The Matrix is a stone-cold classic. There will probably never be another movie like it where a studio and a culture make an investment in a blockbuster property that’s not based on any kind of source material. It’s a remarkable confluence of ideas and technology that redefined the action landscape, but when you’re making something that new and daring, it may be tough to get people on board.
Keanu Reeves was not the first choice for Neo in The Matrix even though he ultimately ended up being the best choice (it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role). One of the actors considered for the role was Will Smith, who made a short YouTube video explaining why he ultimately turned down the role. Smith points out that he was riding high in the mid-90s after the success of Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black. However, when he got pitched on doing The Matrix, it did not go well. The Wachowskis were trying to explain how their 360-camera would work, and to be fair to the Wachowskis and to Smith, it’s not the easiest concept to explain verbally, especially in 1997. How do you describe something that’s never been seen before? How do you sell one of the hottest actors in the world on it? So the Wachowskis and Smith went their separate ways with the Wachowskis making one of the most influential movies of all time, and Smith making Wild Wild West, which he admits was bad.
The important thing to remember about this story is that hindsight is 20/20. No one knew The Matrix would be a hit just like no one knew Wild Wild West would be a massive flop. It’s a miracle that any movie gets made at all, and then when you look at all the things that can go wrong along the way, it’s a greater miracle that any movie turns out well. So while it may be easy to blame the Wachowskis for not pitching better or Smith for not realizing that The Matrix would be groundbreaking, I think we can give everyone here and break and just appreciate this story as an interesting “What if?”