Friday, February 08, 2008
The Matrix (1999)
(Image from Imp Awards)
The Matrix (1999)
'The Matrix' snuck up on me back in 1999 - as it surely snuck up on a lot of other people as well - when everyone was still anticipating the forthcoming disappointment that was 'The Phantom Menace'. Written and directed by the virtually unknown Wachowski Brothers and produced by action movie veteran Joel Silver, 'The Matrix' was a phenomenal surprise, a mishmash of genres rolled together in a brilliant package. Immediately after seeing it I wondered if Lucas's Star Wars prequel could possibly top it, and I wasn't at all surprised when it didn't. It had been several years since I had last visited 'The Matrix' (I hadn't watched it since seeing 'The Matrix Revolutions'), and while loading the DVD I wondered how the movie would hold up nearly a decade since its release and with the baggage of two inferior follow ups.
The film begins with a bang. A woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is chased by a group of business suit clad 'Agents', led by an Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), and a group of policemen. Trinity and the agents exhibit superhuman powers during the chase, which ends with her just barely making her escape. The Agents learn that she has been monitoring a man named Thomas 'Neo' Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a nondescript computer programmer who engages in illegal computer activities. Neo has been in search of the answer to a seemingly profound question that is haunting him - "what is the Matrix?" - and he believes that a man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a terrorist whom Trinity works with, may have the answer. Agent Smith gets to Neo first and tries to co-opt him into helping them catch Morpheus, but being somewhat rebellious by nature he refuses.
Spoilers follow! Neo eventually meets Morpheus, who lays on him a revelation - the world as they know it isn't real, but is in fact a computer simulation called the Matrix, and mankind is an oblivious slave race to machines. Neo is freed from the Matrix and discovers that the real world is a post apocalyptic wasteland. Morpheus is actually the captain of a rebel ship that forms part of the human resistance, people who have been disconnected from the Matrix and are fighting against the machines to free mankind. Neo learns that he may be 'the One', a man prophesied to help the resistance defeat the machines. Within the Matrix (which the freed humans can still enter using their 'pirate signal'), through willpower and a heightened awareness, it is possible for freed minds to bend the rules and exhibit superhuman powers; the 'One' is believed to be able to manipulate the Matrix itself. Neo's training for his role as 'the One' begins, and it involves learning a lot of martial arts and getting to grips with how the Matrix works. Meanwhile the tenacious Agent Smith, who is actually an AI computer programme in the Matrix, continues to try and ensnare Morpheus and destroy the rebel humans, and with the help of a traitor in Morpheus's crew sets major events in motion.
Many of the conceits in 'The Matrix' are not exactly original, but they are presented in such an engaging manner that they feel fresh. The sci-fi concept of an artificial world is both amazing and ludicrous, but the Wachowskis present it with such an assured hand and with such clarity that it's very easy to accept. The script is quite exemplary in how it lays the groundwork with tantalizing hints as to what is really going on by revealing it layer by layer while wrapping the mystery around the classic 'hero's journey' character arc that Neo follows. It's also notable for featuring some exceedingly quotable dialogue. It dabbles with weighty ideas relating to religion and messianic prophecy, fate vs free will, the perception of reality, liberty, and the nature of mankind. None of these elements come across as didactic though; they're interwoven into the story, and the film can be enjoyed purely as a sci-fi action thriller. The story is structured and paced incredibly well, with the mystery and buildup paying off fairly early and leading to some thrilling action sequences towards the climax. If there's a complaint to be made about the script, I'd say that there isn't much emotional depth in it and the characters are very archetypal, but to be honest that fits in perfectly with the tone and subject matter of the film, which is very cyberpunk in that it is dark and heavy on plot and technological milieu.
Keanu Reeves surprised a lot of people by being perfect in the role of Neo, but I think it was a spot on piece of casting more than anything else. He's not a bad actor but I think he has a limited range in which he can excel. As Neo, Reeves embodies the right mix of naiveté and curiosity; he begins as a blank slate but gains understanding and confidence as his journey progresses. Reeves also impresses with his physical performance, particularly in the martial arts sequences. Laurence Fishburne is also great as Morpheus, regal and sagely but also imposing and convincing as a badass warrior. He is saddled with a lot of exposition, and his dulcet voice is used to good effect to makes those scenes flow. Carrie-Anne Moss is as cool as Morpheus and possibly even more badass physically, full of graceful movement and iconic poses, but in addition to the action stuff she is also effective at being the most empathetic character in Morpheus's crew. Then there's Joe Pantaliano as Cypher, one of Morpheus's crew, a cynical and somewhat weaselly individual who is more pragmatic and skeptical, and is thus less awed by Neo and Morpheus than everyone else on board the ship. Last but by no means least is Hugo Weaving, who absolutely steals the show as the AI Agent Smith. Not only is he fantastic in the action scenes (economical and brutal with his movements), but his portrayal of Smith as a being who is at the end of his tether and absolutely pissed off with his situation is simply brilliant. His mannered line delivery, mechanical but full of menace, is iconic.
Then there's the film's visual style that is quite eclectic. It's part traditional epic sci-fi with computers, hover-ships, and a post apocalyptic wasteland; then there's the surreal imagery with squid like robots and fields of humans in pods; within the Matrix we get visual distortions and people flying around and the camera slipping into slow motion, the effect everyone now knows as 'bullet time'; and of course, a lot of the visuals are framed and play out like panels straight out of a comic book. Amazingly, all of these disparate elements gel together. The action set pieces are stunning, visually inventive, exciting, and yes, iconic. Who can forget the lobby shootout, the dojo sparring scene, the subway fight, and the spectacular helicopter rescue? The Wachowski's also handle the thriller / mystery aspects extremely well, drawing you in and keeping you in suspense. Despite the exposition heavy nature of some scenes, they make full use of the 'Matrix' conceit to show as well as tell. Nearly every scene in the film is superbly realized, and everything is in service of the story or the characters. Even the sparingly used humour works, as do the moments that are cool in a blatantly contrived way.
The design work on the film is fantastic, and despite the wide range of elements being incorporated there isn't a weak link in the bunch. Morpheus's ship, the wonderfully animated organic looking 'squiddies', the rectilinear and cold look within the Matrix and the more organic look outside of it, and the spot on classic (if perhaps impractical) costumes, all of it is stellar. I don't know if the 'bullet time' effect is all that original, but it is used with restraint and is incredibly effective in conveying the unreality of the Matrix and the hyper speed movements of the characters (which are, counter-intuitively shown in slow motion to allow us to follow the action). The rest of the effects are often forgotten, but there's a lot of other near seamless effects work in this film that is worthy of praise. The martial arts heavy fight scenes, performed mainly by the actual cast and not doubles, may not impress martial arts aficionados but there is a certain grandeur to them that makes them unforgettable. While much of it was broadly conceived by the Wachowskis, credit should go to choreographer Yuen Wo Ping for bringing them to life so memorably. And finally, there's the soundtrack - Don Davis' original score makes for a terrific accompaniment to the film, but the soundtrack also features some excellent and complementary musical selections.
'The Matrix' is a classic, there's no doubt about it. It made a massive impact on filmed entertainment and popular culture (for better or worse), and while the franchise as a whole may have squandered the goodwill generated by it thanks to the not so good sequels, the original film still stands alone as something special. I'm happy to say that this film is now well and truly secure in my list of favourite movies, and I don't see it ever being nudged out of it. Anyone who has had the stamina to read this far will realize that I've expended more words on this review than I usually do, because I guess I can't help but wax lyrical about this film.