Released in 1999, The Matrix was a watershed moment in Hollywood action cinema. It was also perfectly aligned with the rise – and temporary dominance – of another unexpected cultural phenomenon: nu metal. Putting aside the obvious fashion similarities – whether floor-length trench-coats were popular in nu metal before The Matrix remains something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum – the film’s themes of societal angst, expressive individualism and anti-authoritarianism were also foundational lyrical subjects rife in nu metal’s early evolutionary stages.
Whether it was Jonathan Davis' steadily-building venom on the line ‘All my life/Who am I?’ in Korn’s Faget (written about being bullied and socially outcast in school), or Chino Moreno’s furious outbursts on Deftones' 7 Words (written to kick back at the sense of oppression a teenage Moreno felt coming from wider society), the genre had adopted these themes as part of its core identity, meaning nu metal audiences were already well-versed in the message The Matrix was selling long before the movie hit theatres.
The similarities didn’t stop there, though. Just as nu metal hadn’t arisen fully-formed from the void, The Matrix itself was shaped by predecessors from the previous decade. As with heavy metal, action cinema reached its commercial peak in the 1980s. Huge names like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone all-but guaranteed a movie’s success, but beneath the surface a sense of stagnation set in as movies struggled to find new ways to blow up buildings/jungles/busses (delete as necessary) and keep things interesting.
By the tail-end of the decade action movies were still a staple of the landscape, but were slowly losing their cultural dominance. In 1988, Die Hard provided a new twist on the formula; wise-cracking everyman John McClane replaced unkillable murder-machines like Rambo or John Matrix (no relation) and added a sense of genre-savvy to the action movie that allowed it to re-invent itself for another decade before the same rot set in and The Matrix reinvented action cinema yet again.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it effectively also describes the slow birth of nu metal. Heavy metal’s commercial dominance of the 80s was ultimately off-set by the advent of the alternative – anyone remember a little band called Nirvana? – with the likes of Faith No More's The Real Thing, Living Colour's Vivid and Jane's Addiction's Nothing’s Shocking opening a route for metal to reinvent itself for the following decade. While everyone from Carcass to Faith No More have claimed responsibility for giving birth to the genre, the truth is nu metal was part of a much wider evolutionary chain in heavy metal (and hip-hop) that owed fealty to almost everything that came before – From the more obvious groups like Rage Against The Machine, Helmet or Ministry, right through to the bands that openly disdained the new genre like Nine Inch Nails or Slayer.
Similarly, The Matrix wasn’t entirely a new form of action cinema. Rather, it drew upon everything from Hong Kong cinema to sci-fi crossovers like Johnny Mnemonic and Total Recall to effectively repackage the entire genre, giving birth to the ‘big-brain’ school of action movies like Minority Report, Inception and Tenet that intersperse their exploding buildings/landmarks/flying cars with ruminations on humanity and the nature of reality.
More directly though, The Matrix was a product of the societal angst felt in the post-Cold War era. Mindless conformity was an ever-present antagonist looming large in 90s cinema, the lack of a global ‘big bad’ effectively giving way to worries about malaise and living an unremarkable existence whilst societal norms rapidly changed. From Office Space to Fight Club right up to The Matrix itself, cubicle-style office settings were effectively used as a short-hand to demonstrate how people had lost their individuality, becoming depressed and disconnected from a reality that didn’t represent them.
In turn, alternative culture became a visual short-hand for total rebellion against that, its depiction in TV and film often focused on characters on the fringes of society who, for whatever reason, were outcasts who typically retained a sense of personal identity that cut away societal pretences. People got used to their popular culture being served up with a healthy dose of angst and disillusionment – in terms of nu metal's rise, the scene couldn't have been better set.
Though characters more recognisably associated with alternative subcultures were seldom protagonists in their own right – more often relegated to the side-lines as bullies, friends, comic relief or pitiable victims set against a (quote-unquote) ‘normal’ lead – The Matrix bridged the gap some by adopting enough of the aesthetic to be recognisable to fans while not alienating the general populace. The costume design directly reflects this; the stuffy office-wear of The Agents versus the all-black get-ups and healthy adoption of leather worn by Neo and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, the protagonists looking more like they could have walked off the set of a late-90s music video than the chiselled action stars of the 80s.
And then of course, there’s the soundtrack. The usage of metal songs in The Matrix movie itself isn’t nearly so widespread as the soundtrack release The Matrix: Music From The Motion Picture would have you believe, but metal (and other alternative genres) still makes its mark in the film’s audio. In-film, the techno-remix of Rob Zombie’s Dragula soundtracks Neo’s first on-screen foray into finding out exactly what The Matrix is as he visits a grotty rave that isn’t a million miles removed from many metalheads' local favourite club.
Later, the movie’s closing moments are accompanied by the thunderous Wake Up by Rage Against The Machine – in an instance of ‘most appropriate name on a soundtrack’ since American Werewolf in London stacked itself with the likes of Bad Moon Rising, Moondance etc. etc. These moments are brief, but anyone picking up the soundtrack afterwards was treated a selection of techno and industrial-afflicted metal-friendly artists including Ministry, Deftones, Rammstein and The Prodigy, further cementing the ‘man vs machine’ theme running throughout the film.
As the outsider-turned-anti-hero took hold in cinema thanks to The Matrix, nu metal simultaneously gave rise to an altogether new breed of star as the likes of Jonathan Davies, Chino Moreno and (later) Corey Taylor embraced their outsider status and championed it proudly, inviting others to unite under the freak flag. In both film and music, the new champions were the underdogs, slackers and outcasts who found ways to succeed in spite of society, The Matrix adapting this into a literal fight for freedom against a nightmarish foe just in case the metaphor had seemed too obscure.
On release, The Matrix made everybody sit up and pay attention, so it was inevitable that the film would itself inspire wider pop culture, affecting everything from fashion to nu metal itself. Though endlessly copied, amended and parodied, the film’s overarching themes of fighting against being fed into a giant machine (whether metaphorically or literally) effectively gave shape to the angst early nu metal bands had contended with, lending a handy metaphor that has since popped up in industrial, progressive metal and even thrash.
20 years on from the original, it's hard to imagine new the newest instalment in the franchise, The Matrix: Resurrections, drawing on the same aesthetic and tonal sources as it did the first time around, even if nu metal is also making its own resurgence. But that’s fine: part of the charm of its original release is that it tied in perfectly to a specific time and subculture, and shouldn’t be recycling its own ideas in an attempt to stay relevant. Besides, we can always take solace in the fact Korn beat the Wachowski’s to bullet-time…
The Matrix: Resurrections is due to be released December 22nd 2021 via Warner Bros. Pictures. Watch the trailer below