I wasn’t around in 1977 to witness how George Lucas’ Star Wars took the world by storm. I was born a bit too late and in the wrong country to experience the queues, the hysteria, the toys, or the sudden emergence of the hardcore fandom that not only has persisted to this day, but grew into a self-sustaining part of the modern popular culture. Star Wars came into my life when it was already established as a trilogy, in fact just a few short years before the release of its then-anticipated-but-now-widely-reviled Special Edition. So, even though I thoroughly missed out on the cultural germination, I grew a part of the Star Wars phenomenon; moulded and surrounded by it. What I did get to witness first-hand was the inception of another worldwide juggernaut, as I was a teenager with an impressionable mind – in the cultural ‘Goldilocks zone’, so to speak – when The Matrix was unleashed upon the world in 1999. And I have to say that those two movies have quite a bit in common.
Understandably, drawing a direct comparison between Star Wars and The Matrix will likely raise an eyebrow, or even evoke a knee-jerk reaction among the fans of either of the franchises as the two are completely different beasts catering to different audiences. What connects them, however, is the how not the what. These two franchises and subcultures are related to one another in the mechanics by which they managed to take hold in the zeitgeist, where they persist to this day.
If you strip away the space opera from the 1977 movie and the cyberpunk from the 1999 one, what you’ll be left with at the very core are two completely original narratives propelled by the tried-and-true engine of the hero’s journey archetype. Believe it or not, both Star Wars and The Matrix are unbelievably simple and pared-down stories that can successfully attract a complete newcomer and suck them into their respective worlds with considerable ease. In fact, this is likely part of the reason they were so obscenely successful in cultivating lasting subcultures around them, but what matters is this: they were both lean, simple, and original.
Well… this last statement requires some qualification because the originality of The Matrix lied in its cultural familiarity. Similarly to Star Wars, which funnelled the multitude of inspirations driving its makers, from samurai movies to westerns, 1930s serials, sword-and-sorcery paperbacks and WWII movies of the 1950s, The Matrix became its own cultural estuary. It was wholly original in its visual aesthetics and the application of the filmmaking craft, i.e. the introduction of what we know as ‘bullet time’ into the vocabulary of the mainstream blockbusterism, the overwhelming reliance on hyper-stylized slow-motion or even the confident use of wide-angle camera work. However, the story of Neo and a good chunk of its thematic headspace were siphoned into the movie from elsewhere.
The whole idea of following a protagonist who questions reality and begins thinking he is living in a simulation is clearly inspired by a seminal science-fiction novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, which was adapted by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1973 into a TV miniseries titled World on a Wire. Moreover, completely coincidentally, an English-language remake of it – The Thirteenth Floor – saw the light of day a mere six months after the release of The Matrix. It is quite undeniable that The Wachowskis were aware of either the book or Fassbinder’s adaptation as they were working on their eponymous movie. But that’s not even the half of it. A studious eye will easily fish out references to William Gibson’s Neuromancer scattered throughout the movie, as well as to works of Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, or Aldous Huxley on top of a myriad inspirations pulled from movies like Metropolis, Strange Days, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and many more.
Granted, on some level every movie is a synthesis of its inspirations and, at least from where I am sitting, it is a great exercise for the viewer to find these dots and connect them to form an interactive neural map of what the filmmakers were likely driven by when they were creating art of their own. However, some syntheses are different, and The Matrix not only wore its own inspirations on its sleeve, but it manipulated them in a rather unique way to splice them into its own genetic code and assimilate them wholly. I don’t think anybody thinks of Kurosawa, John Ford or John Sturges when they watch Star Wars even though the movie clearly references The Hidden Fortress, The Searchers and The Magnificent Seven (itself a play on Kurosawa), but these connections are right there on display, ready to be noticed. Similarly, I don’t honestly believe anyone watches The Matrix acutely aware of all its aforementioned inspirations because both movies fold them seamlessly into their narratives and apply their visual language to create something new, fresh and original.
What is more, The Wachowskis went a few steps further in the way they incorporated their own adoration for anime by way of borrowing their aesthetics and vocabulary and transposing them into the world of live-action filmmaking, which was quite simply unheard of at the time. They manufactured an atmosphere of wholesale uniqueness using predominantly already pre-existing building blocks borrowed from all over… which is what George Lucas did in the 1970s. In the spirit of French New Wave filmmakers who blazed the trail and successfully pioneered the philosophy of treating cinema as a well of inspiration worthy of drawing from, Lucas applied this methodology to create THX 1138 and later Star Wars while innovating in the field of special effects, the use of miniature models and compositing, which is what contributed to Star Wars becoming such a singular piece of filmmaking.
The same can be said about The Matrix. The Wachowskis ‘pulled a George Lucas’ by crafting an effective collage of inspirations pulled from literally everywhere and forged it into something new by way of innovating in the field of digital effects and the craft of set piece engineering. Ingeniously, by focusing on the spectacle and making sure it was not only visually distinctive but quite literally singular – there had never been anything else like it – they successfully camouflaged the fact they borrowed entire shots and sequences from Hard Boiled, Akira, or Ghost in the Shell. They made a live-action anime that the fans were too busy to identify as a sum of such inspirations because the visual originality of the finished product was more than enough to distract cinematic sleuths from focusing squarely on connecting the dots. Point is, The Matrix felt fresh and original and immensely familiar at the same time, which I believe was the key parameter in the complex process of it rising to the status on a cultural icon.
Another key plane of symmetry connecting The Matrix to Star Wars pertains to the fertility of the worlds the two films ended up spawning. Granted, at this point there are thousands of books, comic books, pieces of fan art and other ancillary media anchored around the universe George Lucas created in 1977, all in addition to the movies, TV shows and books widely considered canon, and it is interesting to ask why that was and why it remains one of the very few examples of movies capable of spawning their own self-sustaining subcultures populated with organically evolving lore and enjoying wide consumer appeal. Well, contrary to what George Lucas would have you believe thanks to his own incessant retroactive engineering, Star Wars was just a single movie. It was not conceptualized as a trilogy even if Lucas may have had some ideas what he would do if somebody asked him to come back with an idea for a sequel. What matters is that Star Wars was a simple story set in a world that was only very loosely sketched out. We had very little idea about the universe it was set in because nobody had the time to explain anything to us. Thus, we were vaguely introduced to the fact that there used to be Clone Wars in the past, that there are multiple races some of which we brushed shoulders with on Tatooine, that there are entire planets where other people live, that there’s some kind of a political intrigue going on and that somewhere on Tatooine was a mythical Tosche station where Luke was supposed to pick up some power converters. But we didn’t get to know much more about anything.
Instead, we were dropped in media res into a chase and desperately held onto C3P0 and R2D2 as they evaded an ominous-looking black-clad fella and went on to find some guy called Obi-Wan Kenobi. None of these nuggets of world-building factored into anything related to the story being told, which immediately (1) opened the world to a possibility of multiple sequels and (2) prodded creative fans to fill in the blanks and imagine what the world of Star Wars was like in places Lucas’ camera did not get to go. Naturally, George Lucas immediately realized his movie was a veritable gold mine of world-building and a cash cow ready to be milked (a process which continues to this day) and immediately proceeded to make his first and probably the only ingenious change to the movie, which was adding the subtitle Episode IV – A New Hope to the opening crawl. This way not only did he ensure the series would continue, but he also implied the world had longer history ready to be explored and mined in other media.
The Matrix followed a similar logic in that it was a single movie that did not bother to explain anything and immediately dropped us into the middle of some kind of an intrigue, introduced a character who could bend the laws of physics, and alerted us that the world this movie takes place in is at the very least weird. After all, suited-up government agents don’t usually drive trucks into phone booths, do they? All we knew was that this guy Thomas Anderson aka Neo doesn’t sleep very well and seems consumed by the idea of finding the identity of another dude called Morpheus and figuring out what The Matrix is. Again, the point is we don’t know it either. We have no idea who Morpheus is, why Trinity can run up walls and fly into tiny windows, or where these agents are coming from. And even when we are finally told (together with Neo who is our conduit into this world), we are never told about the world at large. All we know is that machines took over at some point, that there was a war in the past, that people are farmed in pods of rhubarb jelly and that there are pockets of human resistance here and there. And of course, that we’re smack in the middle of a messianic intrigue with Neo at its centre, so there’s simply no time to explain much about the lore of the world… especially because there is quite a lot to explain about the mechanics of the world, which The Wachowskis accomplish with considerable grace given how much exposition they end up pumping into our heads all throughout the movie anyway.
As a direct consequence of the movie being just a loose blueprint in terms of its world-building, The Matrix also invited other artists to fill in the blanks. Now, I think it goes without saying that the ancillary universe spawned by The Wachowskis’ seminal movie doesn’t come close to match Star Wars in scope, breadth or fertility, but it is nonetheless successful in sustaining multiple pieces of media in parallel, that also somehow managed to develop their own identity while remaining under complete control of its originators. Between The Animatrix, which filled in the blanks in the lore of the movie, multiple computer games and graphic novels, The Matrix developed a cohesive universe around itself, even if it didn’t exactly invite fan involvement to the same extent as Star Wars did, though in a similar vein it was expanded into a thriving franchise that persists to this day (perhaps against better judgment).
At this point, you’d probably be right to point out that between 1977 and 1999 a few other films managed to accomplish similar feats, with Alien and The Terminator being by far the most prominent examples, both completely original works in their own right, but I don’t think their cultural reach was on the same scale. Even Star Trek and Doctor Who – both of which sustain massive universes of lore – cannot be directly compared to Star Wars or The Matrix because they lack the necessary wide appeal or global cultural penetration. They have all cultivated their own corners of fandom (however limited in scope they might have been), but you don’t ever see kids playing Terminators on the playground, nor would you ever see anyone borrowing their dress code from Ellen Ripley. Well, light sabers are now iconic toys you’ll see little boys play with and around the time when The Matrix was at the peak of its popularity, wearing long black coats and Neo-esque shades was just something teenagers did. I should know. I was one of them.
I suppose this has been a long-winded way of saying what you’ve already seen in the title of this piece, which is that The Matrix was Star Wars for millennials and late Gen-Xers. It was a cultural phenomenon that successfully captured the milieu of its time and the pent-up frustrations of the youth that was already knowingly growing up in a world rigged against them. Now, I am not even remotely qualified to suggest Star Wars had a similar effect on its respective audiences or if late baby boomers and early Gen-Xers responded so well to Lucas’ space opera because it was overtly rooted in anti-Nazi symbolism that carried a whiff of counterculture appeal, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, such a supposition could be made. I guess what I am trying to articulate is that The Matrix was a bona fide singularity – a flash in the pan that could not have been knowingly engineered. It was a wonderful synthesis of a myriad of inspirations and a work of stunning creativity that pushed the envelope of blockbuster filmmaking and – again similarly to Star Wars – ushered a new era of Hollywood. There’s no debate that these movies shifted the landscape of cinema and successfully influenced many other artists to take inspiration. Just as there’s clearly a pre-Star Wars and a post-Star Wars era of big budget filmmaking, the world was different after The Wachowskis introduced us to The Matrix.
In many ways they can be seen as torchbearers for George Lucas’ artistic legacy, almost to a fault. Even though their other movies (from The Matrix Sequels all the way to Jupiter Ascending) continue to divide opinion, they have already made their mark in a way only a select handful of filmmakers ever could. They terraformed the landscape of cinematic entertainment with a completely original piece of filmmaking rooted in ingenious cultural familiarity, germinated a culture surrounding their work and entered the echelon of perennial icons of film.
Now, one question remains: who is going to come along to follow in their footsteps with an original movie that will take the world in its stride? Seeing how both The Wachowskis and George Lucas came out of nowhere, both following long periods of artistic stagnation in Hollywood, we might have to wait a while for it to happen. After all, the film industry remains in a persistent franchise chokehold and with each passing year it is becoming increasingly harder for successful conditions to arise for the next Star Wars or the next The Matrix to appear on the horizon. Audiences tend to scoff at original stories and prefer the familiarity of well-established intellectual properties to keep them entertained, while studios no longer wager big money on young up-and-coming hot shots with great ideas. So, it might be a while. But worry not. We will always have the memories of 1999 when The Matrix came into our lives. We’ll always have Paris.