The Matrix: revisiting a masterpiece

With the UK release of the Wachowski’s highly anticipated and intriguing Cloud Atlas early next year, we look at the cult classic that grabbed the cinema-goer and introduced them to “A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible”.

These were the words of Neo, played by Keanu Reeves and he’s only one name on a cast list full of great acting talent. After watching Carrie-Anne Moss in leather fighting off several police officers and Laurence Fishburne being a father figure to Neo as he trains him in a Japanese style Dojo, the casting choices seemed so good that you can’t imagine anyone else in the roles.

After watching the martial arts fight scenes and rooftop chases, it was clear that the Wachowskis knew exactly what they wanted to show and how they wanted to show it, the influence of comic books and Japanese anime were apparent and played a huge part in the visuals; every shot looked as if it was the live action equivalent of an illustrated panel in a ‘The Matrix – The Graphic Novel’. The storyboards that the artists Steve Skroce and Geof Darrow developed were of a cartooned comic book styling and used many angles and compositions similar to that of Japanese Anime and comics. Producer Joel Silver said in an interview

“It’s really unusual that directors are so sure of what they want”

The Wachowskis were very specific of what they wanted and were able to get very hands-on with the shooting, from looking at behind the scenes footage you can often see one of the brothers acting as the focal character and the other in the role of the camera man. The two siblings’ relationship and approach to directing each aspect of the production, especially actors, clearly shows how passionate they were about the whole project and you can see that they had full control over every shot, unhappy until the footage recorded fully encapsulated the vision they both had in their minds.

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The Wachowski brothers on set

If you haven’t seen the film then it has to be noted that it is full of ideas and visual styling borrowed and modified from other books and films, but this is not to say the film wasn’t original in its core concepts. There’s a noticeable nod to Alice in Wonderland throughout and Lana Wachowski states that it’s not only within the films dialogue

“She comes into this world … people just give her things and say “eat this, drink this”… and nothing makes sense, nothings logical… and we tried to do that with the beginning of the film”

He helps us identify the similarities between the situations of both Alice and Neo, being thrown into a world that they can’t begin to recognise, full of strange realisations and people telling them what to do when everything is unfamiliar and new. I think as an audience watching the film, we were doing this also: the film was so different to many before it, that we swallowed it’s concepts before chewing and waited with open mouths for the next slice. Some would say the reason we all loved it was due to the mix of genres and that it had everything a sci-fi film could choose from, but decided to have all of it: martial arts, guns, virtual realities, artificial intelligence… you name it. Maybe another main reason we enjoyed the film so much was the escapism it offered to us, at some point in your life you must have wanted somebody to pull you out of your life and throw you into another, one of a bigger purpose and preferably where you can be hero that saves the day, right?

The Matrix set the mark for other Sci-fi films to step up to. It introduced ground-breaking methods to create spectacular shots, for example ‘bullet time’ (watch below), the appropriately named technique of showing the complex movement around a slow motion shot. As Neo leans backwards to ‘dodge’ the bullets of an enemy agent, the camera starts facing Neo, then orbits around him whilst the travelling bullets are passing him. This was all done through the use of multiple stills cameras, placed on a path around the action that all consecutively triggered and produced a sequence, giving the illusion of movement around the action. This technique and other use of slow motion in the film pushed other film makers to linger more on action shots and try to really transport the viewer more into the centre of the action.

 

On its release in 1999 The Matrix became a cult phenomenon and whether this was down to the cool visuals, unique concepts or that it was everything an escapist could hope for, it still maintains its huge fan-base and its place in sci-fi history even thirteen years on. It may surprise some of you that Reeves wasn’t first choice for the role of Neo, Will Smith was, and Ewan McGregor after that. You have to wonder though; would they have suited the role anywhere near as well as Reeves did?

The Wachowskis next big release (Cloud Atlas) looks to be what their fans have been waiting for ever since the Matrix trilogy ended and although it’s not an original work (it’s an adaptation of the Cloud Atlas novel by David Mitchell) it’s already received a 10-minute standing ovation at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival.

Cloud Atlas hits U.S. theatres October 26th 2012 but unfortunately us UK viewers will have to wait until February 22nd 2013.

By David Harris

Dave is a film-maker and film watcher who’s recently graduated with a degree in Film Game and Animation.
Find him on Twitter: @DaveGHarris

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