Thoughts on ‘The Matrix’ 15 years later and 1999 as a great year for movies

On March 31, 1999, Andy and Lana (née Larry) Wachowski's “The Matrix” hit theaters. That's 15 years ago today, and it was a pretty significant event.

I think anyone who has read me for any period of time knows my affinity for and fascination with 1999 as an overall annus mirabilis at the multiplex. I've gone so far as to start the process of reporting a book because I can never quite shake how that year just seems to mean something. On one hand, it's personal. It was my first year of film school and going to a double feature of “American Beauty” and “Three Kings” with some fellow classmates one night, that kind of power punch will do a lot to galvanize someone in the early stages of embarking on a career in film. But it was an objectively amazing time.

First and foremost, let's pause and consider that for a brief period, Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”), George Lucas (“Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”) and Stanley Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut”) were all working on new movies at the same time. All three saw their widest releases in 1999 (Malick's film opened in limited release in December of 1998 for Oscar consideration). That's pretty special by itself.

But there was something about the mesh of a new wave – Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia”), Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), David Fincher (“Fight Club”), Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”), the Wachowskis – with an older guard still very much in command of the form – Martin Scorsese (“Bringing Out the Dead”), Norman Jewison (“The Hurricane”), Oliver Stone (“Any Given Sunday”), Milos Forman (“Man on the Moon”), Tim Burton (“Sleepy Hollow”), Michael Mann (“The Insider”), Kubrick. This has always fascinated me endlessly.

Just 10 days prior to the release of “The Matrix,” the 71st annual Academy Awards sent a shock wave through the industry as Harvey and Bob Weinstein made off with the Best Picture spoils for “Shakespeare in Love” over new distributor DreamWorks and film titan Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”), ending months of excessive spending that in some ways ushered in the modern age of awards season skullduggery. But as the movies started to move past that early year dumping ground, there was just something in the air, a tilting toward a new wave. Jeff Gordinier touched upon it deeply in an Entertainment Weekly cover story calling 1999 “the year that changed movies,” one that dealt considerably in the above-mentioned notions of industry mavericks accepting the baton. I've always loved his lede:

“You can stop waiting for the future of movies. It's already here. Someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors-weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy-snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s. The year when the whole concept of 'making a movie' got turned on its head.”

But I'm getting farther away from whatever thesis I might have had in mind here. A lot of intriguing advertising preceded the release of “The Matrix.” A waft of secrecy was all over the thing, posing the question in all corners: “What is the matrix?” The internet was being explored in new ways for film advertising. Indeed, it would be utilized expertly by Artisan Entertainment to push the summer release of Sundance pick-up “The Blair Witch Project.” But “The Matrix” seemed to promise something excitingly new, and that would become, in many ways, the theme of 1999 on the big screen: something new.

I was there opening day. I had to know. What was the matrix? The film was a total event, even though it didn't seem like it was the event it should have been at the time. Don't get me wrong. It left a crater. But a few months later, a “Star Wars” prequel would laugh in the face of such a divot. But I wasn't a “Star Wars” guy. That movie landed like a thud for me. If I was to pick favorites, I had mine, and I rode that horse all the way through the Oscars where “The Matrix” was heard loud and clear. (Until “Gravity” earlier this month, it was the last film to win the below-the-line Academy Awards quartet of Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects.)

I still remember the acceptance speech from visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, which seemed like a smack to Lucas' film. In appreciating his crew he said “thank you very much for putting all of your efforts behind innovation, behind the spirit of doing visual effects in service to a story.” In service to a story. That rang around in my head for a while, I have to say.

“The Matrix” was a comic book brought to life on the screen. The wire-fu action was captured gorgeously by Bill Pope's photography and the world that unfolded was immersive before the word was en vogue. But it was also such a thematically rich piece of work. It stuck with me, is what I'm saying. It was kind of a watershed thing for me before heading off into that first year of film school later in the fall. It would become the first DVD I would purchase, too. I still have it. The old Warner Bros. snap case.

The sequels had their fans, but I found them hugely disappointing (and I don't recall being alone). They didn't carry an ounce of the power as that first one did and felt less an extension of a vision than an obligation of sorts (not unlike “The Dark Knight Rises”). But that's me, and I know that's unfair to the Wachowskis' mission with that trilogy; it just fizzled out, I thought. But I cherish the first installment for existing so brilliantly on its own terms, without the need for a continuation after the sounds of Rage Against the Machine's “Wake Up” hit the soundtrack.

Anyway, it just hit me that the movie is celebrating an anniversary today and these are the thoughts that kind of gurgled up. I'd love to hear your first experience with “The Matrix” or any other thoughts on the film in general, so feel free to take over in the comments section below. Happy 15th Birthday to the film, and viva la 1999!