In 1999, Keanu Reeves chose the red pill to go down the rabbit hole — and modern cinema and pop culture would never be the same.
Even in the landscape of that unforgettable year in film, “The Matrix” was a wholly unique blend of cyberpunk sci-fi, superhero thriller and mind-bending existential drama.
Director-siblings the Wachowskis went for broke with a dystopian nightmare about a hacker-hero named Neo (Reeves) destined to be a savior with the help of a band of rebels headed by cyber-warriors Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne).
The ambitious storytelling was equalled by lush visuals: dripping green lines of computer code, a post-apocalyptic field of battery-humans encased in pods, androgynous protagonists sporting S&M-tinged virtual wardrobes and defying the laws of physics to dodge bullets.
“The Matrix” also had its share of detractors, who scoffed at the stoned-college-freshman notion of reality as an illusion. But whether you love or hate it, there’s no denying that, like one of the film’s menacing mechanical octopuses, the Wachowskis’ creation got its tentacles into just about every aspect of pop culture. It launched endless discussions, memes and a visual vernacular in both film and fashion that persists more than 20 years later. Recently, Kim Kardashian sported an outfit a la Matrix for an outing.
The subsequent chapters of the franchise that would follow in 2003, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” expanded the Wachowskis’ vision, though neither lived up to the promise of the original.
But hope springs eternal. So ahead of the release of the latest installment, “Resurrections,” in theaters and on HBO Max on Dec. 22, we look at the sprawling influence matrix of “The Matrix.”
Visual effects supervisor John Gaeta designed a shot that featured Neo bending backward in slow motion to evade bullets. It became a wildly popular style in action movies after “The Matrix.” The Benedict Cumberbatch-starrer “Sherlock” adapted the technique to showcase its hero’s analysis of a moment in time. The technique has also been parodied in countless comedies and animated films, including “Shrek,” “Deadpool,” “Scary Movie,” “The Simpsons,” and “Kung Fu Panda.”
With his willowy physique and terse delivery, Keanu Reeves was nobody’s idea of a typical hero figure at the time. In creating Neo, the Wachowskis opened the door for a genre of sleeker, edgier characters — think Christopher Nolan’s Batman, Marvel’s Doctor Strange and Quentin Tarantino’s Beatrix Kiddo in “Kill Bill,” all of whom also happen to be schooled in martial arts.
Comic book adaptations
The Wachowskis have said “The Matrix” was inspired in part by a request for them to create an original comic book, and the film’s graphic novel-esque aesthetic can be seen in films such as 2010’s “Kick-Ass,” 2008’s “Wanted,” and 2005’s “Sin City” and “V for Vendetta” — the latter of which was adapted by the Wachowskis for director James McTeigue.
“The Matrix” spawned a virtual reality bonanza, from Cameron Crowe’s 2001 thriller “Vanilla Sky” with Tom Cruise to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 classic “Inception” to Steven Spielberg’s 2018 adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One,” about a near-future in which people leave the hellscape of a trash-filled Earth behind in the virtual gaming world.
The “John Wick” franchise
Perhaps nowhere is the influence of “The Matrix” so obvious as it is in this wildly successful Keanu headliner. The “gun fu” of “John Wick” owes much of its style to “The Matrix,” and the franchise nodded to this connection in “John Wick 3,” in which Reeves’ character echoes a line from the original “Matrix” in his request for weaponry: “Guns. Lots of guns.”
After the film’s release, it spurred fashion trends on streets and runways, including the Christian Dior 1999 collection. Vogue reported that Dior was “heavily influenced” by the film, with this season’s collection featuring sweeping trench coats and leather.
In 2017, “The Matrix” was resurrected on the runway with long coats and tight leather looks by Balenciaga, Vetements, Balmain and Alexander McQueen.
The resurgence continued the next year with Alexander Wang and Off-White’s collections featuring “Matrix”-reminiscent shades and skintight black leather.
The film series’ success increased the profile of its directors, the Wachowskis. Both siblings came out as trans in the years following the initial film’s release, shining a light on trans people. In 2020, Lilly Wachowski said in an interview that “The Matrix” was a metaphor for coming out as transgender. “I love how meaningful those films are to trans people, and the way they come up to me and say, ‘These movies saved my life,’” she said.
Online chatter about the idea that our universe is actually a computer simulation has ramped up in a significant way since “The Matrix.” Philosopher Nick Bostrom posited in 2003 that it was more likely than not that our reality is a simulation. Elon Musk has also espoused the theory, saying he thinks “there’s a one in billions chance” humans aren’t in a simulation. Scientists have pointed out that there is no actual evidence to support this theory. Last year, the documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix” explored simulation theory, including profiling a man who killed his family after concluding the matrix was real.
The phrase: “A glitch in the matrix”
“The Matrix” is bursting with quotable moments — “I know kung fu,” “There is no spoon” — but, “a glitch in the matrix” has become popular shorthand for something that seems uncanny or eerily familiar (just take a look at the sprawling Glitch in the Matrix subreddit).
The phrase “Red-pilling”
This “Matrix”-inspired term for waking up to reality was co-opted by alt-right circles to describe the process of “realizing” the wrongness of progressive concepts. In 2020, it had a moment in the spotlight when Elon Musk tweeted “take the red pill,” without further explanation, to which Ivanka Trump replied, “Taken!” Lilly Wachowski subsequently replied, “F–k both of you.”