When you consider the greatest movie years, one of the prime contenders is 1999. Along with box-office successes like The Phantom Menace and The Sixth Sense, it included standout films like Magnolia and Fight Club. A landmark movie that earned both critical acclaim and huge profits was The Matrix. Directed by the relatively unknown Wachowski brothers, it provided innovative special effects, serious philosophical themes, and over-the-top action. Arriving in late March, it stole the thunder from many summer movies, including the chart-topping Star Wars prequel. Thirteen years later, its popularity has been diminished by two inferior sequels, but many still consider it one of the great sci-fi films. They recall its "bullet time" effects, high-flying fights, and impact on pop culture. Its revolutionary look has held up well today despite the advances in special effects and countless imitators. Watching it again today, what's interesting is how well the opening act sets up the mayhem that follows. We didn't leave the theater talking about the first 30 minutes, but the story fails without them. It's a lesson that the sequels missed despite larger budgets and more action. The spectacle isn't enough to keep audiences returning after the excitement goes away.
The story opens with the sound of a phone call between two unknown voices. While the computer system traces its source, we arrive in a typical modern city. Trinity (Carrie Anne-Moss) is cornered by the law, but she's no ordinary criminal. The high-flying opening reveals her extraordinary abilities as she fights her way through a bunch of guys. We still don't know who she is, but the focus shifts to Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves). He works in a mundane job but spends his nights as "Neo" creating black-market software. After receiving a strange call at home, he arrives at a night club and meets Trinity, who's a famous hacker. She provides hints that the world is not what it seems, but gives little concrete information. Like Alice going down the rabbit hole (the movie makes this analogy very clear), he's stumbling into unknown territory. When Anderson arrives late to his job the next day, he has no idea his life is about to change. A mysterious caller informs him that he must run from the agents who've just arrived, but he doesn't know why. This guy is called Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) and has surprising knowledge, but we can't tell if his intentions are good.
This office scene recalls the "innocent man on the run" movies where Hitchcock made his name. Like the protagonists of The 39 Steps or North by Northwest, he's trying to stay alive while knowing little about why he's in danger. What makes this scene more interesting is the way the Wachowski brothers subvert our expectations. Anderson steps out the window and seems ready for a daring exit down the fire escape. Our action-movie sensibilities are expecting a chase here, but he's just a normal guy and changes his mind instead. We're disappointed when he steps back and turns himself in to the authorities. This isn't what a hero would do! Where is the giant action scene? This brilliant move by the Wachowskis accomplishes two key objectives. First of all, it retains the mystery of what type of movie we're actually seeing. The trailers promised an over-the-top thriller, but was that a smokescreen? Avoiding the easy route is wise because it raises the stakes for the later moments. Second, we realize that Anderson isn't the typical action hero who can escape any situation without breaking a sweat. Instead, he's a regular guy who doesn't like heights and trusts that the police are legitimate. Making the lead character weaker at the beginning gives it a much greater impact when he takes charge later.
The interrogation scene is a classic moment right out of an old-school film noir picture. It's clear from the moment that we meet Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) that Anderson shouldn't trust him. The way that he sneeringly calls him "Mr. Anderson" reveals his complete lack of caring for the well-meaning guy. He's just a gnat that Smith will crush to reach his goals. Anderson does the right thing (in theory) and asks for his lawyer, and that's when the genre shifts dramatically. Smith appears to have the power to seal a person's lips shut, and this shifts the tone towards horror. When Anderson is injected with a bug-like tracking device, it's a grisly moment that enhances the mystery. There's something different about this world, but its exact nature still isn't clear. By keeping us in the dark for a while, the Wachowskis keep us intrigued right along with Anderson. When he ultimately meets Morpheus, we're on the edge of our seat and want to know the answer to the pivotal question. What is the Matrix? It's rare to feel this kind of anticipation in any film, particularly a mainstream action movie. The detective-story formula only gives us the same information as the hero, so we don't feel superior when he struggles to figure out the details. When Morpheus gives Anderson the option to choose the red pill and discover the true nature of the Matrix, we're really hoping he takes the plunge.
The Matrix was the surprise box-office hit of 1999 and earned more than $460 million world-wide on a budget of $63 million. Its sequels did well financially but were disastrous creatively. It's easy to blame the over-reliance on CGI and ridiculous flying battles for the failure, and they do play a role. However, another key reason for the mess is the lack of true mystery. While we might want to know more about the Matrix, that only works if the structure is effective. The sequels (particularly the third film) have messy plots and focus too much on topping the original with bombastic action. The Wachowskis lost the discipline that served them so well in the opening film. They were willing to set the mood and create suspense while holding back the action. They allow us to grow acclimated to the environment along with Anderson as he transforms into the heroic Neo. Once he gains the ability to defeat the Agents, there's no tension. In similar fashion to the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, bigger definitely isn't better. The Wachowskis' adherence to a classic plot structure is the master stroke that makes the final act shine. When Neo starts dodging bullets and flying across the screen, we're so engaged that the result is a thrilling movie.