According to The Hollywood Reporter, a Matrix reboot is now in the works. Word is that Zak Penn (The Avengers, X-Men 2, other films of which we do not speak) is in place to write, Michael B. Jordan is interested in starring, and so far no decision has been made on just what form the story might take. There have been vague rumblings about a Morpheus or Trinity prequel but what seems more likely is a The Force Awakens-style “18 years later” do-over.
Firstly, yes, the original The Matrix was 18 years ago. I know. Me too.
Secondly, a Matrix reboot is that rarest of beasts: a reboot that’s not just good news, but may be required.
Firstly, the original Matrix movie surfed a perfectly-timed cultural wave of pre-millennial tension and impeding technological advance. Released in 1999, it landed smack dab in the middle of a time period where people were both quite interested in apocalypses and curiously reassured by the idea that Nokia would still be around after the end of the world. The original movie, in particular, says some fascinating things about our relationship with technology, the differences between our real and online selves, and the kinds of communities forged not by geographical but by electronic proximity.
All of which unfolded in a world before smartphones, crowdfunding, drones, Netflix, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit.
The Matrix is a film about online culture before there was very much of an ubiquitous public online culture. At the time online culture felt cutting edge and unique. Now it feels universal. That’s just as powerful a foundation to build a movie on, and arguably a more interesting one.
Speaking of making things more interesting, the original Matrix still has one of the most excellent casts in blockbuster memory: Reeves, Moss, Fishburne, Weaving, and Pantoliano all bring unique physicality and intelligence to their roles, and that’s reflected further down the cast, too. Belinda McClory. Marcus Chong, and the late, great Gloria Foster all bring unique touches to the film, and all lift their scenes impressively. This was, and arguably still is, one of the most interesting and diverse casts ever assembled for a tentpole studio release and that casting could only be improved today. The fact that Michael B. Jordan is front and centre is especially good news. He’s got massive range, as his turns in Creed, Fruitvale Station, and That Awkward Moment all demonstrate. He’s also been banging on the door of iconic roles for a while now and this movie, along with the upcoming Creed sequel, would help catapult him up into the A-list. Most importantly, Jordan has a fundamentally charming screen persona that’s instantly relatable; like Keanu Reeves before him he comes across as a normal, down-to-earth guy. Which, as that first movie shows, makes the eventual bullet-dodging all the more impressive.
That brings us to special effects: The Matrix, like The Abyss and Avatar, is one of those punctuation marks in the history of Western action cinema. Where The Abyss broke new ground using CGI, and Avatar first perfected it, The Matrix employed two very different techniques to change the special effects game. The first is, of course, bullet time, a technique so hugely impressive that it was copied for years afterwards. The second is the movie’s use of Eastern martial arts and stunt choreography.
Yuen Woo-ping and his team provided The Matrix with a unique look and sensibility at the right time. The wire work, kung fu, and elaborately staged action was a perfect marriage with the 90s chic of the Wachowskis’ designs and the slightly cold, artificial feel of the film. The Matrix uses these techniques and their limitations in ways that still impress. The “I know kung fu” sequence looks slightly unreal because it’s taking place in a training simulation. You wince when Neo spits blood in the real world as a result. Time and again, the films use this extraordinary and extraordinarily demanding style of action to push character and, through doing so, move the plot forward. Arguably the only moment that works in the otherwise disastrous Matrix Revolutions is the closing fight for that exact reason, and it’s all down to the choreography.
The vast majority of the two sequels’ failures can be traced to bad writing and truly awful CGI. The highway chase and burly brawl in Reloaded in particular looked appalling at the time and have certainly aged badly. Now, with CGI frequently at a point where it’s invisible, sequences like that could be attempted and actually succeed.
Moreover, physical action has evolved in a way that would provide a perfect tool for a new take on The Matrix. The work done by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski on the John Wick franchise has finally delivered modern action cinema from the Banquo’s ghost of overcaffeinated shaky-cam fight sequences. Couple the close-up, locked-off physical work of John Wick with the epic scale and grace of the original Matrix, and you’ll create something completely unique.
But here’s the thing: you need to bring the Wachowski sisters back to do it right.
Few directors, aside perhaps from M. Night Shyamalan, have been chained to their previous failures quite like the Wachowskis. Now is the time to let that go. Eighteen years is a long time in the world and a geological age in terms of creativity. Eighteen years ago the Wachowskis produced two of the emptiest, worst-paced blockbusters in recent memory. Since then, their work has never been less than interesting and has moved more and more to a character-focused, rather than idea-focused, approach. That effort and creativity has culminated in my favourite current TV show, Sense8. It’s an incredibly ambitious, successful show that balances personal relationships with a science fiction conceit to tremendous effect. It’s also a fundamentally positive TV show with a kinder, warmer worldview, whereas even the original Matrix could be viewed as miserabilist wish fulfilment. As creators, their perspective now on the world they made almost two decades ago is going to be completely different and immensely compelling.
Except, of course, the odds of the Wachowskis coming back aren’t high—both have spoken against the possibility, and that’s a real shame. They have a unique voice, and one that carries a very long way. I’d love to see them come back to their original sandbox, but on the other hand I’d be lying if I said I’m not excited to see what they’ll do next.
The same goes for the original cast. Reeves, Fishburne, Moss, and Weaving have all gone on to a panoply of fascinating and varied roles. It was great fun seeing Reeves and Fishburne reunited in John Wick: Chapter 2, and even greater fun seeing Carrie-Anne Moss parachuted in to save Iron Fist from its interminable opening corporate plot. But the characters that aren’t dead will have moved on and while I’d love to see Morpheus as a leader of Zion or Neo’s return on the back of that weird cyber-lobster-angel, I’d love to see new people taking their spots far more.
The Matrix remains an iconic film and nothing any sequel or reboot can do will damage that—or at least damage it more than the two sequels that already exist. The film is a unique combination of style and content, and the things the movie has to say about our relationship to technology and the online world are timelier now than they’ve ever been. So, for me at least, this is a rabbit hole I’m absolutely ready to go down again.
Just, maybe ease back on the tie-ins this time, yeah?
Update: And then, of course, the Internet happened. Zak Penn responded to the news story and his tweets sound pretty positive. The Mary Sue has the details.
As you can see, Zak Penn seems to imply very heavily that this is a ‘same universe’ project. If so that’s the smartest possible approach to the material. Like The Force Awakens it gives them a chance to play with old toys but introduce new ones too and also cleverly sidesteps the original movie’s immense reputation. If I had to bet I’d say we’re looking at an ‘18 years later‘ script picking up with what The Matrix is like now. Regardless, this really does look like an interesting project that’s making some good choices even at this early stage. Of course there’s many a ‘…maybe a giant robot spider in the third act?’ between page and screen but still, this is looking promising so far.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.