The Matrix has become a milestone for special effects in the history of film. When it released in 1999 it grossed four hundred and sixty-three million at the box office. The subsequent films in the franchise fared even better. It is safe to say that it is ingrained into the pop culture of the modern world, and analysis of this success is equally simple. The source of The Matrix’s fame lies not so much in its fascinating concept, but in its groundbreaking execution. The cyber-world in which the majority of the action takes place is the aspect which marked this film as one of the greats of its time, as the very fabric of physics is bent by the characters at will, making for its trademark spectacular special effects. Specifically, the three most significant physical manipulations by the characters include defying of gravity, slowing of time, and extremely swift movement.
In the film, two worlds exist parallel to one another, the world in which mankind has been enslaved by machines, and the world within the collective conscious of the sedate human race, called The Matrix. The audience is fascinated even in the opening scene when one of the main characters, Trinity, is nearly taken into custody by a team of police officers, yet defeats every last one in hand-to-hand combat. But not just any martial art— Trinity seems to slow time in midair as she prepares for a kick, later runs across a wall to avoid gunfire, and leaps across an entire city street to escape. We are given a taste of the capability of characters within The Matrix before five minutes of the film has passed.
If the action within the film was to be classified, there exist three defining types of influence on the physics within the Matrix itself. One of the most well-known of these is the manipulation of gravity. Trained characters are able to perform numerous acrobatics which would be impossible in our own world, including running along walls, backflip off of surfaces, leap impossible distances and heights. For example, when the main character, Neo, is first employing his newfound knowledge of martial arts within a training program against his mentor, Morpheus, Neo performs a run straight up the wall and backflips across the room. Morpheus plants a kick in Neo’s chest and sends him flying ten feet into the wall. In a later training program, Neo finds himself standing on a rooftop two hundred stories high. Morpheus makes an incredible leap to a building nearby, but Neo has not yet fully mastered control over the properties of the Matrix, so he falls to the street below. Learning the aspects of the physics within the Matrix is exciting for the viewer because they can relate to Neo’s initial inability to perform these incredible feats.
Another aspect of the physics within the Matrix is a residual effect of the defiance of gravity, extreme strength. In the final fight, Agent Smith sweeps Neo’s leg and with one hand punches him across subway platform. This kind of action is performed throughout the film. Several people are simply picked up and thrown as if they weigh nothing.
The pinnacle of trademark action within The Matrix is the characters’ ability to apparently slow time, or move with such extreme speed that it appears this way. The most well-known sequence in the film occurs near the end, in which Neo bends backward dodging a clip of enemy bullets. We see this action in slow motion including the trails of the bullets, though later Trinity tells Neo that she has never seen anyone move so quickly before. This sequence is an example of both defying gravity and extremely swift movement. In one of the final scenes in which Neo battles the main adversary, Agent Smith, both opponents launch themselves off of pillars and into the air, firing bullets from an airborne flying position. This sequence is a mixture of defying gravity and slowing time, as the two characters travel through the air and the trails of their bullets breaking the sound barrier are apparent to the viewer. After the two collide, Neo performs a flying spinning jump to regain his footing, an action that is completely impossible with the laws of physics with which we are familiar. Later in the fight, Neo leaps through the air, delivering multiple kicks to the enemy, traps him in a headlock and slams him against the ceiling, then backflips off of the subway tracks and onto the platform. In the final climactic scene, Neo is shot multiple times by the enemy Agents and falls dead. Due to his ability to control the Matrix, he rises again and stops all of their bullets with a motion of his hand. This is the most extreme of the bending of physical rules within the Matrix. Until the sequel, that is.
All of these sequences of action are thrown into sharp relief by setting the ‘real world’ side by side with the Matrix. Despite the physical prowess of the freed humans, the physics of the realistic half of the movie make the action of the trained characters within the Matrix all the more spectacular. However, the physical vulnerability of the characters within ‘the real world’ as well as the possibility of death in both worlds if death occurs within the Matrix creates a sense of suspense even despite the incredible abilities of the characters.
In conclusion, The Matrix found its success (and ultimately the success of the trilogy) due to the revolutionary special effects utilized within the film. The heart of these special effects is the manipulation of the laws of physics, made possible by bending the rules of the computer program within the Matrix. The three main actions used within the Matrix, impossible due to the physical laws of our own world, are the trademark defying of gravity, slowing of time, and extremely swift movement. The story and world of the film grant logic and justification to the incredible feats performed by the characters, while the ‘real world’ in the film grounds us in reality and gives the bending of physics within the Matrix even greater impact.