For my generation, the Wachowskis 1999 film ‘The Matrix’ was and is a defining moment in our lives. I can remember the first time I saw it, the endless rewatches where I fell more and more in love with it, the constant debates and discussions in the schoolyard about what it meant and where it would go. Even someone with a limited knowledge of cinema could tell that the form itself had just shifted into a brave new world, not just in terms of visual effects but, years before 'The Dark Knight', the idea that an action film could be intellectual, intelligent and complex, as well as a balls-to-the-wall spectacle. There had been nothing remotely like it, and to be honest, revisiting it after many years, two sequels and endless imitations, there probably still isn't.
But how does it hold up now? It’s not an exaggeration that the success of ‘The Matrix’ resulted in a whole new subset of science fiction cinema, and visual effects have come a long way from the bullet-time effect that made the film a technical landmark. Does the film still have the capacity to thrill and amaze, to tickle your brain and get your adrenaline pumping? The answer is unequivocally “absolutely”. In fact, it feels like the film has barely aged at all.
A lot of the comes down to the completeness of the Wachowski’s vision. Both the Matrix and the “Real World” are completely realised, their rules practically airtight. We’re dropped straight into the middle of the narrative, with no titles or prologue to provide context. We discover the secrets of the film as Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers them, giving a sense of these worlds as living, breathing environments of scale and scope. You believe in them instantly because the Wachowskis have hardly left a corner of them undefined. Their screenplay may peddle in complex ideas, but the narrative is stripped bare, the dialogue tight and tremendously active, and every clever visual trick is there, not just to thrill, but to serve that narrative. There’s hardly a foot out of place in the direction, a moment under-utilised by the production design, a performance not perfectly in sync with the tone of the film itself (it may be Reeves' best performance, and it turned Laurence Fishburbe, Carrie-Anne Moss and especially Hugo Weaving into icons). And even after all these years, the visual effects are still staggering. Where many other visual effect-heavy films made since have aged terribly, the work in ‘The Matrix’ hasn’t lessened with age or technological advances. The bullet-time moments are still impossibly cool, the wire work still looks incredible, and the graphics around the sci-fi elements like the Sentinels is still totally convincing.
Perhaps what works so well in the film’s favour is that, while the late 90s/early 2000s were so defined by ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Matrix’ itself wasn’t defined by them. The great surprise rewatching it now is how timeless it feels. Bill Pope’s extraordinary cinematography moves with a kind of balletic fluidity and crafts the kind of aesthetic compositions we still don’t see often enough in action films. Zach Staenberg’s Oscar-winning editing moves with a pulsing modern rhythm, yet sits closer to the familiar energy of ‘Star Wars’ than ‘Natural Born Killers’, traditional yet totally energised. And where another composer would have gone for electronic dissonance, Don Davis crafts a thrillingly dark classical symphony for the film, giving the film an added sense of scope and gravitas. There may not have been anything like ‘The Matrix’ in 1999, but it plays within the tried-and-true rhythms and textures of the cinema that came before it, resulting in a film that is beyond time and place, beyond context, beyond the parameters of the era in which it was birthed.
Even after all these years, ‘The Matrix’ remains an icon and a masterpiece. The images, one-liners, characters and conundrums have never lost their potency or their staying power, embedded deep within our consciousness. It’s still thrilling beyond description in a way very few of its contemporaries or disciples were ever able to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ‘The Matrix’ is a perfect action film, maybe the best there was until ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ came along. Looking back at it now, I can still see why we all lost out minds over it. Few films of its kind deserve it as much as this one.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘The Matrix’ is a bucket-list title for 4K UHD, and Warner Bros. have gone above and beyond for this release. The original negative was scanned at 4K resolution, fully captured in this 2160p 2.40:1 transfer. Of course, detail and clarity are beyond anything we’ve seen from this film on home entertainment before, with the subtle film grain still retained to maintain its classic visual look. Where this UHD release really astounds though is in the HDR colour grading, supervised by Bill Pope. It’s well-known that the Matrix and the “Real World” are defined visually by green and blue tints respectively, but the depth and consistency of colour in the HDR grading brings that to life in a way we haven’t seen before. It makes the visual world of the film more complete, offering the best visual presentation of the film since its release.
...it plays within the tried-and-true rhythms and textures of the cinema that came before it, resulting in a film that is beyond time and place, beyond context, beyond the parameters of the era in which it was birthed.
The same careful work has been done with the Dolby Atmos 7.1 track, which expands the aural scope of the film without altering it. It’s an extraordinary track, detailed and beautifully balanced, allowing Davis’ score to sing and packing enormous punches at all the right times. (Keep an eye out though - the default audio option is the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, so make sure you select the Atmos track in the main menu).
Basically, this is the best ‘The Matrix’ has ever looked. We’re miles and miles from the classic DVD release that blew everyone away in the early days of that format. And in another tremendous move from Warner Bros, the included 1080p Blu-ray is sourced from the same 4K restoration and utilises the same Atmos track, making this a must-have release even if you haven’t upgraded to 4K UHD.
And it just gets better with the special features included. Everything here has been included on previous releases, but by keeping all the material together, Warner Bros. makes this a definitive release of the film. Both the 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs include a written introduction from the Wachowskis along with four commentaries:
- Philosopher Commentary by Dr Cornel West and Ken Wilbe
- Critics’ Commentary by Todd McCarthy, John Powers and David Thomson
- Cast and Crew Commentary by Carrie-Anne Moss, Zach Staenberg and John Gaeta
- Composer Commentary by Don Davis and Music-Only Track
The Blu-ray also includes the interactive In-Movie Experience, combining commentary and video content.
A second disc holds all the classic features, which include:
- ‘The Matrix Revisited’ (2:02:50), an enormous making-of documentary
- ‘Behind The Matrix’ (43:06), a series of additional featurettes
- ‘Follow the White Rabbit’ (22:51), the video content from the classic DVD special feature
- ‘Take The Red Pill’ (17:42), further featurettes on bullet-time and the concept behind the film
- ‘The Music Revisited’ (3:14:51), a 41-song playlist of music from the film
- Music video to Marilyn Manson’s ‘Rock is Dead’ (3:20)
- Trailers and TV-Spots from the film
Warner Bros. have really done a sterling job with this release in every way, all the more relieving after their mishandling of the ‘Blade Runner’ 4K UHD release last year. The rest of the trilogy are rumoured for release later this year (and hopefully ‘The Animatrix’ is in discussions too), so here’s hoping they keep this standard up for the rest of the series.