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Why It Works: The Matrix

05.01.2015
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

"Follow the white rabbit." THE MATRIX makes no bones about being an age old hero's journey, as this and many other of its Alice In Wonderland references demonstrate. Hell, the main character even goes through the looking glass to wake up (or rather the looking glass goes through him). Toss in a bit of Cartesian philosophy. mind bending action sequences, and more leather than you can shake a red pill at, however, and a standard fairy tale becomes one of the most influential films of the past twenty years. Here's why it works:

WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:

Just like we discussed with the narrator in FIGHT CLUB in Why It Works' previous installment, we're a sucker for the frustrated everyman. Many of us spend 40+ hours a week sitting in an office thinking about all the ways in which we could achieve greatness if we only had the chance, so it doesn't take long for us to identify with the restless Thomas A. Anderson and cherish the chance to live vicariously through him. It should also be noted how perfect Keanu Reeves is for a role like this. Brad Pitt, Will Smith, and Tom Cruise (all of whom were considered for the role) emanate a natural confidence, so it's easy to see them as the hero right at the onset of the story. Keanu is charming to be sure, but he brings a certain innocence to the role, which, as with Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, makes his rise to greatness that much more exciting.

Sadly, Morpheus and Trinity aren't the most three dimensional characters ever put on film. That said, it's both fun and necessary to have characters who already have their shit together on the winning side, and their belief in and affection for Neo gives their overall stiffness a huge pass. Ironically, the delightfully hammy Agent Smith is probably the most fun character in the film, with Hugo Weaving's chaotic-but-contained performance earning the character a spot on the list of most imitated movie villains. Finally, Cypher, the Oracle, and the 1980's crew of the Nebuchadnezzar help bring some levity and humanity to the cast. (one of the many reasons why Joey Pants should be in every movie).

How many other actors can make stopping bullets look like an "aw, shucks" moment?

WHY WE CARE:

From an entertainment perspective alone, the opening sequence of THE MATRIX is enough to keep just about anyone tuned in. Beyond Trinity's ass kicking and narrow escape, however, we are also introduced to all the main ideas of the movie within the first few minutes. The opening dialogue between Trinity and Cypher makes mention of Morpheus and someone he believes to be "the one." The subsequent action sequence introduces the agents, who, along with Trinity, seem to have a super human strength (the reaction from the cops to these characters shows that this isn't just some superhuman world). Finally, our first introduction to Neo teases the existence of "the Matrix" and a mysterious quest awaiting him. By the time the story gets going, we know the rabbit hole extends beyond whether or not Mr. Anderson will ever be able to get to work on time.

Moreoever, the way any fantasy movie pulls us regular schmoes in is by introducing the world to us as it is being introduced to the protagonist. Neo voices our disbelief and sense of wonder, which connects us all the more to our hero. If we were shown the plot of the movie through Trinity's point of view, for instance, we would have a much harder time connecting to the world or the protagonist, and Neo would seem like some odd, ineffectual wrench in the works rather than our savior. Essentially, we need someone on the screen to say "whoa" for us.

I could totally do that. I just don't feel like it right now.

WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:

Most fantasy/superhero movies either take place in an extraordinary world or ask us to believe our world has an underground population of wizards, men in black, mutants, etc. Even other "plug and play" sci-fi movies like STRANGE DAYS and EXISTENZ focus on the real world, with the digital world taking a backseat. By focusing on what we consider to be the real world, THE MATRIX forces us to question our own reality and lets us dream about the "what if." The same way every zombie movie makes you start checking buildings for escape routes and weaponry, the Wachowskis' masterpiece gives you a minor panic attack every time you get that feeling of déjà vu and has you wondering if you could make the jump to that other rooftop if you just believed in yourself enough (don't try this at home, kids).

It also doesn't hurt that our "what if" fantasy sees our heroes kicking all kinds of ass in the world we mosey through on a daily basis. In a short span of time, we see Neo go from that awkward guy in the next cubicle to a bullet dodging ninja. Once the hero is up to speed with Morpheus and Trinity, however, we see him conquer his reality beyond anyone's expectations. At this point, we start to see the story through Morpheus and Trinity's eyes as they marvel at their new messiah's rise to power. Every time we think we've seen Neo hit his apex, he survives several shots to the chest, stops bullets mid-flight, and, wait for it, explodes a dude from the inside. Okay, that's it right? Wrong. Once the story hits its climax and we're in cooldown mode, we're still treated to a final shot of our hero flying away. FLYING?! Oh, man. I can't wait to see that sequel. There's no way it'll be confusing, ridiculous, or feature a slow motion bump and grind sequence, right? RIGHT??

"You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

WHY WE REMEMBER:

If there's one thing Hollywood will probably always be guilty of, it's the constant copycat mentality. Movie A stuns audiences, so movies B, C, D, E, and F are made the following year in an attempt to be as similar to movie A as possible, when what really made movie A so effective was the fact that it was unlike anything else we've ever seen. Cue THE MATRIX. A short 16 years later, plenty of the concepts and visuals of the film seem fairly commonplace now that countless movies, TV shows, and video games have borrowed and sometimes improved upon so many of these techniques. The tricky thing here is that a thirteen year old kid watching THE MATRIX today may not know any of this, so coming first can't be what gives a movie its staying power. What sets THE MATRIX aside from most of its progeny is the addition of philosophy, style, and humor to the action-rich plot. In the midst of keeping us on the edge of our sets, the Wachowskis have us questioning reality, shopping for long coats and thin sunglasses, telling everyone we meet that we know kung fu, and trying to replicate a certain "cool factor" that can't be calculated by a team of Hollywood executives.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at brianbitner@joblo.com.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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9:26PM on 05/03/2015
Can't be 100% positive, but I think this was my first DVD purchase (it might have been the Back to the Future trilogy box set). The film was so magical in how it introduced what are common effects nowadays. It's hard to imagine any other movies that have been as influential and unique since. Perhaps Avatar for all its seamless CGI and huge IMAX 3D-ness? But The Matrix had a story that was so much better...
Can't be 100% positive, but I think this was my first DVD purchase (it might have been the Back to the Future trilogy box set). The film was so magical in how it introduced what are common effects nowadays. It's hard to imagine any other movies that have been as influential and unique since. Perhaps Avatar for all its seamless CGI and huge IMAX 3D-ness? But The Matrix had a story that was so much better...
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11:11AM on 05/03/2015

Top 10 movie for me

I've got nothing to add just that I hope they release again in theaters one day so I get the chance to see it on the big screen. Just not in 3d for the love of god.
I've got nothing to add just that I hope they release again in theaters one day so I get the chance to see it on the big screen. Just not in 3d for the love of god.
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5:27AM on 05/02/2015
Well with this column you have now done my 2 all time favorite. I saw The Matrix 3 times in the theatres & everytime I was wowed. I even dig the sequels even if the F/X have aged badly. You have to admit no sci-fi action or any action film today would be made the same without The Matrix.
Well with this column you have now done my 2 all time favorite. I saw The Matrix 3 times in the theatres & everytime I was wowed. I even dig the sequels even if the F/X have aged badly. You have to admit no sci-fi action or any action film today would be made the same without The Matrix.
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12:59AM on 05/02/2015
The Matrix was a great film but sadly the sequels couldn't held up anywhere close to the first film.
The Matrix was a great film but sadly the sequels couldn't held up anywhere close to the first film.
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7:15PM on 05/01/2015
Thanks for this -- it helps me remember my first time watching this -- my best friend and me, late one night, and then going for burgers or something and talking philosophy.
Thanks for this -- it helps me remember my first time watching this -- my best friend and me, late one night, and then going for burgers or something and talking philosophy.
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5:23PM on 05/01/2015

Mr Anderson

I love the Matrix however what followed was typical of Hollywood, film does well let's make more. The first film ended well for me and should have been left there. The second and third were just overblown complex piles of crap - the whole creator speech at the end of the second film I think it was, it was just terrible. The films became too complicated and tried to do too much, whilst the first remains one of favourite ever films.
I love the Matrix however what followed was typical of Hollywood, film does well let's make more. The first film ended well for me and should have been left there. The second and third were just overblown complex piles of crap - the whole creator speech at the end of the second film I think it was, it was just terrible. The films became too complicated and tried to do too much, whilst the first remains one of favourite ever films.
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4:44PM on 05/01/2015
The first time I saw this it was unlike anything else I'd ever seen. No doubt the majority of sci-fi films have tried to imitate The Matrix, especially with the use of "bullet time" and complex philosophical themes - but they just can't compete. In my opinion this is one of the best, most original sci-fi films of all time.
The first time I saw this it was unlike anything else I'd ever seen. No doubt the majority of sci-fi films have tried to imitate The Matrix, especially with the use of "bullet time" and complex philosophical themes - but they just can't compete. In my opinion this is one of the best, most original sci-fi films of all time.
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1:10PM on 05/01/2015
The number one thing for me, and what this article doesn't mention, is that The Matrix finds a way to, as it might put it, bend the rules and even break them for what a movie should be able to do. The Matrix allows us to legitimately see the fulfillment of imagination realized. It essentially turns what we did as kids on a playground into a serious, thoughtful movie. As kids, we always used to imagine ourselves as one thing or another: superheroes, martial artists, soldiers, cops, etc. The
The number one thing for me, and what this article doesn't mention, is that The Matrix finds a way to, as it might put it, bend the rules and even break them for what a movie should be able to do. The Matrix allows us to legitimately see the fulfillment of imagination realized. It essentially turns what we did as kids on a playground into a serious, thoughtful movie. As kids, we always used to imagine ourselves as one thing or another: superheroes, martial artists, soldiers, cops, etc. The Matrix takes this sort of imaginative playground antic, throws it on screen, and justifies it. Since The Matrix, we've seen a few other films do the same, to better or worse degrees. Inception and Sucker Punch come to mind, where the rules of reality are broken and we see characters become whatever they imagine themselves to be. It is a rare feat to see filmmakers be able to break those rules successfully, or at the very least justify why they've broken those rules. The Matrix, in my mind, stands as the best of these kinds of films and it's probably my second favorite film of all time.
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1:18PM on 05/01/2015
Excellent point! That's what I was going for with the "what if" fantasy aspect of the movie. I think it's easy for a movie to totally go off the rails with a concept like this, but, to your point, The Matrix builds on this concept incrementally, from fighting Morpheus to failing the Jump program to just barely dodging bullets- we see Neo struggle enough that we buy when he finally succeeds. Thanks for reading!
Excellent point! That's what I was going for with the "what if" fantasy aspect of the movie. I think it's easy for a movie to totally go off the rails with a concept like this, but, to your point, The Matrix builds on this concept incrementally, from fighting Morpheus to failing the Jump program to just barely dodging bullets- we see Neo struggle enough that we buy when he finally succeeds. Thanks for reading!
10:54AM on 05/01/2015
1999 was such a great year for movies and this ranks as one of the best of them.
1999 was such a great year for movies and this ranks as one of the best of them.
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10:46AM on 05/01/2015
Likening The Matrix to a zombie movie is something I haven't heard before, but it's pretty apt, since at any moment someone could morph into an Agent and try to kill the hero.

This is one of those movies I can watch over and over. I've never quite loved it, and I wrack my brain to figure out why, but it's undeniably entertaining and thought provoking. Never did check out the sequels (aside from catching part of the second one on HBO one time). Eh, figure it's for the best.
Likening The Matrix to a zombie movie is something I haven't heard before, but it's pretty apt, since at any moment someone could morph into an Agent and try to kill the hero.

This is one of those movies I can watch over and over. I've never quite loved it, and I wrack my brain to figure out why, but it's undeniably entertaining and thought provoking. Never did check out the sequels (aside from catching part of the second one on HBO one time). Eh, figure it's for the best.
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