‘The Matrix’ 20 years on: why it's still the best sci-fi film ever made

We take a look back at the film that got everyone talking when it came out back in 1999

It is, many would argue, one of the best science fiction films in history. The Matrix, which came out two decades ago this year, was a blockbuster smash hit. The cinematic landscape in 1999 was very different from today's. The 1990s were a time for crime thrillers, soppy rom-coms and larger-than-life comedies. The blockbuster film was certainly holding its own, but it had been a while since audiences saw a massive release that got everyone talking. Then came The Matrix, a movie unlike anything anyone had seen before, by two little-known directors.

It was the film everyone talked about

The impact of The Matrix upon its release cannot be understated. The film was a smart sci-fi, action, martial arts romp. It came with a premise that fascinated everyone, especially with the Y2K scare looming. While films such as Terminator and its first sequel showed us an apocalypse kicked off by artificial intelligence turning on humanity and fighting a war with the human survivors, The Matrix was about a humanity that lost, and the small amount of survivors trying to start anew.

The Matrix is directed by sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who got the opportunity to make the film after their first feature, Bound, was a marginal success. A low-key crime thriller, Bound starred two female leads and was mostly constricted to one or two locations. It displayed a great directorial knowledge from the sisters, and they were then given a bigger budget for their original sci-fi film.

Made with $63 million (Dh231m), The Matrix earned $463m (Dh1.7 billion) from worldwide ticket sales after its release on March 31, 1999, becoming the highest-grossing film of that year. It also won four Academy Awards in 2000 for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects. Its phenomenal success prompted production studio Warner Brothers to throw more money at the Wachowskis, who went on to make The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The sequels were not as good as the first film, but they still made hardcore fans happy. The Matrix Reloaded collected $742m at the box office worldwide and The Matrix Revolutions made $427m.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tytus Zmijewski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (9225866k)
Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski
25th Camerimage International Film Festival 2017 in Bydgoszcz, Poland - 16 Nov 2017
US film directors Lana Wachowski (L) and Lilly Wachowski (R) attend a meeting with fans of the American science fiction drama series 'Sense8' during the 25th Camerimage International Film Festival 2017 in Bydgoszcz, Poland, 16 November 2017.

It had a phenomenal cast

Aside from the story, The Matrix was also successful because it brought a stellar cast together. Beloved internet heart-throb Keanu Reeves played the lead role of Neo. It was rumoured, and then confirmed, that the role was first offered to Will Smith, who refused it on the grounds of not understanding the script. Alongside Neo is Morpheus, played by the excellent Laurence Fishburne, who delivered a role so memorable people still quote his lines today.

Keanu Reeves and Carrie Ann-Moss in The Matrix. Courtesy Warner Bros.

Carrie-Anne Moss played female lead, Trinity. Her emotional delivery and connection to Neo were vital for the plot's romantic relationship. Australian actor Hugo Weaving portrayed main villain Agent Smith. This was Weaving's breakout role into Hollywood, and he went on to star in many unforgettable films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as V for Vendetta.

The Wachowskis employed martial arts master Yuen Woo-ping to choreograph the fight scenes, which made them look more realistic. Today, while it has become common industry practice for film directors to have a kung-fu master teach actors the fight scenes, it is worth pointing out that The Matrix did it first, 20 years ago.

My 'Matrix' experience

I was only eight years old when the film first came out. I knew about it because it was everywhere – Neo's slow motion, bullet-dodging scene was parodied in many films and TV shows. However, I didn't see The Matrix until I was 12. It was a bootleg copy that I watched on my aunt's computer. While not old enough to grasp the meaning of the film fully, I simply loved it at that age because of its action.

Since then, I have seen the film on several occasions. However, the most memorable one was when I watched it on the big screen for the first time at a packed Prince Charles cinema in London. For its 20th anniversary the film is being re-released in cinemas across the US and Europe, which is significant, because despite knowing the scenes and lines, seeing it on the big screen was an experience like no other.

Perhaps the most important impact The Matrix has had on cinema is how it polished the reputation of the blockbuster action film. Most action films in the '90s still had to brush off the reputation they garnered after the '80s drove them into B-movie territory. It had become hard for audiences to take these films seriously for how wacky and outlandish they had become. The Matrix, on the other hand, was a deeply philosophical film wrapped inside a highly entertaining martial arts, science fiction action movie. This combination of genres ushered in an era of cinema that tried to replicate the formula, some failing, but others creating future classics, too, such as Inception.

The Matrix remains one of those films that years after its release, fans still love to theorise over, discussing how it is a not so subtly coded message for us to take the red pill and wake up. Others say that the world we see in The Matrix is in fact a simulation built by humans and implanted into machines, so the machines believe they have dominated humanity.

As the film's Oracle states: "Everything that has a beginning has an end." The lure of The Matrix, it seems, is never-ending.

Why 'The Matrix' still resonates

It says something about generational differences that, when Keanu Reeves showed up at Microsoft's E3 conference this year, social media went wild with the news that John Wick had arrived to delight the audience. For people my age, however, Reeves will always be more famous for his role as Neo. The Matrix is a film that holds up well to this day, but its groundbreaking achievements have been co-opted so fully into the visual language of Hollywood genre films that those same younger fans, raised on Marvel movies, may well wonder what was so special about it. Just as war movies would never be the same after Tom Hanks and co stormed Omaha beach in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, so The Matrix's bullet time, stylised action and trench coats forever changed the world of sci-fi and action films. You really had to be there to understand the cultural moment – and if you did experience it, you understand why there could have been no John Wick without Neo.

Michael Coetzee, sub-editor

The Matrix has to be seen in light of what was happening at the time – in the run up to 2000, many were convinced the world was going to collapse with the Y2K bug causing computers to crash everywhere. The Matrix envisioned something similar, though instead of showing a planet taken back to the dark ages due to a technological collapse, it portrayed humanity as being incarcerated inside a hellish simulated reality. People were a little nervous in 1999, and The Matrix tapped into that.

Simon Wilgress-Pipe, homepage editor

The Wachowskis hit the pre-millennial zeitgeist squarely on the head with The Matrix. The film was a snapshot of a world in transition, terrified of where that transition was taking it. Fortunately, the fears were unfounded. The internet didn't break in 2000, we're not all now ruled by computers, and in no way does a digitally rendered false reality govern our thoughts and actions. Well, one out of three isn't bad.

Chris Newbould, film writer