly with content and just so damn cool, the usher will have to drag you kicking and screaming back into reality.” Philip Strick commented in Sight & Sound, if the Wachowskis “claim no originality of message, they are startling innovators of method,” praising the film’s details and its “broadside of astonishing images”.

Filmmakers, actors, and science fiction writers too chimed in singing songs of admiration about the noteworthy effort. William Gibson, a key figure in cyberpunk fiction, called the film “an innocent delight I hadn’t felt in a long time,” and stated, “Neo is my favorite-ever science fiction hero, absolutely.” Critically acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky summed up his thoughts about the movie in the following manner, “I walked out of The Matrix… and I was thinking, ‘What kind of science fiction movie can people make now?’ The Wachowskis basically took all the great sci-fi ideas of the 20th century and rolled them into a delicious pop culture sandwich that everyone on the planet devoured.” British actor Simon Pegg exclaimed that The Matrix provided “the excitement and satisfaction that The Phantom Menace failed to inspire. The Matrix seemed fresh and cool and visually breathtaking; making wonderful, intelligent use of CGI to augment the on-screen action, striking a perfect balance of the real and the hyperreal. It was possibly the coolest film I had ever seen.”

At the 72nd Annual Academy Awards held on March 26, 2000, the movie won all four categories – which include, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects – it was nominated for. The film was competing heavily with other films like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Mummy and Fight Club but came out on top effortlessly, and for good reason.

A profound legacy & a lasting impact on cinema

One of the most obvious and direct impacts The Matrix had on the film industry was in the way it revolutionized visual effects. The movie’s famous “Bullet Time” effect was duplicated and even spoofed in over twenty films but none of these could quite match what John Gaeta & co. created in the original movie. Wire fu, Gun fu and slow-motion action also became hugely popular styles adopted by western actioners in the post–Matrix era. Some films that successfully amalgamated the aforementioned elements include Charlie’s Angels (2000), Equilibrium (2002), Underworld (2003), Wanted (2008) and John Wick (2014).

Another way The Matrix influenced modern movies was through its innovative storytelling which blended science fiction with philosophical inquiry, exploring complex themes such as freedom versus control, reality versus illusion and human consciousness versus artificial intelligence. The Matrix reminded filmmakers that heady concepts and thought-provoking narratives could also be comprehended and appreciated by audiences if executed in the right manner. The distinctive aesthetic of The Matrix heavily influenced by cyberpunk stylings and monochromatic color tones also had a significant impact on the visual aesthetics of modern movies as evidenced by the likes of Equilibrium and Underworld. The film has also been the center of innumerable discourses, academic analyses, and movie critiques the world over, making it a popular effort to mull over for those pursuing film studies.

The success of the original film spawned a lucrative franchise leading to three sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both released in 2003, and The Matrix Resurrections which debuted in 2021. While each installment led to somewhat diminishing returns, they did serve to expand the mythos and the intricacies of the universe in greater depth. In addition to the live-action outings the franchise also has an animated film (The Animatrix), four video games and a series of comics and short stories set in the world of The Matrix. In summary, the legacy of The Matrix is a multifaceted one which extends beyond the world of cinema to influence various other aspects of our lives including technology, fashion, culture, and philosophical discourse. This is why the film remains a landmark achievement in modern cinema.