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FLASHBACKS: Review, The Matrix (4/13/1999)

There’s a really quick visual pun that made me smile while watching the insane, almost John Carpenter-meets-Blade Runner science fiction-action film The Matrix:

In the world imagined by this movie – one where artificial intelligence has conquered and enslaved humanity – computer bugs have evolved until they actually are bugs. They skitter about on many legs and swim through old sewers using tentacles, hunting down renegade pockets of humans and corralling them.

It was a joke to me, but it was dead serious to the character of Neo (Keanu Reeves) in early scenes when he first glimpses the truth of his existence in The Matrix. First these Secret Service-type guys, who speak in monotones that match their black suits, unleash this “bug” on Neo; later, a bunch of very no-nonsense human resistance fighters find the bug and get it out of him.

This flick is full of moments like that, which can be funny or serious depending on how you choose to read it. Overall, in fact, The Matrix is as deep as you want it to be, whether you’re more like Isaac Asimov and want to see the thoughtful presentation of science fiction ideas…or more like Beavis and Butt-Head and want to see explosions, fire and millions of shell casings cascading from guns.

I know I liked this movie – The Matrix is smart, ambitious, enjoyably acted and, at the end, very action-packed – but its 135-minute length and long talky stretches might tax your patience. Of course, that’s the scourge of set-up; if this movie clicks, the writing-directing team that made it wants it to be the first part of three films. Everybody wants to make a trilogy nowadays…

The Matrix is the second film by the Wachowski Brothers, two Chicago brothers named Larry and Andy, and they already like their actors to have a certain hard-boiled charisma. Three years ago they made Bound, styled like a 1940s film noir (including what sometimes is very much like ’40s-style movie music) if the books and films of that era could have had swearing, blood and lesbians.

Here, the famously blank Reeves is appropriately- (maybe not well-) cast for his deadpan, almost slack-jawed delivery. Even more fun is Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, the leader of a human resistance movement who pilots a hovercraft called the Nebuchadnezzer. (Hmm…is that named for the Nebuchadnezzer who freed Babylon, or the Nebuchadnezzer who destroyed Jerusalem and enslaved the people of Judea?) Morpheus is the smart one, and judging from his intensely bemused stare he knows it – he does most of the explaining in this film – and by the way, Morpheus wears the smallest pair of sunglasses I’ve ever seen. Just something I noticed.

Hugo Weaving, of the Australian hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is the most striking of those monotone Secret Service-like guys mentioned earlier. His character Agent Smith is really a “sentient program” who can leap into other characters in The Matrix and is most committed to eliminating Neo, Morpheus and Trinity from the world.

Trinity is a computer hacker played by Carrie-Anne Moss. You’ve probably never heard of her – this is the first I’ve seen of this actress – but as far as I’m concerned, she rocks. She does as much kung-fu fighting as anybody else in this film!

The stunts and fights add to the coolness that the action fan in me liked. One signature special effect, based on that cool “Khakis Swing” commercial for The Gap, lets the action slow down while the camera’s eye sweeps around the action, whether it’s Carrie-Anne Moss about to kickbox a guy or Reeves and Weaving flying toward each other while shooting guns.

The tough talking from the brothers’ Bound is matched by the stylish dialogue here, very science-fictional lines that question reality in many ways. (Neo’s sense that something is wrong with the world is called “a splinter in your mind.” I like that.)

The story leaves plenty of questions left for any possible sequels, because this film was probably much longer than 135 minutes: how did humans first break free from The Matrix? What and where, exactly, is the last human city of Zion? How could humanity possibly win when most of its six billion members are still living dream-lives?

Don’t be surprised if someday a novel or second film tries to answer that.

And if you ever wanted to see Keanu Reeves completely bald, here’s your chance…

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
smwance
Jul. 28th, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC)
I think (I could be wrong), but the Gap commercial you reference may have been one of the production company's big "experiments" before committing the technique to the film. I know they had been developing the concept for some time before the movie started filming, but they needed smaller projects to perfect it. I think that commercial was one of the shining accomplishments leading up to The Matrix.

Also, I think it's pretty funny that Will Smith was originally considered for the role of Neo. I Smith has said that saying no to The Matrix was probably one of the big mistakes for his career, but ultimately it was a better film because he wasn't in it (i.e., like many of his parts, he probably would've made Neo more "hip," and therefore, less of a meaningful character given the storyline).
chris_walsh
Jul. 28th, 2008 05:56 pm (UTC)
bullet time

You're likely right; what you say makes sense. I didn't look into it back in '99; I just went Oh, cool, that's like in that Gap commercial.

Will Smith

Good point also, though I could imagine the Wachowskis reining in that "hip" thing you mentioned; they'd probably tell him "Neo needs to be kind of a blank at first, unremarkable when you first look at him." The Wachowskis kept the acting styles reined in and consistent on the Matrix films (Bound, too); that's a skill that Roland Emmerich doesn't have, which is why it feels like the cast members of Independence Day seem to be acting in three or four different movies because their acting styles are so different.
smwance
Jul. 28th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
I think you're being too nice about Independence Day. Roland Emmerich has yet to film any movie where the acting was anywhere close to...well...acting!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )