Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Matrix

Oh boy. Is there another film franchise that so quickly and thoroughly went from the cool new series to laughingstock as The Matrix movies? Is there are a series that's harder to look back on without cynical eyes and a dismissive attitude? If there is, I can't think of it.

The Matrix, when it arrived in 1999, was groundbreaking in a lot of ways. The way it combined Eastern martial arts and philosophical influences with Western action movie tropes, a rubber reality science fiction plot Phillip K. Dick might have appreciated, a cyber-punk aesthetic, and state-of-the-art special effects had not really been done before, at least not in mainstream Hollywood. It's not really fair to hold it against the movie that its sequels were considered letdowns and an army of imitators diluted what made it so memorable in the first placer.

I'm sure most of you out there are familiar with the plot. Hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns from the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) that the world he lives in, reality itself, is an illusion, a computer simulation created by machines to keep humans in line so they can harvest energy from their bodies. A prophecy foretells a chosen one will lead humanity to salvation, and Morpheus believes Neo is the One. Standing in their way are the Agents, AI programs who will stop at nothing to eliminate the last remnants of human resistance.

My favorite part of The Matrix is the first 40 minutes or so, before the big reveal. There's a lot that's presented that doesn't seem to make logical sense, and the movie does a great job of building a sense of mystery. How do those people leap across buildings like that? Why did Trinity run toward that payphone when a truck was bearing down on her? How did she avoid getting crushed? How is Morpheus able to guide Neo over the phone through the office? Was that encounter between the Agents and Neo a dream? The intrigue builds.

When the Neo is pulled out of the Matrix into the Real World, the movie has a strong look. The fields of human bodies in stasis, stretching as far as the eye can see, their bodies pierced by all these cables as they lie in the pink slime, is one of the darkest, most potent science fiction images I've ever seen in a movie. The Sentinels, spider-like machines in the real world that prowl the wastelands of the earth looking for unsecured humans to kill, are truly frightening, It's a nightmarish vision.

The third act, from a plot standpoint, is more formulaic, built on a rescue, shootouts, and fisticuffs, but the special effects and action are superlative. The Matrix is one of if not the first movies to use Bullet Time. Plenty of films use slow motion, but in The Matrix, time slows down so much, we can see the path bullets travel, and we can see the near misses as some characters demonstrate the ability to dodge bullets. Meanwhile, the camera spins and moves around, showing off the entire scene from a 360-degree angle. It's very immersive and very cool. Bullet Time was the element of The Matrix most ripped off, parodied, and watered down, but here, it's still fresh, innovative, and cool.

What keeps the original Matrix better than its sequels is its characters. Despite the occasionally stilted dialogue and some awkward line readings, the characters and performances are at their most interesting, and maybe more accurately, they're at their most straightforward and comprehensible: Neo, the antisocial hacker who discovers the world is a lie and he has an important role in it; the mysterious leader Morpheus; the ass-kicking Trinity (even if the ultimate purpose of her character is to be the love interest, which is disappointingly predictable); the Oracle (Gloria Foster), a being inside the Matrix who foretold the rise of the One and the end of war between humanity and machines but whose one scene occurs in a kitchen as she bakes cookies and talks like a charming grandmother; and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who is creepy, darkly funny, and absolutely hates humans.

The Matrix is filled with religious symbolism and philosophical underpinnings about reality, free will, choice, and destiny. It can be pretentious at times, but it doesn't detract from the movie, and I like when a movie has some ideas and tries to explore what it means to be human. The Wachowskis, who wrote and directed, also load the film with neat little visual details, like the device Morpheus et. al. use to "jack" into the Matrix (basically, a massive metal spike into the back of the head), and when a helicopter crashes into a building, the building bends and waves like water before exploding.

Yeah, there's some goofy stuff just begging to be made fun of, like when Trinity picks the absolute worst time to begin telling Neo what the Oracle told her, and a few lingering questions remain, like how a traitor in Morpheus' crew (Joe Pantoliano) is somehow able to get inside the Matrix and meet with Smith without the others finding out.

Still, I have no qualms calling this a science fiction classic. The effects are top-notch, the action is thrilling, and the ideas are intriguing. More importantly, it showed me what I'd never really seen before. I'm tempted to knock the whole prophecy business and how trite and tired stories about the heroic "chosen one" have become, but in a sense, the sequels address that, and that's to be discussed in those reviews.

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