The Matrix turns 20 years old on March 31 and, like many of us, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it.
I was a freshman at New York University and being in the city meant we got to see a lot of movies early, especially through the school. I can’t recall the specific date, but it wasn’t surprising to get an invite to see some weird new Keanu Reeves movie in late February/early March of 1999. A movie called The Matrix.
The timing is everything here.
In early 1999, most science fiction fans were focused on one thing and one thing only: the return of Star Wars in May. Plus, Keanu Reeves was coming off a string of movies including A Walk in the Clouds and Chain Reaction. He was a name, but not the name he would become a few months later. All of that—and, frankly, the rather uninspired marketing for The Matrix—meant it didn’t have many people excited for it. It was just another movie to pass the time before The Phantom Menace. More than anything, I think that’s why a group of four or five of us got in line a few hours early to see it. A new Keanu movie was just something to do on a Wednesday night. Expectations could not be lower.
(In regards to the marketing, according to YouTube, this is the original trailer for The Matrix. It plays better now with two decades of context but, at the time, even what would become its most impressive shots don’t have the impact they do in the movie. It’s all a bit cheesy. You can understand being slightly underwhelmed back then.)
Another key to this story was the setting. Despite being in one of the best cities for movie-going in the world, I didn’t see The Matrix in a theater. It screened at the old Loeb Student Center off Washington Square Park (which is now the much larger and impressive Kimmel Center). It was not a space optimized for movies. There were just rows and rows of probably 1,000 folding chairs in a huge cafeteria-like room with a screen on one wall. These days, students have better setups in their dorm rooms. But even back then, it wasn’t ideal.
Anyway, we made it in, got our seats, and the movie began. If you haven’t seen The Matrix in a while, there’s a chance you don’t remember how it starts, which is mysterious. Especially if you don’t know what’s coming. There’s some code on a screen, a phone call, talk of “The One” and “Morpheus,” whoever the hell that is. Some cops quietly sneak into a building and break open a room only to find a lone woman working on a computer. It feels rather familiar.
Next, three men in sunglasses show up and scold the police for going in before they got there. “I think we can handle one little girl,” the officer says. “I sent in two units, they’re bringing her down now.” “No, Lieutenant,” the agent says. “Your men are already dead.” Interesting, but whatever. We then see the woman, whom we’ll later learn is named Trinity, as she’s about to be cuffed. Quickly she hits the cop with a few martial arts moves, jumps in the air, the shot freezes and the camera pans 180 degrees around her as she remains frozen in the air.
In unison, 1,000 NYU students screamed “Ohhhh!” and jumped out of their seats. The movie had only been on for three minutes and three seconds—48 frames later, everything had changed.
Trinity proceeds to kick major ass, running up a wall and laying waste to the cops. Fifteen seconds later she’s done and there’s a beat of silence. Just enough time to catch your breath—or let out another roar of cheers if you were in the same room I was in. Oh, and the movie still had 133 minutes left to go.
That was the moment. Trinity freezing and the crowd reacting to what would soon become history. I’d never experienced anything like it while watching a movie. Not seeing the Star Wars special editions, not on the opening night of Jurassic Park, not during Tim Burton’s Batman, or even Back to the Future as a young child. None of them. This experience felt more like a sporting event.
Even though it was in the trailer, no one fully understood what we were seeing, and what we’d later learn directors the Wachowskis called “Bullet Time.” It was radical, intense, and exciting, all rolled into one and then multiplied times 10. As the film moved on, it took a few minutes for the buzz in the room to calm down and let everyone get back into the movie.
The movie, of course, was flat out awesome. It’s a fascinating mindfuck the first time you see it, blending big ideas, huge twists, and incredible action all in just the right doses. By the time Neo flies off the screen to end the film, the room once again went bonkers. Cheering, hooting, hollering, hundreds of college kids had just been collectively owned and wowed by the Wachowskis—we all felt injected with a pure dose of exactly the kind of inspiration and wonder so many of us aspired to achieve by going to film school.
It was a magical night at the movies witnessing a film that would instantly become a classic. On the way out, my friend Brian said the most 1999 thing of all time, but it perfectly summed up all our feelings in this moment. Of wanting to cherish and hold onto The Matrix forever he said, “Oh, I’m definitely buying a DVD of that.”
The Matrix turns 20 years old on Sunday. What do you remember about the first time you saw it?
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