Keanu Reeves is enjoying a little bit of a critical renaissance recently. Spurred by the release of the latest film in the John Wick series and its accompanying round of press interviews, critics and fans have been rallying around an actor who has always been so much more than “Sad Keanu.” He’s an actor capable of inscrutable blankness and grace, an actor who can tap into goofy humour but also carry and communicate deep tragedy. He’s back with another Bill and Ted film soon, but he spent 14 years blacklisted by Fox for declining to appear in Speed 2 as the script wasn’t up to scratch. Roles in films by Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Gus Van Sant and Richard Linklater — plus special mention to Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful Point Break — show the depths of his talent and the respect with which he is held by some of the industry’s greatest voices.
Of course, the work for which Reeves will be most fondly remembered are The Matrix movies. A cultural phenomenon launched twenty years ago, the first Matrix film combined leather and sunglasses with philosophical ideas and Hong Kong-influenced action sequences. Written and directed by the Wachowskis, a sibling team who have both since gender transitioned, the film imagines a structure in which the world as we know it is a false, simulated reality constructed and maintained by machines. Reeves is Neo, or Thomas Anderson, a hacker living within this false reality, until a band of rebels, led by Laurnce Fishburne’s Morpheus and Carrie Ann-Moss’ Trinity, liberate him in the belief that he is “the One” set to lead them to freedom.
Released from the simulation of “the Matrix”, Neo finds a scorched, dystopian world. However, armed with the knowledge that the world as he knew it was false, Morpheus teaches Neo to bend it to his will. The film can be read as trans allegory, as a story of awakening, of malleability, of bodies and minds. Many have noted that the pill Neo takes to escape the Matrix is red: the same colour of 90s prescription estrogen. When the antagonistic Mr. Smith (Hugo Weaving) wishes to rile Neo, he refers to him as “Mr. Anderson.” Fans of The Matrix would do well to check out the Wachowskis’ Netflix show, Sense8, which explores similar themes in a manner that is often giddier, and even utopian.
The Matrix was infinitely cool, from its CGI ‘bullet time’ shootouts, to its leads, to its iconic costuming. But its success also lay the richness and ideas of its universe. The film sparked two sequels, but also an accompanying animated series which further fleshes out that universe and its backstory. As part of their anniversary event, RAD Screenings have chosen to screen The Animatrix alongside the 1999 classic. This collection of nine shorts (four of which were written by the Wachowskis) was produced in a variety of styles in collaboration with the cream of the Japanese animation industry, and is very rarely screened.