Down the Rabbit Hole: How “The Matrix” Changed the Cyber Thriller

In 1999, as the country was gearing up for the potential catastrophe of Y2K, Hollywood was spending its spring season in cyberspace with three months of high profile genre films set within some concept of virtual reality. This started with The Matrix in March, which gave way to eXistenZ in April, and ended with The Thirteenth Floor in May. All three films traffic in the paranoia that comes with technology, particularly that related to computers and how reliant we were becoming on them.

None of these three films explicitly address the threat of Y2K, unlike other features released in 1999, like the bank heist film Entrapment (which exploits the Y2K bug’s likelihood of crashing bank computers) and the comedy Office Space (in which the programmers of the titular office are trying to fix the Y2K bug in their software). Rather, the trio tends to follow the pattern of the 90s cyber thriller. This genre arguably began in 1992 with the Stephen King adaptation The Lawnmower Man and continued with The Ghost In the Machine (1993) and Brainscan (1994). The strange “hacker class of 1995” of cyber thrillers, which included Hackers, The Net, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and John Mnemonic, as well as the virtual reality focused Virtuosity and Strange Days, further developed the genre. These films expanded on the genre by focusing on real world advancements in technology, even if those advancements weren’t as realized as they are within these films

This obsession with virtual reality in the mid- to late-90s was in line with the evolution of the technology in the consumer marketplace as well. In 1995, the same year that Virtuosity and Strange Days were released, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy to critical and commercial failure. This was just a few years after Sega had to bail on the home release for Sega VR, sticking solely to the arcade headset. It was a tech that existed in theory but not yet in practice, making it the perfect fodder for science-fiction and its inherent visual emphasis, coupled with progressing CGI effects, made it naturally cinematic.

When The Matrix was released in March of 1999, it was pretty quickly accepted into the cyberpunk genre which had the novels of William Gibson and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as its most popular contributions at the time. Released to near unanimous acclaim and grossing more than $450 million at the worldwide box office, The Matrix wasn’t just a hit – it became a movement. It inspired two sequels which would both be released in 2003, three video games which expand on the story, various comic books and The Animatrix, a collection of anime shorts inspired by the film. It turned the idea of virtual reality, the fear of Y2K and a whole lot of heady philosophy into a hard to ignore commodity – while both paying tribute to its cyberpunk origins and establishing its own identity almost separate from the cyber thrillers that came before.

The marketing for The Matrix in 1999 largely focused on its impressive special effects and martial arts sequences. Warner Bros., knowing who their audience was, ignored any mention of The Wachowskis’ reliance on various religions – including Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism – or the philosophical influences of Kant, Descartes or Plato. The intense academic background of its world would keep it apart from its peers eXistenZ and The Thirteenth Floor, but they too would have more to say than would be apparent from their studio governed marketing campaigns. All three films shared a deep concern for the power of technology and its subsequent software, yet only The Matrix offered an answer to those concerns via philosophy and religion – something that exists beyond the realm of humanity, something that we can’t physically control. And when it comes down to man versus machine in any of these films, man always loses. But we did, in real life, win the Y2K fight. At least we think we did.

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He is a regular contributor to Paracinema Magazine, writes the Geek Weird column for Geek New Wave and is currently writing a book on XXX parody films. He is a Creative Associate at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers and regularly haunts NYC movie houses showing any type of genre/trash cinema.
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