“Wake up, Neo,” The Matrix implored Keanu Reeves’ slumbering hacker 20 years ago. Wake up, he did, with the Wachowskis’ film taking its hero, viewers and sci-fi genre down the cyber rabbit hole and on quite the journey. It was the second feature from then-somewhat unknown directors, Reeves’ second attempt to plug into dystopian cyberpunk action in just a few short years, part of a wave of movies grappling with the decade’s big technological changes and a boldly ambitious film in a variety of ways — and The Matrix screamed as loudly across 1999-era cinemas as Zach de la Rocha’s inimitable voice did from the movie’s soundtrack.
The results were impressive, to put it mildly. Reeves’ Neo might’ve exclaimed “whoa!” in response. Made for $63 million, The Matrix earned nearly half a billion dollars at the box office, coming in fourth globally that year behind The Phantom Menace, The Sixth Sense and Toy Story 2. The Australian-shot film sparked two live-action sequels and an animated anthology feature, and also left a firm imprint on every piece of action choreography that followed. All of this from a movie that must’ve sounded speculative on paper — especially after original star Will Smith turned it down in favor of Wild Wild West.
To reflect upon The Matrix two decades later is to ponder two crucial questions. Would it get made today? If so, would it be a hit? While original sci-fi stories have become the exception, not the rule, in today’s pre-existing IP-heavy times, the first question is easier to answer. The Wachowskis garnered critical success with their smaller-scale debut Bound, and were poised to capitalize upon a growing thematic trend with The Matrix. That’s a formula that still works, although today’s filmmakers in the same position are frequently scooped up by big franchises. Whether audiences would show up to see The Matrix now is far less certain. Take Keanu’s John Wick resurgence out of the picture, replace him with 2019’s equivalent star, and recent big-screen sci-fi history indicates that viewers might not flock along with the same enthusiasm.
In seven of 2018’s top ten box office earners, sci-fi played a part. In 15 of the top 25, too. But in all but three cases, those films tied into ongoing franchises, be it the Marvel Cinematic Universe, other comic book heroes, the Jurassic Park/World series, or the latest Transformers or Star Wars spinoffs. That’s today’s science fiction cinema landscape, peddling beloved superheroes, revived dinosaurs, shape-shifting alien robots, everyone’s favourite space opera and other proven fare, and rarely taking risks. The three huge moneymakers that didn’t fit into already-running series still sprang from existing material, with Ready Player One and The Meg both adapted from popular books, and Rampage from the video game series of the same name.
Ready Player One might seem like the closest equivalent to The Matrix; however its similarities are superficial. The virtual reality adventure once again plugged its characters into a realm that wasn’t real, and even riffed on its predecessor in its poster campaign. Of course, it also boasted Steven Spielberg at the helm and gleefully mined pop culture history. Don’t underestimate the power of referencing almost every other movie, TV show and property that anyone has ever loved, with the film segueing from virtual DeLoreans, to battling Gundam and Godzilla, to a partial recreation of The Shining. The list goes on.
Sci-fi films without such a blatant cavalcade of recognizable elements didn’t fare as well last year. Mortal Engines had many issues, but writer/producer Peter Jackson’s name couldn’t entice audiences to this first adaptation of the YA book series. While also based on a novel, Annihilation’s cerebral sci-fi was considered such a risky prospect — even with Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac among its cast — that it was famously offloaded to Netflix. And perhaps The Matrix’s true 2018 successors, instant cult favorites Upgrade and Sorry to Bother You, failed to set the box office alight due to their stories and scale.
Their fortunes couldn’t have been more different, but Ready Player One and Mortal Engines are emblematic of a solidifying cluster — sci-fi movies that endeavor to forge their own path, as The Matrix did, and do so with considerable resources behind them. They’re not new, but they’re a much rarer beast in this superhero-dominated, franchise-filled realm. They don’t add to an existing series; however they’re routinely made by well-known filmmakers, cast with famous faces and/or bring familiar texts to the screen. Inception did so to huge success; John Carter to healthy-enough attendances, although it still couldn’t recoup its significant costs; and Snowpiercer to devoted audience acclaim. Edge of Tomorrow, The Martian and Gravity all soared, Jupiter Ascending flopped and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets didn’t break even.
2019’s contenders thus far: The Wandering Earth and Alita: Battle Angel. They’re currently placed third and fourth at the global box office, among a sci-fi-heavy top five capped by Captain Marvel and also featuring Glass. Once again, they show that viewers will front up to sci-fi when there’s a hook (and thanks to Keanu, don’t forget that The Matrix boasted a hook, too).
Still, The Matrix felt different when it hit screens in 1999. While it didn’t shy away from its influences, it still felt new, fresh and hardly a calculated risk, labels that too few science fiction films earn lately. The ones that do, from Attack the Block, Her and Ex Machina to Colossal, Midnight Special and High Life, have become the outliers — and far from big box office players. Perhaps the big exception in the past five years is Luc Besson’s Lucy, which bears more than a little in common with The Matrix.
Maybe the question isn’t whether audiences would flock to theatres to see The Matrix today. Perhaps it’s whether they’d add it to their streaming queues. It’s very easy to see Netflix funding it. It’s equally easy to see a studio making it, then getting skittish about this high-concept, highly stylized, mid-budget movie with just two well-known stars — neither of whom had proven box office drawcards in the years immediately preceding The Matrix — and ditching it to a willing streaming platform.