A lot of us were asking that question in the moments following a certain commercial which ran during Super Bowl XXXIII. Two months later we got our answer. And pop culture was never the same again.
Ten years ago today The Matrix debuted in theaters and busted cinematography wide open... to say nothing of our brains and eyeballs. "What is The Matrix?" What indeed? If there had been another movie of the day that was just as hard to categorize and try to describe to others, I can't think of it. It was part hardcore sci-fi and part Hong Kong "wire-fu" smothered in extra helpings of doctoral-level philosophy with a dash of religious smorgasbord.
And audiences ate it up and begged for more.
It was late April of '99 when I first saw it. A few days before during our weekly Bible study, my discipleship partner "Bruce" (real name changed to protect the innocent) arrived raving about seeing The Matrix the night before. He started trying to explain it to me: "Neo" and "Morpheus" and "Nebuchadnezzar" and "artificial intelligence" and "red pill" and... it went waaaaaay over my head. Whatever he had seen, it was painted in wide brushes and it had completely overwhelmed my friend. "Bruce"'s raw enthusiasm made his mad litany of strange terminology both wildly enigmatic and yet strangely beguiling. We met in Burlington a few days later on Sunday night and took it in at the now-closed West End Cinema.
What did I think about The Matrix upon my first viewing of it? Everyone reading this will probably say it right along with me: "Whoa."
The Matrix has been, no doubt, the most played DVD of my collection. There's probably not a month that goes by that I don't set it spinning in the player at least once, even if it's just for subtle background noise while I work on other projects. It was the first chapter of the defining mythology of this opening decade of the new millennium. And I know that its two sequels are widely considered to have been less than adequate to meeting the high bar set by the original. Personally, I loved both The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. I thought they progressed the story to the perfect conclusion, all the while escalating the intensity that we had come to know from the first movie. And I sincerely believe in years to come, that is going to be appreciated far more than it has been already.
But today, we celebrate the one that started it all. The movie that challenged us to think and question the world around us even as it challenged conventional wisdom at the box office. The Matrix was like catching lightning in a bottle, and I don't know if there will ever be a phenomenon quite like it again.