How do you build a cult hit? What are the necessary components of a story which lodges itself in a segment of society so deeply they breed an entire aesthetic? The Matrix is a case study in the cult-hit phenomenon. A pair of siblings, the Wachowskis, had managed to work up a couple of projects with moderate success before scoring the big one with The Matrix. Like many cult hits, the cast is good but wouldn’t have blown anyone away at the time. Keanu Reeves, a personal favorite, was not even the first choice for the part but in his meandering and diverse career has rarely been quite as perfect as he was for the protagonist, Neo. The villain, played by a ferocious Hugo Weaving, is nameless and ubiquitous and defines himself in one of the many pristine martial arts scenes with the following lines:
“You hear that Mr. Anderson?… That is the sound of inevitability… It is the sound of your death… Goodbye, Mr. Anderson…”Agent Smith
“…I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”Agent Smith
The story plays with the viewer’s sense of reality through the eyes and understanding of Reeves’ character. The sets are grimy subways, abandoned townhouses, and a cold industrial urban center. Even living beings are mechanical, greyscale, and rote. It’s philosophical science-fiction, presenting the question of “what is real?” The final answer doesn’t arrive until the third film in the series and with a fourth on the way, I’m sure there’s more on the Wachowski’s mind regarding that subject. However, the way the question is asked is an extremely visceral way to approach an otherwise esoteric subject. I would love to launch into an exposition on the various philosophical approaches to the question, and those of us who embrace that conversation connect with The Matrix. But it doesn’t force the viewer to deal with the philosophical, instead, it lays it gently on the foundation and then yanks you through an action-packed love story about destiny, identity, and freedom.
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
“Welcome to the desert of the real.”Morpheus
As the lead, Neo’s journey to ascendancy is grounded in an identifiable personality, clumsiness, awkwardness, and loneliness. He is ripped out of his life and has no thoughts about what he’s leaving behind because he’s a loner. What he ultimately finds, the piece of the puzzle which validates the whole roller-coaster ride is the human connection of love. That theme is fleshed out extensively throughout the remaining installments of the trilogy.
“I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”Neo
“…after nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”Cyper
The Matrix works for several reasons. It has memorable lines delivered in memorable ways, it has exciting action sequences with “suspended time” special effects that changed the industry, it builds a world that is intricate, detailed, and interesting, it taps into the struggle for freedom, and has parallels to a messiah narrative. It also resonated with the 90s grunge/emo subculture at the very deepest levels. You can still find it bundled with other emo classics Fight Club and Swordfish. Of the era, it stands head and shoulders above the rest as a testament to the power of good storytelling.