Eight years ago today was a Wednesday, and opening day for a relatively low profile movie called The Matrix. I was living in a suburb of Seattle and my afternoon was free so I found someone with a car (Josh W.) and talked him into going with me. I didn’t know anything about the movie other than seeing a few 15-second TV spots and thinking, I guess that looks pretty cool.
Fortunately the ads didn’t give anything away so a half hour into the film, when Keanu Reeves opened his eyes to find himself in a vat of red amniotic fluid and surrounded by skyscrapers with thousands of artificial uteri protruding from them, I was taken completely by surprise.
That Matrix is so ubiquitous now, so deeply ingrained in the collective cultural consciousness, that it’s difficult to remember what seeing the movie for the first time, completely free of external association, felt like. In the opening sequence, when Trinity jumped up and the “camera” swung around her suspended in midair, my friend and I looked at each other with an expression of joy at the realization that the next two hours were going to be something completely different.
When we left the theater, stunned, I prophesied to my friend that it might take 20 years but someday people are going to look back at this movie and regard it as a sci-fi classic, sort of the Blade Runner of the 90s. Boy was I wrong. Instead, The Matrix was imitated so quickly and universally that anything resembling its style soon became parodic. By the time the sequels finally came around four years later, the franchise had already become cliched and they withered in the light of the original’s unrepeatable innovations.
Sure, it raised the bar for special effects, invented bullet-time and all that, but The Matrix’s most significant impact on Hollywood was the wide-angle fistfights between characters. They simply made it unacceptable for subsequent movies to use doubles for fight scenes with only closeup inserts of unidentifiable fists and legs. Post-Matrix, actors in practically any action movie were expected to train for their own fight scenes, paving the way for more athletic stars like Jason Statham and even Matt Damon.
Unfortunately, this new paradigm established by The Matrix was undermined in its first sequel, when halfway through Keanu Reeve’s courtyard fight with the Agent Smiths, he is suddenly replaced by a digital stunt double. At that point the spectacle aspect of the franchise, achieved so well in the first movie with its many “I can’t believe I just saw that” moments, immediately gave way to “I can see that in any computer game.” Say what you like about the convoluted story, but it’s primarily an action trilogy and it was simply unforgivable for the franchise responsible for a paradigm shift in Hollywood to break its own rules and fail by the standard it had itself set of what makes a credible on-screen fight.
Okay, they had lots of other problems. Morpheus was too fat and Trinity was too skinny, to name a couple of them. And I’ve never be able to see the Architect without thinking of Will Farrell’s spot-on parody for the MTV Movie Awards. Ergo. Vis a vis. Concordantly.
*Apologies for the license-plate title of this post but ever since Se7en and the completely unacceptable Thir13en Ghosts, I can’t resist an opportunity for numeric gratuity.