Welcome to SciFiNow’s long-running feature that gives you the chance to vote for the greatest sci-fi film of all time. Every issue for the next ten months the industry’s best writers will campaign for their favourite film from a shortlist of ten, with our readers ultimately deciding which film deserves the accolade of Greatest Sci-Fi Film Of All Time.
Today, Aaron Asadi argues the case for The Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix.
Star Wars had it easy. As great as sci-fi films could often be before George Lucas launched his extravaganza, in the years immediately leading up to 1977 sci-fi’s successes were sporadic. The impact of Star Wars can’t ever be undermined but a lean sci-fi context was arguably as key to its success as its more inherent qualities.
The Matrix had no such luck. Released in a post-Star Wars era where every other major studio release was sci-fi-infused, no one could have expected the Wachowskis’ cyberpunk thriller to have a lasting effect on the genre, much less succeed in the manner that did. It was an expectation compounded by the fact that it was scheduled to share a summer with the very embodiment of all that it had to contend with: The Phantom Menace.
Of course, there have been other great sci-fi movies in the wake of Star Wars, many of which have featured in this very feature. But none outside of Lucasfilm’s entries have had the mania of The Matrix. Against the odds, the Wachowskis made a film that is Star Wars. It might be an altogether different sort of sci-fi, it might not share the box-office receipts, the memorabilia records or volume of spin-offs, but to a whole generation it is the film that opened their eyes to the possibilities of boundless imagination, to the thrill of a new idea and a perfectly executed set piece – and what’s more, it did so when everyone else thought there was nothing else to see. To this generation, this is their Star Wars. A New Hope, and any other film before it just doesn’t come close.
The purpose here, though, isn’t to merely describe the success, but to illustrate how the success was achieved in a cinematic landscape flooded with sci-fi. The answer to that is actually quite simple: quality.
To begin with, The Matrix clearly benefited from two of sci-fi cinema’s best tailors; every aspect of the film, from its dynamic cinematography to its chilling set design, oozes class and style. The directors as well prove adept at seamlessly amalgamating typically unrelated visual cues; the story of a computer hacker made aware of the illusory world which he inhabits is as at ease with classic film noir slickness as it is the rugged spectacle of hard sci-fi. Each of the film’s beautifully pessimistic environments is realised with such confidence, leaving its audience with that very rare sensation of being in absolute amazement of what they’re seeing but also, on a deeper level, repulsed by it.
Naturally a great deal of the stylistic achievement should be levelled at the special effects, an area in which the film competes with any that have gone before or after it, 3D or otherwise. Technically, of course, the movie is brilliant, taking the wonders of what we now know as Bullet Time, first seen in Blade, and elevating them to an iconic status. But more than that it was the directors’ ability to marry the techniques at their disposal to myriad heart-stopping sequences and furthermore ensure that the opulent flourishes were always inherently connected to the narrative. The slow motion wasn’t just cool, it was a stunning illustrative description of the computer construct that mankind needed to be liberated from.