The Legacy of ‘The Matrix’

A lot of movies are mashups of their influences. But only a few mix their ingredients well enough to become influencers in their own right. Star Wars is the most famous example. The Matrix is a pretty close second. The Wachowskis‘ film borrows from all kinds of media, though, not just cinema, pulling in inspiration from comics, anime, martial arts movies, cyberpunk novels, philosophy, and more. And since its release in 1999, The Matrix, in turn, has influenced a wide variety of culture, and not just of the pop variety. Here are some things we can thank the film for:

Bullet Time

What we associate with The Matrix as a visual effects innovation has its roots going back to the dawn of cinema — proto-cinema, even, with the photographic studies of movement by Eadweard Muybridge — as well as a trick first performed in the 1962 movie Zotz!. But “Bullet Time” as a specific technique and term is trademarked by Warner Bros. with The Matrix being its origin. The process as it was developed for the movie was invented by visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, who has credited Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo and then music video director Michel Gondry among his major influences.

Gondry was definitely one of the pioneers of the time-slice effect of having a camera move around frozen action, via his video for The Rolling Stones’ “Like a Rolling Stone” and a Smirnoff ad, though he didn’t invent the concept, which would wind up most famously used before The Matrix with the Gap “Khaki Swing” commercial. The bullet-less time-slice stuff in The Matrix, such as when Carrie-Anne Moss leaps and freezes as the camera rotates around her before she kicks a guard, is arguably the more memorable and more spoofed — imitation like homages in Shrek took it far in our consciousness.

Gaeta’s combination of the ideas behind time-slice and slow-motion bullet-dodging effects and his further perfecting of ongoing developments is where The Matrix has been so influential. There may be some dispute over its lead-in to video game employment of the technique, as in Max Payne and other titles, but we’ll always associate the advancements of computer- and green-screen-assisted Bullet Time with The Matrix. And thanks to Gaeta’s work, we now have everything from the popular Quicksilver sequences in the recent X-Men movies and pretty much Zack Snyder‘s whole directorial style.


Everybody is Kung-Fu Fighting

There are influential action movies with regards to plot (Die Hard), car chases (Bullitt), and how they’re shot and edited (the Bourne trilogy), but no movie made in Hollywood has ever revolutionized weapon-less fight scenes quite like The Matrix. Of course, it wasn’t necessarily all brand spanking new; the Wachowskis looked to Asian martial arts cinema for what they wanted and recruited Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping to design the sequences. Afterward, every blockbuster movie had to have a lot of fighting involving wire work, including superhero and sci-fi films, and Woo-ping and other great martial-arts choreographers became highly in-demand.

“Today, action movies want their big sequences designed around the fights,” Matrix stuntman turned John Wick director Chad Stahelski told Vulture this year. “Think of any action movie in the past decade or so that doesn’t have a bitchin’ fight scene. The Matrix said, ‘Look what you can do with your heroes.’ Back in the day, fight scenes were secondary to car chases and horse chases and helicopter chases and motorboat chases. Now, what does every great Marvel movie have? Whether it’s flying or in spaceships or in boats or in airplanes and so forth, they want action design centered around fight scenes.”


The Keanussance

After his peak stardom with Speed in 1994, Keanu Reeves had a rough five years until he hit big again with The Matrix. But outside of giving him a franchise with two disappointing sequels to follow, the actor was anything but consistently successful in the 2000s, either. Finally, in 2014, Reeves starred in a little action movie called John Wick, and that exploded his popularity as a film actor again and not just a subject of memes anymore. We can be thankful to The Matrix for the John Wick series since Reeves’ relationship with Stahelski began with the latter doubling for the former in the 1999 movie.

“To spend a year of my life with the Wachowskis, and to see how they make film, was a life-changing event,” Stahelski told Esquire while promoting John Wick: Chapter Two and explaining The Matrix‘s influence on his work as a director. “For most of how I made John Wick, and most of how I direct, it’s pure Wachowskis—their attention to detail. To sit back and watch them work was the Harvard of film school. I remember we were testing the bullet time down in Australia and—cut to a year later—we all saw the movie. I was sitting behind Keanu, and we both looked at each other and went, ‘Holy shit.'”

The connections between The Matrix and John Wick, which is credited with kickstarting the current Keanussance, don’t stop with Stahelski and Reeves’ collaboration, either. John Wick co-director David Leitch was a stunt performer on the Matrix sequels, John Wick actors Daniel Bernhardt and Randall Duk Kim are both also in The Matrix Reloaded, and of course Matrix franchise co-star Laurence Fishburne joined the John Wick movies for the sequels — he was actually written into the franchise specifically, according to Stahelski.


The Fashion of the Future (Which is Now the Present)

If you hung out at goth industrial clubs in the 1990s (what, you didn’t, too?), you’d know that the costumes in The Matrix weren’t that out of left field. It’s what a certain subculture was already moving to since dressing like The Crow through most of the decade to more bondage and black trenchcoat stuff, and the getups of Neo, Trinity, etc. gave them all validation that they were hip (not that many of them wanted to be). Thanks to the Columbine school shooting, which happened right after the release of The Matrix, being aligned with the movie in the media and politicians’ scapegoating of entertainment, the fashions weren’t too popular for a while afterward. But 20 years later, they are.

“I was trying to tell a story about what it would be like to live in that world,” The Matrix costume designer Kym Barrett told Glamour last year when asked about the look’s current trendiness. “I never had a hard number on when in the future it was set, but I wanted it to feel like it was in a world of bigger possibility, and now we are in that world…I do think The Matrix is back in fashion because we’re in a revolution. The strongest characters in The Matrix are women — they had a job to do, they needed to have clothes they could work in and look good in, and we’re starting to see that utilitarianism in fashion…I see echoes of today in The Matrix, which I think is really cool. It’s really great to have people see how I saw the world, and I’m happy that this movie stands the test of time.”


Enrollment in Philosophy 101

There are a ton of basic and advanced philosophical ideas at play in The Matrix, with the Wachowskis’ inspirations coming from Plato, Descartes, and other famous thinkers. The movie digests the ideas in a way that’s not necessarily easy for general audiences to understand but at least has had fans pondering life, reality, our senses, etc. So, as much as The Matrix is influenced by philosophy, mythology, and religious texts, it’s also, in turn, influenced people to learn and discuss. As early as 2000, colleges began offering introductory philosophy courses tied to the movie, and there are books, documentaries, and video essays exploring its representation of certain ideas. It’s especially helpful in getting kids into philosophy.

Student reviewer Allan Hazlett puts it well in his write up of the 2005 book Philosophers Explore The Matrix, which includes essays that were initially featured on a Warner Bros. website devoted to the ideas of the movie. “By the end of 1999, when nearly every undergraduate-aged American had seen The Matrix, philosophy professors rejoiced — here was a deceptive virtual reality scenario burned into our collective cinematic imagination. No more explaining how the evil demon causes my sensory experience, no more explaining how the scientists built the experience machine, now we could just say: ‘It’s like in The Matrix.'”

Additionally, there was a short-lived religion based on the philosophies in The Matrix. Called Matrixism, aka The Path of the One, its founding was reminiscent of the real Jedi faith based on the Star Wars movies, but it seems to have only lasted a few years after reaching a couple of thousand devotees. The way The Matrix involves philosophy has also influenced other sci-fi movies to do so. Christopher Nolan cited the movie as being “an incredibly palpable mainstream phenomenon that made people think [about] a massively complex philosophical concept in some sense.”


Ne-Yo

The singer known as Ne-Yo might have been just as successful by any other name, but the one he has stuck — to his chagrin. “It was a joke initially. I didn’t like the joke, didn’t like the name,” he told Larry King this year (see below). “Neo was like Jesus. He’s supposed to save the world. I’m not trying to save the world. I just want to make music.” The way he got the moniker Ne-Yo, a respelling of the protagonist from The Matrix, was producer Deon Evans, aka “Big D the Impossible” nicknaming him “the Neo of music” due to his prolific songwriting abilities. Back in 2006, Ne-Yo told SoulMusic.com, Big D “said that in his opinion, I see music the way that Ne-Yo sees the Matrix.”

Christopher Campbell: @thefilmcynic Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.