A pioneer of action cinema as well as a staple of late ’90s culture, The Matrix started a movement of 240p Nokia phone wallpapers and small rounded black glasses. The film suggested a world other than our own, a body more than our own and abilities humans could only dream of, offering a helping hand to the disenfranchised teenagers of the world.
While the first film explored these themes in a vibrant, grounded universe, it’s offspring of Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, had all the grace and self-restraint of an over-excitable child in a toy shop. Hence why, on the 20th anniversary of the original’s release, the announcement of The Matrix 4 raised a few eyebrows—especially with the reveal of nearly all the returning cast members.
As Jurassic World, Indiana Jones: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Hobbit: An unexpected Journey have shown us, fourth films don’t tend to fare too well. Often, long after the previous film in the series, the fourth film is the odd one out. Too much time has passed and the essence of what made the original films so good is lost, replaced by cheap call-backs, goofy cameos and an over-reliance on CGI to ‘recapture the imagination’ of the originals. Not to mention strange additions to the pre-established narrative lore.
However, you only need to look no further than Mad Max: Fury Road to find an exception to the rule. The fourth film in a long-forgotten trilogy that not only matched the excitement and ingenuity of its predecessors, but surpassed them. Alike Fury Road, The Matrix 4 sees the return of director Lana Wachowski—this time without her collaborative sister—and looks to build off the pre-established universe of the previous films. However, where Mad Max seemingly had little to work from, The Matrix has an abundance of material housed within a world teeming with new stories both modest and mighty.
With the internet still in its infancy during the Matrix’s first release, the film drew from conceptual ideas of leaps in technology at the tipping point of the century. Concepts of virtual reality, augmented reality and seamlessly connected world were just ideas, whereas now they are a reality. People hide behind social media masks on a daily basis on phones that have almost become extensions of our limbs, virtual reality is a lived experience. As Lana expressed in a statement last week, “Many of the ideas Lilly and I explored 20 years ago about our reality are even more relevant now.”
As if there wasn’t enough from a living reality to bring into the story, the universe of the films themselves have the potential for many chapters of material, stories exploring sub-sections of the lore whilst still clad in ’90s steampunk. Released in 2003, a month before Matrix Reloaded, Japanese sci-fi film The Animatrix is a perfect example of this, exploring the pandoras box of ideas that the first chapter of the Matrix had opened. The anthology film looked at ten animated stories, each looking under multiple stones of the Matrix universe, questioning every corner of the richly created world. A particular short, named ‘World Record’, gave an enlightening inspiration for future iterations of the franchise, as it followed an athlete who pushed his body so far that he broke out of the ‘shell’ of the matrix. It’s a microscopic story in comparison to the scale and scope of the original trilogy, though it presents new questions and new concepts to a world that still seems to have been explored on the surface level.
Whilst the three films of the current Matrix franchise cover a lot of ground, it certainly seems like one story—albeit one riddled with deep lore and dimension-hopping action. Whereas Indiana Jones’ fourth outing and a return to Jurassic World felt like unnecessary retreading of old ground, the Matrix is much an uncharted path and this is arguably the best time for its release. With Keanu Reeves in his current cultural renaissance and a unanimous craving for anything that’s not produced by media titans Disney, Warner Brothers are heading full-steam down the rabbit hole. The question is, how far can the rabbit hole go?