Twenty years on, much is being written about 1999 as a crucial turning point for Hollywood. By the end of the 20th century, the industry was suddenly crowded with directors fresh from making indie cinema, buzzy music videos, and commercials, many of whom had grown up with the rebellious New Hollywood filmmakers of the ’70s as their artistic lodestars. The future of moviemaking was foreshadowed in the year’s big hits, which included the relaunched big-ticket franchise Star Wars (The Phantom Menace), the low-budget horror of The Blair Witch Project, the provocative teen humor of American Pie, and the twist-ending virality of The Sixth Sense.
Though bits and pieces of The Matrix were copied over the years—the slow-motion action dubbed “bullet time,” the leather outfits—the film’s DNA is impossible to transpose. With its narrative of a world where the wool has been pulled over everyone’s eyes, it feels like a movie that’s very much about the disillusionment that comes at the end of a century. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a hacker who learns that reality is a mere computer program designed to keep humans in line as machines siphon away their body heat for energy. The Matrix is a triumph of screenwriting in that it conveys all its convoluted plot machinations with ease, dramatizing long-winded explanations by setting them against electrifying imagery.