(Retro-review, a.k.a. Jammer revs up for The Matrix Reloaded.)
Warning: Spoilers follow, but if you haven't seen the original Matrix by now, you probably aren't reading this review anyway.
Every few years, Hollywood will deliver a movie that acts as a thunderbolt to a genre and inspires endless imitation. For the action and sci-fi genres, the end of the 1990s had The Matrix, an inventive movie that blended a sci-fi premise with the stylistics of the martial arts genre.
When The Matrix was released in theaters, it became the reason I enacted what would be a months-long moratorium on my VHS purchases in preparation for finally making the switch to DVD. My wait-and-see attitude on the DVD format was officially over, and by the end of 1999 I finally had a DVD player. The first DVD I bought was The Matrix. For a month it was the only DVD I owned.
Since then, The Matrix has become a benchmark of sorts for truly inventive action sequences contained within the confines of still-intelligent and captivating storylines — not to mention enough cinematic style for a dozen films. Many genre films and TV stories have mimicked various aspects made famous by The Matrix. All come across as knockoffs.
The film is a melding of visual styles — sci-fi, anime, comic book, wire-based Yuen Wo Ping martial arts, dreamlike surrealism, film noir — brought together with impressive skill, design, and vision by the Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry, two blue-collar guys from Chicago, who are hilariously matter-of-fact in their interviews and DVD commentary tracks (listen to them on the DVD commentary track of their stylish, endlessly taut 1996 thriller, Bound; if you haven't seen it, go rent it).
The Matrix works for so many reasons, all of them pretty much obvious to those who have seen it, which is everybody. It has a compelling and harrowing storyline involving virtual reality, where the intelligent Machines have enslaved humanity with a fabricated version of the real world, designed to control a population plugged into a mass network of essentially false interaction.
One of the most remarkable scenes is the one where Morpheus (the ever-cool Laurence Fishburne in wonderfully portentous Zen mode) brings Neo (Keanu Reeves, a performance from the school of less-is-more) into the real world. In a movie filled with great shots, one of the most memorable is the one where Morpheus offers the choice between the blue pill and the red pill: Reflected in Morpheus' mirror-like sunglasses, the blue pill can be seen in one lens and the red pill in the other. The shot could be the panel in a comic book.
The effect involving the "liquid mirror" is psychologically absorbing ("Have you ever had a dream that you were certain was real?"), and the way the liquid mirror comes alive, creeps up Neo's body, and then pours down his throat is a moment where the movie had me exactly understanding the impending dread in crossing from the virtual world to the real world. Cinematically, it's a striking transition. It taps into that place in your brain that wonders if life isn't just one big grand illusion.
Once the nature of Neo's role in the real world has been made clear, the film sometimes becomes a question of faith in the possibility of Neo as "the One." Neo is a skeptic; Morpheus is the true believer. The scene where the Oracle delivers her prophecy (Gloria Foster plays the part like she's your favorite grandmother) introduces intriguing conflicts of predetermined fate and free will. The scene is fascinating in the way it seems to exist in the real world, and yet still has this vaguely surreal edge to it — an edge that would be menacing if not for the Oracle's inviting, homey, and straightforward charm.
Hugo Weaving is terrific as the movie's chief villain, Agent Smith — fearsome and hilarious at the same time. In his first meeting with Neo he goes through Neo's rap sheet and observes, "You help your landlady carry out her garbage." The deadpan way he says that goes a long way to establishing his character with one single, otherwise-irrelevant line of dialog. As a supposedly emotionless computer program, he has a character arc that almost humanizes him: He's gained the capacity of resentment for his endless presence among humans in the Matrix.
The movie practically redefines action scenes with it sense of photography and motion. There's slow-motion. In-your-face camera angles. Innovative techniques like the advent of "bullet-time." It all makes for great-looking stylized action cinema. This is not a story where hearing or reading it would be sufficient. It must be seen. It's cinema.
There's a sequence where a helicopter crashes into the side of a skyscraper and the glass has this weird, almost liquid-like ripple effect, before a cascading explosion shatters the whole side of the building and the helicopter is incinerated. This kind of action I hadn't seen before The Matrix, at least not in such precisely imagined detail.
In the late stages of the film, the heroes utilize such extreme quantities of arms that the movie edges into humor: Bullet casings rain down on the camera in slow-motion by what seems like the hundred. The filmmakers' style is always there, sometimes playing as ironic or funny, but always kick-ass in the way it looks and feels. The soundtrack resides on the hip side of techno and rock. The movie is just so damn aesthetically cool. The characters stroll through the Matrix clad in black trench coats, leather, and sunglasses.
The one thing that really doesn't work at all in The Matrix — and the reason why I don't give it a four-star rating — is the trite and unbelievable love story, which is tied into both Trinity's and Neo's prophecies as outlined by the Oracle. Quite simply, I don't believe for a second that Trinity loves Neo for any other reason than because the plot demands it. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), like Neo, is played strictly as an action hero in a very grim world. This movie — built on existentialism — simply doesn't have the emotional space for romantic love. The notion is too cold and calculated to reach any sort of conviction, especially the contrived way it asserts itself in the movie's closing minutes. You almost get the sense that the "love" here takes form merely because it's preordained — because it's very obviously not in the nature of the characters as they're depicted throughout the movie. Fortunately, the movie is only tangentially interested in this point. Too bad it sends the story into its coda on a somewhat clunky note.
With The Matrix Reloaded now in theaters and The Matrix Revolutions coming in November, the Wachowskis this year will have answered the million-dollar question: Can the quality and imagination of this series live up to the hype it has generated? Since it has apparently been mapped out as a trilogy with a beginning, middle, and end, it has the potential to turn out to be a hugely satisfying and well-thought-out series. We shall soon see if that potential has been realized.