I was browsing IMDB's Top 250 list today, and noticed that The Matrix is hovering at #28, directly above North By Northwest, It's a Wonderful Life and Citizen Kane, all three of which have been praised over and over again as some of the finest films of all time. This struck me as odd, but in thinking about it, I had to conclude that they were right.
At the time, it was easy to focus on The Matrix's Bullet Time and other special effects innovations. But, it was ultimately an incredibly well-made film on nearly every level, and not a collection of a few nice gimmicks. I remember coming out of the theater and being struck by the lighting, not something I notice in most films. In the best films, lighting is part of the story, and indeed this is the case with The Matrix. In every scene inside the matrix, the fill light (the lights that are used to reduce shadows in the foreground) is green. This casts a slight shroud of unreality on everything we see without actually having to tell us anything. Then, when we get to the real world, that same light is blue, giving everything a harsh and unadorned quality that highlights the nature of human existence in this post-apocalyptic world more effectively than all the Mad Max shoulderpads in the world.
The script takes on some unusual conventions as well. There are the Alice In Wonderland parallels, highlighted by a literal trip through the looking glass and Morpheus's speech which alludes to "the rabbit hole." This isn't the first movie to use an Alice In Wonderland reference, but it is, as far as I know, the first to use the metaphor of Alice's fantasy world for the real world into which a character emerges from their fantasy. The plot is full of these kinds of turnabouts on classic ideas. The savior anti-hero and the martial arts training montage where the classic "let it go" lesson is turned starkly literal are just two more examples among many. If comedy is the hardest thing to get right in a screenplay, then The Matrix shines again, here. Lines such as "I know Kung Fu," and "Guns, I need lots of guns," are just funny enough and just catchy enough that they have out-lasted the film's plot in terms of their impact on modern cultural jargon, but of course, the film's most memorable bit of humor is just a single word, "Whoa!" That one word has been so empowered by The Matrix that it has been used in everything from late night comedy to political satire and is often the one-word nod to the film in print and on the Web.
Then there's the acting. I have to say that there's little you can do with Reeves that would be more suited to his talents than The Matrix. He can carry off the role of confused and disbelieving hero better than anyone else. But when your main character is supposed to be a blank slate, the rest of the cast has to lead from behind, and that's no small task. While Fishburne does an incredible job as Morpheus, I was actually more struck by Joe Pantoliano as Cypher. He played the character so unlike anything in science fiction since Bill Paxton's Private Hudson that I couldn't help but be impressed. If anything, he played the role too well, calling attention to his character where he should have been allowed to fade into the background. Of course, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving are perfect for their roles (though seeing this just after Priscilla was, perhaps, not wise...) and the rest of the cast does as well as they can given their brief bursts of script.
There's one character in the film however, that has no actor and no lines. It's the matrix itself. If I had told you in 1998 that a blockbuster film would explain the concept of virtual reality and then explore its ramifications, I think I would have been laughed at. It would have been hard to imagine that a film would capture this difficult concept and present it in such a way that the general public could not only understand, but enjoy so completely. "Do you think that's air you're breathing," and "All I see now is blonde, brunette, redhead," are lines that instantly explain to the audience what science fiction books have often spent chapters on. It's difficult to over-state the achievement that this represents in terms of science fiction storytelling.
Is it the Citizen Kane of science fiction? Perhaps. Then again, The Dark Knight is at #6, which while I agree that it's a good film, was too poorly paced to deserve such accolades, in my opinion.