Why Did we Dodge This? Mediating Story, Stunts and Special Effects through The Matrix's Bullet Time
Visually spectacular and narratively innovative, The Matrix (the Wachowski Siblings, 1999) was a pioneer in action cinema. The film popularised late-'90s cyberpunk for a wider audience, broached incisive notions of dystopia at the dawn of the household internet, and broke star Keanu Reeves out of the typecast character he had fashioned with the Bill and Ted movies.
But equally as important as the thematic and narrative elements of the trilogy – debatable as they are in terms of quality after the first film – is The Matrix's use of special effects. Under the direction of visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, the production team developed cutting edge techniques that gave the film a distinct visual identity.
Almost two decades since the film's 1999 release, Western blockbuster cinema frequently relies on CGI for its storytelling and visual identity. In Hollywood film production the human element is becoming increasingly ancillary to the spectacle shown on screen. One could easily visualise a Hollywood producer arguing that many of the Transformers movies would probably be easier to make if they didn't have those pesky human actors to work around. The overload of computer imagery and pixel-rich-but-story-poor spectacle can have a negative effect; viewers can be plunged deep into the uncanny valley with scenes that are far less engaging than those predominantly made with more practical effects. Compounding this, it is arguable that many action scenes are ultimately hollow experiences included for the sake of either demonstrating a film studio's cavernous budget or creating enticing trailers.
Given the impact of contemporary action cinema's reliance on CGI for narrative and action scenes, an intriguing contrast emerges when viewing The Matrix's iconic bullet dodge sequence as a notable actor/CGI hybrid action scene with true storytelling significance and visual panache. The sequence relies on a high degree of technical prowess. It was planned in advance with computer-generated storyboards and executed with an elaborate camera rig that Gaeta's team created for the film. The rig required two motion-picture cameras, 120 still cameras and a motion-controlled laser pointer system used to determine the varying heights of the cameras, arranged around a green screen setup where Reeves could perform the scene with stunt wires.1 Through Gaeta's process of 'interpolation,' final shots were overlaid with the rooftop setting of the scene and the CGI paths of the bullets fired at Reeves's character, Neo. The final scene, requiring months of work for Gaeta and his team to get right, ran for ten seconds in the film.
Visually and culturally, the sequence is a hallmark of the film. Gaeta explains that bullet time – the visual effect showing the slowdown of time to the point where the path of a bullet is visible to the human eye – was used as "a stylistic way of showing that you're in a constructed reality,"2 matching the film's overall themes of simulacra and digitally-created worlds. Along with Neo's bullet dodge, other instances of bullet time used in the film – including the opening escape scene with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and the concluding subway fight between Neo and antagonist Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) – were popular with audiences and critics alike. The scenes were used as part of the film's marketing,3 have been parodied by many films afterwards – including 1999's Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (Rob Mitchell) and 2002's Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (Steve Oedekerk) – and re-enacted in a number of shorter sketch videos,4 including one filmed in 2011 by YouTube comedians The Slow Mo Guys.5 The use of bullet time as a means of hypermediation, where the on-screen special effect itself is used to draw attention within the scene rather than be incongruously incorporated into it, results in what Lisa Purse describes as a process where "the spectator is drawn fully into the diegetic space, disrupting the conventional spatial relationship between the spectator, the screen, and the filmic world."6 The viewer is taken right into the heart of the sequence, with the camera's perspective moving us around and underneath Neo as he dodges, ending with a bullet striking the camera square-on to conclude the shot, as if hitting the viewer. The bullet dodge represents a distinct, engrossing marriage between actor and visuals that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. Though requiring extensive CGI to create the artificial tone that the script and Gaeta's visual style calls for, the sequence is not an alienating piece of visual prowess, nor is it an empty use of action in a movie replete with such scenes.
In addition to demonstrating the technical prowess discussed above, the scene is a narrative flashpoint for Neo, where the character demonstrates his innate power as the film's messianic figure prophesied to free humanity from the prison of the Matrix. The sequence walks a fine line between the human and the superpowered, evidenced further in the following shot when Neo is grazed by the gunfire of Agent Jones (Robert Taylor) and almost killed. "Only human," says Jones of the incapacitated Neo as he attempts a coup de grace; the preceding sequence is our first strong suggestion, confirmed in the film's climax, that Neo may in fact be something more.
The bullet dodge is a kaleidoscopic encapsulation of time and space. It represents both the visual advances and subsequent absences that computer-generated effects and modern action scenes have on the big screen. Although there are still good uses of climactic CGI battles in service to the story, an element of disconnection remains in many contemporary action films. For example, the ending fight between Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes and Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2016) is thrilling, well-choreographed and narratively justified, but the heavy presence of computer graphics, particularly due to the Iron Man suit and its flight capabilities, disrupts the relationship between actors and effects, putting some distance between the scene and the audience in favour of spectacle. By expertly fusing the real and the simulated – a union worthy of the film's overarching themes – The Matrix's bullet dodge creates a sequence that is iconic and engrossing, setting a high bar that has rarely been met since.