The One and Only
So, Ye Editor of The Post got in touch, which is always a cause for delight, gratitude, and a mild sort of trepidation.
'Fourteenth Anniversary,' came that familiar full-throated rasp.
'Okay,' I said.
'We'd like you to do something special.'
I thought for a moment. 'How about a special tribute: Jason Statham – The Man, the Legend?'
'We'd like you to do something special.'
'Well, what sort of thing did you have in mind?'
'Ideally it should be something reflecting the general ethos and concept of h2g2 – forward-looking, hugely influential, utterly brilliant, you know the sort of thing. Small band of eccentric outsiders take on massive industrial forces and win in style. A connection to the actual anniversary itself wouldn't go amiss, either.'
'Well, what were the no. 1 movies at the box office at the end of April 1999?'
'In the UK, The Rugrats Movie. In the US, The Matrix.'
Well, it was a tough call, but in the end the decision was taken out of my hands – I couldn't get hold of a copy of The Rugrats Movie by deadline time, and so The Matrix it will have to be.
The Matrix came out of nowhere in 1999: its directors, the Wachowski siblings, had shown no previous sign of outstanding vision – their debut movie, Bound, being a violent noir distinguished mainly by its sexual politics – and main player Keanu Reeves' star credentials were also looking somewhat tarnished after a string of movies of the calibre of Feeling Minnesota and The Last Time I Committed Suicide. And, fair's fair, early in 1999, everyone was looking elsewhere, with the much-anticipated return of the Star Wars series devouring newsprint, and – for want of a better word – cyberpunk movies having become virtually synonymous with poor storytelling and tired visuals.
And, to some extent, this is a movie which has vanished into obscurity, too: or perhaps it's better to say that it isn't as appreciated and revered as much as one might expect. Personally I think this is largely a result of what I've come to refer to as RoboCop syndrome: where the reputation of a truly brilliant film is irretrievably dragged down by a string of underwhelming follow-ups. The recent track record of the Wachowskis probably hasn't helped much, either: much as I enjoyed V for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas remains one of my favourite films of the year, it's clear that they are iconoclastic film-makers and anything with their name on it is going to be unpredictable in terms of style, content, and quality.
But, oh, how they get things right in The Matrix, even if it isn't immediately clear just what kind of a movie this is. From the moment in the opening sequence when Carrie-Anne Moss freezes in mid-air and the camera spins around her, it is clear that this film is going to be visually interesting; from Keanu Reeve's initial interrogation by the weirdly anonymous agents, there is a suggestion that this could turn out to be some kind of surrealist techno-horror. Reeves' breakthrough into the 'real world' has the film showing its true colours as a piece of hardcore SF, but then his initial martial arts training sequences make it equally clear that it has serious chops in the action department. Painstaking visual styling is also on display throughout, of course.
Underpinning it all is a dazzling set of ideas, some intrinsic to the concept of the film, some casual little throwaway pieces of invention – it's not really surprising that the cast were required to read Baudrillard, amongst others, prior to reading the script, and were tested on their ability to understand it. Not all of these are strictly original to this film – the concept of living minds doing psycho-battle in a computer-generated dreamscape inevitably recalls (for some of us) Doctor Who's own Matrix, introduced in 1976 – but in this combination and with this degree of flair and invention, everything feels fresh.
Defining what constitutes SF is proverbially difficult to do, but the editors of the Encyclopedia of SF had a pretty good stab when they identified the idea of conceptual breakthrough as being the true sine qua non of the genre. Certainly this idea is central to The Matrix, and it's as well-executed here as anywhere else in cinema. And while there are plenty of great action movies which wrap themselves in a few distinguished genre ideas and distinctive visuals, there are few which integrate action and SF concepts quite as fully and satisfyingly as happens here.
But of course, most of these things are equally true of the two sequels and the other peripheral Matrix arcana, which most people would unhesitatingly describe as, ultimately, massively disappointing when taken as a whole. So what is it that makes the original Matrix so very different?
It is all in the script, of course. For those who are interested in anthropology and Joseph Campbell's monomyth, there is much fun to be had in unpicking the story to discover the underlying Hero's Journey woven skilfully into it; everyone else can enjoy the supremely confident way the story unfolds, barely getting a foot wrong, wittily foreshadowing scenes to come (Reeves' boss berates him, very near the start, for believing that, in his case, the 'rules don't apply'), until all the threads come together in a stunning climax. Even after the initial viewing, one can spend many happy hours unpicking the many levels of allusion built into the story. (One can even attempt to discern surviving remnants of the original script, in which the central relationship was apparently rather less traditional in orientation.)
And so, for me the thing that really makes The Matrix special is not the groundbreaking visuals, the genre-busting martial arts, or the philosophical panache of the enterprise. What makes this such a special film is not any of its numerous innovations or visual inventions, but a much older and more traditional virtue: a solid, rigorously-plotted script that has been polished until it shines. It is impossible to make a truly great film without one – and yet, oddly, this is the one lesson that none of the many imitators of The Matrix appear to have learned.