In early 1999, strange posters appeared throughout the United States, advertising an enigmatic movie created by a little-known writer-director team with only one movie to its credit. The mystery extended to the film’s unusual name, The Matrix. When The Matrix finally appeared, over Easter weekend of 1999, the anticipation created by this campaign paid off. The film earned $460 million worldwide, and became one of the most iconic and imitated films in recent memory. Along with a number of other special-effects innovations, The Matrix introduced “bullet-time” photography, in which the action slows down or freezes as the camera seems to circle 360 degrees around the characters. This effect in particular was so stunning that it was spoofed or emulated in The Simpsons, Shrek, Scary Movie, Charlie’s Angels, and at the Super Bowl. Cowriters and codirectors Larry and Andy Wachowski—a.k.a. the Wachowski brothers—became famous overnight.
The Wachowskis are notoriously private. They rarely grant interviews to the media, and their contract with Warner Brothers for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions actually stipulates that they are required not to do so. The essentials of their biographies, though, are well-known. The brothers were born in the 1960s and raised in Chicago. In the 1980s, the two of them dropped out of college, Larry from Bard and Andy from Emerson, and became high-end carpenters and house painters before landing jobs writing for Marvel Comics. In the early 1990s, they sold a script to Warner Brothers studios, which would emerge, dramatically altered, as the 1995 movie Assassins, starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas. The film was a flop, and the Wachowski brothers vowed never to cede artistic control again.
Rebounding from their disappointment, the brothers wrote and directed Bound (1996), a noir-thriller with lesbian heroines that starred Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, and Joe Pantoliano, who plays Cypher in The Matrix. Even as the Wachowskis were making Bound, they were already planning The Matrix. After fourteen drafts, they showed the script to Warner Brothers—in the form of a comic book—and ultimately received a budget of nearly $70 million to make the film.
To prepare for filming, the Wachowski brothers required their actors to undergo as much as fourteen months of martial arts training, along with a course of required readings. The intense preparation paid off, and The Matrix was so popular that the Wachowskis quickly received permission to create the next two installments of the trilogy, with a much bigger budget. The films were skillfully rendered cross-genre spectacles with ground-breaking special effects and Keanu Reeves in a starring role, Warner Brothers gave them all wide releases. Critics praised The Matrix, but support waned with each of the next two films, a surprising phenomenon given that the trilogy maintained its internal story logic more rigorously than most other film series in recent memory. Nonetheless, audiences worldwide flocked to all three films, which together grossed over $1.5 billion. The Matrix Reloaded set box-office records for its opening days of release.
The Matrix films abound with references to pop culture, philosophy, religion, classic literature, myths, and other films. In making the Matrix trilogy, the Wachowski brothers drew on imagery and ideas from Greek mythology, Gnosticism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Nihilism, Taoism, comic books, the works of René Descartes, Homer’s Odyssey, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control, and Dylan Evans’s Introducing Evolutionary Psychology. Actors from all over the world contributed their efforts to the films, and the cast is meant to represent a wide cross-section of humanity. In this mishmash of ideas, cultures, religions, and nationalities, cultural theorists of every stripe, religious scholars of all religions, and sci-fi fans all over the world have seen their own pet ideas reflected. The Wachowski brothers insist that the trilogy is not meant to reflect one consistent set of symbols or any single religious or philosophical system. Instead, they claim, the films draw upon an eclectic array of sources in order to forge a new, universal mythology.
While the Matrix films have also been remarkably influential in their own right, they have spawned several collections of philosophical essays, semester-long college courses, and endless debates and discussions. The “bullet-time” special effect pioneered by visual effects supervisor John Gaeta was instantly mimicked in television advertisements for cars and other products and has been spoofed in parodic films, both animated and live action. The Matrix films inspired an onslaught of commercial products, including video games, clothing, and comic books. The Matrix DVD became the first release to outsell its VHS copies and was instrumental in fueling the development of a burgeoning DVD industry. The Wachowskis were attuned to the cross-market potential of their films, and between The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions they created a series of animated shorts called The Animatrix, some of which give important background information for the films, and a video game called Enter the Matrix.
With its countless references, cross-references, riddles, and enigmas, the trilogy seems to raise more questions than it answers, creating a sense of frustration that the filmmakers gleefully acknowledge. The Wachowskis have said that one of their primary goals was to make an action movie that would make people think, and because the movie is based on the idea that knowledge frees us, we are left to figure much of it out for ourselves. The directors are careful not to produce clear-cut answers to the problems they raise. Sometimes understanding the Matrix films is less about knowing exactly what’s going on and more about knowing what questions you’re supposed to ask. As Trinity tells Neo when she first meets him, “It’s the questions that drive us.”