'The Matrix' debuted 12 years ago this week, and gave action movies a futuristic makeover
Credit: Warner Bros.

When The Matrix first flying-side-kicked its way into movie theaters on March 31, 1999, it was far from a surefire hit. The film’s writer-directors, Andy and Larry Wachowski, had previously directed only the stylish (and little-seen) sapphic thriller Bound. Similarly themed cyberspace flicks like Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days hadn’t exactly lit up the box office. And The Matrix‘s leading man, Keanu Reeves, had squandered much of his Speed-given stardom with a series of quixotic film choices (see: Johnny Mnemonic).

But once audiences feasted on the Wachowskis’ tantalizing confection of hacker/S&M punk, Eastern spirituality, Joseph Campbell mythmaking, and high-wire kung fu — not to mention some wowza, never-seen-that-before visual effects — The Matrix ushered in a watershed movie moment. It raked in $464 million worldwide and quickly became one of the best-selling DVDs in the then-fledgling format’s history. But in more than sheer numbers, the movie seemed to mean something, to signify that gutsy 21st-century popular filmmaking, hardwired as much into your brain as your adrenal glands, had arrived with a vengeance. It was the first film cited in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s cover story proclaiming 1999 ”The Year That Changed Movies.” In 2003, EW put it even more plainly: ”The Matrix is the most influential action movie of its generation.”

Aaaand then the sequels came out. While The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were financial successes, they have become widely derided as distended shadows of the first film. More to the point, they effectively took the wind out of the original’s cultural sails. Black-clad ascetic cyberheroes have since been displaced by deep-feeling superheroes (and the occasional boy wizard), and those pioneering ”bullet time” visual effects were widely parodied but rarely sincerely adopted. Hollywood has recently rediscovered its Matrix mojo (see sidebar), taking sci-fi seriously as pop art — but nothing with the same zeitgeisty bite. Like its singular hero, The Matrix now stands proud as a virtuosic anomaly.

Agent of Change

The Matrix‘s influence on films endures

Charlie’s Angels (2000)

Stars Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, and Drew Barrymore strapped on wire harnesses for all their kung fu ass kicking.

Night Watch (2004)

This very Matrix-y Russian megahit was directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who later made the vaguely Matrix-y Wanted.

Inception (2010)

A team of sharply dressed rogues enters a wildly malleable alternate reality by ”wiring in.” Sounds familiar.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Edgar Wright’s gonzo gamer action comedy feels like The Matrix‘s tween cousin (and that’s a good thing).

TRON: Legacy (2010)

The original TRON paved the way for The Matrix, which inspired Disney to make its own Matrix with a TRON sequel. Whoa.

The Matrix
  • Movie
  • 136 minutes