No, The Matrix Didn’t Ruin Sci-Fi

By  · Published on June 5th, 2015

Yesterday screenwriter Josh Friedman (Sarah Conner Chronicles, War of the Worlds) took to Twitter to explain why The Matrix ruined sci-fi. The thrust of his argument – one that needed a bigger platform than 140-character bites – was that the popularity and impact of the 1999 film had inexorably connected the sci-fi and action genres in a way that was harmful for the creation of new sci-fi films and, to a greater extent, television series.

It’s worth reading his full comments, which he expanded after io9 shared his initial slew of Tweets, and I want to understand his position, but I don’t.

For one, even though the accepted mythology is that The Matrix launched a million copycats, the large number of sci-fi projects that came out in the following years (even from studios) didn’t seem to attempt what it was doing at all. Equilibrium is the one everyone points to, but outside that and Bullet Time, the specific elements of The Matrix didn’t make their way into as broad a range of sci-fi films as we tend to assume.

If anything, the success of X-Men the year after Neo learned Kung Fu did more to influence and “ruin” the field of sci-fi by narrowing the style and look allowed, and even that had more to do with advances in CGI. Sci-fi was leaning more heavily on visuals because it was finally in a position to show all of its imaginative children on screen. After that, audiences beyond the strongest fanbase weren’t going to accept the low-rent or campy.

I LOVED The Matrix when it came out…but I had a very distinct feeling at the time that it was going to change the way the biz made movies.

— josh friedman (@Josh_Friedman) June 5, 2015

Friedman also suggests that action movies had more sci-fi injected into them afterward, and there may be some truth to that, but superheroes take a big portion of that pie. It’s also an era that gave rise to The Fast and the Furious (which became a superhero franchise), a new Bond, and even without subtracting comic book fare, the majority of action movies in the 2000s weren’t sci-fi.

We’re also talking about dozens and dozens of varied, genre-spanning sci-fi films every year. The early 2000s gave us The Cell, A.I., Vanilla Sky, Solaris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Jacket and a safe environment for Primer to earn an audience. This isn’t simply to point out exceptions to the action rule, but to show that in the immediate aftermath of The Matrix, there was still a variety of sci-fi being made for a range of budgets. We can trace that legacy all the way up to Ex Machina.

As for TV, from a fan perspective, the 2000s and 2010s seem like a healthy time for sci-fi as well. Friedman brings up Orphan Black, Battlestar Galactica and Outlander as successes, but qualifies them as not being popular enough to survive on the networks.

I don’t know that I can counter that, but I also can’t think of a time when network TV was crawling with non-action, thoughtful sci-fi either. LOST did well in a post-Matrix world. So have Doctor Who and Fringe. I did a quick search and found a Buzzfeed list of 31 ranked fantasy and sci-fi TV shows, and the fact that we even have 31 shows to rank suggests that it’s a healthy time for both genres. At least in terms of the potential for quality. The bulk of these shows might be below average, but there’s an appetite for fantasy and sci-fi both which leaves the door open for quality to walk through.

Now, I don’t read anything into Friedman’s comments beyond what he said. Those who think he’s complaining or bitter have missed the mark by a mile-wide margin. He’s a fan and a creator, a talented one at that, who shares some great insights on Twitter, which is why I’m curious to see his full thoughts beyond the constraints of the one-idea-at-a-time platform. He’s obviously in a position to see the industry from inside and outside of it, but his specific critique of the success of The Matrix doesn’t gel at all with a modern moment that appears to be one of the best for sci-fi in its televisual and cinematic history.

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