42 years ago, Star Wars came out, and was an instant hit. It became the highest grossing film of the year, and would even go on to take home multiple Academy Awards in the fields of editing, sound and visual effects. Most importantly, it would go on to become one of the biggest entertainment properties in the entire world, spawn a legion of copycats, and an even greater number of fans and followers.
20 years ago, The Matrix came out, and was an instant hit. It became one of the highest grossing films of the year, and would even go on to take home multiple Academy Awards in the fields of editing, sound and visual effects. It would go on to spawn a legion of copycats and an even greater number of fans and followers.
Both of these films achieved tremendous success at the box office, as well as within wider cultural consciousness, and both achieved these feats as completely original films; they were not sequels, they were not part of a franchise –yet, and they were not adaptations from a novel or comic book. They were brand new ideas developed for the big screen. With so many similarities, it is fascinating to examine why Star Wars succeeded in becoming one of the largest entertainment properties of all time while The Matrix failed to make it past a couple of years.
The similarities between these two films begin where all films begin: at their inspirations. While both Star Wars and The Matrix are original, they are not necessarily new. Most of the larger narrative and character concepts have been done before. Both films are steeped in literary archetypes which have been in use for the entire history of human story telling. More contemporary examples lie in Western as well as Eastern cinema. Star Wars is, as one critical YouTuber has called it, “just World War II in Space.” Old war serials, pulp sci-fi novels and the previous ten years of sci-fi films served as inspiration from the West, while the East provided classic films such as Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress. The inspirations for The Matrix are more numerous from the East, with Ghost in the Shell being of seminal importance, as well as the breadth of Hon Kong action films. Sprinkle some Biblical imagery into both, and you’ve got yourself two “original” films.
In place of radical narrative innovation, both Star Wars and The Matrix utilize groundbreaking visual effects which has encapsulated the larger portion of their influence. Star Wars is a landmark film for practical visual effects, and the fact that it resulted in the creation of Industrial Light and Magic is itself a watershed moment in cinematic history. Innovation in the use of cameras in conjunction with miniatures enabled the space combat to come to life in a way that had never been seen before. The first shot of the entire legendary series is itself legendary for its visual effects, as well as how they were implemented to characterize the two conflicting sides.
For The Matrix, the name of the game was Bullet Time. The Wachowski’s affection for Hong Kong cinema and Japanese animation manifest themselves via Bullet Time and in the fight scenes. The characters in the matrix are either super humans capable of amazing feats, or machine programs able to do the same. As a result, the characters are often moving faster than the human eye can see, so time must be slowed. Once again, the opening scene in the film showcases the new leap in visual effects that the audience is about to be exposed to. Even 20 years later, The Matrix possess some of the most well-known action set pieces of the past two decades. After all, how many of us haven’t attempted this at one point or another?
Where the two films are ultimately similar is within their cultural influence, though they deliver that in very different ways. Star Wars was and continues to be a cultural phenomenon. It’s reach and influence are boundless, with a quote or reference ready to drop from seemingly anyone at any time. At the time of its release, Star Wars was incredibly unlike anything that had come out at that time. It was truly escapist cinema, which transported audiences away from the turmoil which had been taking place throughout the 70’s. As a result, it in many ways is a film which exists outside of its time, as there is really nothing about its design or characteristics which scream 1970’s American cinema which cannot be said for many other films of the decade- even many of the most acclaimed ones. Escapist sci-fi in the 70’s meant taking a journey deep into space to a fantasy land beyond our imagination.
The Matrix, conversely, is very much a film of its time. The 90’s were a decade of angst and dissatisfaction. Grunge and Gangster Rap were the two largest musical movements of the decade which produced some of the best albums of the 90’s and which spawned from those living outside the mainstream and gave voice and representation to those who had none. Everything was tinged with an edge- heck even the sodas were edgy. It is within this sentiment which The Matrix lies. The characters are clad almost entirely in leather and always wear sunglasses- even indoors. Suddenly, trench coats were cool, and to this day, it is not at all uncommon to hear an instance of de ja vu or repetition accompanied by some version of, “is there a glitch in the Matrix?” Toss in some pre-Y2K hysteria, influence from the early days of the internet and the rise of hacker culture and you have the perfect environment for this film. Contemporary sci-fi in the 90’s meant diving into the very computers and machines which were going to end the world.
Star Wars and The Matrix are two of the most significant sci-fi films of the past 50 years. Both represent tremendous leaps in the language of visual effects and were important cultural landmarks at the time of their release. Since their release, very few of their kind have come along- their kind is that of a completely original film which has a massive cultural footprint to match its significance within its film genre as well as western cinema as a whole.
Since the release of The Matrix, the number of films which have been able to match the cultural, financial and industry significance as something completely original is very small. Hollywood has made a habit of playing things safe and relying on preexisting brands to get by. In the 19 complete years since the release of The Matrix, 18 of the highest grossing films of their respective years have been either a sequel, an adaptation (often from a novel or comic book) or a part of a franchise. The only outlier has been Avatar, a films whose cultural footprint has been so insignificant, it is deserving of its own article. Even the year The Matrix came out is plagued by this with The Phantom Menace taking the top spot that year. At this rate, with Hollywood retreating further and further into its cocoon of safety, there may never be another Star Wars again, and The Matrix was the last series that could even come close.
At least it was before it completely dropped the fucking ball.
The demise of The Matrix series has many factors which Star Wars was able to avoid…for a while. There are two primary factors, one external, and the other internal. We’ll begin with the former, as it’s important to take a look at what other films came out in the four years that passed between The Matrix, and its first sequel, The Matrix: Reloaded which all chipped away at the series’ veneer. The first one to look at is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.
When The Matrix first released, it was the first time that millions of people would be exposed to wire-fu, the high flying -acrobatic fighting style which is a staple of Hong Kong martial arts films. It was something that had little exposure in the West, which is part of the reason why The Matrix felt so different and innovative. Wire-fu went from an unknown to mainstream seemingly overnight, and it is now commonplace to see it in most major action films that come out each year. 21 months after The Matrix introduced the West to wire-fu, the East imported what may well be the definitive example of the genre in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Whereas the combat in The Matrix was rife with style and that delicious 90’s edge, the combat in Crouching Tiger was poetic and more closely resembled an intricate dance than anything Neo was dishing out. Crouching Tiger wasn’t a niche film either, it made over $120 million at the U.S. box office, and it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning four. In less than two years, audiences were exposed to a brand new style of action flick before witnessing its apex. Had this film not come out, the novelty may have persisted between the first and second Matrix films, instead, it became saturated and even perfected before the Wachowskis even had a second shot at it.
Two years after the peak of wire-fu, its antithesis came out, and was just as influential to the action genre. The Bourne Identity was released in 2002 and changed combat from a spectacle to be witness from afar, to an uncomfortable and intimate affair to be engaged with up close and personal. Fight scenes were now orchestrated chaos designed to overwhelm the senses and assault you with visuals. The pacing is lightning fast, and the brutality is on full display. A fight was no longer an intricate and rhythmic dance between the two combatants, instead it is improvisational with the winner often coming out on top thanks to their cleverness rather than just their physical skill. Jason Bourne defeats other super agents with ballpoint pens, books and hand towels, and is often outgunned at the outset of these fights.
To see the impact the Bourne series had on action films, one must look no further than another action staple, James Bond. When the series had a bit of a reboot with Daniel Craig taking over the titular role, it turned to the style of Bourne and not the style of The Matrix. This guerrilla style of fighting has become just as prevalent in modern action cinema as wire-fu has. Even as our super powered characters are flying across the scene tethered to invisible wires, they are using Bourne style combat to engage with their opponents, and it those brutal, savage and intimate blows which are the ones putting those wires to work.
In the span of just three years, audiences were introduced to a stunning new way for action film fights to take place, saw that style taken to its mesmerizing and dramatic peak, and then saw it undercut by its total opposite. Wire-fu saw nearly its entire lifecycle in western cinema completed in just a few years, and by the time The Matrix: Reloaded was released, one its core appeals were already weathered and diminished.
But it wasn’t dead. In between the second and third Matrix films, the first Kill Bill was released, and just as with The Matrix, it owes most of its existence to its creator’s affections for Easter martial arts cinema. Quentin Tarantino’s love for martial arts films from Honk Kong and Japan was similar to the Wachowski’s and also saw him creating his own version. It famously utilizes wire-fu, but it also reminiscent of the Bourne style with its brutality and complete lack of glamour. Again like The Matrix, Kill Bill exudes style, though while the former’s is more general 90’s the latter’s is specific to Tarantino, and there may be no other filmmaker operating at the moment who has a style as distinct, appealing or timeless as Tarantino.
In the face of its competitors doubling down on intense and carefully choreographed fight scenes with practical stunts, The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions both opt to embrace the early and unreliable days of computer graphics to accentuate their fight scenes. At this point in its lifecycle, computer generated fight scenes were nowhere near what they are now, and the results for these two films are…well, they’re interesting. The first real exposure to them in the second one is somewhat infamous, and their use in the finale of the third film transforms it into a full on DragonBall Z showdown. What little CGI there was in the first film was reserved for the squidy machines in the tunnels with battles relying on the choreography and the hard work of the actors and stunt personnel.
Despite all of the imitators, challengers and usurpers, The Matrix series was in prime position to build off the success of the first film and establish the dominance of a new brand which would be the Star Wars of the 21st century. It didn’t of course, as the tight control of the first film was replaced with excess that can only be matched by Star Wars itself. The prequel trilogy was done in by an excess of computer generated worlds and characters, an excess of boring political “intrigue,” and by an excess of good old fashioned sloppy filmmaking. The second and third acts of the Matrix trilogy suffered a nearly identical fate, except they opted to replace the political garbage with philosophical garbage.
The first film had bits and pieces of philosophy to keep the film interesting, and to even elevate it up beyond typical summer fare. It has concepts of fate juxtaposed with choice as well as themes of belief permeating throughout the film. This gives it a level of sophistication that is uncommon for a film of this type. For the first film, it was a solid factor contributing to its success. For the second and third films, it became the bloated focal point of the series which detracts completely the final results.
The touches of philosophy, Buddhism and Christianity add to almost each of the characters in the first film. Morpheus, the captain of the Nebuchadnezzar, is named after the Greek God of dreams, and his firm stance is that of belief- belief in Neo as the One, and in the words of the Oracle. Neo, as the One, appears to be a conduit of choice, as some of his key early dialogue revolves around refuting fate and taking his life into his own hands. Agent Smith is a reference to Buddhism and the significance of mirrors. He is a reflection of Neo, as they both desire to leave the Matrix with Morpheus serving as their only key for doing so. Philosophy and religion are aspects of the characters as well as parts of the narrative; they are a somewhat small, yet still critical piece to the larger product of The Matrix. They add complexity and depth to the film.
All of that lovely subtlety and nuance were apparently thrown in the dumpster during the simultaneous filming of The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions. In their place we have saturated philosophical jargon that acts like a bucket of tar being poured over the audience’s head and suffocating out all possible enjoyment. The tight pacing and flow of the first film are lost as every sequence between the new-fangled action scene acts as a brick wall. The films completely stop to hammer our brains with some overly verbose and lofty philosophical muck. Suddenly we are tasked with having a strong grasp of Buddhism, Christianity, causality, fate, and free will to even understand simple character decisions and motivations. The scene with the Architect is infamous, but any scene with the Merovingian is equally baffling as his entire place within the film’s plot as well as the actual Matrix itself is lost behind his philosophical rambling.
Though on screen for fewer than 20 minutes across all three films, the Architect remains one of the most recognizable figures of the series, and is a symbol of its critical failure.
Why does causality have to be introduced into this film anyway? Why did this series need to become a battleground for various philosophical and religious views to duke it out? The first Matrix film was elevated beyond just another sci-fi action film in part thanks to its (at the time) innovative and fresh combat, and because of its willingness to respect the intelligence of the audience by introducing these various philosophies with a deft hand and utilizing them as a means to expand on the characters and themes. The critical flaw of the second and third films in the series is that the Wachowskis treated them as their own personal lecture space to indulge themselves in the various philosophies they were interested in. These themes are no longer in service of making a more sophisticated action film; they are in service for the directors to show us how smart they are.
Both Star Wars and The Matrix came out as watershed sci-fi films. They were two of the most significant films of their respective decades, and they each had a tremendous impact on the immediate future of the industry. Outside the industry, they were two of the most culturally impactful films of the past 50 years, as Star Wars is still one of the largest western entertainment property in history- even if it has lost its top global spot. The Matrix was the last original film to come close to taking that next step and becoming a new entertainment titan. It had the necessary cultural impact, financial success and the sequels set up to keep the momentum going. Other original tent pole films have come out since, but none have been able to combine the cultural and financial success with necessary sequels to take a spot next to the likes of Star Wars. However, after a killer first entry, the Wachowskis were not able to maintain the quality necessary to create something lasting.
What ultimately did The Matrix in was sharp decline in quality. The first film, though not without flaws, is an incredibly well made summer blockbuster. The magic of the first entry was lost in the sequels due to the excess of computer graphics in place of practical effects, and the bloated themes and dialogue drag the experience down to a level that is at best passible. Even Star Wars was not immune to this, as is well documented via the downfall of the prequel trilogy. Each error and flaw which took down the second and third Matrix film also took down the prequel trilogy. The difference is that it took George Lucas 16 years to fall to that level, while the Wachowskis managed to speed-run that in only four. The accelerated progress of the industry combined with the failings of films themselves prevented the emergence the next great entertainment franchise, cutting it down at the knees. Over the past 20 years, there has not been another film series which has been able to come close to what The Matrix was able to do, so we continue to wait for the next Star Wars, and we may end up waiting a very, very long time.