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The Matrix and its pop culture impact, themes, and legacy
In 1999, the Wachowskis changed the sci-fi movie game with The Matrix. This first installment of what would become a trilogy followed the story of Thomas “Neo” Anderson, a computer programmer by day and hacker at night whose life is forever changed when he swallows the red pill that disconnects him from a carefully simulated world of enslaved humans. The premise of machines rebelling against their makers wasn’t a unique concept at the time, but the utilization of people as an electrical system to fuel a dystopian world put an interesting twist on the potential fate of humanity.
The Matrix’s visual effects, specifically its use of “bullet time” — where a shot takes place in slow motion while the camera progresses at normal speed — and wire-fu filming techniques has had a significant impact on how fight scenes are crafted in countless TV shows and movies, from Kill Bill to Kick-Ass, Marvel’s Daredevil, and beyond. Neo’s impossible bullet-dodging back bend became an iconic movie moment that has been copied and parodied countless times over.This film was a thought-provoking conversation starter with its themes of existentialism, free will, premeditated futures, the rejection of groupthink, and a conglomeration of several religious ideologies, like prophecy and the godlike attributes that Neo exhibits throughout the movie. Basically, The Matrix was about that action and undeniably sleek, stylish, complex, and cool, with innovative use of CGI and a reimagining of how the dial-up Internet and pay phone technology of the time could be given a futuristic twist — and it positively impacted the meteoric rise of DVDs, with a legion of fans rushing to own this piece of pop culture.
Of course, the ageless Keanu Reeves flawlessly brought Neo to life and partnered well with Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, who served as a John the Baptist-like counterpart to his Jesus. Mainstream science fiction and fantasy erase Black people from the narrative far too often, but The Matrix went against the grain by making one of the free world’s most respected leaders and influencers a Black man. Morpheus was a man of virtually unshakable faith who spread the word about the true savior who would one day come and liberate the masses. The future included people of color who played pivotal roles, and it felt like an intentional yet natural choice.The Oracle, a key figure in the Matrix trilogy, took on the form of a Black woman who had the power to unlock and visualize the future. She continues to be a polarizing figure, with some believing she embodies the "magical Negro" trope while others view her as a revolutionary who existed within the Matrix yet had the power to challenge its rules by offering options and encouraging people to think for themselves. She planted seeds of guidance for Neo, but it was for a purpose far greater than having him come to some epiphany about life on an individual level. She wanted true liberation and freedom for all, and she knew that he was the vehicle through which it had to be accomplished. So she spread her knowledge to his friends to prepare them for his eventual sacrifice and resurrection. Overall, it was unexpected yet thrilling to see a Black woman occupy this central and pivotal role.
The other major female character, Trinity, also played a key part in the overall narrative. She was given the space to be a leather-rocking, gun-shooting baddie with a high aptitude for hacking alongside her developing love and affection for Neo. Trinity’s work as a liaison and liberator is largely glossed over due to Neo taking the center stage, but she’s Morpheus’ right-hand person who was responsible for bringing people from out of the darkness into a shocking new light — and she commands a seemingly dead Neo to “rise up” and complete his initial mission to save free people. Carrie-Anne Moss is truly a force as Trinity, who reminds us that the answer is out there … and it will find us if we want it to.
Cheers to The Matrix and 20 years of gravity-defying moves, philosophical debates, enthralling action, and a dangerous yet diverse liberated existence outside of a world where machines reigned supreme.