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What if Will Smith was Neo in The Matrix?

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Have you ever wondered what a movie would be like with a different lead actor? There are so many casting decisions that nearly went a different way. We’re going to explore Will Smith as Neo in 1999s The Matrix over Keanu Reeves.

I’ve taken a look at a handful of disappointing movies and also took a look at how those movies could have been better. Most recently, I also looked at how a great movie could have been even better. I examined what would have happened if Jake Gyllenhaal had played Frodo in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

In that same vein, today I will take a similar look at another great movie. The start of a well-known trilogy: The Matrix. Much like Frodo in Lord of the Rings and Han Solo in Star Wars, the film producers originally wanted to go in a different direction with the iconic role of Neo. But if Keanu Reeves had not played that part, how would it have affected The Matrix and its sequels? And what would have happened to Keanu’s career as a result?

That’s right, movie fans. It’s time to take that uncomfortable red pill and ponder an alternative reality without Keanu Reeves as Neo. So let’s dive in…

The situation: What if Will Smith had accepted the role of Neo?

In the mid-’90s, the Wachowskis directing team formulated the idea to create The Matrix. It wasn’t exactly an easy sell due to its overarching philosophies and complex plotline. Also, the Wachowskis were looking to incorporate the radical new “bullet time” method into their filmmaking. These days the concept of “bullet time” and other similar camera tricks isn’t anything crazy. But, at the time it was a jarring change-up from the more “traditional” aspects of filmmaking. There was quite a lot about this new movie – and its ensuing franchise – that was radical. It was new, and potentially confusing to all parties involved.

Would audiences go for such a complex and philosophical story as the foundation for a potential blockbuster? Remember that in the 1990s the most successful movies were more in the feel-good or melodrama category. There was starting to be an undercurrent of more non-traditional, complex filmmaking from up and coming directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. But they weren’t yet racking up the major accolades as they would later on (i.e. Forrest Gump winning Best Picture and Best Director over Pulp Fiction).

The formula

Movies in the 1990s tended to be more focused on ‘Big Star + Big Budget + Feel-Good Story. Or Over-the-Top Melodrama = Money & Oscars.’ This led us to such curious decisions as the Forrest Gump-Pulp Fiction issue. As well as other gems like Shakespeare in Love winning Best Picture of Saving Private Ryan, Titanic winning Best Picture over…anything, and American Beauty winning Best Picture over The Sixth Sense.

So you couldn’t blame the Wachowskis, when trying to cast their ambitious new Matrix project, for trying to secure a big name for the lead role of Neo. Their first choice for the role, as one could surmise from the title of this article, was Will Smith. From a financial standpoint, Smith made sense as the new in the new movie. He was a well-established musician with a multitude of hit albums and singles. Plus he was the lead in the long-running hit series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He had also recently proven himself to be a capable leading man in the successful Independence Day and Men in Black films. Will Smith would certainly be able to carry The Matrix movie and bring viewers in.

Regret

But, Smith’s casting never came to pass. After meeting with the Wachowskis, Smith turned down the role of Neo. He didn’t understand the role and the overarching concept behind the movie. Much like how Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Smith turned down the starring role in The Matrix and opted instead to make Wild Wild West. Which spawned an incredibly catchy lead single that rose to #1 on the Billboard charts but bombed in every other area. It was a critical and commercial failure. Will Smith has gone on to admit that turning down The Matrix was his biggest professional regret.

With Smith out of the running for the part of Neo, then, the Wachowskis had to go back to the drawing board for the lead role. Other options included Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, and Johnny Depp. The role ultimately came down to Reeves (who was Warner Bros.’ first choice) barely edging out Depp (who the Wachowskis favoured).

The rest, as they say, as history. Keanu Reeves nailed the part of Neo. The Matrix became a critical and commercial success, and it spawned a successful set of sequels. Though not exactly as critically beloved as the original. Now, twenty years later, a fourth Matrix film is set to come out in the next year or so to continue on the original story.

But as I’ve done previously we need to take a look at the ripple effects of this decision. What if Smith hadn’t turned down the role? What happens to his career, Reeves’s career, and the Matrix movies as a whole?

The aftermath part one: Will Smith’s career and The Matrix trilogy

Will Smith is a pretty solid actor with a decent amount of range, as seen in films such as Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness. But, as a general rule, Will Smith tends to play Will Smith: a loud, entertaining, somewhat cocky lead with an undeniable swagger. This works fine when the movie calls for it, usually in an over-the-top and silly movie where such a character can fit into the milieu of the film, like in the aforementioned Independence Day and Men in Black films.

Yet, his overall “Will Smith-ness” can absolutely overwhelm a film. This trait draws attention away from the story and more towards how it’s a Will Smith movie (as what happened with the disappointing Suicide Squad). Had Smith been cast as Neo, it would have ruined The Matrix movie and tanked its franchise potential.

Toning it down

It’s much the same as when I discussed in a previous article how Al-Pacino as Han Solo would have undermined Star Wars because people would have seen it more as “that weird Pacino movie in space.” Had Smith been cast as Neo, one of two things would have happened. First, he would have brought his trademark over-the-top energy to the role. This would have either completely overpowered the movie or turned it into an unintentionally comedic film. Second, he would have toned down his performance to be more subtle. He did show he could do this later in his career, but he wasn’t exactly known for at the time. A more muted performance would have confused audiences who came to see a Will Smith movie but instead got a movie about living in a computer.

No matter which path Will Smith’s hypothetical performance would have taken. The end result would not have been positive for The Matrix and any possible trilogy. The Matrix mirrors Star Wars to some extent. Both movies have highly original and complicated concepts to many viewers; in essence, both movies actually were strengthened by having a cast that wasn’t packed with star power. By having a “no-name” cast, though The Matrix did include more well-known stars than Star Wars, audiences watching The Matrix were more able to focus on the story than on the people in it.

I think it’s fair to say that Will Smith’s career turned out fine even though he never accepted the role of Neo. But, had he accepted the role, The Matrix trilogy may not have turned out to be as profitable as it did. And then there’s the other side of the story…

The aftermath part two: What happens to Keanu Reeves?

Keanu Reeves, somewhat like Smith, is also an actor who generally plays a specific “type” in his roles. Reeves, though, has never really been an overpowering presence like Smith is. While some may describe his acting style as stiff or wooden, he is more of a “blank canvas” as it is. In other words, he is someone who is good at being “there” while the story unfolds. He is something of an avatar in which the audience can use to immerse themselves in the story at hand. This trait worked perfectly in a story like The Matrix. Focusing on the story allowed the mythology to fully develop, and for the movie to become one of the most influential in the last thirty years of American cinema.

What if Keanu Reeves never got the role of Neo?

I’ve already discussed how, with Will Smith in the lead role, The Matrix movie may have had middling success (or bombed entirely), and in doing so would have torpedoed the potential trilogy. But what would the effect had been on Keanu Reeves’s career had he not landed that pivotal role?

It’s not like Reeves was an unknown when he was cast in The Matrix. He was well-established for playing the role of Ted Logan in the Bill & Ted series. He had also proven himself as a solid leading man in movies such as Speed and Point Break. Had he not obtained the role of Neo in The Matrix, there’s a decent chance he still would have continued to land roles in Hollywood. But let’s not forget that, between the end of The Matrix trilogy and his re-emergence in the surprisingly successful John Wick franchise, Reeves mostly disappeared from major roles.

He didn’t stop acting, of course. But had he not taken on the role of Neo, would he have landed the John Wick franchise? Or would he have continued to play more Bill & Ted roles, ones where he was getting work but wasn’t getting cast in serious roles after not proving himself as a franchise player in The Matrix?

In the end, I believe Reeves would have turned out fine. And obviously, Will Smith’s career wasn’t harmed by not accepting the role of Neo. But had the roles been switched, it would have been The Matrix franchise that suffered. Had the first movie bombed, the franchise would have been DOA.


Thanks for reading our article about what would have happened if Will Smith became Neo in The Matrix. Do you agree or disagree with our points or have anything to add? If so, leave us a comment below.


Read what if Al Pacino was Han Solo HERE.

Check out IMDB information on The Matrix HERE.

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Movie News

Jungle Cruise – Review

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Walt Disney Studios

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt swing in with force in Disney’s new Jungle Cruise. And while the movie has fun callbacks to the Disney Park ride and a clever plot, if this movie is trying to be the next Pirates of the Caribbean, it falls short. Here’s our review of Jungle Cruise.

SPOILERS: Warning there are spoilers ahead.

Plot

To be honest, I was expecting a much less creative plot from this movie. Following suit with typical adventure movies, I was expecting this film to be a less-funny version of the Jumanji reboot. But the plot has an unexpected emotional centre and a clever twist. And while the film suffers from CGI villain goopiness, it gives the CGI villains actual heart and motivations.

The film centres on Lilly (Emily Blunt), a botanist in search of a healing petal. The petal is said to be able to cure any illness and resides deep in the Amazon Rainforest. She is accompanied by her little brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall) and their hired skipper, Frank (Dwayne Johnson).

But a curse resides around the petal. Spanish conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) and his crew went in search of the petal four hundred years ago. The petal can only be found with an arrowhead sacred to the Umbala or Headhunter tribe of the region. When Aguirre and his crew are on the brink of death, the Umbala tribe saves them. But Aguirre betrays them to get his hands on the arrowhead, and the chief of the Umbala tribe curses Aguirre and his party. They can never stray from the river, or the rainforest will take them. For four hundred years, they’ve lain dormant, having strayed too far from the banks of the river. They cannot die.

Now the arrowhead rests with a sexist scientific community. Lilly steals the arrowhead, just before it was set to be sold to Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons). Joachim works for the German government during the height of World War One. He believes that the petal will not only bring victory to Germany, but will make him a world ruler. (How he thinks it will do that is unclear).

As Lilly, McGregor, and Frank make their way down the Amazon in search of the Petal, Joachim follows and occasionally attacks them in his submarine. Deciding he needs more help, he wakes up Aguirre, now a monster of the Amazon, and his crew. Aguirre, who is now made out of snakes, and his two colleagues, one of which is made out of honey and bees and the other mud and tee frogs, are sent on Lilly’s trail.

What happens next is the usual adventure. White water rapids, a run-in with the Umbala tribe (who become allies), submarine fights, swinging on jungle vines; you name it.

But after a run-in with Aguirre, Lilly learns the truth about Frank. In a plot twist I absolutely did not see coming, it turns out that Frank is actually Francisco, Aguirre’s cartographer. We learn that Aguirre was not looking for the petal for glory or gold, but to save his deeply ill daughter. Aguirre and Francisco grew up together, and they were willing to do anything to save his daughter. But when Aguirre betrays the Umbala tribe, Francisco tries to stop Aguirre. Francisco was also cursed to be unable to leave the riverbank, but Aguirre kept returning to fight and defeat (stab) Francisco.

Tired of constantly getting stabbed, Francisco traps Aguirre in a cave. Letting the Amazon have him and turn him into the monster he is today. Francisco then built a town on the river banks, built a boat in search of the petal, gave up, and now runs river cruises.

While the plot is very complicated, it’s easy enough to follow while watching the film. I will say that the motivations of Joachim are a little hard to follow. But the plot twist with Frank was very clever. It gives a CGI-heavy Aguirre a human heart. Now all he wants to do is break the curse and be allowed to die. To do so he needs a petal. The plot in and of itself was much more clever than I expected.

Characters and performances

One character that pleasantly surprised me was McGregor. At first, I thought he was merely queer-coded. He definitely fell into some gay stereotypes, but I thought that was all it was going to be. A guy who was subtly a little queer. But, when Frank asks him why follows Lilly, even through a jungle, he gives a surprisingly candid answer. He explains to Frank that he is gay and that Lilly is the only one who supports him.

When the world turned his back on him, she stood with him, and for that, he would “follow her into a volcano.” This is the first time I can remember that a Disney character was very, clearly openly gay. Disney has had about a dozen “first gay characters,” but all of them have been off to the side. None of them has stated their sexuality or been open about it. McGregor not only states it outright but is not ashamed of it and it is not his only character trait. He becomes brave and capable and is a good friend to both Frank and Lilly. It was really surprising to see good representation from Disney in this film.

Emily Blunt also gives a wonderful performance (as she always does). She’s headstrong and stubborn, but kind. The sexism was a little on the nose, with a tired bit about how she wears pants, but she was delightful.

And Dwayne Johnson was… okay. He plays the exact same character in every movie he’s in. And while his performance was good in this movie, I can’t help but think that another actor could have done better. He and Emily Blunt have a romance in this movie, but they have absolutely no chemistry. It was hard to believe their romance. I think another actor could have added a little more to Frank’s character. Frank is an interesting character, and another actor could have done more with him. This movie might have been better without Dwayne Johnson.

This movie also might have been better without Joachim. His motivations were really hard to follow. At the end of the day, he was just another stereotype of a German general who only complicated the plot.

Summary

It feels as though Jungle Cruise might be Disney’s attempt to re-make the magic of Pirates of the Caribbean. But I can’t see this film becoming a franchise. The first Pirates movie is masterful, with amazing rewatchability. But Jungle Cruise, while fun, is forgettable. It’s not a movie I see myself rewatching anytime soon. If this is an attempt to create a new franchise for Disney; it falls short. But, the film was fun to watch and was a good movie theatre experience.


CULTURE CROSSING SCORE 5/10


Thank you for reading our review of Jungle Cruise. Do you agree or disagree with our points or have anything to add? If so, leave us a comment below.


Read our review of Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place Part Two HERE.

Read IMDB information about Jungle Cruise HERE.

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