Total Film described ‘The Matrix’ as the ‘sci-fi film of the millennium’. How can you account for its success? The sci-fi, or science fiction, genre is one that has been popular among authors, directors and their audiences alike for many years. The genre first started to gain mainstream popularity in the nineteen forties. There were great numbers of sci-fi books published, and indeed many films made after the pioneering book ‘1984’, written by George Orwell. This was groundbreaking in its advanced ideas about the future of the planet. Amongst these early films were ‘Devil Girl from Mars’, ‘Cat Women on the Moon’, ‘The Forbidden Planet’ and ‘Attack of the 50ft Woman’. Later there were also many sci-fi television series, for example ‘Star Trek’ and ‘2001 a Space Odyssey’.
These very often involved humans battling against a large evil creature or civilisation, or a male hero rescuing a ‘damsel in distress’ from the clutches of evil. There are many other common scenes, settings, plots and conventions in the genre. For example they very often feature either space or time travel, in utopia/dystopia situations. There is often good versus bad, with the western world, more specifically the United States portrayed as good, saving the world.
This is basically because until the rise of Bollywood, all the major film studios were in the United States and there is a certain amount of hegemony in the production process meaning films would rarely depict America having lost its freedom and democracy. The Soviet Union is a popular enemy and there are many links to the cold war and the space race in sci-fi films. Common plots used range from paranoia and conspiracy plots to apocalypse and nuclear threats. You can be sure though, in most cases, that the good will reign over evil against all odds. Practically all sci-fi films have a ‘happy ending’ or at the least a compromise between good and evil; a modern example is ‘Independence Day’ and indeed ‘The Matrix’.
The Matrix has many of these elements, conspiracy, dystopia, a fight against all odds, a good versus evil battle, and love conquers all; and it is this that makes it science fiction. There is also the inclusion of very futuristic weapons, for example the weapon that burns Tank. Some examples of the genre traits are Tank’s fight against Cipher, which Tank wins, even though he is seriously injured. Another instance is when Trinity reveals her love for Neo after he has been shot by an Agent and appears to be dead, bringing him back to life. The real world is of course a dystopia with the scorched sky and ruined surface, and The Matrix itself is a conspiracy. The entire film depicts a good versus evil battle, for the freedom of the human race.
The Matrix though was always lined up to be a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster so to appeal to a larger audience, and therefore bring in more revenue, the film is not simply science fiction, but more of a hybrid genre film, meaning it mixes elements of two genres, namely action and sci-fi. ‘Independence Day’, also an epic Hollywood blockbuster is another film which has this hybrid genre. Another feature of The Matrix, which increases its mainstream popularity, is the inclusion of a classic Hollywood double plot. In other words the romantic sub plot between Trinity and Neo. In fact it is not a big part of this film, but it is there as a sign of the Hollywood production process and sci-fi conventions and it also shows that love conquers all.
The film also includes elements of other genres as well, for example the rooftop scene, where Neo and Trinity fight their way through many armed guards without firing a shot, like in a kung fu film where numerous unnamed guards are knocked out before the hero reaches the main enemy. Also the shootout between the Agent and Neo on the rooftop resembles a Western duel. The landscape is bare and both of the contenders have a pistol as if it is a fair contest, though in the end, the intervention of Trinity means it is not.
The fact that Total Film used ‘film of the millennium’ is especially significant in the sci-fi genre because since the beginning of time, man has put significance on round numbers of years, and the millennium in particular has been the subject of many sci-fi plots as if the human race will enter a ‘new era’. It is the sense of reaching a milestone and going into the unknown. Largely until quite recently, science fiction was a very sexist genre.
Thought to be mainly enjoyed by men, it was written nearly exclusively by men, with men as the heroes, and women looking pretty and needing to be rescued. In the very early days there were a few women authors of sci-fi who had to take on male writers names so people would bother to pick up their books. Female characters were either the enemy or the damsel in distress. Either way, there was never a shortage of moments where they could strip down to a minimum amount of clothing for the camera. For instance Anne Francis in ‘The Forbidden Planet’ is quite a pathetic character who strips for the camera wherever possible.
The 1970 blockbuster ‘Alien’ was really a ground breaking sci-fi film, which starred Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, the main character and heroine. She is as strong and brutal as a man, some may say butch, but she also showed female character traits like maternal instincts and her general attitude. This continued throughout the series of films, ‘Aliens’ ‘Alien III’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’. However many modern films, whilst on the surface have very good representation values of women, are actually just as bad as some of the older films. For instance ‘Independence Day’, with its strong female characters: Constance Spano, Marilyn Whitmore and Jasmine appears to be a great film for the representation of women. However if you look deeper, you see that the women all rely on their respective man. Marilyn Whitmore for example ignores the presidents advice and is killed in an alien attack. Spano and Jasmine however stand by their men and are rewarded at the end with the man they each desire.
The Matrix, does not appear to share these bad representation values. The two largest female characters, Trinity and the Oracle are seemingly as strong as the men, though not necessarily physically. For example The Oracle is the wisest person in the Matrix. Trinity is equal to Neo throughout, both in her appearance, clothes and hair, and because they save each other’s lives on numerous occasions. Neo does eventually come out on top as the hero, but overall the representation is good, meaning that the Matrix not only conforms to the genre, but does also stretch it beyond the current boundaries, hopefully for others to follow.
The Matrix stretches the sci-fi genre in a number of other ways as well, both in the culmination of many of the sci-fi films and plots before it and also with the inclusion of extensive intertextuality, extremely modern cinematography; special effects, modern graphics, and brand new filming techniques. The film exploits many of the fears in our modern society, of what man’s role will be in the future, what we are doing to the environment, how computers are getting ever more powerful to the brink of true artificial intelligence, even to the extent of what the after effects of experiments such as genetic engineering and nuclear testing will be. In this way The Matrix gives us a possible insight into the future, of a worst-case scenario. This not only makes a gripping and thrilling film but also makes the fears we have, a little closer to reality, in a way which few other sci-fi films have.
In terms of the cinematography, The Matrix employs some very advanced techniques, for example the three hundred and sixty degree panning shot of Neo, which appears to be freeze frame. This was done using still cameras positioned all around the studio disguised in the background, all set to trigger at very small intervals. These were then all linked together on a computer. This is a technique not seen before in film, but since the release of The Matrix it has been included in a number of films. Other advanced shots in the film are the slow motion dives and shooting where time appears to slow down.
There is a quite a lot of quick, but wide camera pans which, though are not uncommon in sci-fi, are not usually used to this extent. Wide pans give a view of a large area of the scene, but often tend to disorientate the audience. In the Matrix this is often combined with some very quick edits. The human eye cannot take in all the information from such a quick montage of images, and this gives the impression of very quick and intense action or builds up great tension.
For example, the entire scene where Neo and Trinity storm the agent’s headquarters, from the beginning of the fight sequence to the end, on the roof with the helicopter, and also the squid chase scene, which has quick cuts between Neo fighting the Agent in the to the crew of Morpheus’ ship fighting against the squid sentinel. There is lots of tension in both these scenes because of this fast editing.