Starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne
Written and Directed by The Wachowski Brothers
Call it Pre-Millennial Tension, call it what you will, but it can't have been a coincidence that there were a number of films prominent in the latter part of the 1990s that took the idea of "false reality" and ran with it. Closely inspired, no doubt, by the works of Philip K Dick (author of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", which was artfully mangled into the great film "Blade Runner") Alex Proyas' magnificent "Dark City" led the way, followed by David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" and the less auspicious but still enjoyable "The Thirteenth Floor" from Josef Rusnak. But the daddy of them all, in 1999, was "The Matrix". As one reviewer said at the time, "I bet George Lucas never saw that phantom menace coming..." as this sleeper hit stole a march on the first "Star Wars" prequel. This film takes that concept - that reality as we know it is all a big lie - and spins around it a fantastic metaphysical martial arts based action film. It centres on a computer hacker, Thomas Anderson - aka Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) - who works as a programmer for a giant software company by day, but hacks and delves deep into the depths of cyberspace by night. He's been searching for a man called Morpheus, whose name recalls the Greek God of dreams, when a message pops up on his computer screen... and he's contacted by a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who hints at the knowledge on offer...
Such is the enticing entry into the world of the Matrix. Through the aforementioned Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) Neo discovers that the world around him is actually just a computer crafted simulation. Offered the choice between the blue pill - after which he will wake up none the wiser - or the red pill - following which the truth will be revealed, Neo takes the red pill, and decides to see "how deep the rabbit hole goes"...
The Alice metaphor will be played to the full. but for now the truth, as it is revealed to him, is that a war erupted years before between humanity and the sentient machines - AI - whom they had created. Humanity lost, and were doomed to be enslaved and farmed by the machines for power; living batteries, as it were. A human resistance movement has been formed, which fights the machines and seeks to "free" new minds. Neo is one such mind, and it turns out that Morpheus has been looking for him too, as he believes he is "The One" - a person who can fulfill a prophecy of ending the war and bringing liberation back to mankind. One of the main attractions of the film is sharing Neo's journey of discovery, as he learns that the physical restrictions of the "real world" need not apply in the world of the Matrix. At first plagued with scepticism and self doubt, failing to make a death-defying building-to-building jump on one of the simulators, but surrounded by a group of fellow freedom-fighters who believe he will accomplish amazing feats, he gradually learns - under Morpheus' tutelage - to achieve more and more incredible actions. Martial arts training, which will play a key role as the film, and eventually the trilogy, pans out, as a key first step for Neo in overcoming his disbelief. "Stop trying to hit me, and hit me!" encourages Morpheus, with a new famous and oft-parodied hand gesture, which says to the opponent, "Come forth..." It's fast punching, air-walking, utterly exhilarating stuff, with mind bending, gravity defying wire-work choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping, the legendary Hong Kong fight action maestro.
The cast are all highly impressive, balancing the need for straight-faced gravitas with athletic action chops. Moss and Reeves make for an eventually sympathetic couple, Keanu dealing especially well with the action scenes. Fishburne gravely intones his education of the simul-world and beliefs about Neo's status as 'The One' as if he's still playing Othello, but brings significant weight to the piece. Hugo Weaving, in a role a million miles away from "The Lord of the Rings" brings a humorous malevolence to the part of the disgruntled enforcer program Agent Smith. A special mention must go to Joe Pantoliano, who, as Cypher, a man sick of the 'real' world and keen to return to the ideal life offered by the Matrix makes a deal with the Devil which gives the film a genuine dramatic tension. The visuals are impressive and distinctive, from the lines of green texted code scrolling down the screen seen by the "Operators" in the real world, representing the code behind the Matrix, to the highly stylized look of things inside the Matrix itself, where individuals choose how they want to appear - invariably decked out in tight leather, flowing black coats, and with ever-present shades.
It doesn't all work perfectly however. The most interesting parts of the film take place within the Matrix, or in any number of "simulation" programs run by the protagonists to educate Neo in the ways of the constructed world. In reality, things are grimy and tough. Clothes are tatty and the only food is essentially a bland protein gruel; when Cypher makes his deal with Smith to return to the Matrix he's eating a beautiful juicy steak in a fancy restaurant, and the stark contrast puts his decision into context and makes it believable and sympathetic. He remarks that he knows it's just the simulation, but that "ignorance is bliss". Morpheus and crew live aboard The Nubuchadnezzar, a hovercraft which roams the scorched earth, constantly under threat from Sentinels, nicknamed 'Squiddies', search and destroy drones created by the Machines. The craft is equipped with an Electro Magnetic Pulse which will disable the Sentinels, but it can't be used whilst anyone is plugged into the Matrix, which leads to some tension during the climax. However these external scenes are all very dark, as the sky has been scorched by the conflict between man and machine, and the movement generally quick, so whilst it's not exactly hard to figure out what's going on, it feels a bit messy. The design of the Squiddies is odd, and a little distracting. It feels fairly generic - laser shooting robots, and is much less interesting that what goes on in the Matrix.. As the finale plays out, cutting between the two worlds, the fight between Smith and Neo inside the Matrix is infinitely more compelling than the Sentinels descending on the Nebuchadnezzar. This problem was to become more pronounced, and problematic in the sequel, "The Matrix Reloaded", and particularly the final part of the trilogy, "The Matrix Revolutions".
Every few years a film comes along which deploys a Special Effect which is genuinely revolutionary, in that it pioneers something original which is then embraced by the film making industry as a whole. For example "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the 1960s and "Star Wars" in the 70s with their model work, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" in 1991 with the "Shapeshifting" effect which cropped everywhere in that decade, more recently "Avatar" with it's use of 3D CGI. At the turn of the millennium, that film was "The Matrix", and the effect in question is known as "bullet time". Whilst experimentation with camera effects has obviously been going on forever, it was this film which popularised the slow motion / variable speed, moving camera effect. Crucially here the effects serve the story, as they represent the characters' ability to grasp the artificiality of the Matrix world, and manipulate it. The Cinematography by Bill Pope ("Spider-Man 2", "Spider-Man 3" and, bizarrely, "The World's End") is fantastic, colouring the scenes inside the Matrix with green, whilst denying almost any vivid colour in the real world. The music also works effectively. Don Davis' score is perfect, the opening alternating notes are now instantly recognisable. Use of bands' tracks in films is always hit and miss, and the option here for metal / thrash (Deftones, Rammstein etc) was largely lost on me, in fact I'm not even sure how many tracks on the soundtrack CD were even in the film, and if they were it was background music at best. However, this film features three of the finest examples of employing music for as long as I can remember. The use of Rob Dougan's "Clubbed to Death" during the 'Woman in the red dress' construct scene, hearing the Propellerheads "Spybreak!" in the lobby scene, in which Neo and Trinity acrobatically wreak havoc, are both inspired. The final scene and end credits play to the sound of Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up", a track which has one of the coolest intros around and suits that scene and credits to a tee.
So while it's slick, inventive, innovative, well acted and extremely entertaining, what marks the film as in a slightly different class to the average Joel Sliver produced action film is the vein of philosophy running through it. What is the Matrix? What is reality? Is it preferable to accept something pleasurable even if you know it's not real (the Experience machine problem)? It brilliantly plays with our own mental concepts, such as when it suggests that the sensation of deja vu is simply "a glitch in the Matrix". There is a significant level of religious mysticism; Neo visits an Oracle, who cryptically tells people "what they need to hear", and of course there is the theme that he is "The One" and will fulfill a prophecy. And there are also clear implications of Messianism - Neo dies at the hands of Agent Smith in their ultimate confrontation but is resurrected by Trinity (itself a name with Christian connotations).
"The Matrix" is unique. It's a millennial, metaphysical, philosophical, pseudo-religious, sci-fi Kung-fu action movie, with cool outfits, very cool shades, and to quote Neo himself, "Guns... Lots of guns." What's not to like?