The intersection of religion and sci-fi has proven time and again to be an extremely powerful marriage in the world of filmmaking. The picture that I’m taking a look at today is a prime example of that. It also happens to be one of the most influential sci-fi films of recent memory. The Matrix was a game changer in many respects and its legacy is still felt and seen today.
As always, we'll start with the basics. The Matrix was released in 1999 and distributed by Warner Bros. powerhouse producer, Joel Silver, was a driving force behind the film that was written and directed by The Wachowskis and stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Hugo Weaving. It was a critical and financial success, taking in over $463 million worldwide. It also become the first DVD to sell over three million copies in the United States. With the millions and millions of DVDs and Blu-Rays that are sold in today's market, that is a feat that is too often taken for granted. But now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, let’s see how deep this rabbit hole really goes.
Making The Matrix was a huge gamble for Warner Bros. They had entrusted $60 million dollars to “two schmucks from Chicago,” who had an idea that no one outside of them completely understood. Even better, the big special effects they sought to make use of had never been done before. With all these risks, you might be wondering how the movie even got made in the first place. It all started out with the script for Assassins. During this period of time, Lorenzo di Bonaventura was the president of production at Warner Bros. He read Assassins in 1994 and immediately signed The Wachowskis to a three-picture deal. On a quick side note, Assassins was heavily rewritten by another writer before it went into production. Anyway, the two other scripts The Wachowskis sold as part of their deal were Bound and The Matrix. The team went on to direct Bound, which became a critical hit. Using that momentum, The Wachowskis had a little more leverage when they asked to direct The Matrix.
Joel Silver was on board by this time and his name was a big boost to the project, but what most people overlook is just how big of a part Lorenzo di Bonaventura played in all of this. He didn’t receive a credit on the film, but he was a huge supporter of the project from the start and fought tirelessly to get it made. Even with these two backing them, The Wachowskis needed something more to present the studio with, so they had detailed storyboards for the entire film created. That, coupled with everyone’s excitement about the project, finally swayed the studio to fork over the dough. The decision was made to film in Australia, because their budget would go a lot further there than in the States.
One of the requirements for actors on the film was that they had to be able to explain The Matrix. They also had to agree to intense physical training as part of their preparation. Will Smith was originally interested in playing Neo, but the part eventually went to Keanu Reeves. Everyone always gives Keanu a lot of shit, but a couple years back I got to check out a tribute screening of The Matrix that he attended and walked away extremely impressed with the man. He ended up waxing philosophical about all of the ideas at play in the film. It was pretty mesmerizing to listen to and proved that this was a guy who really understood all of the nuances in the script. (He also reportedly gave away the bulk of his salary for the last two films to the costume and special effects crews.)Here's a quick snippet of an intro he did for the film on that night (and, yes, I know he flubs the word synthesized):
Could you imagine anyone but Keanu as Neo? Think about how different of a film this would have been with Will Smith. And just for fun, here’s another tidbit… Val Kilmer was originally offered the role of Morpheus, but passed on the project.
Perhaps what everyone remembers most about The Matrix are the amazing effects and stylized fight sequences. The Wachowskis have long been admirers of Hong Kong cinema and it’s pretty easy to see the influence those pictures had on their work. Famed Chinese director and martial arts choreographer, Woo-Ping, was hired to work on the project. Here’s a quote from exec producer Barrie Osborne on the differences in Western and Eastern fight choreography:
"Most American stunt work uses rams or pneumatics to project a person through the air at a certain speed. With wire-stunt work, the stunts are far more controlled and very stylized. It's almost like puppeteering, but using a real person. It takes tremendous skill and finesse."
Actors were required to train intensively for months on end to prepare. Hugo Weaving even had to undergo surgery on his hip after suffering an injury during pre-production. The resulting wire stunts and fluid martial arts action had a heavy influence on fight scenes that followed as many films made use of the same techniques. If you take a look at films that came after The Matrix, you can see a shift to a more Eastern approach in the choreography of fight scenes in many of these works. Here’s a small video showing some of the behind the scenes footage, and, as you’ll see, the prep work the actors put in really paid off:
The second part in this equation, of course, is special effects. Two names that should be mentioned are John Gaeta, visual effects supervisor of The Matrix, and the film’s director of photography, Bill Pope. Simply put, the “bullet time” effects seen in The Matrix were spectacular and utterly groundbreaking. The effect was achieved by setting up over one hundred still cameras along a mapped out path to capture the action sequences. The frames were then uploaded onto a computer and an animation process of sorts followed. Instead of attempting to explain it all to you myself, I’ll let the actual man behind the process take care of that:
The slow-mo effects approached the equivalent of 12,000 frames per second. Compare that to the normal 24 fps of film and that number is especially staggering. Many films tried to mimic some form the extreme slow-motion and smooth camera moves seen in The Matrix, as did many video games. Max Payne is one of the many clear-cut examples of that.
Now, The Matrix itself was heavily influenced by many different sources. The world of cyberpunk and authors Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson were clearly on the mind of The Wachowskis. And on that same note, Ghost in the Shell was also a very strong influence on the film with The Wachowskis stating that they “wanted to do that for real” in making The Matrix. Before I go any further, I should point out that there have been claims that the directing team took ideas seen in previous materials such as Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and Doctor Who among other things. There was even a big Internet rumor about Sophia Stewart winning a lawsuit over the film. Notice how I said rumor, because that’s all that one was. The case was thrown out, and if you don’t believe me you can look it up yourself. Science-fiction has always had a lot of overlap in terms of ideas, so I don’t think it’s fair to cry foul unless there’s some form of clear proof. It's no secret that people often draw from the same influences.
Moving on, the philosophy at play in The Matrix is simply mind-boggling. They actually devoted an entire disc to it in The Ultimate Matrix Collection box set. I’m not even going to try to delve too deep into any of it, because if I did this article would quickly turn into a 300 page thesis. But, I’ll touch on one idea really quickly. The premise of The Matrix can be tied into Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Keeping this extremely basic, Plato likened people who were uneducated in his Theory of Forms (which is in very, very simplistic terms, the idea that the true essence or definition of an object isn’t what we perceive with our eyes, but rather the quality that makes it that object, i.e. what makes a table a table... that is its true form) to being chained in a cave. A fire glows behind them and they see the shadows of objects passing along the wall, but not the actual objects themselves. These people perceive the shadows as reality and thus do not know the true form of the objects. They are prisoners to this false perception of reality. Sound strikingly familiar? Again, this barely scratches the surface, but it goes to show just how complex the storytelling in The Matrix really is.
I’ll finish by making a quick stop on religion to tie it all back to this week's theme. Just naming a few, this film touches on the ideas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Christianity. And like philosophy, religion is so tightly woven into the script that discussing all of what you see here would take hours and hours. Obviously, I can’t go through all of it, but I will touch on perhaps the most blatantly apparent idea in the series... Neo as a Christ figure. To start, Neo has a “virgin” birth of sorts since he’s created by the machines and brought into the real world after spending his entire life in an incubator pod, which, of course, is symbolic of a womb. You also can’t ignore the prophecies of his coming and the fact that he is the one chosen to free humanity from their bondage. Then, there's his name, Thomas Anderson. Thomas refers to Doubting Thomas, as Neo never believed he was The One at first. Anderson can literally mean “son of man” when broken up into its roots. Anyone familiar with the teachings of Christianity knows Jesus is often referred to by that name. And if you couple that name with Neo meaning new, you get “new son of man.” You also can’t ignore the Judas/Cypher and Morpheus/John the Baptist metaphors and the fact that Neo gets a very Christ-like death at the end of the series.
If the philosophy/religious aspects of The Matrix really interest you, I highly suggest you check out The Roots of the Matrix DVD in the Ultimate Collection. It goes into great detail about both all of the thematics of the series. Speaking of series, I think it's safe to say that the success of this trilogy, along with The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels (they made money, even if you didn't care for them) really made Hollywood overload on the whole idea of creating stories that could be told in a trilogy.
The Matrix is an amazing piece of work that you could pick apart and analyze for years. It's why it has become one of the most memorable pieces of modern science-fiction and has influenced countless filmmakers. I'll leave you with perhaps the most dazzling action sequence in the film. One that features an appearance by Ron Howard's brother, Clint: