Actionscifi's Blog

Classic Movie Review – The Matrix

For those of us who choke every time some grinning, varnish-skinned celebrity gets up and assaults us with the “I’d like to thank Jesus Christ my Savior” speech at an award show, the 1990s were a simpler time. We thanked God when our dealer came through with the goods before a big party, but other than that we were more interested in asking what the universe might look like if there was no god at all. And it seemed like everyone – from Dark City with its space island controlled by aliens to The Truman Show with its American Beauty suburb controlled by Ed Harris – was having a crack at the answer. And all that was before the Wachowski brothers came along with their big-budget cult movie (an oxymoron?) The Matrix.

In light of the subsequent, awful, sequels (please. Don’t make me review them), it has become almost de rigueur to be disdainful of The Matrix, but it is hard to seriously argue that this film is not one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made. If you’re not familiar with the storyline, I’m going to assume you’re younger than a fifth grader and use small words: the computer Hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a no-hoper who can hardly hold down a day job when he is suddenly pursued by another legendary hacker, Morpheus (Laurence Fishbone), who wants to help him, and a very weird special agent of some sort, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who tortures Neo without laying a finger on him. When Morpheus finally meets Neo, he gives him the now-legendary two options: take the red pill, and find the answer to the question that keeps him up at night – What is the Matrix? – or take the blue pill and “believe whatever you want to believe”. Oh how I would like that blue pill some mornings.

The Wachowskis haven’t just come up with a fantastic concept, they’ve told the yarn in ripping fashion as well. From the first scene, when Agent Smith tells a police officer that “your men are already dead” as they try to arrest Trinity, we are asked to surrender ourselves to a world that we don’t understand. Black-clad men and women fly through thin air and disappear into it, stiff agents punch through solid brick walls and a green hue washes through every scene as we come close to learning what the matrix is. The answer, when it finally comes, is a delicious twist: we’re not really living this life, we are lying bent-over in a bowl of soup being fed a fairytale by a very large computer as we generate power to keep the computer and its cohort operating.

Reams have been written about how the Wachowski brothers drew on philosophy, religion, science and science fiction when writing the film, in much the same way that Tarantino draws on popular culture. The philosophical and religious underpinnings of the books have spawned books, movies and a million websites, but I don’t understand all of that crap. I’m a simple man who thinks that it’s reasonable to pare the overarching theme of this film back to a commentary on the malaise of modern life. And so the main conflict of the film is not really between Neo and Agent Smith, but rather between Morpheus – who wants to free humans from slavery – and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) – who just wants to be plugged back into the matrix, where the steak tastes great and the women are plentiful. When viewed in this way, the Matrix seems to be paying homage to Naomi Klein’s No Logo as much as to Baudrillard and Kant, whoever they are (Gen Xrs such as Klein probably suspect that the entire Gen Y would take the blue pill and sail along in blissful ignorance if given the choice. Does that make us cynical?).

Nevertheless, it is the battles between Agent Smith and Neo that take most of our attention and provide the style for which this film has become legendary. It may have been OK for Jet Li to fight 20 feet in the air without explanation, as he did in legendary Hong Kong wire-fu movies such as Once Upon a Time in China, but in Hollywood you needed to provide an explanation for such physical feats (well, you did until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along). Which is why the matrix – a computer program where the rules of gravity can be bent – is the real star of this film.

The Wachowski brothers inevitably use this “wire-fu” effect in every action scene, allowing the characters to drill through the air as they deliver lethal kicks to the head, leap out of the way of trains and bound between tall buildings. But the Wachowskis also pay homage to our old friend gravity. Some of the best action moments were old fashioned, earth bound ones, particularly the hand-to-hand combat between Morpheus and Agent smith in the dirty, old bathroom of an abandoned building.

Of course the other special effect (do I sound old using this term? I don’t think the young people use it any more) associated with this film is the revolutionary “bullet time” effect whereby they surrounded the actors with a ring of cameras which all took the same footage from a different angle, allowing the camera to appear to rotate around a scene as its happening. The Wachowskis perfected “bullet time” and Hollywood’s been getting drunk on it ever since. For me, the scene with which “bullet time” is most closely associated – when Neo dodges bullets on the roof of a building – never excited me as much as everyone else, but I did love the subsequent subway scene when the camera spins around Neo and Agent Smith as they come together in mid-air; and, of course, the sight of the cameras panning around the leather-clad Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) as she leaps into the air to slay those poor cops trying to arrest her.

The other notable style of this film is the look. The Matrix emits a green hue, signifying the dull, monochromatic nature of the computer simulation (sure beats the hell out of the real world, though). Somehow, such a world seems perfectly created for Keanu Reeves. You can just see the casting discussion now. ‘We need a big name actor who isn’t capable of showing any emotion. Book Keanu Reeves and Ben Afflek in for screen tests’. It may not be a high bar to clear, but nevertheless this is the best performance of Reeves’ career. He manages to inject the necessary irony into his role, which is something he often struggled to do in earlier films.

Opposite Reeves, Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith is one of the all-time great screen villains. The Wachowskis obviously understood the cast iron rule of action/sci-fi films that if your nemesis is not a human or an animal, you must still inject a personality into it (see, eg, Terminator). Climate change activists would probably get a better hearing from the public if they could just wheel out Hugo Weaving to give Agent Smith’s fantastic diatribe on humanity’s similarity to a virus. His ability to impart verve, even anger, into the role of Agent Smith while remaining as stiff as a starch shirt is quite remarkable. Who doesn’t remember his simmering irony as he exclaimed to a chained up Morpheus:

I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.

Kind of like a country person who’s spent too long in the city.

Certainly The Matrix throws up some annoyances, particularly the ever-platitudinous Morpheus, but they are minor when compared to the originality of the concept, the stupendous action scenes and the depth of research and writing. It’s a beauty that I could watch again and again.

Highlight: The denouement: Neo v Smith in the subway, which we watch with the words of Morpheus ringing in our ears: “Every single man or woman who has stood their ground, everyone who has fought an agent, has died”.

Lowlight: Tank. Did everyone want to drag him off the set and lock the door behind him (which they actually did before the sequels), or was that just me?

Stereotypes: Certainly this film was more blokey than it needed to be. No female agents? And what’s with the Oracle telling Trinity that her one role in life is to fall in love with The One?


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6 Comments so far
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“The Matrix” was a revelation. It made me want to buy a black trenchcoat (although certain later events cured me of that). And who can forget a leather-clad Trinity? Not I!

Comment by Dennis the Vizsla

Not sure I want to know about the later events. Looooved Trinity.

Comment by actionscifi

Ah, Dennis. My wife just read your comment and pointed out what you meant by “later events”. Not being from the US, I didn’t understand!

Comment by actionscifi

Thanks for the comment. Looks like you have a nice review blog going here, too. When I have a little bit more time, I’ll have to read some more of them. Feel free to keep dropping by and commeting. I won’t complain…lol

Comment by Mystery Man

Cross-comments make the world go round! Thanks, MM.

Comment by actionscifi

A smart, witty review, and a great call RE Trinity: she can wipe out a dozen agents in 30 seconds flat – but her real life mission is to meet a man? So THAT’S why she’s wearing that leather catsuit.

Comment by jhouseman

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