The Moment The Matrix Changed Everything

The Matrix turns 20 years old next week and, like many of us, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it.

I was a freshman at New York University and being in the city meant we got to see a lot of movies early, especially through the school. I can’t recall the specific date, but it wasn’t surprising to get an invite to see some weird new Keanu Reeves movie in late February/early March of 1999. A movie called The Matrix.

The timing is everything here.

In early 1999, most science fiction fans were focused on one thing and one thing only: the return of Star Wars in May. Plus, Keanu Reeves was coming off a string of movies including A Walk in the Clouds and Chain Reaction. He was a name, but not the name he would become a few months later.

All of that - and, frankly, the rather uninspired marketing for The Matrix - meant it didn’t have many people excited for it. It was just another movie to pass the time before The Phantom Menace. More than anything, I think that’s why a group of four or five of us got in line a few hours early to see it. A new Keanu movie was just something to do on a Wednesday night. Expectations could not be lower.

(In regards to the marketing, according to YouTube, this is the original trailer for The Matrix. It plays better now with two decades of context but, at the time, even what would become its most impressive shots don’t have the impact they do in the movie. It’s all a bit cheesy. You can understand being slightly underwhelmed back then.)

Another key to this story was the setting. Despite being in one of the best cities for movie-going in the world, I didn’t see The Matrix in a theatre. It screened at the old Loeb Student Centre off Washington Square Park (which is now the much larger and impressive Kimmel Center). It was not a space optimised for movies.

There were just rows and rows of probably 1,000 folding chairs in a huge cafeteria-like room with a screen on one wall. These days, students have better setups in their dorm rooms. But even back then, it wasn’t ideal.

Anyway, we made it in, got our seats, and the movie began. If you haven’t seen The Matrix in a while, there’s a chance you don’t remember how it starts, which is mysterious. Especially if you don’t know what’s coming.

There’s some code on a screen, a phone call, talk of “The One” and “Morpheus,” whoever the hell that is. Some cops quietly sneak into a building and break open a room only to find a lone woman working on a computer. It feels rather familiar.

Next, three men in sunglasses show up and scold the police for going in before they got there. “I think we can handle one little girl,” the officer says. “I sent in two units, they’re bringing her down now.” “No, Lieutenant,” the agent says.

“Your men are already dead.” Interesting, but whatever. We then see the woman, whom we’ll later learn is named Trinity, as she’s about to be cuffed. Quickly she hits the cop with a few martial arts moves, jumps in the air, the shot freezes and the camera pans 180 degrees around her as she remains frozen in the air.

In unison, 1,000 NYU students screamed “Ohhhh!” and jumped out of their seats. The movie had only been on for three minutes and three seconds—48 frames later, everything had changed.

Trinity proceeds to kick major arse, running up a wall and laying waste to the cops. Fifteen seconds later she’s done and there’s a beat of silence. Just enough time to catch your breath—or let out another roar of cheers if you were in the same room I was in. Oh, and the movie still had 133 minutes left to go.

That was the moment. Trinity freezing and the crowd reacting to what would soon become history. I’d never experienced anything like it while watching a movie. Not seeing the Star Wars special editions, not on the opening night of Jurassic Park, not during Tim Burton’s Batman, or even Back to the Future as a young child. None of them. This experience felt more like a sporting event.

Even though it was in the trailer, no one fully understood what we were seeing, and what we’d later learn directors the Wachowskis called “Bullet Time.” It was radical, intense, and exciting, all rolled into one and then multiplied times 10.

As the film moved on, it took a few minutes for the buzz in the room to calm down and let everyone get back into the movie.

The movie, of course, was flat out awesome. It’s a fascinating mindfuck the first time you see it, blending big ideas, huge twists, and incredible action all in just the right doses. By the time Neo flies off the screen to end the film, the room once again went bonkers.

Cheering, hooting, hollering, hundreds of college kids had just been collectively owned and wowed by the Wachowskis - we all felt injected with a pure dose of exactly the kind of inspiration and wonder so many of us aspired to achieve by going to film school.

It was a magical night at the movies witnessing a film that would instantly become a classic. On the way out, my friend Brian said the most 1999 thing of all time, but it perfectly summed up all our feelings in this moment. Of wanting to cherish and hold onto The Matrix forever he said, “Oh, I’m definitely buying a DVD of that.”

The Matrix officially turns 20 on Monday (although the movie wasn't released in Australia until April 8) and can be streamed through Stan. What do you remember about the first time you saw it?


Comments

    I remember seeing it with a friend in March or April of ‘99 in Village Cinemas, Hobart. I was just shy of 14. Had absolutely no idea what I was in for. Vaguely recalled the “What is the Matrix?” campaign and nothing else. Like pretty much everyone in 1999 my mind was blown. Kung fu, the best CGI I had ever seen, philosophical arguments, a cool soundtrack, great pacing... it had it all. And then there was bullet time, which was immediately copied, parodied and became an integral part of the late 90s zeitgeist. The whole film was a great cap-end to 90s cinema.

    And then The Phantom Menace came out a couple months later, which I saw with my same friend. It left me a little underwhelmed. The CGI was equally great as was the soundtrack, costume and art design, but the story was bogged down in intergalactic politics. Thirteen-year-olds don’t care about politics, George Lucas! Then there’s Jar Jar and midichlorians. *smh* There wasn’t much lightsaber action until the end of the film either. However, although short it was the most powerful and intense lightsaber duel I have ever seen before and since TPM. Like The Matrix I left the film wanting more, but not for the same reasons. I left the former satisfied and enthusiastic for more, the latter left me feeling under-fed.

    Last edited 30/03/19 9:27 am

      I read the last word in you comment as the opposite and past tense of derf for longer than I care to admit.

        My bet is there are going to be a fair few people that feel the same.

    I remember enjoying it and thinking it was a good film. The bullet time and red or blue pill sections have clearly made their way permanently into pop culture.
    But there was certainly no cheering or whooping at the cinema I was at.

      I think the article is originally from the US where cheering and whooping is a regular occurrence in the cinema.

    The first time was mind blowing. Howeve likewise there was no whooping and cheering.
    In Brisbane watched at Indro theatre.
    Was at uni, so had a uni student card for $5 movies.
    Thereafter, for as long as it was on at the movies, any time we and mates were bored, we'd roll a smoke and go watch it. It never got boring :P

    RIP Matrix online. Made before the world was ready for you.

      That was some gritty gameplay. I wonder how it would have played out on a newer engine.

    i was looking through some of my old stuff recently and found my old VHS copy of the orginal film and decide to look to sse if the wachowski brothers had made other movies worth watching and found they are not brothers anymore

    Last edited 29/03/19 3:37 pm

      Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending aren't terrible, but don't expect anything that's going to change how you view the world.

    I enjoyed the first one. Decent cyberpunk after his previous piece Johnny Mnemonic. It didn’t have the impact of Terminator 2 but it was definitely the strongest of its own trilogy. As with the above people, seeing it at the cinema didn’t have the same whooping and hollering as the author’s session did, but it left me hopeful for more, which unfortunately they never delivered on the promise.

    I remember when the sequels were out and I was still in primary school at the time. Everyone else saying how awesome the sequels were because of so and so moments and I kept umming and ahhing like, "But there's something about the first movie that just seems better".
    I was too young to really know why at the time.

    I still remember being on holiday in Sydney, leaving the hotel to come home and I got to see them filming the scene where they dangled below the helicopter

    I think that by the time we got to see it, there had been already some more marketing, especially exploiting that first bullet time scene of the movie, so it wasn't that impactful. However, the thing that literally sent my jaw dropping was when the helicopter crashed onto the building covered in window panes and the glasss rippled before exploding.

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