The surprise sleeper success of 1999, this ingenious science fiction thriller easily surpassed THE PHANTOM MENACE in imagination, action, acting, and effects – if not in box office. It also spawned two action-packed sequels that, unfortunately, illustrated the law of diminishing returns, as what once seemed fresh and original quickly decayed into repetitious formula.
Excellence can be easier to acknowledge than it is to explain, which is why writing favorable reviews can be more difficult than writing negative ones: a list of virtues is a harder to identify than a laundry list of faults. In the case of THE MATRIX, the film is filled with what sounds like a laundry list of typically brainless big-budget Hollywood excesses: a cyberpunk, virtual reality storyline; an ear-shattering soundtrack; numerous fight and chase scenes; and enough gunfire to turn a building into the concrete equivalent of Swiss cheese. Yet, somehow, these elements coalesce into a film that is much more than just another Joe Silver science-fiction free-for-all (a la DEMOLITION MAN). The Wachowski Brothers have actually written and directed a densely plotted, intriguing tale that reuses familiar material without ever surrendering to hackneyed clichés.
In a nutshell, Neo (Reeves) discovers that his life in 1999 is an illusion; he’s really just an organic battery supplying energy to a 22nd-century world run by machines that keep humanity blissfully unaware of their true existence via the Matrix, a cyberspace recreation of 1999. With the help of Morpheus (Fishburne), Neo’s mind escapes from its link-up to the Matrix, and Neo learns the mental skills necessary to go back in and defeat the Agents (artificial intelligence characters) who patrol humanity. Also, Neo learns that he may be “The One,” a character prophesied by an oracle, who will be able to see through the illusion of the Matrix and thus completely overcome its programming for physical laws (like gravity) that actually don’t exist in cyberspace.
There’s a lot of story to tell, and it is told in a thrilling way, often on the run, seldom slowing down, but never leaving us behind. The action never distances us from the characters, never spills over into sloppy excess. It’s a mark of the careful construction that, over an hour into the running time, as Neo is heading to rescue Morpheus from the Agents, there is a palpable sense of anticipation for the big shoot out we know is coming. The reason is obvious: we’ve seen lots of martial arts, special effects, and action by this time, but gunfire has been kept to a relative minimum, the Wachowskis having saved up this big set piece for an appropriate dramatic moment (this is the first time that Neo, who has spent most of the film learning and being led, must make a decision and take action without the guidance of Morpheus).
Technical credits are superb. Especially exciting is the martial arts choreography: the over-the-top action will be familiar to fans of Hong Kong film, but in this case the unreality is justified, because it takes place in an unreal world. The special effects are also noteworthy for enhancing the impact of the action, reminding us of the cyberspace setting with impossible 3-D camera moves amidst ultra-slow-motion as characters seem suspended in mid-air during flying kung fu leaps. Amazingly, this approach never succumbs to the obvious pitfall: the dangers seems more profound, not less, even though we know they are not “real” in the physical sense.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Reeves erases any bad memories of JOHNNY MNEMONIC, even playing off his Bill-and-Ted image to humorous effect. Fishburne is a model voice of wisdom, and Carrie Anne Moss makes for an exciting femme fatale. Special kudos go to Hugo Weaving for somehow managing to make Agent Smith both mechanical and malevolent (almost as if Jack Webb had been possessed by the devil).
If there is any failure on the part of the Wachowskis, it is that they use the intriguing world they’ve invented only as a pretext for plot, without really disturbing us on the level of ideas (unlike DARK CITY last year). The film is filled with concepts that are scarcely explored (such as the home base of the human resistance movement, which is mentioned but not shown). Fortunately, the first MATRIX film does not fall prey to the standard plot structure of futuristic freedom fighter movies, wherein the hero conveniently joins the rebels just when the big battle is about to be fought that will overthrow the totalitarian regime and restore peace to the world. Instead, THE MATRIX builds up to the point where Neo finally proves that he is The One, capable of fighting the Matrix and its agents.
That battle, along with lots of complications, served as the basis of the subsequent films; unfortunately, the intriguing concepts introduced here were explored without ever really being resolved in a satisfying way. Instead, the later two films wandered right into the trap that the first one had avoided. Nevertheless, the original MATRIX remains one of the most exciting, intelligent, and imaginative genre films of the 1990s. Filled with images that amaze without overwhelming the story, THE MATRIX tackled the growing computer/cyberspace/VR sub-genre of films that includes duds and disappointments like HACKERS, THE NET, VIRTUOSITY, and WILD PALMS. Just when you thought you never wanted to see another, along came one that was absolutely astounding.
THE MATRIX (1999): Written and directed by Larry & Andy Wachowski. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving.
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