The Matrix (1999) dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving
When “The Matrix” first came out in 1999, I seemed to be the only tepid audience-member. Sure, I appreciated the noir tone mixed with high-concept/big idea sci-fi and the innovative special effects, but despite the big themes and metaphors I found the human story wooden and soulless - that one critical element that can move science-fiction beyond a technical exercise. My opinion hasn’t changed much since then. A fabulous new Blu-Ray box set has allowed me to re-experience and re-evaluated all three films again.
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is our hero, a lowly computer hacker with a nagging feeling of big brother constantly watching over him and controlling his destiny. Along comes the gorgeous black latex-wearing Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who arranges a meeting with the legendary hacker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus isn’t a jogging pants wearing/Doritos eating geek though, he’s a crocodile jacket/designer sunglasses wearing philosopher who has the answers to Anderson’s subconscious questions. Morpheus gives a Anderson the choice of opening his mind to the true reality of human existence, or keeping his blinders on and pushing buttons for the man. It’s a no-brainer, and Anderson is given the shock of a lifetime.
We then discover that the year is not 1999, but 2199, and Anderson’s life is a virtual reality world created to allow despotic robots to harvest the energy from all human life. In the ‘real world’ Anderson escapes his cocoon-like captivity and joins Morpheus’s crew of revolutionaries in the fight against the evil machines as the saviour of humanity known as “the One”.
What troubled me when I first saw it, and even now, despite its pop culture integration, were the ‘rules’ of “The Matrix” world? What can the Smith and Agents actually do in the Matrix world, and what can’t they do. When we first meet the agents, Smith has the power to collapse Neo’s mouth so he can’t speak. He also sticks a computer probe device in his body to track his movements. If Smith can remove Neo’s mouth, why can’t he just crush his heart or something to kill him? Or just insert this device using his mind? I couldn’t never get how the telephone system worked, nor how the people in the real world can track the actions of the characters in the Matrix?Why couldn't Agents do that either? And how can they arm themselves with so many guns at will, yet run out of bullets? I’m sure hardcore Matrix followers could answer these questions in precise detail, but almost 10 years after the movie has been in the public consciousness these fundamental questions still arise.
But the biggest beef is the soul of the film, which never materializes in this first film. In the third act the question of Trinity’s future as envisioned by the Oracle is revealed. She falls in love with Neo, the same love which would rescue him from death. I was shocked in 1999 when this magical kiss/deus ex machine saves the day via an artificial romance which only appears in hastened fashion in the third act. Perhaps I missed this romantic subplot while gawking over the bullet time effects? Nope, 10 years later, it’s still not there.
The strength of “The Matrix” will always be its high concept existential storytelling, continuing the long and great tradition of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, George Orwell etc. The best science-fiction is speculative fiction as well. What would happen if …? The Wachowskis not only served us a plate or brainfood, but an eyepopping, ear popping cinematic mélange of film noir, Hong Kong action, graphic novels, anime etc etc.
I’m still of two minds on the “Matrix”. One, it’s a technically brilliant exercise in cinematic gymnastics, two, it’s a mind-expanding near-future philosophical treatise, three, it’s all brain and no heart, featuring actors giving wooden performances as robotic as the enemies they fight against.
Look out for reviews of "Matrix Reloaded" and "Matrix Revolutions" later this week.
“The Matrix: The Ultimate Collection" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Entertainment