by D.W. Lundberg

Thursday, February 3, 2011


"Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."

When The Matrix opened in March of 1999, it hit like a breath of pure oxygen – and a slap in the face to every pretender-to-the-throne action/sci-fi extravaganza since George Lucas' original Star Wars. (More than that, it made those movies look positively old-fashioned by comparison – The Phantom Menace included, which still had a good month and a half to go before its official release date.) Andy and Larry Wachowski's genre-busting fusion of all things cyberpunk, Hong Kong action cinema, and Japanese anime didn't just stand the special effects industry on its head; it turned into a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon. "Bullet time" became a cliché. Wire work and extensive kung fu choreography became the norm for almost every action sequence that followed. It gave Keanu Reeves – he of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush" music video, and Speed – his most iconic role since, well, Bill & Ted. It even spawned its own religion, of sorts.

You remember the marketing campaign for the movie, which hung its premise on four cryptic words: "What Is The Matrix?" It was a riddle, a dare, and coupled with the onslaught of eye-popping imagery that plagued its preview trailers and ads on TV, it had thrill-hungry film fans practically chomping at the bit to discover its secrets. And sitting in that theater, caught up in the Matrix mythology and its scenes of spectacular gunplay, I can see how it blew a lot of people's minds. On the surface, at least, it delivered on its promises. How many movies could claim that?

The opening scenes, set entirely within the virtual world of the Matrix, already feel a little off; they're so mundane, with peripheral characters shuffling about their business like mindless automatons, that it's actually a relief when people start leaping around like gazelles, bending the confines of their reality. I doubt I was the only one who gasped at that first "bullet time" shot, where Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) freezes in mid- air, the camera swirling around her, before she delivers a lethal kick to the policeman trying to arrest her. (I also remember, late in the movie, when that helicopter slams into the side of that skyscraper, causing the glass to ripple out in slow motion and explode, my soon-to-be wife and I both let out an auditory "Whoa!" It's not every day you see images play out like that on a big screen, and The Matrix is full of them.)

Then the plot settles in, and we find ourselves in more familiar territory. It's your typical Joseph Conrad, Hero With A Thousand Faces-type stuff, in which our hero ("Neo") receives a Call To Adventure (take the red pill/escape the world of the Matrix), and embarks on a Perilous Quest ("free your mind"/ fight back against the machines that enslave us all) while facing Many Trials along the way (agents, sparring programs, the Woman In The Red Dress). At the end, the hero ultimately triumphs (SPOILER), and returns from his journey stronger and wiser, with the power to bestow his "gifts" upon the world and all those who inhabit it. (On a separate level, it's another one of those "Chosen One" story arcs, a Christ allegory in which a seemingly innocuous protagonist is plucked from the humdrum of his everyday life and told he's destined for Great Things.)

For added relevance, the Wachowski brothers loaded the movie with as many philosophical/religious archetypes as they could (Buddhism, Judaism, Gnosticism and Hinduism, just to name a few), plus obligatory shout-outs to Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard Of Oz. The brothers had done their homework, no doubt, but there was also something inherently powerful about the way they managed to shoehorn so many cultural and mythological concepts into a cohesive whole. They created an all- encompassing pop mythology for the new millennium, a cautionary tale for the information age. In short, there was something in The Matrix for just about everyone.

Now, a confession. Time and time again I've heard people describe the movie as "mind-boggling," which I'll admit has always confused me. What do you mean by that, exactly? Do you mean, philosophically? Because if so, I'd say you're overreaching a bit. I mean, it's one thing to write long, expository speeches about reality versus perception into your screenplay, free will versus destiny and all that. But it's another thing to raise those types of questions and then climax your movie with two guys punching each other in the face for twenty minutes. (And don't bother telling me the kung fu is meant as a metaphor. Because that's just silly.)

From a religious perspective, this makes even less sense. The movie has its Biblical connotations, all right, and it tosses out names like "Zion" and "Trinity" and "Nebuchadnezzar" just to make sure you're paying attention, but I'm afraid that's as deep as it gets. There's no attempt to explore those themes on a personal level, no commentary on why they actually matter to us in the first place; the script simply lays its cards on the table and allows you to make heads or tails of it. And while you can argue that's what the best movies do – lets you bend and shape the subtext however you choose – I beg you to point out the religion that teaches its disciples to arm themselves and shoot up a bunch of unsuspecting security guards as the answer to all of life's problems.

Which leaves us with two things: the plot, and the visuals. Plot-wise, The Matrix is nothing new. Its initial concept – man creates machine, machine develops a mind all its own, machine strikes back against its makers – is as old as Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, The Terminator, even 2001. "Ah," you say. "So what if it's been done before? They've never mixed sci-fi with martial arts flicks with anime like that before. It's never been this cool." And that's true, to a point, but hardly what I'd consider "mind-boggling." (I'd call it a natural pro
gression of the cinema.) Even its dual realities are simple to follow: If the screen's tinged green, it's the Matrix; if tinged blue, then it's the real world. What's so hard about that? (It makes me wonder if Regular Joe Movie-Goer just can't process multiple levels of reality on any level – especially in movies, which already simulate reality to begin with. That also might explain why Inception left so many people scratching their heads last summer.)

Visually, then – well, okay, that's where I'll grant you the movie truly boggles the mind. Yet even those "innovative" special effects have their antecedents in cinema history. The evolution of "bullet time," for one, can be traced back to the late 1800s, when English photographer Eadweard Muybridge used a succession of still cameras to capture a galloping horse in motion. (If you're unfamiliar with Muybridge, shame on you). It's technology reloaded: a series of still photographs, placed along a specific path, and set off in almost instantaneous succession to give an object the appearance of slow motion, while the camera "moves" around it at regular speed.

And yet. The Matrix became a hit with audiences (with over $460 million in worldwide ticket sales), and it's hard to dispute the way it flooded our collective cinematic consciousness. My problem with the inevitable sequels – The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, shot back-to-back, then released six months apart in 2003 – isn't that they bungled the series' mythology, as seems to be the general consensus. It's that, somehow, the filmmakers managed to make the franchise even more conventional – heavier on the action, lighter on the subtext – than anyone probably expected. Or wanted. Now there's something for all of us to chew on.


The Original: The Matrix (Andy Wachowski / Larry Wachowski, 1999)

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster

Plot: A computer programmer learns that he is part of a computer-simulated reality, controlled by sentient machines which have enslaved the entire human race.

How It Set The Tone: The kung fu sequences (choreographed by Hong Kong master Yuen Woo-ping) and "bullet time" special effects shots dazzle the eyes, plus, for added relevance, writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski pack their new mythology with references to just about every religious and philosophical archetype you can imagine, from Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and the like. Reeves' graceful physicality registers well, as does Weaving's menacing Agent Smith, whose off-kilter line delivery is the best stuff in the movie.

Room For Improvement: The plot is a virtual rehash of everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator, in which humanity struggles to wrestle control back from the machines that control them. And while the religious references and portentous dialogue seem to be leading somewhere heady and profound, the script chickens out and resorts to action movie clichés instead. Still, if it's action you want, The Matrix delivers.

Grade: B

Sequel: The Matrix Reloaded (Andy Wachowski / Larry Wachowski, 2003)

Returning Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster

New Cast: Jada Pinkett Smith, Harold Perrineau, Monica Bellucci, Lambert Wilson, Randall Duk Kim, Harry Lennix, Anthony Zerbe, Nona Gaye, Helmut Bakaitis

Plot: As the rebellion continues to fight back against the Matrix, Neo and the crew of the Nebachudnezzar learn their reality might not be what it seems.

How It Compares: I may be in the minority here, but I actually think Reloaded surpasses the original Matrix on a number of levels. The action's more elegant, for one thing (that 14-minute freeway chase is a doozy), and I like how the Wachowskis turn their mythology on its head (how, for instance, Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus is viewed less as a visionary and more like a crackpot by his peers, or the revelations about "the One" toward the end). We meet some ingenious new characters (the Architect, the Merovingian, the Keymaker), and the cliffhanger ending strands our heroes in appropriate darkness. The "real world" sequences are dead in the water, though, with their talking- head council meetings and battle planning cribbed from better movies (Star Wars included). And that chateau/kung fu set piece is utterly pointless (if Neo can take on 100+ Agent Smiths without breaking a sweat, what
's the danger fighting half a dozen tattooed thugs?).

Grade: B

Sequel: The Matrix Revolutions (Andy Wachowski / Larry Wachowski, 2003)

Returning Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Harold Perrineau, Monica Bellucci, Lambert Wilson, Harry Lennix, Anthony Zerbe, Nona Gaye, Helmut Bakaitis

New Cast: Mary Alice, Bruce Spence

Plot: As humanity prepares for their final stand against the machines, Neo attempts to barter a truce that would stop the Smith virus running rampant inside the Matrix.

How It Compares: The franchise goes out with a whimper, not a bang. After the extended opening, in which our heroes rescue Neo from an existential limbo (shades of Return Of The Jedi!), the movie spends so much time in the "real" world it's hard to remember what caught our attention in the first place - the human drama or the stylized kung fu action? Characters introduced the last time out get pushed to the sidelines, the theological/ philosophical subtext is virtually nil, and for some reason (again), the fate of the world comes down to a fistfight between two guys in designer sunglasses. (And does anyone else find it odd how the warriors of Zion fight off machines... with machines? How is that okay?) At least Hugo Weaving gets a wistful, poetic monologue on the nature of pre-destination and chocolate chip cookies.

Grade: C

More To Come?: Warner Bros. released a companion DVD collection of animated shorts, called The Animatrix, to coincide with Reloaded's theatrical release. Some of these are striking (I especially liked "Beyond," about a haunted house "glitch" hidden inside the Matrix), others not so much (I doubt I will never sit through "Second Renaissance" – parts I or II, with their graphic depictions of man versus machine - again). But I appreciate the ambition. And Keanu Reeves was apparently quoted just last week that the Wachowski brothers had met with him over Christmas 2010 to discuss plans for two new Matrix adventures – in 3D! – and all that entails. But that's since been debunked as a fan rumor and nothing more.


Need more Franchise Face-Offs? Check out previous entries here and here.

No comments:

Post a Comment