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The Matrix, written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers, 1999, 135 min.

I went into The Matrix with no pre-conceived idea about the movie, the directors, or the cast. This kind of experience is increasingly rare in the current age -- hype has become inseparable from the movie, which is something I would be inclined to label as bad but might need some examination. Certainly the big bucks being invested in movies necessitates the big hype, although that is still no guarantee of a return if the movie is pathetic. Is there any advantage to hype? Sure; it can be fun, although I hate to admit it. But there are definite disadvantages. Perhaps most invidious is the way that the hype around a movie flattens all meaning into one burst of consumption -- anything except empty entertainment is not easy to fashion into product (except in special cases) and so the money gravitates towards the packaged and what is in the end disposable. All of this is why I enjoyed seeing The Matrix without being influenced by the "evil" media (although I understand that it is a rather specious line that I am drawing). I liked the film because it has an undeniable understanding of movement -- it is one of the canniest action movies to come along in a long time. The understanding of science fiction is a little more tenuous, and the Wachowskis gleefully throw one borrowed element after another onto the screen. Perhaps that does make it science fiction, though not the best kind. And I will discuss at length my reaction to my second viewing of the film, when I was not quite so taken with the kinetic flash and found the casual dispatch of innocents to be very disturbing.

Thomas Anderson, as played by Keanu Reeves, is a downtrodden corporate whipping boy. He goes by the moniker Neo in some of his secret hacking activities, although his rebellion mostly seems to consist of dealing drugs. He is being contacted by someone named Morpheus, who might know what the Matrix is. Morpheus calls Neo at work one day and warns him that he is wanted by some scary government agents. Morpheus gives Neo instructions on how to escape, which involves a scary trip outside the corporation's building at an extreme height. I liked the moment when Neo decides to go back inside the building -- not what we would expect an action star to do, so it's a nice touch. Of course after getting beat on for a bit longer, Neo wants out. And so when he is contacted by Morpheus again, he makes the right choice. What choice is that? Well, it's not much of a spoiler at this point: reality as Neo understands it is a construct of evil beings, and Neo chooses to join the resistance. The exposition hits thick and cheesy at this point, but the intro sequences have been clever enough to get us through until the twists and turns start up again. Needless to say Neo is another in a long line of science fiction heroes who begins as the hapless juvenile and ends up as the saviour of everything.

But Neo is not the only character in The Matrix, thankfully. Morpheus is a maddening enigma, but the role is played well by Laurence Fishburne, and the pseudo-wise dialogue gets a real kick from his delivery. At one point in the plot, Neo has to visit the Oracle, a woman who is indeed maddeningly cryptic -- this is a plum role and like Laurence Fishburne, Gloria Foster pulls it off with style. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is the female sidekick who gets the privilege to be the love interest. She is responsible for the crackerjack opening sequence of the film, but unfortunately fades into the scenery after that. And the ending is a tacked on romantic angle that feels perfunctory and strange (although not as exploitative as the "romance" for Moss' role in Red Planet). There's something to be said for gleaning narrative efficacy from old standbys like this kind of romance with the female sidekick, but sometimes it just feels plain old.

I should add that the villainy of the movie was more than adequately represented by Agent Smith. Some fantastic acting by Hugo Weaving.

I mentioned that I felt differently about the film on second viewing. One of the most exciting sequences in The Matrix is when Neo and Trinity break into the high security building -- this is action film-making at its ultimate. Unfortunately, the logic of the Matrix is that Neo and Trinity are slaughtering innocents. The security guards who work at that building are doing their jobs, but they are not like Nazi death camp guards -- they truly have no idea of the issues at hand in the struggle between those who enforce the reality of the Matrix, like Agent Smith, and those who would rescue humanity from enslavement, like Morpheus and Neo and Trinity. I liked the excitement of the action and I liked the helter skelter use of science fictional ideas, but the two coexist rather uneasily. Why add the concepts of the Matrix when the protagonists are going to act no differently than if they were living in an action movie?

Perhaps the answer will be in the sequels. But this film exists on its own, and it's no comfort to pass the burden to films yet to be made. The Matrix has hyperkinetic appeal, but I'm a little leery of the way the protagonists trample consideration of the means in their hurry to reach the ends.


Last modified: November 20, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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