What is real? What is “The Matrix”?

The Matrix

This post is part of  ‘Required Viewing” a series on TV shows & movies every leather-clad rebel should see before they ride off into the sunset like a badass. An archive of the series can be found here.

In 1999, short commercials began appearing on TV showing close-ups of Laurence Fishburne in sunglasses, people jumping over alleyways and a single sentence “What is the The Matrix?” All anyone knew about those two words was that they were the title of an upcoming film starring Fishburne and a recent breakout star named Keanu Reeves. There were no plot synopses, there was no IMDB article and no one at the studio had leaked any information beyond the personnel, the title and a teaser-y website.

Trinity answers a phone.

Going into the film, as panelists on The Incomparable Podcast have said, many had no idea what sort of movie to expect. The first 30 minutes explain almost nothing about the genre or what this “matrix” actually is. In fact, the film opens with an unnamed woman in a stunning leather jacket killing police officers and seemingly getting run over by a truck before the credits even roll. At the time, no filmmaker had ever done the sorts of things the Wachowski’s were doing, and audiences loved it.

For all of its innovations in special effects, storytelling and narrative use of computers “The Matrix” also had some of the most kickass clothing of any action movie. Nearly every character is decked out in leather and sunglasses at some point in the movie (if not for most of it). People the world over were buying replica jackets, shades and cell phones so that they too could aggressively alarm security guards by setting off their metal detectors. Action heroes for the next half decade or so wore more leather trench coats than should probably have been allowed, and bullet time was in everything from cartoons to Super Bowl ads.

Neo and Trinity in the elevator shaft.

Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) leather jacket, black pants and black sweater with black shades seems conservative compared to the rest of the cast in this film who sport everything from leather tank tops (Carrie Ann Moss’s Trinity) to alligator blazers (Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher) and arm-less sunglasses (Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus).  The anime-inspired stylized nature of the film made audiences believe anything could happen and anyone could wear anything they wanted while doing it. This is most famously demonstrated by characters sprinting in trench coats constantly, without ever tripping.

The sequels would go on to completely re-write the narrative of the franchise (though they had many more fashionable foes and arguably the best car chase ever), but the original is required viewing for us because of its innovation. Never before had a movie been so stylishly intriguing by saying so little about itself. “The Matrix” was a phenomenon before it even opened in theaters, and swept the globe within days afterwards. Years later, its hard not to want to change your computer screen-saver to some green code, put on your leather jacket and wear sunglasses indoors after watching it back.

What was your experience surrounding “The Matrix”? How did you first see it? And most importantly, whose “Matrix” outfit is your favorite?


Mouse in "The Matrix"For the record, I missed the initial hype, because I was just a bit too young to understand what was going on. I remember seeing the trailers for the sequels and being extremely excited, but I never saw the original in theaters. Instead, I saw “The Matrix” on VHS at a friend’s house because he said it would “blow my mind.” He was not wrong. And ever since, Mouse has been my favorite, even if he isn’t in the film for too terribly long. His x-ray skeleton shirt was excellent, as was his all-black suit later in the film. His love affair with the woman in the red dress is also a fun light-hearted touch in the middle section of the movie.