When people ask what my favorite film is, my go-to answer is The Matrix. To me, it’s a perfect fusion of popcorn fare and philosophy. When I saw it in the theater as a wee lad, it filled me with a sensation I’m now addicted to chasing — the feeling of tumbling down a rabbit hole of spellbinding ideas, otherworldly sights and strange yet sympathetic characters. It was one of the first films I watched as a child that not only dazzled my eyes but blew my mind.
I saw the film with my brother at a mall theater in Memphis. We walked in a bit late, just as the cops were slowly approaching Trinity in a dilapidated hotel room lit only by a laptop. From this ominous opening I was hooked. It was a cinematic journey I’ll never forget. I winced and even walked out at one point because it was too intense. But I went on to watch the film three more times in the theater — once at a drive-in — and dozens of times at home. I got several of the action figures for Christmas that year, and my parents even bought me the soundtrack despite the explicit content warning. My life was Matrix mania.
I was obsessed with the film’s world and how I could practically feel its rust scraping beneath my fingers. It seemed like a world I could endlessly explore. So many moments from The Matrix are now burned in my brain.
This week, in honor of the first film’s 20th anniversary, I’m looking back at key scenes from the Matrix trilogy.
THE MATRIX: NEO’S REBIRTH
The Matrix has you. You’re in it right now, immersed in the simulated society otherwise known as social media. You scroll through various feeds in the same way the film’s characters watch the code of the Matrix trickle down their screens like digital rain. (Fun fact: The iconic green code is made out of Japanese sushi recipes.)
In 1999, The Matrix offered a prophetic vision of a society in which the virtual world of cyberspace keeps people away from physical reality. With our heads buried in our phones, we’re not so different from the humans sleeping in pods, wired into the dreamworld of the Matrix while machines drain their energy.
Of course, the irony of The Matrix is that the titular world is more appealing than the real one in a lot of ways. But just like social media, it negatively affects our relationship with reality. “Pictures or it didn’t happen,” we hear when we try to live in the moment without documenting it for all of our friends to see.
Like the Matrix, the social media world is slick and irresistible. Not all of its inhabitants wear black leather and sunglasses. But, as Mike Jay writes in his essay, “The Reality Show“: “We model idealized versions of ourselves for our social profiles. Avatars and aliases allow us to commune at once intimately and anonymously. We manipulate our identities and are manipulated by unknown others. We cannot reliably distinguish the real from the fake.”
The instant connection that social media provides is irresistible. Best of all, it allows us to virtually visit friends and family members who live far away. But scrolling through it sometimes feels like staring at a sea of pod people.
THE MATRIX RELOADED: THE BURLY BRAWL
How could a Matrix sequel possibly top the first film? Could it deliver instantly iconic moments like Neo’s bullet-dodging? It wasn’t until the trailer’s first glimpse of this fight sequence that I was fully onboard for The Matrix Reloaded. Neo fending off dozens of Agent Smith clones — how cool is that?
Neo’s nemesis approaches him in a city park, emerging from a murder of crows. It’s a spine-chilling entrance. While Agent Smith reveals his plan for revenge, his clones slowly come out of the shadows and surround Neo. This is one of the few moments in which we see the messianic warrior sweat. The Wachowskis masterfully create an atmosphere thick with dread.
Then the fighting starts. Halfway through this sequence — which was dubbed “the burly brawl” after the production’s codename, Burly Man — the characters look quite fake and obviously computer-generated. But the computer-game quality effectively reflects the artificial nature of the Matrix.
Many blockbusters now are filled with chaotic messes masquerading as action scenes. The sequences in the Matrix films are vivid and elegant, almost balletic. They capture moments usually lost in chaos, slowing down to let you see bullets cut through the air. The action scenes are like comic-book panels springing off the page. You’ll find them lingering in your thoughts, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.
THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: MACHINE CITY
This sequence is a wonder to behold. Neo walks through what looks like Philip K. Dick’s version of a Grimm’s fairy-tale forest, complete with mechanical creepy crawlers. Then he meets the Oz-like machine leader, whose face is composed of the squid-like Sentinels. With its mythical imagery and gravitas, the scene feels as instantly iconic as any moment from Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.
Neo quietly yet confidently tries to make peace with the machines. He says he’s the only one who can stop Agent Smith — a stark contrast to his statements of self-doubt in the first film. In the original, the Oracle utters, “Know thyself.” In this moment from The Matrix Revolutions, Neo fully embraces his identity and purpose. It’s a perfect bookend to the climactic moment in the first film when Agent Smith calls him Thomas Anderson and he defiantly, triumphantly declares, “My name is Neo.”
This scene — and the trilogy in general — takes on new meaning as the Wachowskis embrace their identities as transgender women.
Above all else, the Matrix films are about belief — in ourselves and others. They’re about the bravery and support we need to break down barriers and rage against the system. As Lilly Wachowski said at the 2016 GLAAD Media Awards: “Where do we find the courage to break free of the boxes of our lives, to transcend and overcome tragedy, the monsters within and the violence we do to ourselves when we’re too afraid to be who we really are? There’s a critical eye being cast back on Lana’s and my work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static.”